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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.

Jeff Fisher cracks a joke with Eddie George before trying to kill him.

Jeff Fisher cracks a joke with Eddie George before trying to kill him.

5. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams

Despite having one of the three toughest schedules in the NFL, St. Louis has played .500 ball this season. According to the SRS the Rams are perfectly average at 0.0, a big jump over where they were in 2011 (-10.4), 2010 (-6.7), and 2009 (-17.4). This is one of the least talented teams in the league; if you don’t believe it based on their SRS scores of the past few years, just know that they’re an underdog almost every week. In fact, St. Louis has only been favored twice this season, losing both games to the Jets and Vikings. That means the Rams have won seven games as underdogs this season, which ties an NFL record going back to at least 1978. No coach is doing more with less than Fisher, and it would have surprised no one if the Rams finished 3-13 with this brutal schedule.

Instead, St. Louis, in the most competitive division in football, is undefeated in division play. The Rams are 3-0-1 in their last four road games. Fisher has this team on the right track, and they should be a playoff contender in 2013. They went toe-to-toe with the 49ers and battled them to a draw for 149 minutes, and then won in minute 150. Fisher traded down multiple times in the first round, and while he missed out on Robert Griffin III, defensive lineman Michael Brockers looks to be the next in a long line of excellent Fisher defensive lineman. Second round pick Janoris Jenkins was your quintessential Fisher character risk player, and he’s panned out well, while ex-Titan William Hayes has provided strong run support in a limited role. The 2012 Rams look like one of Fisher’s old scrappy teams and I’m not sure any coach could have gotten more than 7.5 wins out of this team. I’ve got my qualms with Fisher as an in-game coach — it seems like his weekly goal is to win 9-7 on a 61-yard field goal as the clock hits triple zeroes — but the man can build a football team.

4. Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons

What does it say about Smith that he’s taken a projected 9-win team to a 13- or 14-win season and the best record in the NFL? Not very much, based on how little you hear his name mentioned. Sure, Atlanta isn’t as good as their record and they have faced a relatively easy schedule, but he’s got his team the #1 seed for the second time in three years. Short of a 16-0 season — and maybe not even that — Smith and the Falcons were destined to be victims of their January reputations, and Atlanta won’t earn respect until that changes.

But let’s not let past seasons cloud our review of the job Smith has done this year. He’s not without fault, but he’s done an excellent job transforming Atlanta from one of the NFL’s most run-heavy teams to its most pass-happy offense. That’s never an easy transition, but Smith has shown great flexibility in turning Atlanta into a team based around Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. At this point, Atlanta is simply a bad running team — Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers are both well south of four yards per carry — but that hasn’t stopped the Falcons from securing the best record in football.

The Falcons defense lacks talent, but they managed to intercept Peyton Manning three times in one quarter, shut down RG3, shut out Eli Manning, and pick off Drew Brees five times. Atlanta is undefeated at home and won’t play another true road game all year. Smith doesn’t carry the genius label with him, but he’s able to get the most out of his players and deliver a consistent product every week. That’s 90% of the coaching battle. I’ll also give Smith credit for not letting an embarrassing shutout playoff loss last year drag into 2012. He’s one of the game best coaches.

3. Bruce Arians, Indianapolis Colts

The Pro-Arians case is easy to make, and it’s why he will end up winning the award. The Colts were the worst team in football in 2011 and now are in the playoffs. Q.E.D. This was supposed to be a massive rebuilding year for Indianapolis, as the Colts have a ton of dead money on the books and almost no proven veterans on the team. Arians has done a masterful job of guiding the team after Chuck Pagano had to take a leave of absence to battle leukemia. He’s handled the situation better than could be expected, and his class and loyalty speak volumes about Arians the person. The #Chuckstrong message has been loud and profound, and the Colts have a magic about them evidenced by Andrew Luck’s seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this year.

But while the Colts’ 10-5 record is impressive, that can’t simply be dispositive. For starters, consider that the Vegas line for the Colts was 5.5 wins, so right now they’re 4.5 wins ahead of the game, just like the Denver Broncos will be in a few days. The Falcons are currently 4 wins ahead of their projections, and I’d argue that it’s harder to move from 9 wins to 13 than from 5.5 to 10. But more importantly, there are two reasons why the Colts are much better than last year: Andrew Luck and Regular Luck.

