With Houston’s Bill O’Brien anointing himself as his own offensive coordinator, the coaching carousel has finally stopped spinning. At least we think. Who knows what side of the bed Jimmy Haslam will wake up on tomorrow. The point is, all 32 staffs are again set after seven teams hired new head coaches.
Unless you’re Haslam, coaching changes are not to be taken lightly. In no sport is the head man more important. Modern NFL coaches have 53 highly-paid egos to soothe, and two sides of the ball to manage … with no two-way players. It’s a game of chess, with rainstorms, torn ACLs and meddlesome owners thrown in for good measure. The right coach can put you halfway to a dynasty. The wrong coach can set you back five years.
Not that good coaches are always rewarded. Of the league’s 32 head coaches, six have had the same job since before Barack Obama was elected president. 14 have been hired within the past 14 months. It’s a “what have you done for me lately” business, and if you don’t have the right quarterback, business is rarely booming. So sometimes being good isn’t enough. You need to be great, and lucky, too. Like Tom Brady in the sixth round lucky. The great ones, of course, make their own luck.
Without further ado, here are the league’s top 32 coaches, with the caveat that existing coaches and new hires are ranked separately. Among the factors considered are:
— Who would I want coaching my team right now? Not five years ago, but now.
— What exactly does the coach do? Does he call plays, or just stand on the sideline and clap?
— Does he put his team in the best position to win? For example, does he hire the right assistants?
— What’s the effect, both tangible and intangible, he has on his team?
— Are his best days behind or ahead of him?
— Tenure, to an extent, does matter. For all his promise, Gus Bradley can’t yet be considered a top-10 coach.
1. Bill Belichick
Career Record: 199-105 (.655)
With The Patriots Since: 2000
You can call Bill Belichick an iconoclast, or you can call him a rogue. Thanks to one infamous incident, you could even call him a cheater. We’ll just call him the greatest coach of the modern era, if not all time. The last remaining coach truly serving as his own general manager, Belichick is also one of the rare head men to set the tone on both sides of the ball. Belichick has total control in a way no other coach does, and successfully executes on that total control in a way no other coach does. The Patriots are 88-24 (.786) since 2007. If you eliminate Tom Brady’s ACL and comeback years, the Pats are 117-27 (.813) since 2003. Even if you don’t eliminate those 11 and 10-win campaigns, they’re 138-38 (.784). The Browns/Ravens fired Belichick after the 1995 season. Since, Belichick has 18 playoff victories. The Browns have 77 total victories since rejoining the NFL in 1999. You can say it’s Brady, or you can say it’s cheating (and be wrong). Whatever it is, it’s winning in relentlessly dominant, historic fashion.
2. Pete Carroll
Career Record: 71-57 (.555)
With The Seahawks Since: 2010
Would Carroll and Jim Harbaugh be flip-flopped had the 49ers won the NFC Championship Game? Probably. Is part of Carroll’s greatness the fact that he’s been one of the few coaches to solve Harbaugh? Absolutely. Everything that makes Carroll elite was on display during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run. His team is ruthless on the field, but lighthearted off of it. That’s because Carroll has eschewed the Belichick model in favor of letting his players be themselves. In actuality, that’s been his only true innovation. Carroll’s model of football is as ancient as the game itself. Run the ball, play strong defense and make plays on special teams. It’s his model of leadership that gives him an edge over the Greg Schianos of the world. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, Carroll doesn’t care about what his players tweet or say to Skip Bayless. He just wants them to be willing to run through a brick wall for the team. Schiano would rather put up a brick wall between his team and the world. Carroll wins hearts and minds, then lets the rest take care of itself.
