Patrick Daugherty

Goal Line Stand

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NFL's Best Coaches 2018

Monday, March 5, 2018

Doug Pederson won a Super Bowl in his second season with a backup quarterback. Sean McVay, the youngest coach in NFL history, notched 11 victories his first year on the job. Of the league’s 32 coaches, 13 have been hired in the past 14 months. NFL sidelines are changing. Of course, that’s their only constant. Coaches and their schemes are here today, gone tomorrow. It’s not always justified. Although the cream often rises, a coach’s success is context dependent. Players, owners, assistants, injuries and acts of God can matter as much as coaching acumen. That’s why, though this is a rankings article, I try not to think of it that way. I view it as more of a compendium, an assessment of where the league’s 32 coaches are right now. How they got here and where they might be going. Last year’s list can be found here. 2016’s is here.       

1. Bill Belichick

Career Record: 250-118 (.679)  

With The Patriots Since: 2000

Last Year’s Ranking: 1

Bill Belichick has lost the Super Bowl three times — and has a Super Bowl winning percentage of .625. If you include Belichick’s work as an assistant, he has coached in 21 percent of the 52 Super Bowls ever played. Just how dominant has Belichick been in his 18 years in New England? His postseason winning percentage (.730) almost matches his staggering regular season winning percentage (.743). The last time he won fewer than 12 games was 2009. The last time he won fewer than 10 was 2002. Belichick has no analogue in the modern era, and few in any era. This doesn’t mean he’s completely above the fray. Belichick’s 2017 was marred by behind-the-scenes drama more befitting of the Redskins than Patriots. There were rumors of forced trades, sulking quarterbacks and jilted nutritionists. The tension was so high there were whispers Belichick could move on. He is … to 2018. By the time you are reading this, Belichick will have turned the page on both his locker room intrigue and Super Bowl defeat. Moving forward — ahead — is the only option in Belichick’s world. Ahead of the curve. Ahead of the league. Ahead of every other mind in football.             

2. Pete Carroll

Career Record: 112-79-1 (.586)  

With The Seahawks Since: 2010

Last Year’s Ranking: 2

2017 was the first time in six seasons Pete Carroll did not win a playoff game. The oldest coach in the NFL, Carroll has reached the postseason 6-of-8 years in Seattle, and won fewer than nine games only twice. His teams averaged 11 wins the first five seasons of the Russell Wilson era. With Wilson still in his prime, Carroll remains well positioned for success. 2017’s 9-7 record felt more like a lull than a portent. That should not obscure Carroll’s mounting challenges. The Seahawks’ philosophy of not paying offensive linemen is looking increasingly untenable. With no running game to speak of, Wilson has spent the past two years running for his life. Carroll’s defensive core is also injured and aging out. Michael Bennett is expected to be gone. Kam Chancellor’s future is clouded by a neck issue. Earl Thomas finds himself increasingly battling the injury bug. Richard Sherman is recovering from twin Achilles’ surgeries. Wilson will help maintain the illusion of continuity, but change is afoot in Seattle. How well Carroll navigates it will determine how successful of a send-off he gets as he winds down his extraordinary career.           

3. Andy Reid

Career Record: 183-120-1 (.604)  

With The Chiefs Since: 2013

Last Year’s Ranking: 3

The more Andy Reid changes, the more he stays the same. That means 2017 was another successful regular season, Reid’s 13th in 19 years as a head coach to result in a playoff berth. It also means there was heartbreak and confusion at the end. Reid has had his share of devastating postseason defeats. What happened in the Wild Card round against the Titans is the new benchmark. Leading 21-3 at the break, Reid bafflingly went away from Kareem Hunt, failing to either move the chains or drain the clock. The fire-and-brimstone Titans, perhaps the least-equipped team in the league to rally from an 18-point halftime deficit, did just that, “stunning” the Chiefs and advancing to play the Patriots. Yet again, Reid’s exemplary September-December work went up in January smoke. What’s left to be said at this point? Across 19 seasons, Reid has won over 60 percent of his games. How many other coaches have done that? Bill Belichick, George Halas, Don Shula, Paul Brown, Curly Lambeau, Marty Schottenheimer, Tom Landry and Steve Owen. That’s it. Reid’s coaching tree is the most successful in the NFL, surpassing even Belichick’s. Reid seems destined to never win the big one. That doesn’t mean the Chiefs will find a better coach.        

