Patrick Daugherty

Goal Line Stand

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The NFL's Best Coaches

Saturday, February 15, 2014

21. Chuck Pagano

Career Record: 22-10 (.688)

With The Colts Since: 2012  

This ranking may seem harsh — or stupid — but ask yourself: Have the Colts succeeded because of Pagano, or in spite of him? Pagano’s work on defense has been fine, but that’s to be expected of a former defensive coordinator. It’s the negative impact he’s had on offense that’s thus far defined his tenure. With OC Pep Hamilton doing his bidding, Pagano has insisted on a run-heavy scheme that highlights the Colts’ weaknesses and obscures their strengths. Andrew Luck attempted fewer passes than Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton last season. Meanwhile, Trent Richardson was allowed to slam into a brick wall 157 times. Running the ball and stopping the run is a formula that still works — just ask Seattle and San Francisco — but Indy did neither in 2013. That didn’t stop Pagano from sticking with his plan until the very end, or at least until Indy fell behind 38-10 in the Wild Card round to the Chiefs. Only then was Luck was fully unleashed, and the full brunt of Indy’s offensive firepower felt. Pagano has the best passing prospect since Peyton Manning at his disposal. Until/if he realizes that, he won’t be maximizing his team’s chance to win. That’s a cardinal sin for any head coach.    

22. Doug Marrone

Career Record: 6-10 (.375)

With The Bills Since: 2013

Marrone flashed promise as a rookie coach — the Bills were as feisty as they’d been in years — but may have already sealed his fate by hitching his wagon to the wrong quarterback. E.J. Manuel was fragile and inaccurate as a first-year starter, injuring his knee nearly as often as he threw touchdowns. With the Bills’ defense in fine shape even after the departure of DC Mike Pettine, Marrone’s offseason boils down to one task: Fix Manuel. If Manuel makes strides as a sophomore, the long-suffering Bills might finally have something cooking in the shadow of Lake Erie. If not, Marrone will be on the fast track to a Big 10 or ACC job.   

23. Dennis Allen

Career Record: 8-24 (.250)

With The Raiders Since: 2012

Allen isn’t the problem in Oakland, but he isn’t necessarily the answer. Allen’s squad overachieved early in 2013, but crumbled in ugly fashion down the stretch. The blame mostly lies with GM Reggie McKenzie’s bizarre, inept roster, but Allen didn’t do himself any favors by refusing to evaluate Terrelle Pryor. Instead he rolled with undrafted rookie Matt McGloin, who at times resembled a fan who had won a contest. Allen has done a lot of things right in his two years on the job, but if his roster is as bad in 2014 as it was in 2013, the “right” decisions may be harder and harder to identify. It could still happen for Allen as an NFL coach, but it might not be in Oakland.    

24. Jason Garrett

Career Record: 29-27 (.518)

With The Cowboys Since: 2010  

Jason Garrett is perhaps the NFL’s most affable gent. Relentlessly positive, he never lets the world — or Jerry Jones — get him down. The problem? Aside from that, it’s entirely unclear what he does. He doesn’t call his own plays. He doesn’t get to choose his own assistants. He definitely doesn’t lead the Cowboys to the playoffs. He does get to call timeouts and manage the clock, which he frequently does poorly. Of course, it’s possible he doesn’t even do that. Maybe ‘ol Jer has a set of levers and buttons he controls from the owner’s box. The point is, if you asked Garrett “what would you say … you do here?”, he wouldn’t have a good answer. Which means he isn’t the answer for the Cowboys. Which means Cowboys fans will be forced to endure another year of a failed marriage in 2014. Which means that for all his affability, all Garrett is really providing is pain and suffering.     

25. Joe Philbin

Career Record: 15-17 (.469)

With The Dolphins Since: 2012  

You might think that, like Garrett, it’s not clear what Philbin does. You’d be wrong. It is clear. Nothing. Philbin does nothing. Philbin is a former offensive coordinator who didn’t call plays even when he was an offensive coordinator. He doesn’t know how to hire assistants. He doesn’t know who to feature on offense. He doesn’t know how to handle a PR crisis. He does know how to project the personality of a cantaloupe that’s learned how to talk. Maybe Philbin’s value added to the Dolphins is immense behind the scenes. His starring role on Hard Knocks wouldn’t suggest that, but work with me. But even if that were true, could it possibly be worth the ineptitude he’s shown on the sideline? Hiring Mike Sherman? Featuring Daniel Thomas? Having no clue how to get to the ball to his No. 1 receiver or keep his quarterback upright? With a playoff berth on the line, Philbin’s team combined for seven points in Weeks 16 and 17. It generated 24 first downs. That would get you fired five times in Cleveland. In Miami, it wins you a power struggle with the general manager. Philbin’s off-the-field victory will ultimately prove pyrrhic for the Dolphins on it.      