3. Jim Harbaugh
Career Record: 36-11-1 (.766)
With The 49ers Since: 2011
When it comes to pure football, Harbaugh is second only to Belichick. For all the deserved praise his coordinators — OC Greg Roman and DC Vic Fangio — have received since he burst onto the scene in 2011, has there ever been any doubt it’s Harbaugh who sets the A-Z tone for his team? He’s a relentless innovator on offense, and the meat-and-potatoes philosophy he’s allowed Fangio to install on defense would make Mike Ditka proud. Setting the tone on both sides of the ball is not where the Belichick comparison ends. The league hasn’t seen a bigger risk taker since Belichick first donned his hoodie. Whilst the hot-take crowd balked at Harbaugh benching “proven winner” Alex Smith mid-season in 2012, Harbs didn’t blink as Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers to within a goal-line stand of their sixth Super Bowl title. That is not to ignore the fact that trusting Smith in the first place was quite a leap of faith for a rookie coach. Harbaugh could afford to tone it down on the sideline, but everything else is in place for him to be “Super Bowl-winning coach” Jim Harbaugh in the not-too-distant future.
4. Sean Payton
Career Record: 73-39 (.652)
With The Saints Since: 2006
The Payton model has taken some lumps in recent years. There’s the whole “getting suspended for an entire year” thing, and the fact that his Fourth-of-July offense has too often resembled “just” an expensive box of mortar shells on the road. Neither changes the fact that Payton approaches football in a fundamentally-different way than the majority of his peers, and has had far-more success as a result. For many first-time coaches, the first thing they ask themselves is, “how can I fit this square peg into this round hole?” For Payton it was, “how can I maximize our home-field advantage and ability to score points?” Payton may have built the home dominance before the road competence, but that didn’t stop him from being at the helm for New Orleans’ first Super Bowl title in 2009. And for all the hand-wringing over the Saints' “struggles” away from the Superdome, Payton has as many road playoff victories as Bill Belichick since 2006. It’s hard for any team to win away from home, not just Payton’s. An idiosyncratic leader in a league full of followers, Payton is going to oversee an above-average team for as long as he remains in New Orleans.
5. John Harbaugh
Career Record: 62-34 (.646)
With The Ravens Since: 2008
Harbaugh’s effect can be hard to pin-point. A former special-teams coordinator and DBs coach, he’s never overseen an offense or defense. His results have been crystal clear, however. Harbaugh has never had a losing season, and not only guided the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his first five years on the job, but a playoff victory. That’s not easy to do in the salary-cap era, especially when your quarterback is Joe Flacco. Harbaugh has cycled through coordinators, losing three to head-coaching vacancies and one to ineffectiveness (Cam Cameron). Thanks to Harbaugh’s leadership and preparation, it hasn’t been an issue for one of the league’s model franchises. It is true this list finds Harbaugh coming off a “low” moment: His first .500 season. But considering the circumstances — the Ravens were moving on from the Ray Lewis/Ed Reed era, adjusting to life without Anquan Boldin and missing Dennis Pitta — even that was an accomplishment in the rugged AFC North. Harbaugh may not call plays, but few are better at calling the shots.
6. Chip Kelly
Career Record: 10-6 (.625)
With The Eagles Since: 2013
Kelly has spent exactly one of his 50 years on this earth roaming an NFL sideline. As recently as 2006, he was the New Hampshire Wildcats’ offensive coordinator. He earned his first head-coaching job at the age of 46. So how could he possibly be so high on this list? Because he has something nearly all his peers lack: Clarity of vision. From what kind of offense he runs to what kind of music he plays at practice, Kelly knows exactly what he wants to do as a football coach. Others might think they know, but others spend nearly as much time scapegoating assistants as they do winning football games. And unlike say, Greg Schiano, Kelly is not only a man with a plan, but a man who treats his players like men. He’s not a dictator, but a leader. Maybe Kelly will wind up the flash in the pan many are still certain he is. But if he does, it will be on his terms, doing things no one else has done before. He's literally changing the way the game is played. How many coaches, in any era, can say that? In a copycat league, Kelly is himself. It’s a philosophy more should abide by.
7. Andy Reid
Career Record: 141-98-1 (.590)
With The Chiefs Since: 2013
Andy Reid has been an NFL coach for 15 seasons. He’s won at least 10 games in nine of them. He’s missed the playoffs only five times, and is coming off arguably the finest year of his career. So why isn’t he higher? Because while we know Reid’s strengths, we also know the weaknesses that have prevented him from calling himself “Super Bowl winning coach Andy Reid.” Reid’s Achilles’ heel — clock and timeout management — was just as evident in last month’s Wild Card loss as it was in Super Bowl XXXIX. In terms of weaknesses, that’s not as bad as, say, “can’t win.” But the fact that Reid even has such a well-known blind spot puts him a tier below the league’s truly-elite coaches. For the vast majority of his 15 years as a head coach, Reid has been slow and steady. Too often, however, he’s been too slow, too unsteady at the game’s most pivotal moments. We know Reid’s ceiling. We also know that after 15 years, he’s unlikely to ever break through it.
8. Bruce Arians
Career Record: 10-6 (.625)
With The Cardinals Since: 2013
Two Januarys ago, Arians was forced out as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. A 59-year-old man, it should have ended any realistic shot he had at becoming an NFL head coach. Two years later, Arians has earned a Head Coach of the Year award, and been at the controls for two remarkable turnarounds. Like Kelly, Arians’ rank is based on much as future potential as past accomplishment. Also like Kelly, Arians’ arrow is pointed skyward because he has the sense of mission so many other coaches lack. Arians’ philosophy isn’t a bunch of boilerplate clichés. He puts the pedal to the metal, going deep again and again on offense, and dialing up the heat again and again on defense. Not that Arians is unwilling to adjust. Working with the league’s worst offensive line last season, Arians not only dialed up an uncharacteristic amount of three-step drops for lead-footed QB Carson Palmer, he stuck with a rushing attack that wasn’t always easy to stick with. It’s just one of the reasons Arians has made the transition from coordinator to coach seem so … seamless. He has a vision that goes beyond empty sound bites — something a shocking amount of coaches lack — but isn’t afraid to go outside his comfort zone. He has a system, but if the players don’t fit it, he’ll change his ways, not theirs. That’s something a lot of NFL coaches could learn from.
9. Tom Coughlin
Career Record: 158-130 (.549)
With The Giants Since: 2004
Coughlin is an old-school perfectionist. That’s what makes his team’s uneven play — not just year to year, but often week to week — so hard to figure sometimes. Coughlin has led the Giants to the promised land twice in seven years. He’s also been outscored 69-7 over the course of two games, as he was in Weeks 3 and 4 last season. Twice, Coughlin has won 11 or more games as the Giants coach. Those two years amounted to zero playoff wins. Coughlin’s two Super Bowl-winning clubs? A combined 19-13. That’s Coughlin in a nutshell. Maybe Coughlin is too intense, too exacting. You can only grind on your players for so long before you grind them into dust. Coughlin’s gift is that he can get his players to come back even after he crosses the rubicon. At this point, we’re never going to get a perfect season from the league’s oldest coach. But a moment of Super Bowl winning perfection? Now that’s much more likely.
10. Mike McCarthy
Career Record: 82-45-1 (.646)
With The Packers Since: 2006
McCarthy has only known success as a head coach. He’s also only known Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers as his quarterbacks. McCarthy can be unimaginative, and slow to adjust. His defenses have consistently underperformed. The San Francisco 49ers can attest to all three points. That’s why the timing couldn’t have been better than 2013 for McCarthy to remind people that he’s not just a push-button coach. McCarthy did some of the best work of his career in the seven games Rodgers missed with a broken collarbone, managing and manipulating Matt Flynn just enough that the Pack could eke out two wins and a tie. It was a reminder of the success Flynn had during Rodgers’ previous absences — and a reminder that Flynn has been utterly futile as an NFL quarterback everywhere else he’s been. McCarthy is never going to be a fearless leader, blazing new trails and trends. But he’s been the right coach at the right time for the Packers, and that’s harder to find than you think.
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