A couple of weeks ago, NFL.com released a list of head-coaching rankings that seemed to be sorted exclusively by career win totals, with little regard as to any aspect of the job of being a head coach, or as to how a particular coach is performing at the present time. That was enough to stir me out of my summer vacation and come up with my own list, based on who I’d want running my team if I was an owner or GM looking to hire.
I even ranked rookie coaches based on my early impressions of them. That will probably prove to be a terrible idea, but since I was able to rationalize those rankings, I don’t really care. (After all, I’d hire some of the unknowns before some of the knowns, so, why not?)
Tier 1: THA GAWD
1. Bill Belichick, New England
With apologies to Bomani Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates, this seemed like the most accurate description of Bill Belichick. He’s the best gameplanner in NFL history and after a fourth Super Bowl win in six attempts has really left little doubt about his legacy.
Tier 2: Greatness
2. Sean Payton, New Orleans
Payton’s offensive innovations and forward thinking, and recognition of what an asset Drew Brees could be, have spearheaded the Saints’ decade of success. Payton and GM Mickey Loomis have generally done an excellent job of adapting the roster and juggling it to fit the team needs. Given that the push to take the team over the top last year resulted in a 7-9 season, Payton was willing to completely revamp the team’s offensive outlook to stock some talent on defense. We’ll see if it works. Now if only he’d lose the stubborn fourth-down play-calling.
3. Pete Carroll, Seattle
Still remarkable to me that he’s managed to be so successful after two previously failed stops. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I won’t complain if you want to flip Payton and Carroll.
4. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia
5. Bruce Arians, Arizona
It’s remarkable that it took anyone so long to give Arians a head-coaching shot. I don’t know how he works his wonders, but he surely has for an Arizona team that has won double-digit games for consecutive years. Kelly is putting a lot on the line this year by taking personnel control, but like Arians, he’s led a team that had become moribund to consecutive double-digit wins and a playoff appearance. I have Kelly over Arians because I prize innovation, and what Kelly brings not only to offense but to the sports-science side of the game.
6. John Harbaugh, Baltimore
I don’t know much about Harbaugh, but his track record of keeping the Ravens consistently in contention, along with a Super Bowl win, speaks for itself.
Tier 3: Goodness (and Goodness Upside)
7. Bill O’Brien, Houston
It’s hard to overstate how impressed I was by the Texans’ turnaround after the Keystone Kops show the team devolved to in 2013. Without further information, I’m going to have to give the credit to O’Brien, especially considering he did it without anything worthwhile at QB and without the services of the #1 overall pick, or, for that matter, the services of most of the Texans’ 2013-14 draft classes. (He still should have banged the table to move up for Teddy Bridgewater, though.)
8. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota
The Vikings started 4-7 and won three of their last five, with the two losses each coming on the road and by only two points. I give Zimmer major credit for his leadership and his ability to turn around the defense and develop defenders; he gets high marks for what he’s done with Anthony Barr, and I expect him to prove he can develop other Vikings defensive draftees, like Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Scott Crichton, and Danielle Hunter. On offense, he deserves credit for, if nothing else, trusting in Norv Turner and Teddy Bridgewater.
9. Andy Reid, Kansas City
He’s always been a difficult one for me to project. On the one hand, he seems to be one of the few NFL coaches who can consistently give you a baseline of above-average play. On the other hand, he makes obvious in-game mistakes that give away a lot of equity. I’m reluctant to elevate him over Zimmer or O’Brien, because they haven’t proven they don’t get it when it comes to big in-game decisions, clock management, and the like, while Reid clearly has.
10. Dan Quinn, Atlanta
11. Todd Bowles, New York Jets
Quinn and Bowles are, of course, total guesses, but I like the work they’ve done as coordinators (unlike some coordinators who seem to rise to being head coaches simply based on name or tenure) and the things they’ve said about their approaches to team-building. All I can say is that, based on my current information, I’d take a chance on either of them before the guys below, whose records don’t inspire me as much. (I’m looking to win a title, not go 9-7 every year.)
12. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati
Like Andy Reid, only less so. (That is not a fat joke.)
Tier 4: Some goodness, not a detriment overall
13. Rex Ryan, Buffalo
Rex Ryan is what he is. To paraphrase Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart, that means you get a guy who’s really good at defense, who fires up and inspires loyalty in his players, but who also can’t put a working offense together to save his life, and whose teams completely fail to show up 2-4 games a year. What’s that worth? Hard to say. If Ryan could ever figure out that good defense and good offense are not mutually exclusive, maybe he would belong higher.
14. Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis
15. Mike McCoy, San Diego
McCoy I regard positively given his rejuvenation of Philip Rivers and his surprise consecutive winning seasons (including a playoff win!), but unlike with, say, Arians or Kelly, I’m much less certain how much credit he gets compared to Rivers. This is also more or less where I stand with Pagano, given that Andrew Luck guarantees a certain level of play every year. (I have heard he’s gotten more out of the defensive talent than could reasonably be expected, but I’m not sure that’s true.)
16. Mike Pettine, Cleveland
17. Gus Bradley, Jacksonville
I like the things Pettine says, I like that he got seven wins out of Cleveland this year, and I liked the job he did with Buffalo’s defense. The jury’s still out on him in a lot of ways, some of which are caused by the inherent dysfunction in the Browns organization.
Bradley, like Quinn, is another guy I like as being good at what he does and inspiring his team’s confidence in his leadership. That said, he’s going to have to show some improvement from consecutive 4-12 seasons. Jacksonville’s roster is getting better; he needs to get the most out of it.
18. Ron Rivera, Carolina
Rivera backed off the Riverboat Ron approach somewhat in 2014, and since it was his major advantage, he’s back in the middle of the pack. One winning season in four years really isn’t that inspiring (even if one of those losing seasons came with a playoff win).
19. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
In the good, he’s got a significant winning history, including two Super Bowls with the Giants, and seems to maintain a certain floor of play and professionalism. In the bad, he’s 68 years old and the game may be leaving him behind, particularly when it comes to player health and maintenance. (He’s sort of the opposite of Chip Kelly in this regard, which may have something to do with why the Giants lose so many games to injury each year.) Ranks this high on merit, but I’m not sure I’d want him as a new hire at this point.
Tier 5: The Tomlin Line
20. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh
I can’t figure out if Tomlin is a positive or a negative. On the one hand, the team keeps winning under him. On the other, that could be more due to Ben Roethlisberger and the surrounding talent– first the defense, then when the defense started to falter, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and crew. Tomlin often makes baffling in-game decisions regarding clock management, challenges, fourth downs, and the like. I struggle to pinpoint what he does well, but his teams keep winning. And unlike other coaches where I can find much clearer and more frequent examples of their poor in-game tactics costing them wins and equity, I can’t actually say if Tomlin’s bad decisions are enough to make him a net negative. It’s baffling. And that’s why I called the line of whether or not a coach is a detriment to his team “The Tomlin Line.”
Tier 6: Probably a negative overall
21. John Fox, Chicago
Still an upgrade from Marc Trestman, whose total failure of leadership still leaves me scratching my head. That said, Fox is inexcusably poor at in-game tactics, and his unwillingness to play rookies over less-talented veterans is another strike against him. He’s the guy I’d hire if I wanted a pretty good defense and didn’t have ambitions of going better than 7-9.
22. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay
This ranking is entirely credit for developing Aaron Rodgers. I haven’t figured out anything he’s done that provides value aside from that. His in-game cowardice is astonishing, whether it’s being put to use kicking an extra point down two in the fourth quarter of a must-win game, or in turtling up and blowing a lead in the NFC Championship game despite the world’s best quarterback and every other advantage on his side.
23. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis
His offensive philosophy is 40 years behind the times. I’ve written extensively on this site about his scumbag approach to coaching, which seems to involve cheap shots, after-whistle hits, and other unsportsmanlike attempts to bait the opposing team. He’s basically John Fox if you want players who will also beat people up. (Was anyone surprised that the Rams selected this guy in the supplemental draft?)
