Ranking the 32 NFL head coaches
We're now past the midway-point of the 2010 season, and it seems like an appropriate time to evaluate and rank the 32 NFL head coaches. In our fantasy football driven culture, we rank players all the time, debating Manning vs. Brady and Andre Johnson vs. Randy Moss, but rarely do we take a chance to examine how the coaches stack up against one another. Here is a completely subjective, admittedly unscientific ranking (with commentary) of all 32 coaches, based on how I see them right now. Instead of trying to weigh their entire body of work, I'm ranking them based on how good they are RIGHT NOW. Who would you want guiding your team going forward, for the next several years? Where did we go wrong? What did we get right? Feel free to weigh in below. -- Kevin Van Valkenburg
31. Jason Garrett, Cowboys -- Another incomplete, although let's not pretend like he wasn't to blame for some of the Cowboys' problems. The Ravens dodged a bullet three years ago when he turned down the job. He may yet be a good head coach, but as an offensive coordinator, he hasn't exactly shown he can teach discipline.
29. (tie) Steve Spagnuolo, Rams and Jim Schwartz, Lions -- Both these coaches deserve an incomplete. It's impossible to really grade them. But in both situations, their teams have shown improvement. I really like Schwartz, especially the way he handled himself after the loss in the season opener to the Bears on the controversial "no catch" by Calvin Johnson. He didn't throw a tantrum. He calmly said he thought it was a catch, but that wasn't the reason the Lions lost the game. They've shown improvement under him, and they just need something to get them over the hump. The Lions have been losers for so long, it's impossible to turn around overnight. Spagnuolo's team has shown improvement, too, and he has a very good quarterback to work with going forward.
28. Eric Mangini, Browns -- Before the season, I would have ranked Mangini even lower than this, but there is hope for him yet. He seemed to realize he didn't have the credibility to rule like he was Napoleon, and he changed, which is something NFL coaches rarely do. It's not his fault that the team burned a bunch of money on Jake Delhomme, although he had to be at least consulted about the move. And some of the stuff he did when he got to Cleveland -- hand out stupid fines, show no respect for the team's history -- still lingers. It says a lot that he was universally hated by everyone in New York by the time he was done there. It was probably the right move for him to turn in the Patriots for stealing other teams signals -- a practice he only knew about because he was on the Patriots staff -- but it certainly wasn't very loyal. He deserves to be ranked higher than this based on how the Browns are playing at this moment, but the previous stink hasn't faded enough yet.
27. Lovie Smith, Bears -- To be fair, it's not this fault this team has a bad front office, one of the worst in football outside the Redskins. But Cutler's regression is partly on him, because he hired Mike Martz, and the two of them just let Cutler throw INTs like they're going out of style. He dumped defensive coordinator Ron Rivera for some unexplained reason, even though Rivera was arguably the main reason they were successful in 2006, and he mulls over using time outs and challenges like he's trying to solve a Rubix Cube. In 2007, in a game against the Vikigns, he let the Vikings kneel and run out the clock instead calling a time out and forcing them to punt to Devin Hester. He forgot the Bears had a time out left. No, seriously, he forgot. That probably should have gotten him fired right there.
26. Brad Childress, Vikings -- A bad coach in so many ways. Can't seem to remember he has the best running back in the league, and would rather have a 40-year-old grandfather fling the ball all around the field 35 times a game. Awful at managing the clock. Not a good motivator. Trading for Randy Moss, then releasing him after four games, was a panic move and it almost got him fired when he didn't even check with the owner before he cut Moss loose. Either accept that Moss is a little bit crazy and only tries when he wants to try, or don't trade for him in the first place. Don't light a draft pick on fire in the process.
24. (tie) Josh McDaniels, Broncos and Todd Haley, Chiefs -- It's absolutely fitting that these two goofballs are mired in a feud, but that's only part of the reason I'm ranking them together. They deserve one another. Both of them clearly understand the Xs and Os part of the game, especially on offense, but their arrogance and general immaturity affects their decision making. We've now reached a point where a whole generation of young coaches wants to act like Bill Parcels, but they don't understand Parcels spent years building up credibility to go with his iron fist. You can't just assume players will respect your screaming tantrums. Schematically, Haley stubbornly refuses to give the ball to his best running back (Jamal Charles) for reasons no one can explain, other than Haley believes he's the smartest guy in the room. If he didn't want Chan Gailey to be his offensive coordinator two years ago, he shouldn't have hired him in the first place. McDaniels was probably right to get rid of Cutler when he did, but feuding with Brandon Marshall was pointless, especially in the middle of a season where the Bronocs were contending for a playoff spot, and betting his future on Tim Tebow hardly seems wise. Both can be good NFL coaches, but both need to grow up a bit before that happens.
23. Pete Carroll, Seattle -- He should probably get an incomplete, but he's already shown some improvement with the Seahawks. They are leading the worst division in all of professional sports, after all. I don't know what his previous stints in New York and New England suggest for the long term, but I can't imagine him working 19 hour days through his 60s.
22. Tom Cable, Raiders -- This may be my boldest ranking, but I'm comfortable with it. Look at how much they've improved now that the owner isn't forcing them to play a quarterback who weighs 300 pounds and was accused of running a ring of cough syrup smugglers. He gets them to play hard, and when they had nothing to play for last season, and the Ravens had everything to play for, the Raiders still almost won that game. Before this season, when it was fashionable to say he was the worst coach in the league, I always responded like this: The degree of difficulty is off the charts in an organization like the Raiders. It's like going to a talent show and there is a guy who plays guitar with his foot because he was born with no arms. He can play a ton of songs, but he's clearly not as good as some of the guitar/singing acts with two good arms. So you ignore the degree if difficulty and rank him last, overlooking that HE PLAYS GUITAR WITH HIS FOOT!
21. Raheem Morris, Buccaneers -- Morris' grade should really be an incomplete. But I really like the way he carries himself, especially for being so young. He's taken one of the youngest teams in the league, forced them to pay attention to detail, and gotten a lot out of them. Down the road, will he be able to mold Tampa Bay into a playoff contender? Who knows. But right now, Morris doesn't make excuses, and doesn't shy away from making bold statements. I like it when he said the Bucs were the "best team in the NFC" even though they clearly were not. They played the Falcons tough on the road, and I suspect they're going to play the Ravens tough in two weeks at M&T Bank Stadium. That's the sign of a a promising team and a promising coach.
20. Mike Singletary, 49ers -- "Samurai," as he was known during his days with the Bears, is my favorite player of all time. But I'm not sure he's capable of controlling his emotions well enough to be a successful head coach. I don't care what's going on, you can't drop you pants during halftime of a game in an attempt to fire up your team. And that obviously wasn't an isolated incident. Whether it's throwing fits with the media, sending players to the showers during a game, or just acting generally like there are a few screws missing, Singletary has shown he has a lot to work on. Ultimately, it was his decision to continue playing Alex Smith this year, when Troy Smith has already shown quarterback was the biggest thing holding this team back.
19. Gary Kubiak, Texans -- Every year, we're told this is the Texan's breakout season. And every year, they're nothing special. Eventually, that has to fall on the head coach. This year was really supposed to be the year they put it all together, and this week's Hail Mary loss to the Jaguars pretty much finished off their season. Five years is more than enough to prove yourself. He's helped build the franchise up and made it credible but, eventually, you are what your record says you are.
18. Norv Turner, Chargers -- A brilliant offensive mind who simply can't prepare his team to win when it matters. The Chargers should have played in the Super Bowl a year ago. They were way, way better than the Jets and Colts. But their hissy-fit meltdown against the Jets was a perfect indictment of Turner's failings as a coach. Personal fouls, complaining to the referees, kicking challenge flags. It's a shame, because he clearly knows football, but he just can't seem to create a culture of accountability or focus when it matters. Even this year, San Diego has arguably the best offense in the game, and one of the best defenses. And they're still just an average football team.
17. Jim Caldwell, Colts -- I actually have no idea where to put him, which is why I'm putting him right in the middle. We probably won't know what kind of coach he is as long as Peyton Manning is there, because Manning is such a dominant personality, he seems to drag this team (despite injury after injury) to victories. It's not as if the Colts are winning with defense, which is Caldwell's background. He got out-coached in the Super Bowl by Sean Payton, but he does seem to have maintained an atmosphere of discipline and accountability set up by Tony Dungy. It's admirable how humble and respectful he is, but again, the NFL is not a league where you get points for being a great guy.
16. Mike McCarthy, Packers -- The man clearly knows how to coach offensive football, and I don't blame him for a second for wanting to cut ties with Brett Favre a year or three before Favre was ready, but his teams aren't very disciplined and he finds a way to lose way too many close games. His body of work is somewhat hard to judge, but I'm not sure I've ever felt like he out-coached one of his colleagues in the fourth quarter. Not a great sign.
15. Mike Shanahan, Redskins -- This ranking is based a lot on past performance, and after the Rex Grossman Incident, I feel even less confident about it. It's as if the Redkins were forced to give Donovan McNabb a $40 million apology because Shanahan is a bad liar. All he needed to say after that Houston game was, "I just didn't feel like Donovan was playing well, and I wanted to see if I could shake things up. He's still our starter." Instead, he fell victim to the classic Washington blunder: The cover-up is always worse than the crime. All that said, I can go two ways with this: Shanahan has won only one playoff game without John Elway, and the game may have passed him by a bit. On the other hand, he coaches the running game as well as anyone in this era, and he once managed to make Jay Cutler into a credible quarterback, which seems more shocking by the week. Yes, he should be ranked higher based on the success he had in Denver, but I think he needs to prove Elway and Terrell Davis weren't the main reason he now has a reputation his recent resume hasn't lived up to.
14. Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals -- Another coach who has overcome a culture of losing that seemed ingrained. I thought he was even a little underrated going into this year until I watched the way he handled the Matt Leinart situation. Look, no one thinks Leinart is the second coming of Steve Young. But being a coach in the modern NFL is, at least in part, about getting the most out of players who are malcontents, and at the bare minimum, telling them the truth. If you're not honest with the media, that's one thing. Sometimes you can tell reporters a guy is playing well even if he's not to avoid embarrassing him. But Whisenhunt seemed to lead Leinart to believe everything was fine, then benched him out of nowhere, then cut him. Would he really have been as bad as Max Hall and Derek Anderson have been? All that said, he made Kurt Warner look like a Hall of Famer again, and should be a good coach for years to come.
13. Marvin Lewis, Bengals -- Losing has been so ingrained with the Bengals, and the ownership is so determined to do things on a shoe-string budget, that Lewis has to be ranked this high just for degree of difficulty. Problem is, he can't seem to sustain any success. It's as if any little setback sends this franchise plummeting back to earth, which makes Lewis a tightrope walker who does everything he can to avoid falling, even while people throw rotted fruit at him. Lewis isn't completely blameless. He's the one who agrees to take so many knuckleheads on his team. But he deserves another opportunity after this.
12. Tony Sparano, Dolphins -- Sparano has done an excellent job resurrecting a very bad franchise quickly, taking a team that was 1-15 under Cam Cameron and going 11-5, one of the biggest turnarounds in NFL history. And he's been creative about it. When the Dolphins had no credible quarterback, he introduced the wildcat to the NFL. He's very good at preparation, but I'm not sure he's that great at making in-game adjustments. The special teams debacle against the Patriots this season may have been blamed on the special teams coach, but the Dolphins' special teams still aren't very good, as evidenced by their game against Baltimore. Eventually, that's on the head coach.
11. Jack Del Rio, Jaguars -- A good coach in a bad situation, I think. All due respect to Jacksonville and their fans, but this franchise is going to have to move eventually. That market simply cannot support an NFL team long-term. Wherever Paul Tagliabue is these days, I hope he feels a pang of shame when he turns on Ravens games and sees another packed house, then switches over to Jaguars games and sees a half-empty stadium. But back to Del Rio. Despite constant uncertainty, he's managed to keep them respectable. I really admire that he had the stones to cut Byron Leftwich out of nowhere a few years ago and go with Gerrard, which everyone thought was crazy at the time.
10. John Fox, Panthers -- It seems strange to rank a coach this high when he's in charge of a team that barely has a pulse, but he's a very good coach who simply needs to move on when his contract expires at the end of this season. Some of Carolina's problems are self-inflicted. The contract extension Jake Delhomme got after that performance in the playoffs against Arizona was ridiculous, and I can't believe the front office would have done it if Fox wasn't so loyal to Delhomme. Now their quarterback situation is the worst in the league (though Arizona might have a counter argument). The NFL is a cold business, and loyalty isn't always a good thing.
9. Mike Smith, Falcons -- You could easily rank Smith ahead of Ryan and Harbaugh, but they've both been to a conference title game, and Smith has never won a playoff game, so for now, he'll have to wait to climb the ladder. He's maybe the most anonymous head coach in the NFL who coaches a playoff contender. He even has an anonymous name. But there is no drama that goes along with Smith. Deserves a lot of credit for resurrecting that franchise after the Vick debacle and Bobby Petrino's cowardly exit almost ruined it. Needs to show his team can win on the road, but right now, they might be the best team in the NFC. He's calm and stable without being a pushover, which is impressive.
7. (tie) Rex Ryan, Jets and John Harbaugh, Ravens -- I thought about this for awhile, and I think they deserve to be ranked together. Their styles couldn't be more different, at least on the surface, and they both have their flaws, but they're two coaches poised to be successful for a long time.
I understand why some Ravens fans aren't ready to embrace Harbaugh, even though it looks like he'll be the first coach in Ravens history to make the playoffs three years in a row. He's very corporate and he struggles with timeouts and challenges in a way that's frustrating. But he's detail driven, very intelligent, hyper-competitive and no matter what you think of the Mighty Men stuff, his players don't turn on one another when times are tough. He lets his team have a personality, but at the same time, he's made them more disciplined. You can go ahead and say Ray Lewis is the real head coach of the Ravens, but that's just a talk radio fantasy. Harbaugh still has stuff he can work on, but it's clear the Ravens made the right call when they hired him. Harbaugh is good at the macro stuff, while an impatient fan base tends to focus on the micro stuff.
Ryan epitomizes much of what I love about the game. Football is not warfare, and it's not life or death. You need to take it seriously if you're a professional, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun and be yourself. Yes, the Jets got under people skin by anointing themselves the AFC favorite in the off-season. But I like that Ryan had high expectations for them, and he managed to steer the ship through rough waters when the season got off to a rough start and some of the media was wondering if he would be fired after one game he lost by one point. (One game!) One of Ryan's strengths is how he adapts. The Jets committed a ton of dumb penalties in the season opener, but they fixed that issue, and are now winning close games. I understand why football has trended toward hiring corporate stiffs as head coaches, because teams are billion dollar corporations now. But I'll always have a soft spot for the Bubbas, the men like Ryan who may have melted cheese on their shirts, but they can design a blitz package the way Jimi Hendrix could play guitar.
6. Andy Reid, Eagles -- It pains me to rank him this high, but his awful clock management and his bizarre distrust of the running game during Donovan McNabb's prime don't outweigh the fact that he's been a consistent winner. I think it's a lot harder to be good for nearly a decade than it is to be great for one season and then below average for the rest of the decade. The fact that he's resurrected Mike Vick's career and ditched McNabb at just the right time is more evidence that, even though he tends to look at his play sheet like it's a menu at a vegetarian restaurant every time the Eagles get in a 2 minute drill, he's still very good at what he does. You can see what a little coaching has done for Michael Vick. It's turned him into arguably the the most difficult player in the game to defend.
5. Tom Coughlin, Giants -- I dislike ranking him this high, because I don't particularly like his humorless, maniacal methods (On time means five minutes early!), but I can't deny he's had success in a place where the degree of difficulty is also very high. I think the Giants Super Bowl victory was a bit of a fluke, and not just because a journeyman wide receiver pinned a football to the side of his helmet on the most important play of the game while he was crashing to the ground. The Giants were just OK that season until they got hot at the right time, but he and Steve Spagnolo badly out-coached Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in that Super Bowl. What is impressive about Coughlin is he has dealt with a series of ME guys like Tiki Barber, Michael Strahan and Plaxico Burress, and he's never let them completely undermine him. That matters in the NFL. I felt better about putting him here before his team posted a no show against the 1-7 Cowboys, but we'll just pretend that didn't happen.
4. Sean Payton, Saints -- One Super Bowl season doesn't yet make a career, but the degree of difficulty of doing it in New Orleans has to play a role in where we rank him. He's a great play caller, and he clearly has the stones to take risks and deal with the potential repercussions for his bold choices. If that on-side kick didn't bounce off the face mask of Reality Show Husband Hank Basket, media and fans would have torched Payton for gambling like that in the Super Bowl. But he trusted what he'd seen on film, and he went with it, knowing he'd have to live with it if it didn't work. Too many coaches are scared to make those kind of calls because if they go the traditional route, they shield themselves from criticism. They may also cost their team a chance to win games.
3. Mike Tomlin, Steelers -- A great players' coach who understands the modern NFL as well as anyone. Yes, players need discipline, but they also need to know you're telling them the truth when you look them in the eye, and I think Tomlin has that credibility. I think he's going to be good for a long time. Maybe you can argue that all the pieces were in place when Bill Cowher left, but I think he'll have them contending for years to come. Earns a bonus for winning games this year with Charlie Batch, who has been playing quarterback since Bill Clinton was president.
2. Jeff Fisher, Titans -- The best mustache in football, and the most consistent regular season coach in the game. I've always felt he gets let off the hook a little bit for the way his teams make just enough mistakes in the playoffs to lose to inferior opponents, but the playoffs can be a crap shoot, too. (Barry Switzer won a Super Bowl, after all.) Sometimes it doesn't matter how often you preach ball security or special teams, you're still going to have a tight end who fumbles or a kicker who forgets how to kick. Fisher gets guys to play hard for him, he knows how to manage egos, and his teams never quit on him, even when they're 0-6. That says a lot.
1. Bill Belichick, Patriots -- On the surface, he's the humorless slob everyone loves to hate. But the man is truly a film study savant, and the fact that the Patriots are winning this year -- less that six months after the Ravens embarrassed them in the playoffs -- is proof he's still the best coach in the Era of Extreme Parity. Yes, he can be accused of stealing signals and stealing another man's wife, and his press conferences are generally about as interesting as interviewing a door, but a lot of that is just a front for his eccentric genius. His lack of sentimentality when it comes time to cut a player makes him easy to dislike, but is he ever wrong? The Patriots are only going to get better thanks to the garage sale heist they pulled on the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings with Richard Seymour and Randy Moss. I still believe he made the right call going for it on fourth down in that regular season game against the Colts, even though it didn't work out. I like coaches that are fearless and don't care about armchair criticism, even from people like me. That's Belichick.