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Sean McVay
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Goal Line Stand

NFL's Best Coaches 2019

by Patrick Daugherty

If change is the NFL’s only constant, it has been particularly pronounced of late. As the league lurches into its age of enlightenment, sidelines are no longer the private reserve of learned “football men.” The good old boy network remains firmly entrenched, but it is scouring different areas as it searches for new head coaches. Young is in. Offensive auteurs are in. Data is in. Sean McVay is in.

Amidst this upheaval, some old war horses stand strong (Bill Belichick, Andy Reid). Others fight against the dying of the light (Pete Carroll, Mike Zimmer). Most perish. Whatever the changing qualifications may be, a coach’s success remains context dependent. As I say every year, 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 find themselves right now. How they got here and where they might be going. Last year’s list can be found here. 2017’s is here.       

 

1. Bill Belichick
Career Record: 261-123 (.680)  
With The Patriots Since: 2000
Last Year’s Ranking: 1

2018 was the Patriots’ worst regular season since 2009. They went 11-5. The last time Bill Belichick’s team notched fewer than 10 wins was 2002. They have averaged 13 victories since 2003. As head coach of the New England Patriots, Belichick has won 11.3 percent of the Super Bowls ever played. The last three times he lost a playoff game, he hoisted a Lombardi the following year. Belichick’s death star has no design flaws. There are only strengths to be improved upon. On the rare occasions Belichick loses control, order is immediately restored. Seth Wickersham exposed some nasty behind-the-scenes dysfunction in January 2018. Belichick’s response? Make the Super Bowl twice in the next 13 months. Challengers come and go. Occasionally, a Nick Foles or David Tyree pulls a fast one. More typical is what happened to Andy Reid and Sean McVay’s “future of football” in the postseason. Reid and McVay really are moving the game forward, but it’s to a place Belichick has already been. He is the sport’s all-seeing eye. Only he will decide when to close it.        

 

2. Andy Reid
Career Record: 195-124-1 (.611)  
With The Chiefs Since: 2013
Last Year’s Ranking: 3

Online and on the talk shows, Andy Reid is defined by what he’s not: A Super Bowl winner. In between the lines, he is one of the greatest coaches ever. His 195 wins are eighth most all time, while his .611 winning percentage is seventh amongst the top 10. He has won a staggering 67.7 percent of his games in Kansas City, never once posting a losing season. After five years of grinding out those victories with Alex Smith, he went intergalactic with Patrick Mahomes in 2018, coaching an offense that scored 565 points, the third most in NFL history. That he did not win the conference was due in large part to a literal coin flip. Of course, since-fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton also had something to do with it. Reid’s allegiance to his overwhelmed defensive boss certainly cost him Ws, and quite possibly a world championship. The same is true of his ever-tedious game management. Reid’s flaws have never been a secret. They also shouldn’t obscure his formidable strengths. Reid may never win the big one, but his Mahomes masterstroke has him closer than ever.     

 

3. Sean McVay
Career Record: 24-8 (.750)  
With The Rams Since: 2017
Last Year’s Ranking: 9

Sean McVay had one of the greatest debuts ever. He then improved upon it in every way for his second season. McVay spiked his wins from 11 to 13 and points from 478 to 527. His team went 6-2 on the road, which does not include an NFC Championship Game victory in New Orleans. Amongst the men he bested were Pete Carroll, Andy Reid and Sean Payton. One who got the better of him? Bill Belichick. The best new coach went up against the best ever coach in the Super Bowl and had his lunch handed to him. Belichick forced the Rams’ big-play, play-action offense to go station to station, and McVay had no answer. Belichick also made one of the most important adjustments you can make against McVay, resetting his defense after the 15-second mark on the play clock. That’s the time at which McVay can no longer bark in audibles to Jared Goff. Belichick, along with his disciple Matt Patricia in Week 13, showed the league how to slow boy wonder down. It means McVay will have even more adjusting to do from Year 2 to 3 than Year 1 to 2. Through two seasons, there is every reason to believe he will be up to the challenge.    