24. Gary Kubiak, Denver
I agreed with John Elway’s assessment that John Fox would not be the guy to take them over the hump. However, I think Gary Kubiak is even less suited to the job. He’s an even more incredible in-game coward than Fox, and seems to have even less ability to adjust his offensive philosophy or his gameplan to his opponents. If you want a coach who has one offensive plan to drive for a field goal, and no idea what to do when that plan fails, you hire Gary Kubiak. (I have written even more extensively about him on this site than I have Fisher.)
25. Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay
Well, we’ve disproven the idea that he provides stability and a certain floor of play. How in the hell do you manage to make this team worse than it was under Greg Schiano? I don’t think Smith is creative enough to adapt to the talent on hand or to what is necessary in the modern game.
26. Jason Garrett, Dallas
A 12-4 season moves him out of the basement tier– even with all the offensive talent on hand, Garrett still has to put it all together– but he’s also notoriously conservative in-game; Dez Bryant’s should-have-been-a-catch-by-all-logic wouldn’t have mattered if Garrett wasn’t afraid to put the pedal to the metal in earlier situations to actually try to score points.
27. Jim Caldwell, Detroit
A steady hand who provided an improvement over Jim Schwartz, which suggests that almost anyone would provide an improvement over Jim Schwartz. No coincidence that this tier has all three coaches whose cowardice cost their team NFC playoff games in January 2015.
28. Jim Tomsula, San Francisco
It’s not entirely fair to rank him this much lower than the other rookie head coaches, since I know so little about him. This ranking is entirely about how negatively I view San Francisco’s entire offseason process; apparently, Jed York is less interested in winning than in saving money, and Trent Baalke is less interested in winning than he is in having a coach who won’t make waves and doesn’t command any organizational authority. Tomsula has reasonable equity to be horribly in over his head, based on the circumstances of his hiring.
Tier 7: I would have fired them already
29. Jack Del Rio, Oakland
I would have fired Reggie McKenzie for making this hire. The only special thing Del Rio brought as a coach in his time in Jacksonville was an axe. McKenzie has now demonstrated, in two consecutive offseasons, that after clearing out cap space and getting to sign and hire his guys, that he wants to build a team of mediocre retreads. Last year, it was Matt Schaub, LaMarr Woodley, and Justin Tuck. This year, it’s Del Rio. When this fails, I assume Rich Kotite and Tommy Maddox will get the call next.
30. Joe Philbin, Miami
Any head coach who was so clueless about what was going on with his team that he was unaware of the locker-room bullying that went on with the Dolphins is a failure of a leader. (A head coach who manages to avoid responsibility for these things certainly is.) Any head coach who combines that with fearful in-game decision-making demonstrates a lack of both of the major qualities required of a successful head coach. Stephen Ross clearly likes Philbin a lot, given his insistence on keeping him as coach (an insistence which made it difficult for the team to land a GM). If I were running the Dolphins, I’d have fired Philbin and promoted Bill Lazor yesterday.
31. Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee
On a 3-25 streak as head coach. Has a bizarre fetish for late-round QBs with big arms and no pocket presence or accuracy (Zach Mettenberger is Dan Marino compared to some of the QBs Whisenhunt tried to make it work with in Arizona). Two winning seasons out of a seven as a head coach, both of those bolstered by a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
I will say that Whisenhunt has more opportunity than anyone else at the bottom to elevate his ranking: If he can successfully develop Marcus Mariota, he can turn the Titans into winners, and he will deserve credit for that. I’m going to make him prove it before I raise him in my own rankings, though. (And this is as good a time as any to mention that I think Ruston Webster has a strong case to be the worst GM in the NFL.)
32. Jay Gruden, Washington
He’s too stubborn and inflexible to design an offense that suits his very talented quarterback. He publicly undermines said quarterback. He deflects responsibility and assigns blame. Nothing I see in Jay Gruden’s performance suggests head-coaching material. I’m shocked Washington managed to get worse at head coach after dismissing Negligent Mike Shanahan.