Patrick Daugherty

Goal Line Stand

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The NFL's Best Coaches

Saturday, February 15, 2014

11. Rex Ryan

Career Record: 42-38 (.525)

With The Jets Since: 2009

There have been a lot of problems during Ryan’s time as head coach. His coaching has rarely been one of them. Surviving one of the worst GMs in football (Mike Tannenbaum), and a ridiculous lack of talent and vision on offense, Ryan has nevertheless suffered just one losing season in five years. Ryan is not blameless in Gang Green’s continued struggles on offense. It was he who hired Tony Sparano, and remained too loyal to Mark Sanchez. But it’s Ryan’s mastery on defense that has kept the Jets from plunging to the depths Tannenbaum had them destined for before he was replaced by John Idzik. Ryan lost Darrelle Revis to trade and Antonio Cromartie to ineffectiveness in 2013. He responded by coaching up Sheldon Richardson to Defensive Rookie of the Year heights, and overseeing the league’s No. 3 run defense. If Ryan wasn’t so famous for running his mouth, he’d be known for leading one of the league’s most consistent bands of overachievers. If Idzik can find Ryan a quarterback, Ryan just might find the Jets their first world championship since 1968.    

12. Marvin Lewis

Career Record: 90-85-1 (.514)

With The Bengals Since: 2003

At this point, Lewis is more Mack Brown-style CEO than head football coach. Both his offense and defense were autonomous units under now departed coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, respectively. Lewis paints in broad strokes for an owner in Mike Brown who obviously has complete faith in his coach of 11 years. Many would point to Lewis’ 0-5 record in the playoffs and say Brown’s faith is misplaced, but even consistency of Lewis’ somewhat mediocre nature is hard to find in the NFL. That’s especially true for a franchise that’s not exactly known for opening its wallet. You could say Lewis should have won more in recent years and be right. You could also say the fact that he’s gone from nine to 10 to 11 wins with a stagnant Andy Dalton under center is more than his teams should have accomplished. At this point, Lewis is just a steady hand, and nothing more. Lest you think that’s an insult, ask the Browns or Raiders how easy it is to find a steady hand.       

13. Marc Trestman

Career Record: 8-8 (.500)

With The Bears Since: 2013

There’s no reason to sugarcoat it: Trestman has major room for improvement. The Bears’ once-proud defense completed its precipitous fall under its first-year head coach, while Trestman’s team couldn’t cash in on the opportunity of a lifetime to win a wounded NFC North. It also led the NFC in points, averaging 27.8 per game in a year in which Josh McCown made five starts. Trestman created a town big enough for the both of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and coaxed a career year out of 28-year-old back Matt Forte. Trestman knows offense, and is going to have an elite one for as long as the Bears will have him. Provided he learned the right lessons elsewhere as a rookie coach, he should prove to be a home-run hire for an organization with only three playoff wins in the 21st century.

14. Jeff Fisher

Career Record: 156-137-1 (.532)

With The Rams Since: 2012

There are two things preventing Fisher from falling into the same “steady hand” category as Lewis. 1. His hand isn’t always steady. Fisher’s Titans teams were known more for their late hits than discipline. The personal fouls have followed Fisher’s mustache to St. Louis. 2. Fisher’s ceiling is higher. Fisher has won at least 11 games five times since 1999. You could say Fisher has had better quarterbacks than Lewis, but Kerry Collins was under center for Fisher’s 13-win squad in 2008. The problem is, Fisher hasn’t won a playoff game since 2003, while his young Rams team made fewer strides than expected in 2013. That can partly be attributed to playing in the best division in football. It can also be blamed on Fisher’s allegiance to vanilla OC Brian Schottenheimer, and the fact that the duo didn’t install a realistic offense until Sam Bradford tore his ACL in Week 7. Fisher has been there before, but it’s been over a decade. By the time he gets back, he might not remember how to act like it.    

15. Mike McCoy

Career Record: 9-7 (.563)

With The Chargers Since: 2013

Maybe McCoy’s 2013 was simply lightning in a bottle. A one-off confluence of events no one man could have possibly orchestrated. If so, that was some lightning. In no particular order McCoy: Fixed Philip Rivers (with the help of Ken Whisenhunt), fixed Ryan Mathews, overcame the loss of his No. 1 and 2 receivers, guided Keenan Allen to one of the best seasons by a rookie receiver in recent memory and watched a patchwork defense play above its head. McCoy’s Chargers were the only team to beat the Broncos in Denver, or the Bengals in Cincinnati. An elite game planner, McCoy won’t be expecting lightning to strike twice in 2014: He’ll be orchestrating it.  

