Is there a harder award to predict in football? It would have been impossible to predict who would win the award this time last year, as eventual winner Bruce Arians wasn’t even a head coach until October. Of course, that doesn’t excuse my terrible selection. As I said last 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: for what it’s worth, Arians saw the biggest increase in winning percentage of any COTY winner. Arians also broke a tenure deadlock: until last season, both 1st and 2nd-year coaches had won the award 15 times, but now first-year head coaches are in the lead having won the award 16 out of 57 times (28%).
For what it’s worth, here’s what I said last year about Chuck Pagano’s odds of winning last year: 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.
So who will win it this year? Don’t ask me, I’m terrible at this. But starting with a look at the first-year head coaches is probably a good idea.
- Bruce Arians, Arizona: Back-to-back COTY awards for two different franchises would be one of the oddest “records” in sports history. But this might not be as crazy as you think. The Cardinals were bad but not hopeless, and adding Carson Palmer could fix the offense. The defense ranked 6th in DVOA last year, and if Palmer can cure the problems that plagued Larry Fitzgerald, there is real potential for a rebound season. Still, I can’t wrap my head around how odd this would be, and it seems likely that the Cardinals finish the year in the NFC West cellar.
- Andy Reid was actually a chic pick this time last year, and there are many reasons for optimism regarding the 2013 Chiefs. A weak division means the Chiefs could sneak in as a wild card, and you’d have to think going from worst to the playoffs would win Reid the award (just like it did Arians last year).
- Chip Kelly brings a lot of hype to Philadelphia, which is a good thing for COTY chances. All great college coaches are polarizing figures, and some folks expect Kelly to crash and burn; but for purposes of winning Coach of the Year, we should be focusing on upside. The Eagles offense line should be much better this year (with Jason Peters, Todd Herremans, and Jason Kelce returning from injury and and #4 overall pick Lane Johnson manning the right side) and the offense could be very exciting under Kelly. Unfortunately, the defense still has many questions to answer especially in the secondary. The NFC East is probably the worst division in the conference, which works in Kelly’s favor, but a brutal conference means that division likely sends just one team to the postseason.
- Like Kelly, Doug Marrone enters the NFL via the college route. Marrone worked under Sean Payton in New Orleans, although EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb aren’t going to make anyone think of Drew Brees. The Bills seem to recycle coaches and defensive schemes every couple of years, and I’m done betting on them to pay off. And, of course, Buffalo has that really unfair schedule to deal with.
- Mike McCoy is now the head coach in San Diego, but don’t expect the former Broncos offensive coordinator to magically solve the Chargers’ offensive woes. San Diego had a good draft, adding D.J. Fluker, Manti Te’o, and Keenan Allen in the first three rounds, and that makes the Chargers and McCoy an interesting under-the-radar pick. But if I had to go with an AFC West coach, I’d pick Reid.
- Gus Bradley won’t have to deal with high expectations in Jacksonville. Last year, I didn’t consider the Colts because they looked to be in phase one of a complete rebuild. Well, that’s how the Jaguars appear, except they don’t have a franchise quarterback. Regardless, they could resurrect Vince Lombardi and it wouldn’t matter: I’m not picking the Jacksonville head coach to win COTY again.
- Marc Trestman is in the unique position of taking over a team that had ten wins last year, so there’s not a whole lot of upside. Getting the Bears to the playoffs will help, but I don’t see many reasons to think he’s a good COTY candidate.
- Rob Chudzinkski takes over a bad Browns team, and the AFC North is more ripe for the taking than in recent years. But as in Buffalo, caution is the best course of action when it comes to Cleveland. It seems like every couple of years we expect this to be the year the Browns turn things around, and well, I’ll hold off on expecting that to happen in 2013.
Then again, if you watched either Reid or the Chiefs last year, the idea of either of them being in the playoffs in 2013 seems kind of crazy.
Of course, it’s not like first-year coaches are the only ones eligible for the award. Last year’s rookie head coaches had only moderate success, so any of Dennis Allen, Jeff Fisher, Pagano, Joe Philbin, or Greg Schiano could be a legit candidate with a 10-win season. Fisher is the lead horse in that race, but he has to contend with the two superpowers of the NFL. Perhaps Philbin can capitalize on the Patriots struggles (reminder: still time to enter the contest where users project Tom Brady‘s stats this season). And, of course, that maybe just gives Bill Belichick a leg up on the race this year.
Part of me wants to pick either Reid or Kelly, and think a playoff season by either the Chiefs or Eagles probably gets them the award. But there’s another “new” head coach this season, and I like his odds even better. That’s Sean Payton, who returns to coach the Saints after his one-year suspension. In many ways, predicting who will win COTY is an exercise in predicting sportswriter behavior. And I have to think some sportswriters would enjoy “sticking it” to Roger Goodell and selecting Payton in his first year back.
Rob Ryan is now in charge of a defense that ranked last in yards allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards allowed, rushing yards per carry allowed, first downs allowed, Expected Points Added, and defensive DVOA. The 2012 Saints also ranked 31st in points allowed. Ryan himself won’t fix that, but first round pick Kenny Vaccaro should begin to help the problem secondary.
But the real reason for optimism is the always explosive Saints offense. Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, and Darren Sproles are three of the more unique players in the NFL, and help give the Saints an outstanding passing offense. Of course, New Orleans passing attack was great before either Graham or Sproles arrived, as the Brees/Payton engine (with a dash of Marques Colston and Lance Moore) is at times unstoppable. The NFC South is now a loaded division: the Falcons were already great, Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson arrive to fix Tampa Bay’s biggest weakness, and the Panthers are better than their record.
Predicting who will win AP Coach of the Year is a fool’s errand, but I’m willing to put my chips on Brees and Payton leading the Saints to the playoffs in a “bounceback” year. The real question is whether that will be enough to convince the voters to select Payton.
Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
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, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams