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NFL's Best Coaches 2018

by Patrick Daugherty
Updated On: February 15, 2019, 5:15 pm ET

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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11. Sean Payton

Career Record: 105-71 (.597)  

With The Saints Since: 2006

Last Year’s Ranking: 11

 

Coming off three straight 7-9 seasons, Sean Payton needed to re-establish order on defense and balance on offense in 2017. In the Saints’ Super Bowl winning campaign of 2009, their 544 pass attempts ranked 15th. From 2010-16, Payton’s offense averaged an astonishing 664 throws, ranking second, second, second, fourth, second, second and second. In and of itself, the aerial obsession wasn’t bad. It’s a passing league, and throwing is more efficient than running. But coupled with persistent personnel issues on defense, it made the Saints too predictable and too prone to shootouts. Unlike Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, you didn’t mind getting into a track meet with the Saints. They were too easily beaten at their own game. With a wildly successful draft calming the defensive side of the ball, the Saints finally got back to their 2009 roots in 2017, finishing 19th in passing attempts (536) while riding Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to 2,070 yards and 4.66 yards per carry on the ground. It wasn’t just balance for the sake of balance, it was effective balance. For the first time in years, Payton kept opposing defenses guessing. With 39-year-old Drew Brees losing arm strength, Payton must remain committed to the formula in 2018. It offers both his best chance at short-term success and establishes what a post-Brees offense might look like.     

 

12. Dan Quinn

Career Record: 29-19 (.604)  

With The Falcons Since: 2015

Last Year’s Ranking: 13

 

What is Dan Quinn’s identity? He should be a Super Bowl winner, but 28-3 happened. A former defensive coordinator, he’s yet to build a bully. On offense, Matt Ryan and company scored 187 fewer points without Kyle Shanahan in 2017, playing an extreme amount of close contests. The Falcons won seven games by a touchdown or less while losing four by a touchdown or less. It resulted in a 10-6 record in the league’s toughest division, and at least one playoff victory for the second time in as many seasons. Quinn deserves credit for something, it’s just not entirely clear what. You could argue he’s simply pushing play on a talented roster, but that’s not as easy as it looks in the NFL. The reality is, we still don’t know what kind of coach Quinn is. His record says he’s 29-19, which serves as a convincing tiebreaker as we await more information.    

 

13. Doug Marrone

Career Record: 26-24 (.520)   

With The Jaguars Since: 2017

Last Year’s Ranking: — —

 

Doug Marrone has made the most of a second chance that wasn’t guaranteed to come after his poor decision to opt out of his Bills contract. With the aid of new executive VP Tom Coughlin and on-the-rise defensive coordinator Todd Wash, Marrone operated a bulldozer in 2017. The Jags’ 2,718 passing yards allowed were the fewest by any team since the 2009 Jets, while their +149 point differential was their best since Coughlin was coach in 1999. Six of Jax's 10 victories were by 20 points or greater. Had 1-2 plays gone differently in the AFC Championship Game, Marrone would have guided the Jags to their first Super Bowl. All of this happened against the backdrop of continued scattershot play from Blake Bortles. In a perfect world, Bortles would be upgraded. In a world with “guaranteed for injury only” option years, Bortles — who is recovering from wrist surgery — was invited back for 2018. That makes Marrone’s task of repeating or building on his breakout more difficult. If he can improve Bortles’ play even slightly, it will not be impossible.      

 

14. Kyle Shanahan

Career Record: 6-10 (.375)  

With The 49ers Since: 2017

Last Year’s Ranking: — —

 

Even in a season where his team got off to a 1-10 start, Kyle Shanahan lived up to the hype. One year removed from coordinating the seventh-highest scoring offense in NFL history, Shanahan foreshadowed more prolific attacks to come once Jimmy Garoppolo was installed under center. The duo didn’t lose a game together, averaging 29 points across a torrid 5-0 finish. Extrapolated over an entire season, that comes out to 461, which would have been second in the NFL. All this in an offense that featured Marquise Goodwin as its No. 1 receiver. As is the case with Sean McVay in Los Angeles, there will probably be growing pains with Shanahan in San Francisco. NFL life is never as charmed as these rookie coaches made it appear in 2017. But Shanahan’s system is tried-and-true. It’s worked in Houston, Washington and Atlanta. It even worked half a year in Cleveland. Shanny’s teams are going to score points. If Shanahan provides the right leadership and GM John Lynch provides the right pieces on defense, Lombardi will be the limit in San Fran.      