 

4. Doug Pederson
Career Record: 29-19 (.604)  
With The Eagles Since: 2016
Last Year’s Ranking: 5

Rightfully feted after slaying Bill Belichick in Super Bowl LII, Doug Pederson spent much of 2018 on tilt after the Eagles got off to 4-6 start. “You guys aren't in there watching the tape like we are for 18 hours a day,” Pederson told the media after it had the audacity to question him following a devastating Week 7 loss. "Come down and stand on the sideline with me and make decisions … Then, I guess you can ask all you want." It was an old school tirade from the most new school of coaches. The Eagles’ rough start combined with Pederson’s former top lieutenant, Frank Reich, having a brilliant season in Indianapolis made for talk that perhaps 2017 was Pederson’s grand outlier. Then he rallied the Eagles to a 5-1 finish, squeaked into the playoffs and won a hard-fought Wild Card game against the Bears before narrowly succumbing to the Saints in the Superdome. 2017 will almost certainly go down as Pederson’s best season, but it is 2018 that cemented him as an elite coach. Whether it’s a No. 1 seed-type of year or No. 6-seed type of year, Pederson and his analytical approach have proven they can win any type of football game.      

 

5. Pete Carroll
Career Record: 122-85-1 (.589)  
With The Seahawks Since: 2010
Last Year’s Ranking: 2

Pete Carroll is still one hell of a football coach. He could be even better if he would get out of his own way on offense. In an era of technological warfare at quarterback, Carroll has an unused warhead in Russell Wilson. Wilson’s 427 pass attempts last season were his fewest since 2013. He was called on to throw less often than Mitchell Trubisky and Case Keenum, amongst 17 others. The Seahawks ran a whopping 59 percent of the time on early downs. This is despite the fact that Wilson is a transcendent early-down passer, as well as one of the best deep passers of his generation. When Wilson did cut it loose, he posted a perfect passer rating targeting Tyler Lockett. That’s genuinely insane. Carroll’s non-proliferation agreement through the air is costing his team points. It also plainly cost them their Wild Card contest against the Cowboys. Seattle was only in the playoffs because of Carroll’s masterful job on defense. He lost Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas (to injury) and Michael Bennett for 2018 and still fielded one of the league’s best units. Professional or otherwise, Carroll is one of the most brilliant coaches to ever grace a sideline. It’s too bad he’s diminishing his odds of achieving further championship glory by keeping a governor on his offense.      

 

6. Sean Payton
Career Record: 118-74 (.615)  
With The Saints Since: 2006
Last Year’s Ranking: 11

Has Sean Payton accomplished enough with Drew Brees? You could easily argue “no.” Even with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger all residing in the AFC, Payton has been to only one Super Bowl. He’s reached the NFC Championship Game three times in 12 years. From 2014-16, Payton’s team bowled a Jeff Fisher turkey, going 7-9 each time out. You could dock Payton or simply decide that these things happen in a cutthroat league with 32 teams. I have sometimes done the former. This time I’ll opt for the latter, acknowledging a coach who has won 11 or more games six times in 12 seasons and was one bad call away from heading back to the big game this winter. Even more than Bill Belichick, Payton is inextricably linked with his quarterback. Who knows what 12 years of Sean Payton football would look like uncoupled from Brees. In the world we live in, Payton has taken his Hall-of-Fame quarterback and won 62 percent of the time. Sure, there could be more hardware. As Don Shula and Dan Marino would tell you, there could also always be less.     

