Head coaches in the NFL are held to a special kind of scrutiny.
If his quarterback throws a touchdown pass, he is a genius. If his quarterback throws an interception, he is a moron. If he has a blank expression on his face when his team is winning, he looks intense. If he has the same expression when his team is losing, he looks stupid. If his playbook is not exactly 50-50 between running and passing, he will be accused of not mixing up the play call if his team loses.
In this slideshow, I take a look at who I think are the best head coaches in the league. In my ranking, I take into account regular season records, postseason achievements, and general accomplishments with the team. All of the coaches on this list have been employed as a head coach for at least two seasons and have reached at least one conference championship game. The coaches are not directly ranked by winning percentage or Super Bowl victories, but by overall success in their field.
So sit back and enjoy the ride. It should be a good one.
Regular Season Record: 63-49 (.563)
Playoff Achievements: 3-3 record, 2 conference championship games, 1 Super Bowl appearance, no championships
On the face of it, Lovie Smith’s body of work doesn’t scream “success.” He is fourteen games over .500 in the regular season, has a .500 record in the playoffs, is 1-1 in the NFC title game and lost his only Super Bowl. It looks okay but it doesn’t tell the full story of Smith’s achievements with the Bears.
He took a dead franchise to the playoffs in his second year as head coach, and led the Monsters of the Midway to their first postseason win in 12 seasons in 2006. He also made the playoffs with three different starting quarterbacks (Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman, and Jay Cutler).
Lovie now has a franchise quarterback and a solid defense, and his best days may be in front of him in Chicago.
Regular Season Record: 133-107 (.554)
Playoff Achievements: 8-7 record, 3 conference championship games, 1 Super Bowl appearance, 1 championship
No, this isn’t a misprint. Tom Coughlin is one of the top ten coaches in the NFL.
In the three years since his team’s Super Bowl glory, Tom Coughlin has been painted as a buffoon and the face of a franchise that can’t seem to win games in the second half of the season. While coaches such as Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, and Bill Cowher are heralded as heroes for leading their teams to a title, NFL fans seem to treat Coughlin’s Super Bowl championship as an accident and not deserving of any credit.
There are people who call for Tom Coughlin’s firing every year but don’t seem to realize that coaches with 133 wins and a Super Bowl ring are few and far between.
For leading an expansion team to four straight playoff berths and guiding the Giants to a title, Tom Coughlin deserves to be on this list.
Regular Season Record: 118-73-1 (.617)
Playoff Achievements: 10-9 record, 5 conference championship games, 1 Super Bowl appearance, no championships
Andy Reid may be the most divided head coach in terms of opinions in the NFL today.
A Reid defender might point out that he is the best head coach in Philadelphia Eagles franchise history. He turned the Eagles into an every-year playoff contender and has won games with more starting quarterbacks than Mickey Rooney had wives. He never went one-and-done in the playoffs until two seasons ago, and he is 9-4 in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
However, it can also be said that Andy is a poor game day coach. At times he seems slow-witted, unable to think on his feet, and ignorant of some football rules. He has played in a weak division and the weaker of the two conferences for most of his career, and many people say he is mediocre against the elite teams (he is 3-9 against the eventual Super Bowl champion). People can also say that Reid has trouble winning big playoff games, and he has a 1-5 record in the last two rounds of the postseason.
Because of the former, Andy Reid deserves a spot on this list.
Because of the latter, he is not higher placed.
Regular Season Record: 32-16 (.667)
Playoff Achievements: 4-3 record, 1 conference championship game, no Super Bowl appearances
John Harbaugh is Andy Reid-lite.
He drafted a franchise quarterback with his first pick, made the Ravens into a playoff contender, but hasn’t gotten over the hump and won the ring yet.
However, I ranked him ahead of his mentor for a couple reasons. While both men took over 5-11 clubs, John made the playoffs in his first year as a head coach, while Andy had to wait until his second year. Harbaugh was also the first coach in NFL history to win two playoff games with a rookie quarterback (Rex Ryan would match this feat in the subsequent year).
Harbaugh’s winning percentage after his first three seasons is higher than Andy’s (.667 to .563), and he has accomplished more playoff berths (3) and playoff victories (4) than his teacher (2 and 3, respectively) in the same amount of time.