 

15. Bill O’Brien

Career Record: 31-33 (.484)  

With The Texans Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: 7

 

Bill O’Brien climbed the 9-7 ladder his first three years on the job. 9-7 No. 1 finished outside the playoffs. 9-7 No. 2 qualified but didn’t get a win. 9-7 No. 3 beat the injured Raiders in the Wild Card round before hanging with the Patriots in the Divisional. This all happened with seven different starting quarterbacks. For 2017, O’Brien got his eighth and best signal caller. Deshaun Watson took the league by storm, appearing to be O’Brien’s missing piece. After he was lost for the season with a Week 9 practice injury, the Texans won only one more game. It was an overdue wake-up call for a team seemingly always on the brink of disaster. To an unusual degree, O’Brien’s (moderate) success has depended on a soft division. That’s not a sustainable formula. The Colts and Titans are under new management. The Jaguars are a quarterback away from being one of the three-best teams in football. O’Brien’s defense, which has mostly carried his offense, has been weakened by injury and free agency. It’s paramount that O’Brien do a better job on his side of the ball. Watson could be the 2018 ticket. If not, O’Brien’s volatile tenure might end with a winter 2019 pink slip.

 

16. Jason Garrett

Career Record: 67-53 (.558)  

With The Cowboys Since: 2010

Last Year’s Ranking: 12

 

While you weren’t looking, Jason Garrett — The Clapper — became the eighth-longest tenured coach in the NFL. Garrett has been on the job for 7.5 seasons in Dallas, finishing below .500 only once. So why does he feel so uninspiring? Having just one playoff win is a good place to start. The larger problem is that it remains unclear where Garrett provides value. He doesn’t call plays. He manages the game poorly. He does seem to have the backing of his players, but that’s not enough of an edge in a league growing increasingly analytical and forward-thinking. The nicest thing you can say is that Garrett has established an identity. The “Keepaway Cowboys” seek to dominate time of possession and avoid mistakes on defense. The formula worked in 2014 and 2016 but revealed its limitations in 2015 and 2017. There’s little room for error when the crux of your strategy is keeping the other team off the field. The Cowboys could win a Super Bowl with Garrett. He’s no better or worse than the average coach. But that’s what he is: The most average of coaches.

 

17. Adam Gase

Career Record: 16-16 (.500)  

With The Dolphins Since: 2016

Last Year’s Ranking: 10

 

A large part of Adam Gase’s reputation is based on making Jay Cutler watchable in 2015. He couldn’t repeat the feat in 2017, wilting the bloom of his 2016 honeymoon rose. Whereas almost everything went right Gase’s first year on the job — a 10-6 team made the playoffs with a -17 point differential — the wheels quickly came off in the second. Ryan Tannehill (re-)tore his ACL in the opening days of training camp, prompting a Cutler reprise that veered between mildly amusing and genuinely dismaying. In between, Gase talked as if he had lost control of his team. He responded by going Full Chip Kelly and Making an Example of Jay Ajayi, stunningly shipping out his lead back at the trade deadline. Ajayi’s punishment ended up being a Super Bowl ring. It was not all bad for the Dolphins. Kenyan Drake stepped up in Ajayi’s absence, making Gase’s trade look like less of a temper tantrum. The Dolphins also hit on all cylinders in a December upset of the Patriots. Just enough good things happened that Gase could re-establish his good name in short order. But he’s at the Kelly crossroads. Will he learn the right lessons from his first two years on the job or compound his mistakes? The answer will define the Dolphins’ immediate future.

 

18. Marvin Lewis

Career Record: 125-112-3 (.527)  

With The Bengals Since: 2003

Last Year’s Ranking: 14

 

After 15 years and zero playoff victories, Marvin Lewis finally appeared to be on his way out the door. Trying to get ahead of the sheriff, Lewis leaked in mid-December that he was ready to “pursue opportunities elsewhere.” Instead of “you can’t fire me, I quit,” the gambit somehow resulted in a new two-year contract, and seeming concessions from owner Mike Brown. That’s Jeff Fishering on a level Fisher himself never achieved. So Lewis is back. It’s been over two years since Lewis’ most recent postseason setback, a defeat that dropped him to 0-7 in January. It’s too simplistic to say Lewis’ playoff losses should be the sole takeaway from his marathon tenure. He rescued the Bengals from infamy. That was more than half the battle for a franchise that went 52-108 (.325) in the ‘90s. The next step was taking them to glory. In that regard, Lewis hasn’t come close. That’s fine. That’s the fate of 99 percent of coaches. Most get fired too quickly. That doesn’t mean anyone should keep their job in perpetuity. Lewis has, and the result is a team that can barely even dream of a playoff victory, let alone a Lombardi.        

 

19. Jay Gruden

Career Record: 28-35-1 (.445)  

With The Redskins Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: 16

 

Jay Gruden has run the mediocre gamut the past three seasons, finishing 9-7, 8-7-1 and 7-9. It has been partly beyond his control, as the Redskins have annually been amongst the league’s most injured teams. Front office feuds have also made for a muddled personnel approach, as well as poison the team’s relationship with would-be franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins. Of course, Gruden himself never seemed too crazy about Cousins, who executed Gruden’s plug-and-play offense to the tune of a 67.0 completion percentage over the past three years. Gruden could still prove to be an above-average coach, but 2018 will be his moment of truth. Will Alex Smith, a slightly more precise, slightly more gun shy version of Cousins be a better fit for Gruden’s system? Can Gruden finally find a running game? Can anyone stay healthy? The first Redskins coach to get a fifth season since Norv Turner in the ‘90s, Gruden has achieved the near-impossible task of gaining owner Daniel Snyder’s trust. 2018 should decide if it’s warranted.    

 

20. Anthony Lynn

Career Record: 9-8 (.529)  

With The Chargers Since: 2017

Last Year’s Ranking: — —

 

Anthony Lynn’s debut was a Chargers season if there ever was one. Sometimes it seemed as if the ghost of Norval Turner rested on one shoulder while Mike McCoy presided over the other. Lynn’s first month was as catastrophic as they come, with the Bolts getting off to an 0-4 start and three of the losses coming by three points or fewer. Missed field goals played a prominent role. It was baptism by powder blue fire. That’s when things went Full Chargers. There has never been an excruciating Chargers losing streak that wasn’t immediately followed by a “maybe they will actually pull this off” winning streak. They nearly did, finishing the season on a 9-3 tear. The problem is, it needed to be 10-2. Like Norval and McCoy before him, Lynn’s Chargers coughed it up when it mattered most, getting hammered by the Chiefs in what was essentially the AFC West title game in Week 15. It made for a bitter end to an ultimately promising campaign. Lynn’s defense allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL (272) and only missed the playoffs by virtue of tiebreaking flukes. The team that did get the No. 6 seed, fellow 9-7 traveler Buffalo, lost 54-24 to the Chargers in Week 11. Again, pure Chargers. With his defense on the rise and the offense well stocked, Lynn has the tools to get over the 9-7 hump.           

 

21. Sean McDermott

Career Record: 9-7 (.563)  

With The Bills Since: 2017

Last Year’s Ranking: — —

 

For his opening act as head coach, Sean McDermott snapped the longest playoff drought in North American sports. Not too shabby, but context is needed. McDermott’s 9-7 squad claimed the AFC’s No. 6 seed with a -57 point differential, the 12th worst in football, and the worst for a playoff team since the 2011 Broncos. McDermott’s offense scored 302 points, the Bills’ fewest since 2010. His defense surrendered 359, a modest 19-point improvement on 2016. The Bills’ “expected win/loss,” which is based on the Pythagorean theorem, was 6-10. This is the long way of saying McDermott got pretty darn lucky. Granted surprisingly sweeping personnel power, McDermott and his hand-picked GM Brandon Beane also made mistakes in the front office. On the heels of an uneven offseason, the duo sold low on Marcell Dareus and bought inexplicably high on Kelvin Benjamin. Oh yeah, McDermott benched his veteran quarterback for a fifth-round rookie who threw five first half interceptions in a 54-24 loss. It was an eventful year, one with an abundance of “learning experiences.” McDermott learned his lessons the hard way. What he takes away from them will define his future as head coach.       

