Categorizing Each NFL Coach: Are His Best Years Ahead or Behind Him?

Caleb GarlingCorrespondent IJuly 14, 2011

Categorizing Each NFL Coach: Are His Best Years Ahead or Behind Him?

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    The NFL lockout will be drawing to a (hear my sarcasm) dramatic close soon. So let’s start focusing on football. As we reset our feet, let’s take a look at the 32 head coaches.

    Since we’ll be starting at Ground Zero of a new labor agreement (sort of), let’s ask which of these coaches is approaching his “better years” and which ones will probably not be in discussion come 2012, other than in the punchline of jokes. And for fun, (and to make fewer slides) let's put the 32 signal callers in buckets as well.

    A lot of ground to cover, let's get to it....

Dead Men Walking: Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio

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    Marvin Lewis, Bengals

    By all accounts, Marvin Lewis is one of the nicest guys in the NFL. So that has to be why he still gets a paycheck from the Bengals. He’s become that random guy that gets invited to parties because he doesn’t get weird or really take anything off the table and is pleasant to talk to for a few minutes…but at the same time, you often ask yourself, “Who is he actually friends with?”

    Note to the Cincy Front Office: Rudi Johnson retired and 2005 Carson Palmer is stuck in 2005. Marvin Lewis has taken you to the playoffs exactly two times in eight seasons and netted you exactly ZERO playoff wins. Time to move on.

    The weirdest part? Lewis was the mastermind behind the suffocating Raven’s defense that won a Super Bowl (Trent Dilfer was the quarterback). But guess how many times Cincy has been a top ten defense by points allowed. Over eight seasons…once. Once. And the offense hasn’t broken into the top twenty in the last three years.

    Unless the Paper Tigers somehow get to ten wins this season (they won’t), Marvin should be on his way out.

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—2005 to be exact.

    Jack Del Rio, Jaguars

    If you live outside of Florida, you’re lying if you answer “yes” to this question. Did you know Jack Del Rio has been the Jags coach for eight seasons? I knew he’d been there a while, but eight is a long time as head coach. Especially for having one playoff win.

    Del Rio seems to have a similar gig to Marvin Lewis: don’t be horrendous and always have some redeemable quality about your team (a great Jags running game), and we’ll keep you around. But otherwise, what are we missing? The team hasn’t broken .500 since 2007.

    Again like Lewis with the Paper Tigers, if the Paper Panthers don’t do something this year, he’ll be on the way out.

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—unless Blaine Gabbert goes Marino…which he won’t because Mizzou played a spread offense, which by football standards, is the opposite of what the Jags do.

More Dead Men Walking: Norv Turner and Chan Gailey

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    Norv Turner, Chargers

    I think of coaches like Norv Turner as Rebound Coaches. You never want to have them run your team in the long term, but they’re a decent holdover until you locate a suitable fit.

    Turner has coached eight NFL teams and spent 205 games as head coach, more than just about anyone in the league. And he’s got a lifetime winning percentage of .485 and only four playoff appearances. To think of that differently—assuming you can’t win a fraction of a game—he’s good for a 7-9 season.

    Over 205 games, we we know that Norv Turner is not a good head coach. Period. (He’s a fine offensive coordinator though.)

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—my early favorite for first firing after Week 17.

    Chan Gailey, Bills

    Gailey is a relic. Not of any sort of ancient empire but of “the old days” where college coaches could transition easily to the NFL. Teams have finally realized the salary cap and modern player, um, “mentality” shall we say, has put an end to that, no matter how well they ran their programs.

    And Gailey didn’t even run Georgia Tech that well. The NCAA found that ineligible players were suiting up for games and the most wins Gaily ever hung was nine.

    He’s had decent success as an offensive coordinator, but he is not a good head coach. Any Cowboy fan from the late 90’s will tell you that. 4-12 last season was not a mistake.

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—my early favorite for first midseason firing.

The Unknowns: Jim Harbaugh and Hue Jackson

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    Jim Harbaugh, 49ers

    As a loyal member of Niner Nation, it’s hard to describe how much expectation I’ve already put on Harbaugh. And it’s totally irrational. We want to believe he’s Bill Walsh II.

    And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead—nothing to say his success at Stanford won’t continue…nothing at all…not a single thing…nothing. NOT A GODDAMN THING, YOU HEAR ME?!?! Okay, moving on… 

    Hue Jackson, Raiders.

    I’ll let the available stats do the talking. Jackson has never been a head coach at any level. He’s only had three seasons as an offensive coordinator: 1) 2010 for the Raiders. 2) 2007 for the Falcons; the team put up 259 points (16.2 PPG), good for 29th in the league. 3) 2003 for the Redskins; the team put up 287 points (17.9 PPG, 22nd in league).