 

7. Mike Tomlin
Career Record: 125-66-1 (.654)  
With The Steelers Since: 2007
Last Year’s Ranking: 4

Is any coach more difficult to evaluate than Mike Tomlin? His career .654 winning percentage is an even more impressive .675 over the past five years, but he has just three playoff wins to show for it. Tomlin coordinates neither his defense nor offense, making him a CEO-style “leader” coach. So why is drama so ever present? If it’s not Ben Roethlisberger being passive aggressive in a radio interview, it’s Antonio Brown blowing off meetings. A February ESPN article painted a picture of a coach who not only plays favorites but basically lets them do whatever they want. Stars will always be given more leeway, but Tomlin has struggled to find the appropriate equilibrium. On the field, his team is notorious for playing up and down to its competition. With the season on the line last December, Tomlin oversaw a loss to pathetic Oakland before beating eventual Super Bowl-champion New England the following week. Tomlin offers a yearly Super Bowl ceiling. He will only reach it if he stops making mistakes on the ground floor.

 

8. John Harbaugh
Career Record: 104-72 (.591)  
With The Ravens Since: 2008
Last Year’s Ranking: 6

John Harbaugh has tallied just one postseason victory in six years since triumphing in Super Bowl XLVII, missing the tournament altogether four times. The temperature has been steadily rising, warming up Harbaugh’s seat down the stretch in 2018 before Lamar Jackson changed the climate. Although moving on from Joe Flacco was a necessary first step toward a new era in Baltimore, there is no guarantee installing Jackson under center will be the second. As a rookie, Jackson failed to put the dual in dual threat, leaving new OC Greg Roman to say the offense must be rebuilt from ground up. Harbaugh’s Ravens future is staked on Jackson’s success, and the man deciding his fate will not be longtime partner-in-crime Ozzie Newsome, but new GM Eric DeCosta. DeCosta is a Ravens lifer, as well, but it stands to reason he will want to put his own imprint on the sideline if Harbaugh once again fails to notch a January victory.       

 

9. Mike Zimmer
Career Record: 47-32-1 (.594)  
With The Vikings Since: 2014
Last Year’s Ranking: 8

Mike Zimmer finally got a quarterback. He then promptly missed the playoffs. The Vikings were a curious 2018 tale. Despite turning Case Keenum into Kirk Cousins, they scored 22 fewer points than in 2017. That, coupled with allowing 89 more on defense dropped a 13-3 club to 8-7-1. Zimmer’s squad dominated non-playoff teams to the tune of 7-1-1 but were helpless against those who made the tournament, going 1-6. They were the definition of average. Part of Zimmer’s diagnosis was that he strayed too far from his roots. Desperate and disgusted, he pink slipped pass-happy OC John DeFilippo on December 11. Following the firing were wins over the hapless Dolphins and Lions before a season-ending suffocation against the Bears. Even with those inconclusive results, Zimmer removed fill-in OC Kevin Stefanski’s interim tag, making his 2019 intentions clear. More runs, fewer missed blocks, more big plays on defense. He is doubling down on Zimmer Ball as the rest of the league loads up on “Next McVays.” One of the NFL’s most focused, disciplined coaches, Zimmer’s track record suggests 2019 will not be another season of poor game plans and botched execution.         

 

10. Ron Rivera
Career Record: 71-56-1 (.559)
With The Panthers Since: 2011
Last Year’s Ranking: 7

12-4 is never far away in Carolina. Neither is 7-9. This has been life under Ron Rivera, whose one-year famines are typically followed by 11-12 win feasts. Rivera, for his part, adjusts, but the changes can be a year or two slow. Rivera himself acknowledged this after 2018, admitting he allowed things to spiral out of control after the Panthers followed up a 6-2 start with a seven-game losing streak. Rivera’s eventual correction — taking over defensive play-calling duties — was a hit, but the season was already in the gutter. Rivera has promised a campaign of change in 2019. Most notably, he is abandoning his trademark 4-3 front in favor of a more hybrid approach. He does not want to get caught flat-footed the way he did during last year’s meltdown. That, coupled with what should be improved health from Cam Newton will likely have Rivera’s Panthers back on the up and up. The trick will be avoiding the 2020 comedown.     

 

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