22. Todd Bowles

Career Record: 22-29 (.431)  

With The Jets Since: 2015

Last Year’s Ranking: 25

 

Todd Bowles’ Jets tenure has been the tale of two 5-11s. 2016’s was a bitter disappointment after 2015’s near playoff berth. 2017’s was a pleasant surprise after an offseason roster purge. 2018’s better not happen. Bowles has maintained his reputation as a strong defensive mind and solid leader, but that won’t be enough to carry him through another down year in the nation’s biggest media market, no matter how bad the roster is. With three of the draft’s top 49 picks and enough salary cap space to purchase a Rembrandt, Bowles should have more to work with. Curiously, he will not be supported by OC John Morton, who was let go despite a promising 2017. Apparently, he rubbed too many people the wrong way, including Bowles. Jeremy Bates will be Bowles’ third coordinator in as many years, while whomever replaces Josh McCown will be Bowles’ third quarterback in as many years. It’s the triumvirate of coordinator, quarterback and general manager that will decide Bowles’ fate in the Big Apple.      

 

23. Vance Joseph

Career Record: 5-11 (.313)  

With The Broncos Since: 2017

Last Year’s Ranking: — —

 

Vance Joseph’s first year as head coach was over before it even began. Joseph kept things tight on defense — the Broncos allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards and fourth-fewest rushing yards — but it wasn’t enough to overcome an offense held to below 300 points for only the second time since 1992. With Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch complemented by a heap of replacement-level running backs, the Broncos’ attack never stood a chance. Unless he can revert the Broncos to their 2015 form on defense, Joseph’s fate is up to what GM John Elway can accomplish in the draft and free agency. Joseph has established himself as a fine defensive mind but not yet an elite one. Fair or not, that’s not the kind of résumé that’s going to get you the benefit of the doubt after two dispiriting seasons.         

 

24. Dirk Koetter

Career Record: 14-18 (.438)  

With The Bucs Since: 2016

Last Year’s Ranking: 17

 

Firing Lovie Smith didn’t raise too many eyebrows. Firing Lovie Smith to replace him with his 57-year-old offensive coordinator did. In 2016, the Dirk Koetter ploy looked like it might actually pay off. The Bucs finished on a 6-2 tear, posting a winning record for the first time since 2010. The momentum did not carry over. Koetter’s Bucs were one of 2017’s biggest disappointments, complementing a simplistic defense — hello single-covered Julio Jones — with a mistake-prone offense. A disconnect also developed between Koetter and franchise player Jameis Winston, with NFL Network reporting the duo’s relationship was “not in a good place.” You can’t blame Koetter for growing frustrated with Winston, but it was Winston’s supposed progress under Koetter that got him the job in the first place. If Koetter can’t get his 24-year-old quarterback on track in 2018, the Bucs will almost certainly be looking for their fifth head coach in 10 years since firing Jon Gruden.      

 

25. Hue Jackson

Career Record: 9-39 (.188)

With The Browns Since: 2016

Last Year’s Ranking: 19

 

“I’m pissed at my team” was Hue Jackson’s sign off to his Raiders tenure. Coupled with a craving for more personnel power, those bitter words earned Jackson a pink slip from new GM Reggie McKenzie after only one season. Jackson’s seeming lack of accountability and delusions of grandeur spooked the rest of the league. Previously viewed as a rising star, Jackson — an offensive coach — was forced to settle for “assistant defensive backs” duties with the Bengals. It would take two years for Jackson to get another shot at coordinating and two more for his return to lead status. After two years in Cleveland, it’s clear why he only lasted one in Oakland.  

 

Jackson has not been set up for success. That is not up for debate. That doesn’t make 1-31 any more acceptable. Jackson is not the first coach to inherit a rebuilding team. He is the first to win one game in two years. "I don't think anybody else (could have done) this job," Jackson said after the Browns put a bow on 0-16. “A lot of coaches would've said 'uncle' after last year. .. I think a lot of coaches during this year would have said, 'Forget it.'” Somewhere inside that persecution complex is some accidental truth. Jackson is right that no one else could do what he did in 2017. Given a deeply flawed roster, Jackson ensured it failed to meet even the lowest of expectations. Like, you know, any victories.

