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
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.
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…
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.
1. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
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.