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Who should win Coach of the Year in the NFL?

Let’s get this out of the way. Bruce Arians, or an Arians/Pagano ballot, is going to win Coach of the Year. Period. But who should win it?

Coach of the Year is one of the most difficult awards to predict each year. The award often goes to the coach who most outperforms expectations rather than the coach who does the best coaching job, which is how you end up in situations where Dick Jauron and Jim Haslett were named the best coaches in 2001 and 2000, respectively.

There are no standards or guidelines to help voters determine the Coach of the Year, so every voter is left to his own devices. Today, I’m going to run down my rankings of the top 8 coaches of 2012.

8. John Fox, Denver Broncos

Having Peyton Manning makes coaching easy, but Fox still deserves credit for guiding the Broncos to an excellent season. Denver is going to finish the year on an 11-game winning streak and the Broncos are in the top five in points allowed, yards allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, and rushing yards per carry allowed. Fox has helped turn Von Miller into one of the best two defensive players in the NFL and his hiring of Jack Del Rio to coach the defense has worked beautifully. And while Manning is having a phenomenal year, let’s not forget that it was only three months ago that people were questioning his arm strength and the Broncos were 2-3. Many coaches are doing wonderfully with less, but Fox deserves credit for helping lead Denver to the 2 seed in the AFC.

7. Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak

Gary Kubiak wishes COTY voting took place after the end of November.

It was only three weeks ago that the Texans were 11-1 and the class of the NFL. I wrote earlier this season that Kubiak’s done an excellent job resurrecting his coaching career, and much of that remains true. He’s built this team for half a decade, and he oversaw the additions of J.J. Watt and Wade Phillips to the defense to complement Kubiak’s formidable offense. The Texans are likely going to earn the top seed in the A.F.C., an impressive accomplishment considering Matt Schaub isn’t on the same tier of a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Even with a little luster off the team right now, Texans fans could hardly ask for more than home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

So why isn’t Kubiak ranked higher? I’m not sure the Texans are as good as their record and they’ve had a relatively easy schedule. Kubiak’s done an excellent job, but he also hasn’t had to face as much adversity as some other coaches this year. Houston is now one of the most talent-laden rosters in the league, and that makes Kubiak’s success just slightly less impressive.

6. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers

The Packers are 11-4 — they’d have the same record as the Texans if not for the Golden Taint play — despite facing a more difficult schedule than Houston. As is seemingly an annual tradition, the Packers have placed a large number of starters on injured reserve, including right tackle Bryan Bulaga, linebackers Nick Perry, D.J. Smith, and Desmond Bishop, and Cedric Benson (along with two other running backs). Charles Woodson has only played in 7 games, James Starks and Alex Green have been banged up most of the year, and injuries have limited Greg Jennings to just 246 receiving yards this year.

Alex Green is the leading rusher with 464 yards, and he’s plodded to the tune of 3.4 yards per carry, narrowly trailing what Benson (3.5) and Starks (3.6) have produced. An anemic running game, a banged up offensive line, and injuries at receiver and tight end have resulted in Aaron Rodgers having a down season and having taken 46 sacks. Clay Matthews has missed four games and he still has 8.5 more sacks than anyone else on defense.

Yet after all that, the Packers are in line for the #2 seed in the NFC. McCarthy’s team is ranked 7th in both points and points allowed, and Green Bay has responded well in the face of adversity this season. After the painful loss to the Seahawks, would other coaches have been able to keep this team focused? After an emotional loss to the Chuckstrong Colts, you didn’t hear about grumbling in the locker room: instead, Green Bay won five straight games. Since a 38-10 shellacking against the Giants, where they looked lost, the Packers have won four in a row. If McCarthy isn’t a household name, that’s just because he’s the most underrated coach in the NFL. Despite facing numerous setbacks this season, he’s got the Packers right where everyone expected they would be.

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An example of a two-point conversion.

Let’s start with the obvious: your odds of winning when trailing by 15 in the 4th quarter are really, really low. From 1994, the first season the two-point attempt was introduced to the NFL, to 2011, 68 teams have entered the 4th quarter trailing by exactly 15 points. Only one of those teams won.

Over that same period, there have been 81 times when a team scored a 4th-quarter touchdown when trailing by 15 points, cutting the lead to 9 (pending the extra point or two-point conversion). Only 5 of those teams went on to win the game, with the most recent occurrence happening last year when the Dolphins were Tebowed.

So when trailing by 15 in the 4th quarter, even after scoring a touchdown, your odds of winning aren’t very good. But of those 81 teams that scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to cut the lead to 9, only nine of them went for two after the touchdown. While the time remaining could play a part in the decision, the fact is most of the other 72 teams made a strategic error in kicking the extra point when trailing by 9 points.

The last1 coach to recognize that going for two is the correct call? College football’s renegade, Steve Spurrier. In college football, the two-point conversion has been around since 1958, and in general, college football coaches are much more comfortable ‘going for 2’ than their NFL counterparts.2

The Ol' Ball Coach momentary forgets to go for two.

Against the 49ers on Sunday, with 6 minutes left in the final frame, Aaron Rodgers connected with James Jones to cut the lead to 30-21. At that point, attempting a two-point conversion is the obviously correct call, in an attempt to cut the lead to 7. I was disappointed but not surprised that Mike McCarthy decided to go for 1. But what did surprise me was seeing a number of smart people on twitter disagree with me that going for 2 is the right call. So I figured I’d devote a post to explaining why in this situation, it’s a no-brainer to go for two.

The counterargument goes something along the lines of “just take the points, that way it is a one-score game.” Essentially, people are afraid of missing the two-point attempt and trailing by 9 points. But it’s not a one-score game. Trailing by 8 isn’t a one-score game if you are going to fail on your two-point try. And there’s no reason to think your odds of converting a 2-point attempt are higher when trailing by 2 than by 9. Trailing by 8 is a 1.5-possiession game; half the time it is a 1-possession game, and half the time it is a 2-possesion game. To simply put your head in the sand and say “I don’t wanna know!!” may keep hope alive longer but it lowers your odds of winning.

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  1. Technically, the last team to do this was the 2007 Jets. Trailing by 15 points with 3 seconds left, the Jets threw a touchdown as time expired, and then went for and converted a totally meaningless two-point conversion. []
  2. It’s worth noting that the American Football League had the 2-point conversion, and several teams there took advantage of the rule. In a 1965 game against the Oilers, the great Hank Stram recognized the benefit in going for two earlier rather than later. Trailing 35-20 late in the game, Hank Stram had the Chiefs go for two after a Len Dawson touchdown pass to Curtis McClinton. Kansas City converted, cutting the lead to 35-28. On their next drive, Dawson hit Otis Taylor for a 9-yard score, and Stram really upped the ante then. Calling a Pete Beathard run, the Chiefs converted and took a 36-35 lead with just over a minute to go. Unfortunately for Stram, the Chiefs went into an ultra-prevent defense, and allowed the Oilers to drive down and kick a game-winning field goal. []