 

Jackson let DC Gregg Williams run an antiquated system. On his own side of the ball, Jackson routinely failed to get his best playmakers on the field, treating Duke Johnson and David Njoku as rotational players. This was as he asked rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer to run an offense he had zero chance of success in before casually throwing him under the bus when he failed. For no reason, Jackson defamed one of his team’s best plays of the year, a 59-yard run by Isaiah Crowell, miffing the running back in the process. Last, but certainly not least, Jackson openly clashed with EVP Sashi Brown, and could barely contain his glee when Brown was let go in December. Jackson put on a clinic on how not to lead in 2017. How he kept his job is anyone’s guess. How he keeps it beyond 2018 is an even tougher question.      

 

New Hires (In Alphabetical Order)

 

Jon Gruden, Raiders

Career Record: 95-81 (.540)

 

“You know, the reality is I haven’t changed much at all since 1998,” Jon Gruden, the Raiders’ $100 million man, said at his (re-)introductory press conference. “I am not a deep, philosophical person.” Maybe that’s half-true. Gruden probably didn’t spend his nine-year coaching hiatus reading Nietzsche, but whether he thinks so or not, he is philosophical about football. Famous for a maniacal work ethic and a manic commitment to detail, Gruden didn’t use his time in the broadcast booth as a way to scout steakhouses and experiment with new suit colors. He spent it daydreaming about the sidelines. From his reluctance to criticize players to his exuberance over the minutest of minutiae — hello “turkey hole” — coaching was never far from Gruden’s mind. This manifested itself most obviously in Gruden’s “Fired Football Coaches Association,” a “football think-tank” according to its website but really a way for Gruden to rationalize watching 12 hours of film per day. Gruden never left football behind. The obvious question is if football can say the same for him. In the booth, Gruden sometimes spoke of what he would do differently if he returned. “Never huddle,” for starters (this legend could be apocryphal). That was an exaggeration, but the degree to which Gruden applies the lessons he learned from nine years as a fly on the wall of his favorite sport will determine the success of a comeback that was always inevitable.     

 

Matt Nagy, Bears

Career Record: – –

 

Is Matt Nagy the Bears’ Sean McVay or Doug Pederson? Like McVay, he’s a young offensive mind who rocketed up the coaching ranks. Like Pederson, he’s an Andy Reid protege who has earned a top job despite limited play-calling experience. The Bears just need him to be Matt Nagy. Coming off a 14-34 slog under John Fox after a 13-19 rollercoaster under Marc Trestman, the Bears need a fresh perspective but not a science experiment. Fox was stale. Trestman was avant garde. Nagy is safe. That may not be the first word that comes to mind when asked to describe a 39-year-old with only two years of coordinating experience, but Nagy arrives via the league’s best coaching tree. No one does a better job of preparing their subordinates to lead than Reid. When Reid took the training wheels off in 2017, letting Nagy call plays for the season’s final five games, Nagy did an excellent job, rallying the Chiefs to a 4-1 finish. Nagy could easily fail. Most new head coaches do. But he is the kind of hire you look for when bringing in a new boss.   

 

Matt Patricia, Lions

Career Record: – –

 

Bill Belichick’s sixth Patriots coordinator to land a head-coaching job, Matt Patricia arrives in Detroit with a cerebral reputation. Some of that is the afterglow of coaching under Belichick. A lot of it is the fact that he’s literally a rocket scientist. All of it misses the point. Dealing with a revolving door of personnel, the key to Patricia’s Patriots success was his Belichick-ian commitment to adaptability/versatility. Being “multiple,” in football speak. Although the Super Bowl wouldn’t have you believe it, 2017 was actually one of Patricia’s finest jobs. Despite major issues in both the front seven and back four, the Pats allowed just 296 points. The Patriots are the only team to surrender fewer than 300 points each of the past two seasons. Patricia is taking a major risk leaving the Belichick womb, but he’s chosen his destination wisely. With Matthew Stafford still in his prime and OC Jim Bob Cooter still in a groove, Patricia is set up for success on offense. That will allow him to focus on his strength and the Lions’ weakness, the defense. 36-28 over the past four years, the Lions didn’t need a rocket scientist to turn them around, just a promising head coach. In Patricia, they got both.  

