Patrick Daugherty

Goal Line Stand

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NFL's Best Coaches 2016

Thursday, March 03, 2016


Coaching matters more in football than any other sport. There are finer points to be emphasized and relievers to be micromanaged in baseball, but America’s pastime largely takes place on an island. In basketball, talent trumps all. The triangle is a great system, but unless you have Michael Jordan running it, there’s only so much of an edge to be gained. Steve Kerr? He isn’t coaching this. Not that talent doesn’t take you a long way on the gridiron. Bill Belichick probably wouldn’t be an iconoclastic American legend without Tom Brady. But Brady definitely wouldn’t be searching for one for the thumb without Belichick organizing his 22-player chess board. NFL teams are only guaranteed 16 games per season. You won’t be winning many of them without good players, but taking those players from good to great has everything to do with how coaches spend their other 349 days of the year.


As I say every year, this list is an inexact science. Just seven active coaches have Super Bowl rings. You are what your record says you are, but with so many similar records, differences must be discerned. Recent success is certainly a tiebreaker. As is supporting cast. Has this coach ever made the playoffs without a future Hall-of-Famer at quarterback? Does he saddle himself with ineffective assistants? Playoff records are not the end-all be-all. Andy Reid has never won a Super Bowl, but he’s done pretty well for himself in 17 years as a head coach. He’s an easy target when history repeats itself in the form of an in-game mistake, less so when you consider the full weight of his résumé.


Most of all, I try to ask myself, who would I want coaching my team right now? Last year’s list can be found here. 2014’s is here.               


1. Bill Belichick

Career Record: 223-113 (.664)

With The Patriots Since: 2000

Last Year’s Ranking: 1


The greatest coach of all time isn’t just riding on his reputation in the top spot. Bill Belichick, who is 187-69 (.730) over 16 years in New England, has won at least 12 games each of the past six seasons. To put that in perspective, Bill Parcells oversaw four 12-win campaigns. Bill Walsh, three. The Cleveland Browns have one 12-win season since joining the NFL in 1950. Belichick’s run of success isn’t just historic, it’s completely without peer or precedent.


The Patriots couldn’t defend their title in 2015, but nevertheless came within three points of the Super Bowl despite having one of the league’s worst offensive lines and running games. Their 2014 defensive MVP, Darrelle Revis, was playing for a divisional rival (who missed the playoffs). The central “argument” against Belichick — besides his “Controversies” section on Wikipedia — has always been that he’s a product of Tom Brady. Any reasonable observer can probably discern that 187-69 wasn’t built on the back of one player, but even unreasonable ones have to admit: Belichick was given the best player of his generation and knew what to do with him. Belichick is alone at the top, and will remain there for however long he continues coaching.     


2. Pete Carroll  

Career Record: 93-67 (.581)

With The Seahawks Since: 2010  

Last Year’s Ranking: 2


The NFL’s fountain of youth is also its oldest coach. Yes, with Tom Coughlin’s firing, Pete Carroll is now the grayest member of the old boys club. But whereas Coughlin was an exacting disciplinarian, Carroll remains as exuberant as ever going on 65. It’s that exuberance that continues to set him apart. Freed to be themselves, Carroll’s teams play with a unique looseness as they execute his simple philosophies on both sides of the ball. Run first on offense, Carroll is still employing the same defense he first learned from Monte Kiffin in 1977. He didn’t change a thing when the Seahawks dismantled the highest-scoring offense in league history in Super Bowl XLVIII, or when Marshawn Lynch missed over half of 2015 (the Seahawks had the third most rushing attempts in the league). Be yourself, but do your job. That’s Pete Carroll. It’s a brand of football that’s produced at least one playoff win in 5-of-6 seasons, and two conference titles since 2013. Maybe you didn’t like him at USC, but you’d better respect him in Seattle.      


3. Bruce Arians

Career Record: 34-14 (.708)

With The Cardinals Since: 2013

Last Year’s Ranking: 4


The Age of Arians began with a retirement. Unwanted by a Steelers team that hoped to “regain its blue-collar identity on offense,” the most blue-collar coach in football was allowed to walk after coordinating two conference title-winning offenses in five seasons. Embittered and uncertain, Arians called it a day at the age of 59. Thankfully, the Colts called eight days later, and what’s followed has been a coaching joyride unlike any other in recent memory. Fond of swears, Kangols and especially deep balls, Arians coaches like the man out of time he seemed to be in 2012. His urgent brand of football has produced three seasons where each was better than the last, going from 10 wins to 11 to 13. Continually minting new stars on offense, Arians routinely overachieves on defense, and has a coaching tree that took only two years to spring a branch (Todd Bowles to the Jets). Arians’ crystal clear philosophy has produced the most straightforward of results: Winning, and lots of it.              


4. John Harbaugh

Career Record: 77-51 (.602)

With The Ravens Since: 2008

Last Year’s Ranking: 3  


If you watch enough sports, you will eventually see everything. A Red Sox World Series victory. A Leicester City title run. A John Harbaugh losing season. Yes, after seven years of .500 or better football, Harbaugh finally knows what it’s like to notch fewer than eight victories. It took a biblical wave of injuries — Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith Sr., Breshad Perriman, Jeremy Zuttah and Eugene Monroe amongst many, many others — but he knows all the same. We doubt he gets used to it. Since taking over as a first-time head coach in 2008, Harbaugh has 10 playoff victories compared to that one losing campaign. He’s won a Super Bowl and beat Bill Belichick twice in the postseason. He’s never stopped winning even as future Hall-of-Famers like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed walk out the door. Harbaugh is not a mastermind like his brother Jim or an auteur like his arch-rival Belichick. He’s a captain who gets the ship to port on time, no matter the storms around him.     


5. Andy Reid

Career Record: 161-110-1 (.594)

With The Chiefs Since: 2013

Last Year’s Ranking: 10


Andy Reid has been a head coach 17 years. He’s made the playoff 11 times and had only three losing seasons. So why does he sometimes seem like a punch line? Perhaps it’s his portly frame and billowy mustache. More likely it’s his clock management, a dark art that resulted in a 5:16, 17-play drive when the Chiefs had 6:29 to score 14 points in the Divisional Round. Whatever it is, it’s undeserved, as Reid is one of the best coaches of his generation, and the best not to win a Super Bowl. Maybe Reid is never going to win the big game. That’s fine. He wouldn’t be the first great coach to miss out on the ultimate hardware. What Reid provides is all fans can reasonably hope for: An annual contender that’s always within striking distance of a deep playoff run. It’s a fate that can feel cruel when your team is seemingly always losing in the postseason, but much preferred to never getting there.        


6. Mike McCarthy

Career Record: 104-55-1 (.653)

With The Packers Since: 2006  

Last Year’s Ranking: 7


Life is a game of chance. Mike Pettine had Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel in Cleveland. Mike McCarthy has had Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Not that you should fault a man for his good fortune, especially when he takes advantage of it. McCarthy has missed the playoffs just twice in 10 years, and won a Lombardi. He also let a 15-1 team lose in the Divisional Round, and preferred field goals to the Super Bowl in last year’s NFC Championship Game. According to longtime Packers reporter Bob McGinn, it had been “25 years or more since a coach in Green Bay made more errors in allocating playing time” than McCarthy did in 2015. Twitter knew Jeff Janis could spark the Packers’ moribund receiver corps. It took two Hail Marys in a Divisional Round loss for McCarthy to finally see the light. Ultimately, these are nitpicks for a coach who has won 49 more games than he’s lost. If you coach 10 years, you’re bound to have some haunting losses. It’s just hard to shake the feeling that the McCarthy era could have been something more for the Packers, who aren’t going to have future Hall-of-Famers at quarterback forever.