New Hires  

1. Lovie Smith, Buccaneers 

Career Record: 81-63 (.563)

Smith headlines what was ultimately an underwhelming group of new hires. Amongst three retreads, three coordinators and one college coach, there were no Marc Trestmans, let alone a Chip Kelly. But there were no outwardly bad hires, and if you’re going to recycle a coach, it might as well be someone like Lovie. A true master of the 4-3, Tampa 2 defense, Smith produced four 10-win campaigns in nine years in Chicago. His downfall was his utter inability to find competent hands on offense. He’s rolling the dice on novice NFL OC Jeff Tedford, who was a quarterback guru at Cal. Smith’s defense will be fine. If Tedford can whip up a good offense — and not get plucked away in the process — Smith should be in for a long stay on the gulf coast of Florida.   

2. Mike Zimmer, Vikings 

Career Record: ---

The NFL’s preeminent coaching-search bridesmaid, Zimmer is finally the bride. A true defensive guru, Zimmer should instill more base-level discipline and competence than any Vikings coach since Bud Grant. The question is whether his brusque manner will eventually backfire with his front office and players. “Tellin’ it like it is” is an often successful tactic as a coordinator. As a head coach? Let’s just say Rex Ryan hasn’t said anything interesting since 2011. Zimmer has the tools. Now he must show the self-restraint.  

3. Ken Whisenhunt, Titans 

Career Record: 45-51 (.469)

Whisenhunt was showered with (deserved) plaudits for his work as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, but is inheriting a situation similar to the one that eventually got him run out of town in Arizona. Whiz has plenty of talent on defense, a couple good receivers and … no quarterback. The Whiz who was in San Diego seemed capable of making any situation work. The Whiz who was in Arizona was never the same after he lost Kurt Warner. Whisenhunt must either fix Jake Locker — an extremely tall task — or hope GM Ruston Webster passes on a Max Hall when he sees one.

4. Bill O’Brien, Texans 

Career Record: ---

You could argue O’Brien was the jewel of this coaching class and not be wrong. You could also argue he ultimately hasn’t proven himself as a play-caller at the NFL level, or as a head coach at any level. O’Brien had Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to fall back on at New England, while his “leadership” at Penn State consisted of saying all the right things in public, but seemingly plotting from Day 1 to escape an undesirable situation. O’Brien learned from the best in New England and made the best of a rough situation in Happy Valley. Now he needs to prove he’s able — and willing — to put it all together in Houston.   

5. Mike Pettine, Browns 

Career Record: ---

For rankings purposes, Pettine and Jay Gruden are interchangeable. Pettine stepped out of Rex Ryan’s shadow and into one of the league’s most underrated, aggressive defenses last season. It would have been nice to see him repeat the performance in 2014, but he’s not a regrettable hire, even if the circumstances he was hired under were. Pettine’s dilemma is the same as it’s been for every man to coach the reincarnated Browns. Where’s the stability, and where’s the quarterback? Pettine will be chewed up and spit out if one or the other isn’t found, but there’s no obvious reason he can’t be the guy to finally calm the waters in Cleveland.      

6. Jay Gruden, Redskins

Career Record: ---

When Gruden was hired, the Redskins labeled him a “proven winner,” citing not only his time as the Bengals’ successful, if vanilla, offensive coordinator, but stints in the UFL and AFL. The attempted compliment inadvertently highlighted the main factor working against Gruden: At this point in his NFL career, he’s still more name (Jon’s brother) than game. Gruden improved as a play-caller and game-planner during his three years in Cincinnati, but did little to stand out. Andy Dalton stagnated. A No. 2 receiver never stepped up. Gruden had trouble making the most of his running back and tight end duos in 2013. Now he’s tasked with taking on an entirely different kind of signal caller in Robert Griffin III. Maybe Gruden will spread his wings and fly in Washington, but it won’t exactly be a surprise if he ends up another spare part on tyrannical owner Daniel Snyder’s coaching scrap heap.  

7. Jim Caldwell, Lions 

Career Record: 26-22 (.542)

Here’s the deal. Caldwell is a nice man who came highly recommended by one of the modern era’s best coaches, Tony Dungy. He did an excellent job turning around the Ravens’ offense in 2012. Aside from that? He’s a coach who’s never won without Peyton Manning, and oversaw one of the most embarrassing seasons in recent memory, the 2011 Colts. Caldwell’s Ravens offense did not take a step forward in 2013, instead regressing across the board. You could look on the bright side and say injuries tanked Caldwell’s offense last season, and that Bill Polian was to blame for 2011. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a more uninspiring hire, especially since the mild-mannered Caldwell’s most pressing tasks are overhauling a stubborn Matthew Stafford’s mechanics and reining in the Lions’ embarrassingly undisciplined defense. Maybe Caldwell will get Stafford to fall in line and kill Ndamukong Suh with kindness. Much more likely is a couple of 6-10 seasons before the Lions embark on a full rebuild.

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

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