 

Frank Reich, Colts

Career Record: – –

 

Frank Reich wasn’t the Colts’ No. 1 choice to replace Chuck Pagano. He was somewhere beyond the top five. GM Chris Ballard was forced to dig deep after Josh McDaniels’ stunning betrayal. Ballard insists the circuitous process ended with the right man. "I thought about it after I got done interviewing (Reich). I go, 'My Lord, what was I thinking?'” Ballard said of his initial failure to interview the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. What we know is that Reich just spent two seasons as the top assistant to the hottest head coach in football. Like Doug Pederson, Reich is a former backup quarterback who spent some time away from the league before quickly climbing the coaching ladder. It’s been just 12 years since Reich’s first coaching gig, an internship with Tony Dungy in Indy. Affable and self-deprecating in his introductory press conference, Reich sounded like someone who learned from his time in Philly, pledging to run an aggressive, up-tempo offense. It’s possible the Colts have backed into a great hire. So is the reverse. It’s all on the table when you arrive in town as the mystery option. That’s sort of the point.    

 

Pat Shurmur, Giants

Career Record: 10-23 (.303)

 

The optics of hiring Pat Shurmur — a 52-year-old failed former Browns coach — are not great. It must mean the Giants really liked what they heard behind the scenes. In front of the cameras, Shurmur’s colleagues and players stumped for him to get a second chance. Shurmur made the case on the field in 2017, turning Case Keenum into a viable starter while overseeing the continued rise of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. He expertly managed the Vikings’ committee backfield following Dalvin Cook’s season-ending injury. Shurmur previously coaxed career-best play out of Sam Bradford in St. Louis and Minnesota. Shurmur’s apparent quarterback magic gives the Giants hope as they try to revive Eli Manning one final time before finding a young replacement, perhaps with the No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft. Shurmur is a retread. That doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to fail. He wasn’t the right man at the right time in Cleveland. Perhaps he will be in East Rutherford.

 

Mike Vrabel, Titans

Career Record: – –

 

Mike Vrabel has been outside the huddle for only eight years. He spent just one of them coordinating a defense. He’s a daring hire for a Titans organization that spent the first seven seasons of the post-Jeff Fisher era chasing safety with Mike Mularkey, Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Munchak. Vrabel is off to an encouraging start. He’s gone bold on offense, hiring ex-Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan assistant Matt LaFleur to run his attack. Coming from those systems — LaFleur has said Shanahan is his biggest influence — LaFleur isn’t looking for continuity with the “exotic smashmouth.” Thus far stranded in the league’s slowest offense, Marcus Mariota will no longer have to spend half the game handing off the ball and milking the clock. That’s a great thing for the Titans. On defense, Vrabel has gone the opposite route, bringing in football lifer Dean Pees as his top assistant. It’s Vrabel’s tacit acknowledgment he still has plenty to learn. That’s another good thing. Vrabel’s limited experience makes him a risky hire. It also comes with unknown upside. It’s a move the stuck-in-a-rut Titans needed to make.             

 

Steve Wilks, Cardinals

Career Record: – –

 

The second branch to sprout from Ron Rivera’s coaching tree in as many seasons, Steve Wilks heads to Arizona with just one year of coordinating experience. Not that he lacks experience. Wilks has been coaching since 1995, and at the NFL level since 2006. He’s been with Rivera nearly every step of the way. Rivera would be a good man to emulate, but in a promising sign, Wilks has hinted he’s willing to leave behind Rivera’s 4-3 defense. That’s not a comment on the 4-3 vs. 3-4, but Wilks’ apparent flexibility. Instead of coming into his new team and trying to fit square pegs into round holes, Wilks, at least for now, will stick with the system that worked for the Cardinals in 2017. Wilks’ biggest challenges are on the offensive side of the ball. At least as of March, he doesn’t have a quarterback. He’s also inheriting question marks behind Larry Fitzgerald at receiver, and an offensive line that was an unmitigated disaster last season. Mike McCoy was a pedestrian hire at offensive coordinator. Wilks’ situation is one that could go either way in 2018. That’s at least better than a lot of first-time head coaches can say.    

 

Patrick Daugherty

Patrick Daugherty is a senior football writer for Rotoworld. He can be found on Twitter @RotoPat.