4. Mike Tomlin

Career Record: 116-60 (.659)  

With The Steelers Since: 2007

Last Year’s Ranking: 4

The ninth-youngest head coach in the league, Mike Tomlin already has the 33rd most wins in NFL history. 13 of them came in 2017, establishing a new high-water mark for Tomlin in his 11th year on the job. The problem is, he didn’t add a 14th in January. Seven-point home favorites against the Jaguars, the Steelers got ambushed, falling behind 28-7 before eventually settling for a 45-42 defeat. A meaningless late touchdown made it look closer than it really was. Once again, a Tomlin-led squad seemed to get caught looking ahead, this time to an AFC Championship Game rematch with the hated Patriots. It’s not just a narrative. Since 2012, the Steelers are an elite 41-17 (.706) when playing clubs .500 or better at game time. During that same timespan, they’re an incomprehensible 20-18 vs. teams with a losing record. Those kinds of losses are the difference between going on the road and staying at home in the playoffs, which itself is often the difference between going to the Super Bowl or going golfing. Tomlin has been wildly successful as Steelers head coach. He just needs to have his team as ready for John Fox as it is for John Harbaugh.      

5. Doug Pederson

Career Record: 20-12 (.625)  

With The Eagles Since: 2016

Last Year’s Ranking: 23

Although Eagles fans will never forget the slights against their head coach, you are forgiven if you didn’t see Doug Pederson coming. When Pederson hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, he was still less than 10 years removed from coaching high school. He was less than two years removed from calling plays for the first time. His 2016 hiring had a “good old days” feel to it. Desperate to move on from the “crashed jet ski” Chip Kelly era, the Eagles seemed to be hiring the first Andy Reid acolyte they could find. Whatever the process was — it’s quite possible owner Jeffrey Lurie had a firm personal belief in Pederson after his four years as an Eagles assistant — it worked. After an inconclusive first season, Pederson hit the gas in the second. The fuel was win-probability analytics and run/pass options. It was the analytical play-calling — Pederson has an assistant in his ear giving him the percentages on any given call — that got the Eagles to the No. 1 seed, and the run/pass options that kept them there. When Carson Wentz went down in Week 14, that should have been the end of the Eagles’ title aspirations. Instead, Pederson summoned career-best play from backup Nick Foles, who, like Wentz, excelled with RPO play-calling. Now the Eagles are world champions with one of the best young players in football returning for 2018. The league will copy Pederson’s innovations. That’s football. He’s already proven he has the mind and derring-do to stay ahead of the curve.           

6. John Harbaugh

Career Record: 94-66 (.588)  

With The Ravens Since: 2008

Last Year’s Ranking: 6

The winner of at least one playoff game each of his first five years on the job, it has been a lean half decade for John Harbaugh. His teams have claimed just one postseason victory in five seasons since his Super Bowl triumph over brother Jim. “Lean” is still relative in this instance. Harbaugh’s only sub-.500 campaign was a 5-11 2015 where he dealt with an ACL’d quarterback and lost seven games by six points or fewer. Harbaugh’s squads have remained largely stout on defense but dealt with increasing problems on offense. One is a lack of continuity at coordinator. Harbaugh has cycled through four different play-callers over the past five years. He’s had continuity issues of a different sort at quarterback. Joe Flacco has remained under center, but his play has fallen off a cliff since his knee injury. This is especially problematic in Flacco’s case since he didn’t have far to fall to begin with. With Harbaugh remaining steadfast in his support, it means he must do an elite job everywhere else to hide his quarterback. Harbaugh has achieved a level of consistency most coaches can only dream of, but Flacco will risk making it feel Fisher-esque if he doesn’t soon improve his performance.        

