I don’t know why, but coach of the year is one of those awards that kind of fascinates me. That’s probably because its one of those few awards that in practice, bears little resemblance its name. There was a stretch from ’95 to ’01 — when Bill Parcells, Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren, Tony Dungy, and Bill Cowher were roaming the sidelines — that the award went to Ray Rhodes, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett and Dick Jauron. Coach of the Year sounds like Most Valuable Player but is more often treated like Comeback Player of the Year or Surprise of the Year. Predicting in the pre-season which coach will ultimately win the award is so difficult that Vegas doesn’t even offer odds on the event. For reference, below is a look at every coach to ever be selected by the Associated Press as NFL Head Coach of the Year:
Since the merger, the award has gone to a coach in his first three years with a team over 80% of the time. Over the last 23 years1, 60% of the winners have been first- or second-year coaches with respect to that team. Of the 9 winners since 1989 that were not in their first or second year with the franchise, seven of them won at least 12 games and won at least four more games than they had in the prior year. The eighth, Andy Reid in 2002, received somewhat of a three-year achievement award: he took his team from 5-11 his first year to 11-5, 11-5 and then 12-4 in 2002. But he lost out in ’00 to Haslett (who had vaulted his team from 3-13 to 10-6 in his first year) and in ’01 to Jauron (who took the Bears from 5-11 to 13-3); by ’02, his 12-4 mark was ready to be rewarded with no other coach making Haslett- or Jauron-like improvements. The ninth coach to win without being new to the team was Marvin Lewis in 2009. While his Bengals didn’t win 12 games, he took them from 4-11-1 to a division title in the competitive AFC North.
Over the last 15 years, 10 of the AP Coaches of the Year guided their teams to at least 6 additional wins compared to the prior year; three of the remaining five won at least 14 games. The other two were Reid in ’02 and Jim Fassell in ’97, a first year coach who performed a “worst” to “first”, as the Giants went from 5th place in the NFC East in ’96 to division champs in ’97.
So who will win it in 2012? I’d rule out the coaches of the top teams in the league, although McCarthy could get himself a “three-year achievement” award after arguably being snubbed in both ’10 and ’11. More likely, the award will go to a team that picks up five or more wins than it did in 2011, with bonus points coming if that head coach is new.
There are seven first year coaches in 2012: Dennis Allen in Oakland, Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville, Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis, Joe Philbin in Miami, Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay and Joe Vitt in New Orleans. For lots of reasons, including the fact that he will be suspended for the first six games of the season, I don’t think Vitt could do anything in New Orleans to earn himself coach of the year honors. As for the other six:
- Fisher would have to be considered a favorite among this group. After a long tenure in Tennessee, Fisher is somewhat of a media darling and is likely to significantly boost the Rams’ win total in 2012. Unfortunately, a large improvement generally isn’t enough: the team usually needs to actually be good, and short of at least a nine-win season, another coach is likely to instead catch the media’s fancy. Since Jimmy Johnson in 1990, each winner coached a team with double digit victories.
- Schiano is an interesting choice. To show you just how silly the Coach of the Year Award really is, Raheem Morris was the runner up to Belichick in 2010. Tampa Bay was a disaster last year, and phoned the second half of the season in. I think his style is the perfect substitution for Morris, and expect the Bucs to be improved in 2012. Still, in an extremely competitive NFC South, I’d be surprised if Tampa Bay won enough games to merit Schiano consideration. Of course, that’s exactly why predicting this award can be so difficult, as it’s strongly tied to which coach can shock everyone based on pre-season projections.
- Pagano is an interesting case. He’s taking over the nominal worst team in the league, and the Colts appear to be in complete rebuilding mode. Indianapolis voluntarily put itself in 2012 cap hell to give the team maximum flexibility for 2013 and beyond. But even if the team unexpectedly wins 8 games, much of the credit will likely go to Andrew Luck, not Chuck Pagano.
- I’m not sure what to think about Dennis Allen in Oakland. He knows the division and did a tremendous job as the defensive coordinator in Denver last year. But Oakland went 8-8 and figures to have an uphill battle to do much better in 2012.
- Joe Philbin is an intriguing darkhorse candidate. The Dolphins actually outscored their opponents last season, but lost several close games. It wouldn’t take more than a few breaks for a team like that to challenge for 10 wins. Miami had a good defense last year and hired Philbin from Green Bay to fix the offense. The team appears to lack weapons at wide receiver, but that’s where Philbin can — at least in theory — really add value. There’s enough talent on defense, led by Cameron Wake and Karlos Dansby, to make Miami a playoff contender if Lady Luck shines on them.