16. Mike Tomlin

Career Record: 71-41 (.634)

With The Steelers Since: 2007

As head coach of the Steelers, Tomlin has three annual goals: Win the Super Bowl, win the AFC North and beat the Ravens. It’s with the Ravens’ John Harbaugh that Tomlin shares the most similarities as a coach. Like Harbaugh, Tomlin leads neither his defense nor his offense. He leads men. He was extremely successful at it his first four years on the job, guiding the Steelers to two Super Bowl appearances and one title. Management has made his job much tougher since. Tomlin was infamously forced to part ways with successful OC Bruce Arians, while the state of his roster has steadily aged and deteriorated thanks to dubious cap management from GM Kevin Colbert. Tomlin has done all that’s been asked of him and more, but with little say over his personnel and offensive and defensive philosophies, it’s grown harder to pin-point what exactly he’s allowed to do. That would make it hard for any coach to exert his influence. It also makes it easier for the Steelers to find their scapegoat if things continue to trend downward in 2014.

17. Ron Rivera

Career Record: 25-23 (.521)

With The Panthers Since: 2011  

Rivera would be on the street and off this list had he not embraced something so few coaches do: Reinvention. Sitting at 1-3 after the Panthers’ 22-6 loss to the Cardinals in Week 5, Rivera decided he wasn’t going to take it anymore. Fighting the hot seat fire with fire, Savings Bond Ron morphed into Riverboat Ron, deciding there were punts you could pass up. Winning the game took precedence over winning the field-position game. Buoyed by Rivera’s gut — and defense — the Panthers ended the year on an 11-1 tear, downing the 49ers, Patriots and Saints in the process. Rivera’s hot finish can’t be questioned. What can be questioned is if “Riverboat Ron” is here to stay. If Rivera’s truly found religion, winning will remain his church. If not, he’ll go back to being just another John Fox without a Peyton Manning.    

18. Gus Bradley

Career Record: 4-12 (.250)

With The Jaguars Since: 2013  

Working with the league’s most talent-barren roster — the Jaguars literally used their 2012 third-round pick on a punter — things went about as poorly as you’d expect for Bradley in his first eight games on the job. The Jags went 0-8, offering little resistance as they got out-scored 264-96. Somehow, some way, Bradley flipped the switch after Jacksonville’s bye week, overseeing a 4-4 finish and seven close games for a team that had no business being in close games. His team took on his personality — hard-nosed and feisty — shoring up on defense while running the ball more effectively on offense. The Jags finished with as many road wins, three, as the Saints, Bengals and Bears. Real results could be another 2-3 years away, but Bradley’s process appears to be right.

19. Mike Smith

Career Record: 96-60 (.625)

With The Falcons Since: 2008

On the surface, there’s nothing more than nits to be picked with Smith’s Falcons résumé. A team that had never had back-to-back winning seasons before his arrival has reached the playoffs in four of six years. The Falcons have emerged as a competent, stable organization befitting their competent, stable owner Arthur Blank. But you don’t have to dig deep to find Smith’s flaws. The biggest? His philosophy is as bland as his name. Smith only stands out when he’s making the wrong decision, which is often. For Smith, the field-position battle is a hundred-years war that’s won one punt at a time. Timeouts? He hasn’t met one that can’t be squandered. The only time Smith rocks the boat is when he’s trying not to. You could argue that Smith’s near-paralytic caution is an asset. But slow and steady rarely wins the NFL race. Smith, who owns a 1-4 career playoff record, can attest to that. Even Smith’s lone postseason victory was marred by his lack of imagination. The Falcons went into halftime of last year’s Divisional Round game up 20-0 on the Seahawks. They only emerged victorious 30-28 after a last-second field goal propelled them to the NFC Championship Game, where this time they coughed up a 24-14 halftime lead. In both games, Smith’s tactical mistakes were numerous and amateur. Not that it surprised anyone who has watched him coach since 2008. Smith keeps the trains running on time. That’s great … until the others start flying by. For six years, Smith has had a locomotive at his disposal. Too often, he’s treated it like a Ford Focus.

20. John Fox

Career Record: 107-85 (.557)

With The Broncos Since: 2011

Fox is nothing if not a kindred spirit to Mike Smith. Fox has been with the Broncos for three seasons, in which time he’s had two defining moments. The first was a kneel down. The second, a punt. Sometimes coaches make decisions that increase their team’s win probability by 5-6 percent. Other times they literally punt from their opponents’ 39-yard line down 29-0 in the third quarter of the freaking Super Bowl. Like Smith, Fox is never going to be accused of not having his files in order. Like Smith, Fox coaches not to lose, even when he has the most-prolific offense of all time. You play to win the game. Unless you’re Fox, in which case, you’d rather sleep at night.  

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Patrick Daugherty is a football and baseball writer for He can be found on Twitter .
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