7. Ron Rivera

Career Record: 64-47-1 (.576)  

With The Panthers Since: 2011

Last Year’s Ranking: 9

Ron Rivera’s seat got warm early in 2013. Since beginning that season 1-3, Rivera has gone 50-25-1 (.658), winning the NFC South three times in five years. His 2015 squad scored 500 points en route to a 15-1 campaign and Super Bowl loss. Rivera aims for an even tone on defense — no big plays — while preferring a smash-mouth approach on offense. It’s produced a desired consistency, if not necessarily consistent points. Things got stale enough in 2017 that Rivera decided to make his first change at offensive coordinator since Rob Chudzinski left in 2013, firing Mike Shula. To shake things up he replaced Shula with … Norv Turner, a 65-year-old wanderer who is on his 10th NFL club. It’s not the freshest perspective Rivera could have provided, but he hasn’t made his name by reinventing the wheel. He refines it, making the subtle adjustments necessary to win divisions. Rivera’s teams are as steady as he is even-keeled. He’s a leader who takes care of business on his side of the ball. Short of a Belichick-ian genius, there’s not much more you can ask of a head coach.       

8. Mike Zimmer

Career Record: 39-25 (.609)  

With The Vikings Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: 15

Mike Zimmer’s reward for an 8-8 2016 was eight eye surgeries. The operations were the result of a freak Week 8 accident where Zimmer’s laminated play sheet blew into his eye and detached his retina. Coupled with the Vikings’ devastating Wild Card defeat the previous January, it made Zimmer’s third year as coach one to forget. Following Sam Bradford’s mysterious Week 1 knee injury, 2017 seemed on a similar trajectory. Zimmer couldn’t buy a break. He had to make his own. Controlling what he could control, Zimmer maintained his brand of stable leadership — “controlled intensity” comes to mind — while doing his best ever job on defense. The Vikings’ 252 points allowed were the fewest in the NFL. With Zimmer’s side of the ball shutting teams down, the offense managed to get on a roll with journeyman quarterback Case Keenum. The end result was the Vikings’ first NFC Championship Game appearance since 2009-10. After four years, it’s clear what Zimmer provides. Both his defensive prowess and leadership are amongst the best in the NFL. He has brought the Vikings to within a quarterback of being something special. Even if Keenum remains the starter for 2018, Zimmer has established a floor capable of touching the Super Bowl ceiling.

9. Sean McVay

Career Record: 11-5 (.688)  

With The Rams Since: 2017

Last Year’s Ranking: — —

Coach worship can be a dangerous thing. Today’s Chip Kelly is often tomorrow’s Marc Trestman. One-year sample sizes mean very little. We can still marvel at what the youngest coach in NFL history did in his first year on the job. The 2016 Rams scored 224 points under Jeff Fisher, 40 fewer than the second-most futile offense, the 1-15 Browns. Sean McVay doubled the Rams’ 2016 output by Week 15. The rookie head coach didn’t just embarrass Fisher, he oversaw the league’s No. 1 offense. It was only the second time ever a team went from worst to first in scoring (1965 49ers). Amongst many changes, McVay’s most important was his system for audibling. McVay hurried his offense to the line so he could survey the defense and bark adjustments at Jared Goff before his headset was cut off with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock. If that sounds less like a brilliant innovation and more like something every team should have already been doing, that’s because it is. That will be the challenge for McVay in 2018. Innovation has a short shelf life in the copycat NFL. The best coaches find new edges on a yearly basis. McVay has set the bar extremely high. 2018 will be about staying above it.         

10. Mike McCarthy

Career Record: 121-70-1 (.633)   

With The Packers Since: 2006

Last Year’s Ranking: 6

Where does Mike McCarthy end and his quarterbacks begin? That’s been the ever-present question at the heart of his 12 years in Green Bay. Twice, McCarthy has found himself without Aaron Rodgers for roughly half the season. He’s gone 8-7-1 and 7-9, making the playoffs in the former. That doesn’t give us much to go on. The reality is, McCarthy can’t be separated from Rodgers and Brett Favre, just as Bill Belichick can’t be separated from Tom Brady and Mike Tomlin from Ben Roethlisberger. The players you have are the players you have. More often than not, McCarthy makes the playoffs with them, winning at least one postseason game three of the past four years. Everyone knows it could be more. McCarthy’s conservatism in the 2014-15 NFC Championship Game cost the Packers a trip to Super Bowl XLIX. His undying loyalty to sub-replacement level defensive coordinator Dom Capers — nine years! — was the most perplexing staffing decision in the NFL. Those mistakes are still not license to ignore what McCarthy has accomplished. He’s won at least 10 games in 8-of-12 years. He’s won the NFC North five of the past seven seasons. McCarthy should probably be more. Someone else could easily be less.

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

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