- But Mularkey is in an even better situation. You wouldn’t have known it, but the Jaguars had one of the better defenses in the league last year. Assuming there’s no pro-longed holdout by Maurice Jones-Drew, the glaring issue for Jacksonville is the passing game. But with Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon in town, it’s conceivable that Blaine Gabbert makes strides in his second year (or that Chad Henne gets the offense going). He only needs to be Alex Smith-like to make Jacksonville a poor man’s version of the 2011 49ers. So why Mularkey over Philbin? According to Vegas, Miami is projected at 7.5 wins, compared to just 5.5 for Jacksonville. Expectations are low in Jacksonville, which will make any success achieved by Mularkey look even more impressive.
We can also look at the second-year head coaches, as they are presumably just as likely to produce a COTY candidate as first-year coaches:
- Romeo Crennel is technically in his second year with the Chiefs, as he was interim head coach for the last three games of the 2011 season. But he’s not primed for this award: for starters, Kansas City won 7 games last season, making it difficult for him to make any large “leap” in 2012. At best, the Chiefs look like the third best team in the division, and the schedule looks imposing. I don’t see anything to get excited about here.
- Jim Harbaugh won 13 games last year and Coach of the Year honors. It would probably take a 14 win season and a lack of other good candidates for him to repeat. Joe Gibbs and Allie Sherman are the only coaches to ever win the award in consecutive seasons.
- Mike Munchak had a solid first season in Tennessee, which puts him behind the 8-ball for 2012. The Titans won 9 games last year and Vegas has them at 7 wins this year. Even if Tennessee overachieves, they won’t appear to have made much strides off a solid but vanilla 2011 campaign. In 2008, the Titans wildly exceeded expectations by starting the season 10-0 and finishing 13-3. But the Titans had overachieved in getting to 10 wins the prior season, and Atlanta’s Mike Smith and his seven-game turnaround won the award, instead.
- Pat Shurmur is an intriguing candidate in Cleveland. With a new quarterback and a new running back, Cleveland is poised to make a leap this season. The Browns also added wide receiver Josh Gordon in the NFL’s Supplemental Draft last week. But in a division with three playoff teams from a year ago, how good can Cleveland get? Like Schiano in Tampa Bay, it would take a Herculean effort to get this team a Wild Card berth. Short of that, I don’t think he’ll have enough juice to get the award.
- No doubt the best candidate in the second-year group is Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. The Panthers went 6-10 last year, but had a top five offense, which we know is more important predictive element on the team. The Saints could take a step back, which would enable Carolina, Atlanta, and perhaps Tampa Bay to challenge for the NFC South. Carolina drafted Luke Kuechly, and could have an excellent linebacker corps if Thomas Davis and Jon Beason could ever stay healthy. Rivera is an intriguing candidate, since it’s easy to envision him being able to play the “6-10 to playoffs” card.
In addition to the first and second year coaches, Vegas projects Leslie Frazier’s Vikings, Mike Shanahan’s Redskins, Ken Whisenhunt’s Cardinals, Chan Gailey’s Bills, Pete Carroll’s Seahawks, and Marvin Lewis’ Bengals for fewer than 8 wins. With the possible exceptions of Carroll and perhaps Gailey, it’s hard to get behind any of those coaches are strong COTY candidates this season.
Picking the 2012 Coach of the Year before the season starts is a fool’s errand. You’d be crazy not to take “The Field” over any one coach even at -1000.2 That said, if forced to choose, you have to think about upside, and there is simply more room for improvement when taking a coach on a bad team. Putting forth the realistic best case scenarios for each team, which coach has a good chance of getting the award? In that case, my top five candidates for Coach of the Year would be:
- (1) Mularkey – he gets an underrated Jaguars team to a Wild Card with a little luck
- (2) Fisher – the media salivates over his plucky, gritty, admirable 8-8 campaign.
- (3) McCarthy – finally rewarded after the Packers get another first round bye
- (4) Rivera – the Panthers win the division, but Rivera suffers since no media member can pick him out of a lineup
- (5) Philbin – he uses Hard Knocks as a platform for an inspiring 9-7 season
Mularkey doesn’t bring much juice, as he failed in Buffalo and didn’t exactly wow the fanbase in Atlanta. But Dan Reeves won Coach of the Year honors as a retread in New York and later Atlanta, despite first falling out of favor in Denver. Marty Schottenheimer won the award in San Diego, while coaching his fourth franchise. And let’s not forget, Bill Belichick was once a retread, too. It’s crazy to suggest Mularkey will be named the 2012 Coach of the Year by the Associated Press, but no less crazy than suggesting anyone else. Make your choice for AP Coach of the Year in comments.
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AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams