Every offseason the head coach carousel starts again with many franchises looking for a new captain to steer them towards a Lombardi trophy. The stakes are high with an incredible rate of turnover: this year, eight new head coaches were appointed and next season there will be a new crop of hopefuls who will believe they have what it takes to deliver the silverware craved by every NFL team’s fan base.
Ranking the top 10 coaches in the league is no easy task and inevitably those at the top of the profession tend to be those who have been in it the longest. Tenure indicates success.
However, when ranking these coaches I’ve tried to also consider who would I want prowling the sidelines for my franchise if I was going into a vital postseason clash. That means some coaches who have been in their roles only a couple of years have seen a bit of a boost due to their success in an admittedly small sample size.
No surprise here. The Hoodie is the gold standard of head coaching not just in the NFL but across all other American sports. The sustained success Belichick has maintained in the salary cap era is unparalleled, making him not just the top coach in the modern NFL, but in the conversation for the top NFL coach of all time.
Belichick is able to take cast-offs and draft picks who have flown under the radar to create an unstoppable football force. His Patriots teams are constantly shape shifting and adapting in order to take away the strengths of the opposition and to make the most of the personnel in the roster.
Since 2012, Belichick and the Pats have only failed to reach the Super Bowl on three occasions, a feat other franchises can only dream about.
One of the few marks against Belichick is the lack of success members of his coaching tree have had when striking out on their own in the league, though recent graduates from the Foxboro Factory, Matt Patricia and Brian Flores will seek to buck that trend. Nonetheless that perhaps strengthens Belichick’s position at the top of the pantheon of football leaders: try as they might, other coaches cannot replicate the success of the Patriot Way outside of New England.
After three years of 7-9 records from 2014-2016, Payton has become widely recognised as one of the most esteemed coaches in the league, regaining the regard he was held in after leading the Saints to victory in Super Bowl XLIV. The past two seasons, New Orleans’ offensive juggernaut has been prevented from advancing further in the postseason due to two heartbreaking plays: the Minneapolis Miracle in the 2017/18 season and a missed pass interference call against the Rams last year.
Payton gets the nod ahead of Andy Reid by fault of his postseason record (8-6 for Payton versus 12-14 for Reid) and I would trust him more than the Kansas City man to lead my franchise to Super Bowl victory. Indeed, it’s not difficult to conceive of the Saints as potential champions in either of the last two years had things gone differently.
The offensive innovation Payton has demonstrated in the Big Easy has helped maintain a now 40-year-old quarterback as a perennial league MVP candidate, and that extends to ‘gadget’ quarterback Taysom Hill who is a multifaceted weapon in the Saints offence (as well as a potential successor to Brees). Could this season be the year Payton returns the Saints to the Super Bowl, which coincidentally will be back in Florida, the site of New Orleans’ most recent Lombardi triumph?
Reid has what Belichick and Payton lack: an extensive coaching tree with former assistants who have gone onto further success in the league. Super Bowl winners Doug Pederson and John Harbaugh worked under the former Eagles head coach, whilst young up-and-comers Matt Nagy and Sean McDermott, as well as current Panthers head man Ron Rivera, served their apprenticeship under Reid.
Reid sits behind only Belichick in wins amongst current head coaches, and hasn’t yet recorded a losing season in Kansas City since being appointed Chiefs head coach in 2013. The ex-Packers quarterback coach has also only missed the playoffs in six seasons out of 20 years as a head coach. That is impressive. Indeed, this year Reid will be hoping to take the Chiefs one step further than last years AFC Championship Game defeat against the Patriots.
That is probably, though, the main mark against Reid. In all those winning seasons, he’s only managed to take a team to the Super Bowl once, with Philadelphia in the 2004 season.
Reid’s reputation is on the rise again though given his stellar work with quarterback Patrick Mahomes, helping guide the former Texas Tech Red Raider to the league MVP in only his first year as a full time starter in Missouri. Like Belichick, he’s taken a number of under-the-radar prospects, but on the offensive side of the ball, to turn them into a daunting opponent.
As a former special teams coach, Harbaugh isn’t the head coach calling the plays for either unit on the sideline. Yet it speaks to his talent as a leader of his franchise that despite the inevitable turnover of coordinators that occurs during a decade in charge, the Ravens remain one of the toughest matchups on a team’s regular season schedule. It’s often said that head coaches need to be CEOs of their roster, which means those intangible qualities of a coach such as the ability to inspire and lead a locker room, are so important, yet so elusive.
The former Eagles coach stands as an example for prospective employers that hot-shot coordinators don’t always guarantee success.
Harbaugh’s star may have waned in previous years with the Ravens only making the playoffs twice since their Super Bowl victory in the 2012/13 season, yet if Baltimore chose to move on, their head coach wouldn’t be out of work for long.
The top three coaches are pretty easy to predict in today’s NFL with its obsession on the offensive side of the ball, but here we start to move onto two head coaches who I feel don’t get their share of kudos in the league. Perhaps its because of that current trend towards looking for the next McVay and that coaches like Tomlin and Harbaugh aren’t known for directly creating offences that dominate the highlight reels on a Sunday evening.
The Pittsburgh Steelers head man has bore a lot of the brunt of criticism for the team’s perceived locker room issues last year, yet his record of winning in the NFL is beyond dispute. Tomlin boasts a 131-71-1 regular season record, as well as the fact Pittsburgh have only missed the playoffs 4 times in his 11 years at the helm in Steel City. The former Vikings defensive coordinator has also not posted a losing record at all as a head coach.
Like Harbaugh, Tomlin also adopts more of an executive and delegator role for the Steelers. Coordinators in Pittsburgh, whether it be Bruce Arians, Keith Butler or Dick LeBeau, enjoy a large degree of autonomy with their head coach trusting the men he’s hired to make success happen.
Nonetheless, since winning it all in 2008, Tomlin’s Steelers haven’t returned to the big game and only making it back to the AFC Championship Game once. Could increased roster harmony help Tomlin’s team move from pre-season prediction darlings to actual February contenders this season?
Despite the consternation that surrounded Pederson’s hire in the City of Brotherly Love, he’s managed to produce an impressive level of success in a short space of time. Most notably that includes the Eagles’ first Lombardi Trophy, with that stunning victory over the Patriots.
Last season though, Pederson showed impressive head coaching mettle by leading Philly to 5 victories in their final 6 games to sneak into the playoffs at 9-7. That was despite a significant number of injuries and a losing record past the season’s mid-point. The team’s running game was a patchwork of now-released Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood following injury to Jay Ajayi: a far cry from the dominant position group which was a key cog in that Super Bowl winning team.
The former Kansas City offensive coordinator has clearly benefitted from some excellent team building from General Manager Howie Roseman, but has also shown the ability to make tough decisions in key situations (see: Special, Philly) and utilise depth players when injuries to key members of the roster have struck.
Pederson remains an up and coming coach, who should be a candidate to climb further up these rankings over the coming seasons.
This low a ranking might feel a little unfair for the perennially youthful and enthusiastic Carroll. He clearly has a track record of success, leading the Seahawks to the postseason in all but two seasons since 2010.
The former USC head coach clearly has championship pedigree and the ‘Hawks can never be discounted as a ‘gimme’ opponent under Carroll’s stewardship. That’s despite the talent level on the roster clearly not being the same as it was between 2012 and 2014 when the Legion of Boom patrolled the Seattle secondary. Nonetheless, Carroll and GM John Schneider have shown an uncanny knack for unearthing diamonds in the rough who flourish in the Pacific Northwest.
Carroll needs to upgrade the offence, which many members of the 12th man, felt was too predictable as a run based attack last year. In addition, the offensive line could stand to be upgraded further to continue to enhance the level of protection around franchise quarterback Russell Wilson.
The new poster boy for head coaches around the league has put together a tremendous record in just two seasons in the role for the Rams: McVay’s win-loss record is currently 24-8 in the regular season. In addition, he is also the youngest head coach to make it to the Super Bowl. This has all been done with a core of talent that was in place before McVay landed in California, though he has undoubtedly benefitted from some aggressive wheeling and dealing by general manager Les Snead.
LA’s offence was the second most productive in the league, only behind Kansas City in average yards/game, with McVay calling the plays for the unit, whilst the head coach largely leaves the defence in the hands of venerable coordinator Wade Phillips.
McVay though, was clearly outcoached in the Super Bowl by Belichick. That indicates he hasn’t quite got this game cracked so far, though undoubtedly he will learn from it and emerge an even better team leader and tactician. McVay could catapult up these rankings over the next few years.
The LA Chargers head coach should provide solace for all those assistant coaches slogging it out to rise to the top in a competitive and cutthroat profession. The long time running backs coach took a route rarely travelled to the top job with the Chargers, with less than a year of being an offensive coordinator on his resume. Following his interim role as OC and then head coach in Buffalo following the firing of Rex Ryan, Lynn joined the minimal ranks of minority head coaches in the NFL.
The results since his hiring should show owners and general managers looking to hire next offseason that the most effective candidates are not always the most ballyhooed. Since taking over for Mike McCoy, Lynn has helped make the Chargers a potent and exciting franchise to watch. A 9-7 record in 2017 was followed by an impressive 12-4 record last year, including a postseason victory against the Ravens, who saw QB Lamar Jackson nullified by Gus Bradley’s defence.
Lynn also has two highly respected coordinators working under him in Bradley and OC Ken Whisenhunt who both re-upped with the franchise at the start of 2018: an impressive feat for a first time head coach holding on to two ex-HCs who led their units to top 5 finishes in the 2017 season.
I expect the Chargers to go from strength to strength under Lynn and wouldn’t be surprised to see them take the next step this year and make it to the AFC Championship Game. Lynn is hoping to transform the always-the-bridesmaid Chargers and ensure they fulfil the vast potential this roster has.
The ex-Bears linebacker sits at number 10 on this list due to the inconsistencies in the Panthers seasons. A 12-4 season in 2013 was followed by 7-8-1. In 2015, the Panthers made it to the Super Bowl with a 15-1 record but then finished last in the NFC the subsequent season, losing 10 games in the process.
Nonetheless, Rivera has taken the Panthers to the playoffs 5 times since being appointed head coach in 2011, and many are predicting good things this year with Cam Newton having another year in Norv Turner’s offense.
Rivera has always put a tough defence on the field, and his in game decision making when it comes to crucial choices indicate an ability to be aggressive and trust his players. He’s also seen former defensive coordinators Sean McDermott and Steve Wilks picked for head coaching jobs as a result of the production of the Panthers’ defence.