NFL Playoffs 2012: Power Ranking Every Head Coach
As the 2012 NFL Playoffs commence Saturday afternoon in Houston, many questions are asked. Most notably is the question: Who is going to win this whole tournament when all is said and done?
And few questions affect the answer to that question as much as which team has the best head coach. Granted there have been teams in history who won with an average-to-below-average head coach (Tampa Bay with Jon Gruden or Baltimore with Brian Billick, anyone?). Interestingly enough both won with below-average quarterbacks (no offense, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson).
But in today's game, winning without a great head coach and a great quarterback is nearly impossible. Thus, these rankings will be very dependent upon who the team is placing trust in at said position as they embark on their playoff journey this January (that should give you a pretty good idea which coaches are in the top three already).
12. Gary Kubiak, Texans
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It's not entirely Gary Kubiak's fault he finds himself at the bottom of the playoff coaches power rankings.
No person is able to control their luck to avoid injuries at any position, even at quarterback. But as his misfortune would have it, Kubiak is at the bottom of the list because he may be starting a rookie fifth-round pick at the position.
If not the rookie T.J. Yates, it will be the washed-up has-been or never-was Jake Delhomme (no offense, Jake, but even when you led Carolina to the Super Bowl you were overrated).
Other than a great running game and a wonderfully improved defense led by Wade Phillips, Kubiak doesn't have a lot going in his favor as he leads the Texans into their inaugural postseason contest as a franchise.
11. Marvin Lewis, Bengals
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Though Lewis, like Kubiak, is starting a rookie QB, the Bengals' signal-caller has been the starter all year and has shown great proficiency at times leading a young, but talented Bengals offense.
That is the primary difference between Lewis and Kubiak. But Lewis was close to being fired last offseason (actually another common thread between he and Kubiak, as well a couple other coaches on this list). For that reason, it's nearly impossible to place him any higher than 11th.
Lewis has done what few Bengals coaches have been able to do since Sam Wyche—that is take the Bengals to the playoffs. And he’s actually done it three times. This season is by far the most impressive of his playoff seasons, though much thanks should be placed in a soft schedule and luck.
Nonetheless Lewis has made Bengals football more relevant than it’s been in decades. Lewis is probably the 11th best coach in football, not just of those in the playoffs (makes sense doesn’t it?).
10. Jim Schwartz, Lions
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For any number of reasons, Schwartz's position in these rankings figures to be one of the most difficult to assess and thus likely to be debated ad nauseum.
There's little doubt that Schwartz has a better quarterback than the two coaches mentioned previously and better than at least a couple of the quarterbacks ahead of him as well.
But Schwartz has the least experience as a head man (yes, Jim Harbaugh's experience at Stanford and the University of San Diego counts for something) of any coach on this list.
And he also has the youngest and most immature team of the lot. The Lions had by far the most penalties of any playoff team, which is a coaching issue to some degree.
That said, Schwartz has changed the culture in Detroit. The Lions no longer settle for being lovable losers. They now expect to win and aren't afraid of others' opinions of how they do it.
If that doesn't mean a good coach, nothing does.
9. John Fox, Broncos
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Say what you want about Tim Tebow and the college offense John Fox has adopted in his first season in Denver. It's been a wild season for the wild horses, but John Fox has been a steadying force.
One of the marks of a good coach is getting the most of a team's players. To get a team as untalented and without direction to the postseason is impressive no matter how wacky and unnatural it is done.
Fox has long been an underrated coach. His main issue has been a loyalty to certain staff members and players who haven't gotten the job done.
Perhaps that issue is behind him, and his best years as a head coach—now of the Denver Broncos—are ahead of him.
8. Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
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Much was made earlier in the season of the incident between Harbaugh and Schwartz at midfield after the 49ers dramatically defeated the Lions. Jim Harbaugh has a reputation as a bit of a punk—someone willing to talk smack and make bold declarations.
But Harbaugh thus far in his career has always backed it up. When he said Stanford would defeat USC when Pete Carroll was there, it did.
Now that Harbaugh is alongside Carroll in the NFC West, he again stole the passionate Seahawks coach’s momentum by running away with the division.
Of course Harbaugh is a bit hamstrung by an average quarterback. Then again Alex Smith has had by far his best professional season under Harbaugh—again the quality that makes a coach great.
Harbaugh just has to prove he can do this again next season, then the year after and after that, etc. But for now Harbaugh is clearly a great NFL coach.
7. Mike Smith, Falcons
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If you noticed a trend, none of the coaches (including Smith) up to this point have won a playoff game with their current teams (only Fox has won any at all).
Smith has had multiple opportunities—twice leading his team to the postseason prior to this season. In both seasons, the Falcons were one-and-done.
Of the teams to this point, Smith is blessed with the best quarterback and most talented team overall. His failure to win a playoff game does not seem like a damnable offense yet. But at some point he’s going to have show he knows how to win in January.
Sunday we’ll get to see if the team has made any adjustment in its postseason effort.
6. John Harbaugh, Ravens
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Father Jack, himself being a lifetime football coach, must be so proud to have raised two sons coaching in the NFL playoffs.
John gets the edge over his brother for sheer NFL head coaching experience. And he gets the edge over half the entire field for winning at least one playoff every game every season of his head coaching career.
But his teams are yet to capture an AFC Championship, and that alone is the reason he sits below the coaches above him. Like so many of the coaches above and below, John has done a tremendous job of getting the most from the players on his squad.
Obviously the Ravens annually possess a great defense. But the offense has been generally limited. Even with Joe Flacco providing stability at the position, the offense generally faces an identity crisis under Cam Cameron.
Harbaugh has done a good job as anyone at covering his team's weaknesses by patching up holes and fixing them well enough to win football games in January. This year's playoffs figure to be the year Baltimore finally comes away with an AFC Championship.
If so, Harbaugh will be much higher on this list next year.
5. Tom Coughlin, Giants
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Tom Coughlin may not be the easiest human being to deal with—as he’s often criticized by his own players and fellow media members—yet the guy does the most important thing better than just about anyone in his profession.
Coughlin wins games. And he wins often when they matter most. The way his team played Sunday night against the Cowboys demonstrated Coughlin’s greatness. They could have easily come out flat—expecting an easy win due to Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo having a severely injured wrist.
Instead the Giants came out and seized the day, never looking back in a relatively easy win to capture the NFC East crown.
Oh and don’t forget, like the four above him, Coughlin has won the most important prize—a Super Bowl.
4. Mike Tomlin, Steelers
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It's hard to put a coach who has gotten his team to the Super Bowl two times—winning once—just fourth on a list of playoff coaches. I debated long and hard. But it would have been equally difficult placing him above the coach who defeated him in last year’s Super Bowl.
For that reason Tomlin places fourth, though for me it’s probably the loosest fourth I could imagine. He really could be placed anywhere in the top four and I don’t think you’d get an argument from me.
Ultimately Tomlin comes in at fourth because his team figures to be the weakest at this time of the four remaining coaches and teams. His quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, might be one of the few Steelers of all-time who is underrated in this wild media climate we reside in.
But Big Ben is hurt and is likely to be unhealthy the entire postseason—however long it lasts for these Steelers. That doesn’t even account for an offensive line which continues to struggle with injuries and lack of production.
And finally this team is old. Yes, it’s experienced, but it’s old, much older than the three teams above it. Again I must add I could see Tomlin finding some way though to get this team—as old and decrepit as they are—past all the teams in this tourney and escape with a second Super Bowl ring.
If he’s able to do that, he would clearly climb to the top of this list with zero argument from anyone, especially me.
3. Mike McCarthy, Packers
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I admit I am very biased in the way I have chosen these final three. Again I chose McCarthy over Mike Tomlin strictly on the basis of his victory over Tomlin in last year's Super Bowl.