If you think Bruce Arians deserves Coach of the Year, it’s likely due to the huge turnaround the Colts are having. Well, does anyone think Indianapolis is more than a five-win team if Dan Orlovsky or Curtis Painter are still the quarterbacks? Of course not. Indianapolis ranks 22nd in rushing yards and 23yrd in yards per carry; they’re 23rd in net yards per attempt allowed, 30th in rushing yards allowed, and 32nd in rushing yards per carry allowed. This is not a good team in any sense of the word. Football Outsiders ranks Indianapolis as the 32nd best defense in the league. The ground game is based around three running backs with a 3.94 yards per carry average and 5 touchdowns on 324 carries. Take Luck away from this team and the Colts are challenging for the #1 pick again.

Of course, Luck alone isn’t enough; the Colts also needed plain old lower case ‘l’ luck to get to 10 wins. Indianapolis has been outscored by 42 points this year, befitting a 6.4-win team. That’s despite the fact that they’ve played, by far, the easiest schedule in the NFL. According to the SRS, the Colts are the 26th best team in the league. The Colts are an incredible 9-1 in one-score games this year; to the extent that isn’t due to luck, it’s due to Luck.

A vote for Arians is essentially a vote for Dick Jauron 2001, and we know how that looks eleven years later.

2. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

Ask anyone to name the best single-season head coaching performance of the last 15 years, and the most common answer you’ll get is Bill Belichick, 2001. But Jauron, not Belichick, won Coach of the Year that season, telling you exactly how important the award really is.

Truth be told, you could put Belichick number one on your ballot just about every year and be justified. There isn’t a better head coach out there. If you don’t hear “Belichick 2001” it’s probably because you heard “Belichick 2007” or “Belichick 2008.” The 2012 Patriots are 32 points away from becoming the second highest scoring offense of all time. You probably didn’t know that because it isn’t new that New England is again scoring at historic levels.

Consider how incredible Rob Gronkowski is. He’s a game-changing, perhaps league-changing phenomenon of a player, a tight end who is equal parts Jonathan Ogden and Cris Carter. He proved to be an unstoppable force last year. Well, without Gronkowski the last five games, the Patriots have averaged 34.2 points per game. The defense may be light on talent — and you can point the finger at Bill for that — but the Pats rank 17th in points allowed and 2nd in turnovers forced. His bend-but-don’t break style mixed in with a dash of opportunism has worked enough to complement the magnificent offense. The Patriots have the largest points differential in the league. In a new twist, they lead the league in rushing first downs. But they only rank 2nd in the SRS, behind…

1. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks

So I went to grab Harbaugh by the neck and...

Trust me, you're going to love trolling Harbaugh.

My runaway choice for coach of the year. Through 16 weeks, Seattle ranks first in the SRS. Because of a difficult schedule and five losses by a touchdown or less, the Seahawks record is far from beautiful. But to me Carroll is the clear choice for four reasons: this team is built entirely in his image, they are arguably the best team in the league, and they are wildly exceeding expectations, and Carroll is getting the most possible out of the talent he’s working with.

In 2009, the Seahawks had an SRS of -9.3; in Carroll’s first season, 2010, the Seahawks had a near identical -9.4 SRS score. Carroll inherited a mess, but by 2011 the team was league average. Now the team is 12.6 points above average.

In a league where defensive backs are more restricted than ever and shorter, quick slot wide receivers seem to be taking over, Carroll built his secondary around a 6’4 undrafted cornerback and a 6’3 fifth round corner, giving him the two largest, most physical cornerbacks in the NFL. Carroll, himself a former defensive backs coach, has built the best secondary in the league in Seattle, based around Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Brandon Browner. Many questioned whether that would work, but no one can deny the results now.

If Carroll’s approach to acquiring cornerbacks was unconventional, what would you call his quarterback situation? Entering the season, 30 of the 32 teams had a starting quarterback that was either a former first round pick or was playing under a contract that had at least $20 million in guaranteed money. That’s unbelievable. One of the exceptions was Cincinnati, who, with Andy Dalton, an early second-round pick who had played very well as a rookie in 2011, was in fine shape at quarterback. That left just Seattle as a team trying to solve the quarterback puzzle.

Pete Carroll had Matt Flynn, Russell Wilson, and Tarvaris Jackson stage a true quarterback competition in training camp, an idea many thought preposterous. He pronounced short, third-round quarterback Russell Wilson the winner, making Seattle the first team in 50 years to have its main quarterback be five inches shorter than his main cornerback. No matter: Wilson has been lights out this season, making Carroll look like a genius. Wilson is two touchdowns away from breaking Peyton Manning’s rookie record for passing touchdowns in a season.