Regular Season Record: 20-12 (.625)
Playoff Achievements: 4-2 record, 2 conference championship games, no Super Bowl appearances
How can anybody not love Rex Ryan?
This guy was hired to coach the Jets after the team was torn apart by a Brett Favre collapse. The team was without a quarterback and hadn’t seen the playoffs in two years. Above all this, he was entering a division with the Miami Dolphins who had won the division in the previous year and the dynastic Patriots who had won three Super Bowls in the decade.
What did Rex Ryan say about all this?
“I didn’t come here to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings.”
Rex went on to draft his franchise quarterback and go to two AFC championship games in his first two years as head coach.
This guy is really going to be fun to watch in the next few years.
Regular Season Record: 48-32 (.600)
Playoff Achievements: 5-2 record, 2 conference championship games, 1 Super Bowl appearance, 1 championship
Before this season, Mike McCarthy kind of looked like a farce.
He had won some games in the regular season but seemed like a coach who couldn’t hold his own in the playoffs. His Packers went 13-3 in 2007 and captured the #2 seed in the playoffs, but blew the NFC title game in their own stadium to the Wild Card Giants. He then went on to go one-and-done in 2009, in one of the worst defensive showings in the history of NFL playoffs.
But that all changed in 2010. McCarthy led his Packers, who were 8-6 two games before the end of the season, to three road playoff wins and a Super Bowl championship.
For that, Mike is in the top five coaches in the NFL today.
Regular Season Record: 152-108 (.585)
Playoff Achievements: 8-5 record, 3 conference championship games, 2 Super Bowl appearances, 2 championships
Shanny’s first season with the Washington Redskins was a miserable comedy of errors, and made it easy to overshadow his accomplishments in the NFL.
In addition to being one of only two active head coaches with multiple Super Bowl rings, he also managed to coach back-to-back Super Bowl victories, a feat that is not only rare but appalling.
Mike did not have a quarterback in 2010, in addition to having issues with his offensive line and running game. Give this guy a couple years to build a team in Washington, and I see him being just as competitive as he was in Denver.
Regular Season Record: 49-31 (.613)
Playoff Achievement: 4-2 record, 2 conference championship games, 1 Super Bowl appearance, 1 championship
Sean Payton is just a good coach.
He knows what to call and when to call it, and I’ve said before that I think he is the best game day coach in the NFL. In addition to one of the most famous onside kicks in football history, he seems to always have good third- and fourth-down conversion percentages on his clubs. This is without ever really having a solid running game.
More importantly, he took a historically dormant franchise to relevance, taking the Saints to the NFC Championship game in his rookie year and to a Super Bowl championship three years later.
Regular Season Record: 43-21 (.672)
Playoff Achievement: 5-2 record, 2 conference championships, 2 Super Bowls, 1 championship
Mike Tomlin may not have much experience as a head coach, but he is on this list for a different reason.
Tomlin took over for a legend in Bill Cowher. Although it took Cowher a long time to get that elusive ring, he was a beloved coach in the Steel city and hung on to the job for so long that nobody could imagine anyone replacing him.
When he retired after the 2006 season, the Steelers hired this unknown kid to be the next coach of the team. Many people expected the Steelers to hire an experienced leader such as Bill Parcells or Dennis Green, and nobody could believe that such a proud franchise would be put in the hands of a no-name guy.
All he has done since that hiring was match his predecessor in Super Bowl appearances and victories.
In four seasons.
Regular Season Record: 162-94 (.641)
Playoff Achievements: 15-6 record, 5 conference championship games, 4 Super Bowl appearances, 3 championships
Is anybody really surprised by this?
Whether you love him or hate him, Bill Belichick is a legend in his own time.
He has the most playoff victories, Super Bowl appearances, and Super Bowl championships of any active head coach today, and he is tied with Andy Reid for most conference title game appearances. He is one of only four men in NFL history to win three Super Bowls, along with Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh, and Chuck Noll. In addition to everything else, he is the only coach in the history of the league to lead a team to a 16-0 regular season.
There is no room for argument. Bill Belichick is the best head coach in the NFL today.
He may be on his way to being the best head coach in NFL history.