McCarthy has led the Packers to the brink of something rather unbelievable—an offense which single-handedly carried a team to a 15-1 record.
The lone week in the season the offense didn’t show up, the team didn’t win. If an NFC defense can replicate the Kansas City Chiefs’ effort against this offense, the Packers are in trouble. I’m not saying it will happen, but the mere fact it’s a theoretical possibility means McCarthy still has some work to do.
Of course, the Packers picked their play up in the playoffs a season ago, so it’s hard to imagine they won’t do the same this year. But the fact the Packers once lost an NFC Championship Game at home—to make matters worse it was against Eli Manning—is the reason I have McCarthy below the two coaches above him.
2. Bill Belichick, Patriots
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Again I fully admit I am biased in my ranking of these final two coaches. Very reasonable arguments could be made against my opinion of placing Bill Belichick below Sean Payton.
Let me briefly explain my reasoning:
While Belichick has three Super Bowl rings, the last one came back in 2004. Sean Payton wasn't even a head coach in the league yet. He was still in his odd getting-fired-as-offensive-coordinator stage of his career.
Since then Belichick has gotten his team to the playoffs in all but one season. That is quite impressive. In most of those seasons his team has gained at least a first-round bye.
But they've only once reached the Super Bowl in that time—losing to Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning and luck, err…the Giants. Sean Payton hasn’t lost a Super Bowl, and unlike Belichick hasn’t lost a home playoff game ever.
Despite having Tom Brady at his prime, the Patriots have somehow lost consecutive home playoff games. My other primary beef is that despite Belichick being a defensive guy, that unit has been sub-par for the better part of his coaching tenure with the Patriots.
In some ways, Belichick has rode the coattails of some fine offensive coordinators—Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels and most recently Bill O’Brien. But I must give props to Belichick in maintaining continuity and routinely fielding a great offense despite that unit’s leader changing quite often.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Belichick is a fabulous football coach. I just think his best work is behind him. For the here and now, there’s at least one coach I’d rather have leading my football team.
1. Sean Payton, Saints
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Call it a man-crush, call it weird, call it whatever you want, but I love Sean Payton. I feel totally comfortable using that word—allowing you to apply whatever meaning to it that you want.
But Payton is the reason I took a four-year sabbatical of my regularly scheduled life in hopes of chasing a dream to coach football, before finally realizing God blessed me more as a writer and communicator than as a football tactician.
And he’s also the single reason I am currently a country music fan (I know it’s weird, but it’s a really long story for another time).
Let me fall back to a rational perspective for a moment. Payton struggled his first few years as a head coach in some game management areas—such as when to challenge, when to use timeouts, and when to run the football and kill the clock.
But Payton from 2009 ‘til now has been as solid a head coach as one can imagine. His offenses are annually at the top of the league in passing, and in two of the past three seasons, a rather dominant rushing attack as well.
Special teams are never an issue, due to good specialists and players as well as good coaches. The defense is annually questioned and criticized, yet more often than not finds a way to keep the Saints in games.
And this season, the offense has actually picked up steam when the proud head coach handed over the reigns of his offense to offensive coordinators Pete Carmichael, Jr. after suffering a devastating injury in the Week 6 Tampa Bay contest. Payton remains intimately involved in the game-planning and calling of the game, but has shown great trust in his protégé and quarterback.
That trust appears to have manifested a confidence in this football team that has led to it playing its finest football in his entire tenure. Tell me whatever you want but the Saints are playing better than at any point in their Super Bowl run in ’09, and I would argue better than any other team in the entire league.
The team no longer relies on turnovers as it did in ’09—actually flourishing despite an alarming lack of turnovers and finishing 2011 with a minus-3 turnover ratio (compare that to the Packers’ incredible plus-24 ratio). Of course turnovers are mostly due to luck anyway, meaning this team is far better than that 13-3 squad.
For these reasons and more (I didn't even mention the guts he shows in his play-calling and game management, or his incredible motivation skills), Payton in 2011 (now ’12) is the best coach in the NFL.