Patrick Daugherty

Goal Line Stand

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NFL's Best Coaches 2017

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

11. Sean Payton

Career Record: 94-66 (.588)

With The Saints Since: 2006

Last Year’s Ranking: 12        

Sean Payton’s strength — scoring points — is one of the strongest individual-coaching attributes in the entire NFL. If only he weren’t continually undermined by his weaknesses: Inconsistent play away from home, and too many “defense optional” breakdowns. Payton’s recent failings have him in danger of becoming a bizarro Jeff Fisher. The Saints have gone 7-9 four of the past five years, winning 16 total road games in the process. More than one of those teams were historically bad on defense. Cameron Jordan and company allowed the second-most points in football last season (454), revealing an end of the tunnel that’s yet to be lit. Payton’s offense will always be ready to make a deep playoff run. If the defense doesn’t improve in 2017, however, the Saints might finally let a coach who always seems to be “monitoring” other jobs take his talents elsewhere.         

12. Jason Garrett

Career Record: 58-46 (.548)

With The Cowboys Since: 2010

Last Year’s Ranking: 17

College football writer Spencer Hall once made the case for “not changing a damn thing” at coach. Hall argued that, with some Charlie Weis exceptions, most coaches are held to impossible standards, and discarded too quickly. NFLers like Gus Bradley and Joe Philbin beg to differ, but the Cowboys obliged. They didn’t change a damn thing at coach, keeping Jason Garrett after a 29-27 start to his career. Their reward has been one of the NFL’s clearest identities — control the ball on offense, bend, but don’t break, on defense — and two 12-win seasons in the past three years, with two different quarterbacks, no less. Owner Jerry Jones has found his desperately-sought return to relevance in the most surprising of places: Patience. Garrett is not a future Bill Belichick, or even Andy Reid. Given enough chances to implement his formula, he just might be the man to bring the Lombardi back to Dallas.      

13. Dan Quinn

Career Record: 19-13 (.594)

With The Falcons Since: 2015

Last Year’s Ranking: 23

For making a Super Bowl as a sophomore head coach, we still don’t have much to go on with Dan Quinn. Departed OC Kyle Shanahan was the jet fuel behind Atlanta’s postseason run. Quinn’s defense, though improved, was hardly elite. Quinn, of course, should be a Super Bowl winning coach we don’t have much to go on, except his team blew the biggest lead in big-game history. His response in 2017 will be our first real window into who he actually is. The early results are promising. Fresh off losing Shanahan, Quinn made aggressive, bold hires in OC Steve Sarkisian and QBs coach Bush Hamdan. Sarkisian promises to be a Shanahan-like game-planner and play-caller. Hamdan is a 30-something rising star who most recently worked for coaching savant Chris Petersen at Washington. Quinn’s 2016 will probably be the most memorable year of his career. 2017 should be the most telling.     

14. Marvin Lewis

Career Record: 118-103-3 (.533)

With The Bengals Since: 2003

Last Year’s Ranking: 7

Marvin Lewis has loved and lost, seven times to be exact. Lewis, at the helm for 14 years in Cincinnati, is defined by his 0-7 January record. In 2016, he didn’t love at all, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and only the second time since 2008. It makes for a complicated legacy. Bengals football was in ruins before Lewis’ arrival in 2003, going 55-137 (.281) with zero postseason appearances over the previous 12 seasons. Lewis set about immediately raising expectations. It’s proven to be a double-edged sword. A fanbase that was overjoyed to return to the playoffs in 2005 is no longer just happy to be there. Owner Mike Brown has remained resolute, believing a coach who has made the tournament in 50 percent of his years on the job will eventually start advancing rounds. Who’s in the right? Patience is perhaps the most underrated of football virtues, but no one is entitled to an unlimited supply. Lewis has to be near the bottom of his barrel.    

15. Mike Zimmer

Career Record: 26-22 (.542)

With The Vikings Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: 11

An NFL coach since 1994, Mike Zimmer paid 20 years of dues before finally getting his shot at lead duties. He’s been as advertised, fielding great defenses while providing leadership both fiery and cool. His problem — there’s typically a problem at this part of the board — is the oldest in the history of the NFL: Quarterback. There aren’t enough fraudulent Sam Bradford records in the world to hide that fact. Zimmer is going to do his job. It’s just a matter of if he can find the right people to run the offense. Norv Turner wasn’t the answer. Pat Shurmur almost certainly isn’t, either. Unless he can produce top-three play on his side of the ball, Zimmer’s tide is unlikely to raise Bradford’s boat. That means, at least for 2017, he’ll once again have to settle for being an excellent coach without a championship ceiling.      

16. Jay Gruden

Career Record: 21-26-1 (.448)

With The Redskins Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: 14

Jay Gruden is the Redskins’ best head coach since Joe Gibbs’ first go-around. That may seem like damning with faint praise, but even faint praise has been hard to come by during the Daniel Snyder era. Gruden has installed a system offense that’s amongst the league’s most prolific, resulting in a 17-14-1 record since Robert Griffin III was cast aside in 2015. It will be put to the test in 2017. Gruden’s top lieutenant, OC Sean McVay, is gone. Free agents DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are likely to follow. The run game remains rudderless. Most worrying of all, Kirk Cousins is disillusioned after two years of contract disrespect. It’s not unusual for a Redskins coach to find himself at the center of this sort of hurricane. What will be unusual is if Gruden can weather it.   