7. Marvin Lewis

Career Record: 112-94-2 (.543)

With The Bengals Since: 2003

Last Year’s Ranking: 11  


When Marvin Lewis first took over as Bengals coach in 2003, George W. Bush remained in his first term as president and the iPhone was still four years away. Lewis’ 13 seasons at the helm of the same team are second only to Bill Belichick’s 16 in New England. A lot has changed in the world in Lewis’ decade-plus at the controls in Cincinnati, but not everything. For starters, the Bengals still haven’t won a playoff game. For many, Lewis’ 0-7 postseason record is a disqualifying factor for even being a head coach, let alone ranked as a great one. But to dwell on Lewis’ dismal Januaries is to miss his exquisite February-Decembers. When Lewis replaced Dick LeBeau, fired after a 2-14 2002, he was inheriting the rubble of a 55-win team over its previous 12 seasons. That’s 4.5 per year. Lewis has more than doubled that total in his time on the job, and produced almost as many division titles (four) as the Bengals managed in their first 35 years of existence (five). Lewis has spawned three head coaches, Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson, in the past three years. Lewis’ postseason results have left everything to be desired, but his process is a model to be followed in a league where consistency is the most precious of commodities.


8. Ron Rivera

Career Record: 47-32-1 (.594)

With The Panthers Since: 2011

Last Year’s Ranking: 17  


What does Ron Rivera have in common with Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh, Mike Ditka, Bill Cowher, Mike McCarthy and Dennis Green? They’re the only coaches in NFL history to lead 15-1 teams. Rivera entered Week 6 of the 2013 season 1-3. Seven days earlier, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Panthers had begun “laying the groundwork for a possible coaching search” following the season. At that point, Rivera was 14-22 in two-plus years on the job in Carolina, and known more for punting in close losses more than anything else. Then, out of nowhere, Rivera began eschewing kicks for fourth down attempts, and nothing has been the same since. “Riverboat Ron” is 33-9-1 as Panthers coach, winning 3-of-3 division titles and the 2015 conference championship. On the field, the “Riverboat” moniker has proven to be a bit of a misnomer. Rivera is still more Jim Tressel than Chip Kelly or Steve Spurrier. But off of it, Rivera has allowed a looseness that calls to mind Pete Carroll, showing amazing comfort in his own skin while letting his players be themselves in both victory and defeat. It took the specter of his own football mortality for Rivera to find his way on the sideline, but he’s made the most of his new lease on head-coaching life. He could soon be rewarded with a Super Bowl title.


9. Mike Tomlin

Career Record: 92-52 (.639)

With The Steelers Since: 2007

Last Year’s Ranking: 12  


Mike Tomlin can be easy to take for granted. A complete unknown when he replaced Bill Cowher in 2007, Tomlin has one year of NFL coordinating experience. The Steelers’ defensive scheme predates his arrival, and he’s had a pair of rugged individualists at offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians and Todd Haley. Tomlin’s job is to lead, an often — if not always — inscrutable task to those outside of the locker room. His most discernible on-field impact comes in the form of his frequently dubious clock management. That means, like John Harbaugh, another coach whose personal expertise is leading men, Tomlin has little to speak for him besides his overall record. Like Harbaugh, Tomlin’s record speaks volumes. Only Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy and Chuck Pagano have higher career winning percentages amongst active coaches. Tomlin has never had a losing campaign, and won at least 10 games in 6-of-9 seasons. If there are nits to be picked, Tomlin has produced only one playoff win over the past five seasons, and his teams can struggle for week-to-week consistency. Tomlin has benefitted immensely from having Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, but a quarterback does not a culture make. Tomlin may not call the plays, but his hand sets one of the steadiest tones in football.   


10. Bill O’Brien

Career Record: 18-14 (.563)

With The Texans Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: 8  


Bill O’Brien has an ego. There’s little doubt about that. He also has a pedigree. O’Brien is just the latest Bill Belichick disciple to take up the banner in another part of the kingdom. Slowly, but surely, he’s getting results. 18-14 is the same record Mike McCoy had after his first two seasons, but unlike McCoy, O’Brien has reached that number without a quarterback. Turning a 2-14 squad into a 9-7 one with Ryan Fitzpatrick is impressive. Making the playoffs with Brian Hoyer is a miracle. That he did so without Arian Foster only adds to his early case for football sainthood. It’s of little matter that O’Brien’s squad got summarily routed in the Wild Card round. The groundwork has been laid for the first successful “Patriots South” installation. If O’Brien can find a quarterback, Master Belichick might finally have a worthy heir.


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