Carroll, considered by many to just be a college coach, has been extremely successful with one of the youngest teams in the NFL. He has built a dominant defense, a punishing ground game, and an efficient passing attack in Seattle. The Seahawks were supposed to only win 7 games this year, but in year three of the Carroll era, they’re now perhaps the best team in football. This team is quintessentially Carroll: quirky, young, and dominant. I haven’t seen a better coaching job this season.

  • Jim Kelly

    I can’t believe people are still going on about the Monday night game. Two things:

    Golden Tate’s catch was correct. Review the film while reading the NFL rulebook. The replay official wasn’t a replacement, he could’ve overturned it, but didn’t because it was the correct call. (If you want to keep commenting about the game, start with how the officials extended green bay’s only td drive.)

    Second, Green Bay would have a better record if they hadn’t choked against the Colts or Giants. Or does everyone blame those games against the replacement officials?

  • Ajit

    I’d stick with Arians/Pagano for coach of the year. The best coach gets the most out of his team’s talent, however limited, and makes the best in-game adjustments. The Colts are a group of college all-stars with a few NFL vets. The end of the Manning era last season exposed the lack of talent in the team. Colts have Luck, as Pete Carroll has Wilson. To argue against the Colts based on numbers other than W-L record is pointless. To overcome poor play in the fourth quarter and win games is a mark of resilience in players and coaches.

    Meanwhile, Carroll’s first two season records was 7-9 each in one of the worst divisions, in keeping with his NFL career coaching record of about 0.5. Over the last several years, like the Niners, the Hawks benefited from relatively high drafting year after year. It’s a credit to GM Schneider that he’s been able to draft the right players for Carroll to rah-rah with on the sidelines. The final point against Carroll is his away record of 3-5. Without that extra-loud stadium, the Hawks wouldn’t have nearly as good a record. I’/d rank Fisher ahead of Carroll.

    • MGB

      So your criteria for downgrading Carroll is 3-5 away yet you’d give higher to Fisher, who’s 3-7 outside the NFCW?

      • Ajit

        I was contrasting the 3-5 away vs. 6-0 home record of the Hawks to prove a point that a coach in his third year of coaching with a 10-5 record, and supposedly deserving of the best coach of the year recognition, should do better on the road..

        Regarding Fisher, he has inherited a far worse roster than Carroll. In his first year, he’s already got 5 more wins (and a tie) than the previous year, and his team has improved in the second half of the season.

        Carroll may be the next Bellichick, but perhaps we should hold off on that coronation till post-season is over?

        • jeremy brewer

          Strength of schedule, anyone?

        • Man, you lost me at “Fisher has inherited a far worse roster than Carroll”. That proves you have no clue what you are talking about. Do you know how many players pre-Carroll are still in the roster?

    • Richard Vert

      I keep hearing this argument for the Colts based on 4th quarter comebacks. If they are so great why do they need to keep coming back ? Russell Wilson has been regularly resting on the sideline with a huge lead while Flynn goes in and handles mop-up duty in the 4th quarter.

      • Ajit

        Colts are not a “great” team. Overall, they have far less talent than the Seahawks. Still, they have beaten more teams on the road than the Hawks. They have over-archived and played very well in the clutch. When their offense has sputtered, their defense (abysmal last year) has stepped up. The first-year coaches should get credit for that.

        • Willy

          You’re new to football analytics, aren’t you? Either that, or you copied that piece above from a Skip Bayless rant.

          First, define “far less talent”? Reggie Wayne, Andrew Luck, Dwight Freeney, Anthony Costanzo, Robert Mathis, Antoine Bethea, and Cory Redding are all Pro-Bowl/first-round talent. Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, Bruce Irvin, Marshawn Lynch, and Marcus Trufant are the only first-round/Pro-Bowl selected players on the Seahawks now. Or are you just implying that the Colts aren’t able to draft as well/sign free agents as well as the Seahawks? You know coaches have input in that process too, right?

          Why is winning on the road a metric? Their strength of schedule is -3.1, compared to 0.0 as league average, and the Seahawks’ 1.2 SoS. The Colts are 4-4 on the road, with three of the four wins coming against the Titans (in OT), Jacksonville, and the Bills. Meanwhile, 4 of the Seahawks’ road losses have come against Miami (14th ranked defense by DVOA), St. Louis (8th), Arizona (5th), San Fransisco (3rd). So the Seahawks have more losses, but do you really think they’d have the same record if they played the Colts’ opponents on the road instead?

          Define “clutch”. If they were actually a good team, they wouldn’t need to “come from behind” that often.

          Why should the first year coaches get credit for the defense stepping up when the offense sputters when the offense has 4 players with less than 2 years of experience, and the defense has 7 with over 3 years of experience? If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say the defense was playing well in spite of the new coaches, not because of them.

          That said, Chuck Pagano is a fantastic story, and I wish him long, healthy, and fruitful years. They’ll probably win the CotY award, but it won’t be because they were the best coaches in the league.

  • Danish

    I agree – that Seahwaks team is the most exciting in the league by far. Honest question: Have we ever seen a better secondary (2 CB; Sherman, Browner, 2 S; Thomas, Chancellor)? I suspect we’d have to go back to the steel curtain or early Al Davis teams to find better. And those steelers teams even had awesome pass rush – something that is somewhat lacking in Seattle.

    [i]” Having Peyton Manning makes coaching easy, but Fox still deserves credit for guiding the Broncos to an excellent season”[/i]
    Fox also derserves credit for staying the heck out of Mannings (and I guess McCoys) way. Simple admitting that you are not good at everything and letting go of some responsibillity is a very important attribute for a leader and therefor a HC. I mean do we really think Manning would produce better with some offensive genious at HC/OC?

    • Danish

      so I guess I should use – I’ve never understood HTML.

    • Willy

      Agreed. I can’t imagine the Broncos having the same success if Josh Mcdaniels were coaching, etc.

  • Richard Vert

    I’m glad somebody has the sack to go against the grain and recognize Coach Carroll. Many folks just don’t look any deeper than the guy with the funny hair and big smile jumping up and down on the sideline. And when that guy’s beating you, and obviously enjoying it sooo much, well, it’s easy to not like him. I know I didn’t like him when he was beating our Huskies. But he is a great guy and a really great coach. There’s a reason he won 85% of his games at USC, and he’s doing the same thing in Seattle now with the Seahawks. I expect to see that 85% win ratio for the next half dozen years or more. GO SEAHAWKS !!!

    • Ajit

      “There’s a reason he won 85% of his games at USC..”
      I’ll bet Lane Kiffin would have something to say about the state Carroll left the program. As a Stanford football fan, I thank Harbaugh for leaving the Cardinal program in a top-notch shape and thank Carroll for helping the Card own the Trojans for the last several years!

      • Willy

        Yeah, it’s not like they were ranked #1 in the preseason or anything either.

  • hawkfan

    People underestimate Carroll. Not only did he inherit a complete mess of a roster, but he was the one who we gave the organization keys to. He actually hired Schneider, not the other other way around. And he has a say in all of the person ell decisions

    • Richard Vert

      Agreed. Carroll is the Seahawks. He’s doing the same thing he did at USC and will have the same results. Yipee !!!

  • DrG_NYC

    How about Mike Shanahan for Coach of the Year? He’s done a heck of a job with TWO rookie quarterbacks and is coaching the hottest team in the NFC. As for the Redskins record 5-3 on the road is a heck of a lot better than the Seahawks or Rams. When the Skins win on Sunday night, how could you not put Shanahan in the conversation? This, in my opinion, is one of his finest years as a coach.

    • Danish

      I’ not necessarily disagreeing with your overall point, but the hottest team in the NFC is the Seahawks.

    • Willy

      Don’t forget their stud rookie running back.

  • dirtbag

    Carrol by far, great that pagano is in better health, might as well be the D-coordinator, Arians took over with the number 1 pick and won 10 games. Carrol inherited the worst mess in nfl history. His 1st year he got rid of the 75% if the team and had to “trully rebuild”. Omg, the colts who have won 10 plus games for the past decade lose a quarterback and went 14-2 the year before, all of a sudden are horrid. Thats B.S.!!! They still have the same talent. My argument, is very much like college football. Who have you beat??? Seahawks are the only team in the NFL to post an unbeaten record against currently 6-7 playoff teams. No one is bringing that up. Who’s luck beat??? Greenbay, thats it. Got smoked checked back to reality by the Patriots. Colts played a cupcake schedule, Carrol seahawks played the toughest schedule by far, Im not sold on the broncos whos 3 losses came to good teams. Who they beat, the chargers?? Real accomplishment. Say what you want, Carrol and the hawks have beat the “BIG BOYS”!!

  • Wintermute

    Chase, am I wrong or would an article naming the 8 worst coaches in the league be more in keeping with your site’s alternative approach to football?