17. Dirk Koetter

Career Record: 9-7 (.563)

With The Bucs Since: 2016

Last Year’s Ranking: – –

The Bucs fired Lovie Smith to make then 56-year-old OC Dirk Koetter a first-time NFL head coach. It was a massive gamble on a man whose previous biggest accomplishment in football was back-to-back Big West titles in 1999-2000. At least in 2016, it worked. After a rocky start, Koetter continued to develop Jameis Winston, and coaxed a “bounce-back” campaign from third-year pro Mike Evans. Koetter wasn’t afraid to lead, benching an ineffective Doug Martin down the stretch even though he was in the first season of a five-year, $35.75 million contract. Most impressive of all was the way Koetter’s team finished, closing out the year 6-2 while allowing just 17 points per game. The hot streak included wins over Kansas City and Seattle. It all added up to Tampa’s first winning campaign since 2010, and genuine reason to be optimistic about one of the oldest rookies you will ever come across.

18. John Fox

Career Record: 128-112 (.533)

With The Bears Since: 2015

Last Year’s Ranking: 16

Who will be the next Jeff Fisher? The answer is there will never be another Jeff Fisher. John Fox is the closest thing we’ve got, though the comparison is imperfect because Fox is both less interesting and more accomplished than Ol’ Uncle 7-9. A two-time conference champion, Fox’s calling card is stability and respectability. He’s had neither in Chicago, letting Jay Cutler derail him to a 9-23 record in two years on the job. Fox’s defense overachieved in 2016, as did rookie RB Jordan Howard and second-year UDFA Cameron Meredith. Those were the lone moral victories in a 3-13 campaign. If Fox can’t get his team in gear to at least a Fisher-ian 7-9 or 8-8 in 2017, the Bears are likely to reach the same conclusion John Elway did in Denver: You are never going to win a Super Bowl with John Fox.      

19. Hue Jackson

Career Record: 9-23 (.281)

With The Browns Since: 2016

Last Year’s Ranking: – –

It’s been the Cleveland Browns’ mission to work miracles of mediocrity since rejoining the league in 1999. The latest? An inconclusive 1-15 season. Hue Jackson never stood a chance his first year on the job, and … that was the plan. The Browns tanked with an openness previously unseen in the NFL. It had to be trying for a fierce competitor like Jackson, but his team isn’t holding it against him. Neither should we. Whether as a one-year head coach in Oakland or offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Jackson has been a talent maximizer. That remained true even in 2016, as Jackson finessed a 1,000-yard receiving campaign out of converted quarterback Terrelle Pryor and returned Isaiah Crowell to relevance. Jackson should have more pieces to work with in 2017, both in second-year pro Corey Coleman and an influx of young talent via the draft. Jackson’s challenge is monumental, but nothing in Year 1 suggested he wasn’t the man for it.    

20. Jack Del Rio

Career Record: 87-84 (.509)

With The Raiders Since: 2015

Last Year’s Ranking: 20

Jack Del Rio has zero division titles in 11 years as a head coach, one fewer than Tony Sparano. That’s hard to do in the four-team division era. Del Rio does have three 11-win seasons on his résumé, but ask Jeff Fisher what that gets ‘ya. Not much. Del Rio’s teams will rarely embarrass themselves. That’s good. Nevertheless, clearing that low bar is no longer enough for a franchise with Derek Carr and Khalil Mack entering their primes. The Broncos’ defense improved to a championship level after coordinator Del Rio departed in 2015. That will be something for the Raiders to keep in mind if Del Rio can’t bring home a division crown that’s been 12 years in the making.

21. Jim Caldwell

Career Record: 53-43 (.552)

With The Lions Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: 24

A more inoffensive John Fox, Jim Caldwell provides a base level of competence. His Lions squads have excelled at neither offense nor defense, mostly just getting by. Caldwell took this approach to its logical extreme in 2016, allowing OC Jim Bob Cooter to employ a “keep away” attack that limited Detroit’s own theatrics and kept the opposing team off the field. It was Cowboys lite, and ultimately toothless since the Lions had zero semblance of a running game. They were summarily blown out of their playoff appearance, managing two field goals in a 26-6 loss to the Seahawks. That’s Caldwell in a nutshell. There’s a veneer of respectability, but the aspiration for little more. Floor is more important than ceiling. The 2017 Lions would probably lack a championship core no matter who was on the sideline. By keeping Caldwell, they’re merely admitting it.   

22. Ben McAdoo

Career Record: 11-5 (.688)

With The Giants Since: 2016

Last Year’s Ranking: – –

Rarely will an 11-5 coaching debut be less impressive. Ben McAdoo is an offensive mind, yet his offense scored only 32 touchdowns in 2016, the third fewest in the league. McAdoo could not scheme Eli Manning out of a season-long slump, while his running game was nonexistent. McAdoo’s team made the postseason by the grace of a massive cash infusion on defense. There were bright spots. McAdoo’s decision to retain DC Steve Spagnuolo, dubious on paper, worked brilliantly. The offensive line (sort of) improved. Injuries seemed down. McAdoo put down a solid foundation. It’s just not going to hold up if he can’t do a better job on his side of the ball.   

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