In the final installment of my head coaches ranking (broken down by division), we head west in the NFC, where a rising star emerged amongst his coaching brethren in 2011.
A year ago, there were those who questioned the audacity the 49ers (and the Dolphins too – who struck out) showed in breaking out the checkbook and cutting a fat one for Jim Harbaugh, the former Stanford coach and NFL quarterback.
Suffice to say the move paid off, as San Francisco transformed into the toughest defense in all of football, a functional offensive team and a consistent winner.
Harbaugh was the conductor to the fastest growing train in the league, and demonstrated the immense value a culture change prompted by a new head coach can bring in the NFL.
But what his one-year run enough to convince me he’s the lead dog amongst NFC West head coaches?
Let’s find out.
It sure was.
In part because his team was so spectacular last year, and in part because of the fact they have only just scratched the surface of its potential under Harbaugh.
Despite the 13-3 record, a memorable victory over New Orleans in the divisional round of the playoffs and near win in the NFC Championship game, it’s impossible to ignore that Harbaugh’s team had some major roster gaps last season—particularly on the offensive line and at wide receiver (some would argue a quarterback upgrade is needed too).
Randy Moss was added and appears worth it on a one-year flier, and picking up Mario Manningham is a sure-fire upgrade from a season ago.
If Alex Smith isn’t the long-term solution at quarterback, the Niners have at the very least begun the process of surrounding him with more talent for 2012 to further maximize his efficiency.
For those who want to knock Whisenhunt for his lack of success without Ken Whisenhunt as his quarterback, I’d urge you to think about many of the great coaches being detached from their star signal-callers.
Rare is the coach who can win consistently without an above average quarterback—that is the NFL world we live in.
With or without Warner, the fact remains that Whisenhunt came within seconds of winning a Super Bowl, brought his team back to the playoffs a year later and guides an offense that has explosive potential.
I’d love to see the Cardinals find some consistency in 2012—starting with QB Kevin Kolb—and I believe Whisenhunt is the guy to do it.
I’m not going to go so far as to say “what’s the big deal?” about Jeff Fisher, but I was confused this past offseason when a guy who hasn’t won a playoff game since 2003 (he’s also won just two of his last eight in the postseason) could be the most sought after head coaching candidate in all of football.
That being said, Fisher earned a reputation in Tennessee as one of the most respected coaches in football—a fair man with a competitive streak that bleeds through to his players. He loves tough, physical defenses and an offense that can run the ball down your throat.
In St. Louis, it starts with Fisher’s ability to rectify what plagued Sam Bradford in 2011, because the youngster has the makings of a star in the right situation.
If this list were based on enthusiasm, entertainment and excitement alone, Carroll would run away with it.
The colorful Seattle coach is about as enjoyable of a person to be around as there is in football, and has the youthful spirit of some of his players that are nearly 40 years younger than him (it still amazes me that Carroll is the second oldest coach in the NFL).
But talk is cheap in the NFL, and Carroll’s discrepancy in success at the NFL level compared to his time at USC is well documented. He guided Seattle to the quirkiest of division championships in 2010, then managed to improve his record in 2011 and watch the playoffs from the couch.
Most intriguingly, neither seasons resulted in a winning record.
If there’s one thing I would urge Carroll to do, it’d be to honestly engage the public about his quarterback situation—Matt Flynn was paid to be the starter, no questions asked.
Don’t try to lead anyone to believe otherwise.