After an entire NFL season that, frankly, went by far too fast, we are down to four remaining teams. The Seattle Seahawks will host the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos will welcome the New England Patriots with the Super Bowl on the line.
While superstars like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Marshawn Lynch and Colin Kaepernick will draw most of the headlines before and after the games, let’s not forget the coaches who directed them this far.
Without further ado, let’s dig into a discussion about the effect that each remaining individual coach has had on his respective team.
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers
All Jim Harbaugh has done in his three years at the helm in San Francisco is unearth a sleeping giant that had been waiting to emerge since the days of Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
Harbaugh has led the 49ers to three straight NFC title games on the back of 13-3, 11-4-1 and 12-4 records. They have turned into the most consistent franchise this side of New England in that short amount of time, although they have yet to cash in on one of those championship game trips with a Super Bowl ring.
Harbaugh’s impact on his team begins with his emotions. From his sideline antics, which were on full display when he picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Carolina Panthers in this year’s playoffs, to his quirky press conferences, it’s clear the former player still has the fire for the game of football.
“I think Harbaugh gets away with murder myself,” former coach Mike Holgrem told AP writer Janie McCauley (h/t ABC News). “If I ever did that it would be a penalty.”
However, to be distracted by Harbaugh’s demeanor on sidelines would take away from his knowledge of the game, his connection he makes with players and the source of that emotion—his passion. Just ask kicker Phil Dawson, via McCauley:
He's the kind of coach you want to win for. There's a special satisfaction with having a relationship with the head coach. Being a place kicker, on a lot of teams the head coach never even speaks to the kicker. He's around, he gets it, he's been there. He's sat in those seats. I think it's probably one of the biggest reasons he's successful is his ability to communicate with the guys and relate to them on their level and be able to instill whatever it is he's trying to instill in a way that guys will receive it.
Being a former player gives Harbaugh an advantage many coaches simply cannot understand, from relating to his players to drawing up a successful game plan from a quarterback’s perspective.
Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
Whether he likes it or not, Harbaugh will be forever linked to Pete Carroll, even going back to the days each was coaching at the college level. Harbaugh and Stanford routed Carroll’s USC squad 55-21 and went for two late in the game, which prompted Carroll to ask Harbaugh what his deal was after the contest.
While both coaches would probably like to forget about that exchange, it is that passion from his collegiate tenure that has helped Carroll build such a winning franchise in Seattle. In just four years, he has turned the Seahawks, who rarely drew consistent headlines on a national level, into one of the premier destinations in the NFL for elite talent.
He was certainly a salesman on the recruiting trail at USC, and that relentlessly upbeat attitude has led to an atmosphere of success that has resulted in a linear path of improvement (7-9, 7-9, 11-5 and 13-3).
Just ask Sidney Rice, via Michael Silver of NFL.com:
When I first arrived, we never really got any respect over here, and we felt like people kind of ignored us. As you see now, more and more people are coming in this direction. It's basically word of mouth. This is where you want to be. And when guys get here, they always end up asking, "Why didn't I come here earlier?" And then they never want to leave.
While the “player’s coach” mentality has created this desirable atmosphere, Carroll is much more than a “rah-rah” guy who is buddies with his players. After all, his team wouldn’t be on the doorstep of a Super Bowl if he wasn’t.
His aggressive style of defense that preaches winning the turnover battle and willingness to allow Richard Sherman and Co. to walk the walk by playing with a swagger that can only be matched by their trash talk has defined this Seattle squad.
Furthermore, he relies on his team’s strengths offensively and never gets outside the team's comfort zone, be it Marshawn Lynch pounding the rock or Russell Wilson in bootleg situations or short passes in space. Between his talent-attracting demeanor and his overall knowledge, Carroll has built a long-term blueprint for success in Seattle.
John Fox, Denver Broncos
John Fox coached nine seasons in Carolina and reached a Super Bowl but was unceremoniously fired after the Panthers finished an abysmal 2-14 in 2010. However, he has led Denver to the playoffs in all three of his seasons and is now only one home win away from a return trip to the Super Bowl.
The question, though, which isn’t necessarily fair to Fox, is how necessary a coach even is with Peyton Manning at the helm as quarterback. From his audibles to his legendary preparation, it often seems like Manning is the one coaching the game from under center.
While Manning gets so much credit for Denver’s season, and rightfully so, let’s not forget the coaching job Fox did in 2011 with Tim Tebow at quarterback.
Sure, everyone credited the Broncos’ seemingly miraculous wins to reach the playoffs to “Tebow’s magic,” but the reality is they were playing with a quarterback who completed 46 percent of his passes. Fox was able to coach to his team’s limited strengths with a heavy emphasis on the run game.
If Bill Belichick gets so much credit for the season he had with Matt Cassel when Tom Brady was hurt, Fox needs to be recognized for the Tebow season as well.
As for this year’s team, Manning gets constant praise for his work ethic, but Fox has a relentless drive as well. In fact, according to Mike Klis of the Denver Post, he was working at home this year via an iPad merely days after heart surgery that caused him to miss some time.
That preparation, not to mention the versatility to shift from such a run-heavy offense with Tebow and Willis McGahee to the high-flying and record-setting offense of Manning, deserves more credit than it gets for this Broncos’ season.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Harbaugh may be well on his way, but only one of the four remaining coaches is a surefire Hall of Famer.
In 14 seasons in New England, Bill Belichick has three Super Bowl titles, an undefeated regular season and two more AFC crowns. Since 2001, the Patriots' records have been 11-5, 9-7, 14-2, 14-2, 10-6, 12-4, 16-0, 11-5, 10-6, 14-2, 13-3, 12-4 and 12-4.
Credit Brady all you want, but Belichick and the Pats barely missed a beat when he went down for an entire season and Cassel filled in.
This season has been a testament to Belichick and his system simply based on the overall attrition New England has suffered. From the Aaron Hernandez situation before the year started to the litany of injuries every week, it has been anything but business as usual for the Patriots. Yet here we are again, with Belichick one game away from the big show.
During Belichick’s tenure, the Patriots have slung it all over the field, gone with double-tight end sets more than almost anyone in the league and are now relying heavily on the run game in these playoffs. We as NFL fans have taken New England for granted all these years, but in this era of parity, it truly is amazing how consistent the team has been under Belichick.
He is a well-oiled machine who does nothing but win every single season.