A Former Player's Perspective on the 10 Toughest Coaches in the NFL
There are different ways to be a tough coach in the NFL.
Some coaches are never satisfied and are always pushing their players for more. Other coaches will not tolerate mistakes from their players. Still others are themselves aggressive in their mannerisms and carry themselves as tough guys.
The last—and perhaps best group of tough coaches—are those that combine all three characteristics.
Here is a list of 10 current NFL head coaches that I think are pretty tough.
10. Jim Schwartz, Detroit Lions
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was previously a defensive coordinator, and you can see he still has that defensive-guy demeanor. And he doesn't mind being confrontational, as 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh found out after their game last year.
Yeah, I'm pretty much including Schwartz solely because he tried to fight a guy for shaking his hand too disrespectfully.
Still, there are other reasons to appreciate Schwartz's toughness. He has a team built around getting after the quarterback and making big plays in the passing game, but none of the guys are handed their jobs just based on draft status. Nick Fairley and Titus Young are two players drafted in recent years that can really help the Lions on defense and offense, respectively, but they have both had to earn their playing time instead of it being gifted to them.
9. John Fox, Denver Broncos
When Broncos head coach John Fox was fined a few weeks ago by the NFL for verbally abusing the replacement refs, I don't think many people were surprised. Fox doesn't hold back his emotions during the game, and the replacement refs made it about impossible to stay silent.
That's pretty much the way he coaches his team.
Fox is another head coach whose teams are always hard-nosed and relentless, a reflection of Fox himself. He definitely coaches them to try to establish dominance on both sides of the ball and be the hammer rather than the nail. I have never heard anyone describe a Fox-coached team as soft, and I doubt I ever will.
If you want to play for him, you better bring your hard hat. Finesse guys need not apply.
8. Rex Ryan, New York Jets
I know that Jets head coach Rex Ryan rubs some people the wrong way with his bravado, but I love it. I have only one rule about trash talking—if you engage in it during the good times, you have to engage in it all the time—and Ryan definitely does that.
Far from being all talk, Ryan actually has been very demanding as a coach, and aside from last season, he has had great success with the Jets. He has built their defense in his image, and the team as a whole reflects his old-school, tough-guy attitude. He backs his players to the media, but he rides them hard behind closed doors. He sets expectation levels high, and he pushes the team to achieve them.
I don't know if the performance of quarterback Mark Sanchez as well as the rest of the depleted offense this year will lead to his ultimate undoing. I do know, however, that no matter how the rest of the season goes, Ryan will have that team playing hard in every single game.
7. Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears
He reminds me a lot of my old coach, Tony Dungy, in that neither of them have a lot of tirades on the sideline. The key is that when they do blow up, you know it had to be for something really egregious. It's like having fireworks go off in the library; it immediately gets your attention.
Smith is also tough because he is never content, even when his team is playing well. His defense has already scored five touchdowns this year, but he still isn't satisfied with their performance. Mind you, five touchdowns is almost as much as some teams' offenses have scored all season so far.
When your coach is that kind of taskmaster, you tend to see a great product on the field.
6. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams
New Rams head coach Jeff Fisher has already had an impact in turning around the team's attitude. You can see that they are playing with a chip on their shoulder, and that's not how they were playing last year.
That is Fisher's style from his days as the longtime Titans coach: to not only get his team playing hard but to instill an attitude that you can physically dominate your opponent. It can lead to some players crossing the line, but Fisher likes to win games more than make friends, anyway.
The Rams are still finding their way in his first year with the team, but with Fisher calling the shots, they are no longer an easy win.
5. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers
Even though 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is a former NFL quarterback, he comes across as a guy that thinks more like a linebacker. He wants his team to be physical in every phase of the game, and he doesn't let off the gas until the final seconds tick off the clock.
In fairness, the defense already had a physical edge to it before Harbaugh ever took the job. He has remade the offense into a mirror image of the defense, however, and now his whole team specializes in dishing out pain for 60 minutes.
It's so impressive to watch them pound on teams relentlessly until most of them start to break down some time in the second half. It's apparent that Harbaugh is conditioning them for that type of game in practice so that when the game comes around, it's easy.
Even without the dust-up between Harbaugh and Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, you get the feeling that Harbaugh isn't backing down to anybody. Since he was named the 49ers head coach, his team has been following his lead in that regard.
4. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who famously vowed to "unleash hell" at the end of the season a couple years ago, generally does not mince his words. He is an in-your-face coach that expects and demands the best out of his players every single week.
A nose tackle in a 3-4 overweight?
You don't say.
Mind you, this was after Hampton was already a Pro Bowl player. But Tomlin has his own way of doing things, and he wasn't about to compromise that for anyone, even a player like Hampton, for whom other guys on the team surely had a lot of respect.
That's the kind of coach Tomlin is, though. He has put his stamp on that team, and he continues to make sure they play the way he wants them to.
3. Mike Shanahan, Washington Redskins
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan has had a rocky start to his tenure in Washington so far, but you can see this year that his team is slowly looking more like those Broncos teams in Denver. He is another coach that prides himself on his team running the ball and his defense being physical and flying around the field.
Now that he has rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, I would expect Shanahan to have much more success in the coming years. That doesn't mean he will go away from the running game; instead, he will be able to use it even more effectively to set up the pass.
Whether you agree or not with some of the moves he's made since becoming the coach of the Redskins, one thing is obviously true: If he doesn't think you will help him win, he is going to find a way to get rid of you.
Shanahan is trying to build this team into a hard-nosed, blue-collar ballclub. If he succeeds, they may well contend for a title like he did back in Denver.
2. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
I don't think you will ever hear the words "players' coach" and Coughlin's name in the same sentence, but while he is hard, he also seems to be fair. After two Super Bowl wins in the last five years, he has softened his edges along the way, but don't be fooled, Coughlin is still old school at his core.
He demands that his teams practice and play hard-nosed football, which has been a successful recipe for him his whole career. He also has their back, as they saw when he went after new Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano when Schiano's players could have hurt quarterback Eli Manning.
That's the kind of move that inspires loyalty from the players—even if Coughlin can be a jerk at times.
1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
While some head coaches are seen as tough because they are so emotional, Belichick is tough for the opposite reason. He is so cold and calculating that you get the impression that he will do whatever it takes to get a win. It also means that any player who isn't helping him in that pursuit, no matter what their past accomplishments, can quickly be seen as expendable.
When you have a head coach that focused on winning, it lets the players know that they have to raise their standards to meet his; if not, they'll be shown the door. All the yelling and screaming in the world doesn't come close to inspiring the same kind of fear that the prospect of losing your job does.