Ranking the NFL Head Coaches (Part 1)

ESPN released a ranking of coaches yesterday. I’m going to do rankings in response, but let me explain what I am doing. I’m not doing a list of past accomplishments only. You don’t need me to make that list. Go look at career records and Super Bowl titles and playoff appearances. Put the young guys and the new guys at the bottom because they haven’t done anything yet. Put guys like Coughlin and Shanahan in the top 10, like ESPN did.

No, I am trying to make an honest list of what coaches I would take in order in a coaches draft, if I wanted someone to coach my fictional league average team for the next 3 seasons, provide leadership, give input on personnel, make strategy decisions and game manage, manage personalities in the locker room and in the assistant coaching staff, and oversee the assistants. Is this subjective? Oh yeah, you bet it is. I’m trying to use some history as my guide, but it is certainly subjective. Here is 1-16:

  1. Bill Belichick (age 59). Bill is still the best coach in the game, has turned this roster over at several key positions, and is still producing winning teams year in and year out. He’s aggressive and smart. He can coach my team.
  2. Mike Tomlin (age 39). What’s not to like here? He’s still young, he is controlled, he generally manages a game well, and motivates his players. A star.
  3. Sean Payton (age 48). Sometimes he outsmarts himself, but he can do that because he does so many good things. The end of the first half and start of the second of SB XLIV was a strategic mismatch, and he went aggressively to win. That’s what I want.
  4. Rex Ryan (age 49). He can motivate like few can, and players love him. He can design a defense. He’s worked with a more limited offense and still advanced a team to a championship game.
  5. Mike McCarthy (age 48). He worked through the transition from Favre to Rodgers, and he held the team together through several key injuries this year to win a Super Bowl. He can occasionally make a game management error, but is also one of the best play callers on offense.
  6. John Harbaugh (age 49). He has made the playoffs all three years as a coach, and seems in control at all times. He knows when to let the veterans go and how to manage the young players.
  7. Andy Reid (age 53). Yes, he can make horrible clock management decisions, which is why he’s not higher. But he’s had his team in the playoffs in 9 of 12 seasons (best of any coach with 5+ years) and is one of the best offensive playcallers, handles players pretty well, and does a good job of letting his defensive coordinators do their thing.
  8. Mike Smith (age 52). I was tempted to have him higher, I love Smith as a coach. He’s controlled yet aggressive and seems to have the team on the same page. Detractors will point to his 0-2 playoff record, but he’s got the Schottenheimer effect working. The teams overachieved because of his coaching in the first place.
  9. Jim Harbaugh (age 48). So the top 8 are pretty much the top couple tiers for me, then it becomes more question marks for me. This is the spot for me to take a chance on a rising star who has never coached yet in the NFL but has all the pedigree. I made fun of him being the best coach in the NFL after his contract, but here is where I take him. The college coach thing is way, way overstated. I’ll get into the failure rates of all new coaches, but let’s just say for now that coaches who were NFL coordinators aren’t exactly devoid of Cam Camerons, Marty Morningwhegs, or Rich Kotites. In comparison, massive hits like Jimmy Johnson, Bill Walsh and company more than offset the Steve Spurriers and Nick Sabans. And I don’t think Harbaugh is mailing it in like Spurrier.
  10. Raheem Morris (age 35). Another upside play, Morris is young and in his second season turned the Bucs around. He is charismatic and can motivate his players. I know it seems like I was a “hater” last year because Tampa Bay was overvalued by their easy schedule, but he definitely showed that he could handle the job, make tough decisions, and didn’t exactly make a bad call with Josh Freeman.
  11. Lovie Smith (age 53). Smith gets a lot of heat for someone that is still in prime coaching age and has been reasonably successful. Sure, he can screw up a challenge with the best of them. He also does a pretty good job at managing personalities, let’s his coordinators do their jobs, and is a calm demeanor that handles the locker room.
  12. Ken Whisenhunt (age 49). Whisenhunt’s star diminished in 2010, but he was able to accomplish more than Don Coryell and Dennis Green did while being saddled with the Bidwells as owners.
  13. Jason Garrett (age 45). He did a good job managing the circus in Dallas last year. I still think some of that was regression luck (the Cowboys weren’t as bad as they showed under Wade), but he has a good managerial style and demeanor that projects well as a head coach. Still, his tenure last year suggests he is a safer pick than a random brand new head coach.
  14. Tom Coughlin (age 65).Obviously, he would be much higher based on accomplishments, but I’m grading going forward. He is the oldest coach in the league by five years. Dick Vermeil is the oldest to win a Super Bowl at age 63. Shula and Landry were retiring at this age, their best years behind them. Weeb Ewbank won a Super Bowl at age 61, same as Coughlin, but never got it back. George Halas won a championship at age 68, but was barely over .500 the other 7 seasons past age 65. Coughlin’s a safer bet to be at least good, which is why he is near the middle for me, but age matters, and I can’t put him top 10 because of the late season collapse combined with his age over the next few years.
  15. Todd Haley (age 44). He’s fiery, both a positive and negative. He’s toward the Bill Belichick end of the aggressiveness scale in fourth downs. He also has had three offensive coordinators (including himself) since he was hired. I think he still has some upside if he can control his emotions, but I have him lower than Raheem because of some of that volatility.
  16. Mike Shanahan (age 59). Shanahan has coached for 17 years. He is now 12 years removed from his last Super Bowl, closing in on age 60, and not exactly emerging. He has only won a division 3 times in those 17 years and made the playoffs 7 times, which is roughly league average. He’s a great playcaller, but if he wants control, he can’t have it. He is not good at player evaluation on the defensive end and runs through defensive coordinators like John Daly runs through wives. If you want to be a control freak, it’s fine if you are the best. I’d rather have a younger coach, though, otherwise.
  17. [photo via Getty]

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