    Have fun with that Raider Nation!

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—nothing gets better for the Raiders until Al Davis takes his creepy grip off the reigns.

More Unknowns: Pat Shurmur, Ron Rivera and Mike Munchak

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    Pat Shurmur, Browns

    Shurmur is no doubt a quarterback expert. He (successfully) developed Sam Bradford last year as the Rams O-Coordinator and spent 2002-2008 as quarterbacks coach for the Eagles, overseeing much of Donovan McNabb’s prolific career. The Browns hope he’ll work the same magic on Colt McCoy.

    However, there is another side of the football. How Shurmur fairs with the defense is an unknown. Though it’s worth noting that he’s nephew to Fritz Shurmur, the late Packers defensive coordinator that helped the team win a Super Bowl and two NFC Championships.

    How could the Browns be impatient at this point? They’ve only broken double-digit wins twice since 1988.

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead—provided Colt McCoy lives up to his awesome name.

    Ron Rivera, Panthers

    Rivera is known as one of the better defensive minds in the game today. He played linebacker on the Super Bowl winning ’85 Bears. He coached a stifling Bears defense to the Super Bowl against the Colts and in 2008 he took over the Chargers defense which has been one of the league’s best.

    Like Shurmur though, Rivera has no real experience coaching the other side of the ball. And the Panthers offense last year, to put it mildly, was terrible. How Rivera stacks up as a defensive mind, coaching the likes of Wham-Bam Cam will be one of the more interesting plot lines for 2011.

    Sounds like a tough match-up. That said, Rivera has been around a lot of good teams and players and by this point in his career, appears to have the confidence to delegate what he doesn’t know.

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead—smash and run is what he knows.

    Mike Munchak, Titans

    I must say that I’m rooting for Munchak to dominate with the Titans. Dating back to 1982, he’s been with the Oilers/Titans his entire NFL career. Yes, you read that right. He went to nine Pro Bowls and had ten All-Pro selections in eleven seasons as a guard for the Oilers; then was hired as an assistant when he retired and never looked back, slowly working to offensive line coach in 1997 and keeping the job until this past season.

    His number is even retired in the stadium where he’ll coach.

    The game of football starts with the offensive line. Munchak has presided over some amazing products of that rule (Eddie George’s career, Chris Johnson going over 2000).

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead—too much karma in the right places for this not to work out.

“New” Head Coaches: Jason Garrett, John Fox and Leslie Frazier

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    Jason Garrett, Cowboys

    Garrett did coach the ‘Boys to a 5-3 record after taking over for the ever-bumbling-and-fumbling Wade Phillips’ 1-7 start. Jerry Jones has long spoken highly of Garrett and it’s been common knowledge for a while that this was going to be his job eventually.

    The question now is not how well he can run the offense, but what he can do about a terrible Cowboys defense that gave up 27.3 PPG last year.

    He’ll get a year or two to tighten the leaks but if the offense sputters in 2011, Jones will have a couple choice press conferences that start to raise questions. It’s not as if Garrett is coming into the situation cold.

    Also worth noting: Garrett is only the eighth coach in Cowboys history. (The Raiders have had six since 2003.)

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead—even though Romo is a little overrated, it's important to remember he was out for most of last year.

    Leslie Frazier, Vikings

    You know you’re good when fantasy managers curse your name when their running back goes against your squad. Frazier has been the coordinator behind the stifling Vikings run defenses over the past four seasons. He never had a head coaching position before finishing the season at 3-3 with the Vikings; just like he has no offensive coaching experience.

    However, this doesn’t work against him quite as much as the other newbies listed because Minnesota has such an entrenched running game. He won’t need to take Adrian Peterson under his wing.

    Considering the defensive schemes he’s put in place, Frazier will likely have a longer leash than most stopgap coaches should the Vikings falter. That said, his name is Leslie. Great NFL coaches have calloused names like Norm, Vince and Bill. I have trouble hearing “All time great, Leslie Frazier” on SportsCenter.

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matt Stafford and…Joe Webb.

    John Fox, Broncos

    It’s not often you see a head coach that just went 2-14 get signed immediately by a team that just went 4-12. Over his nine seasons with the Panthers as head coach, Fox was a “feast or famine” kind of guy—though much of that should be attributed to Jake Delhomme’s bi-polar production. He had three seasons with at least eleven wins (and was a field goal shy of a Super Bowl ring); the other six seasons the Panthers flailed at .500 or below.

    He’s taking over a Broncos team that spent a season playing matador to running backs and wide receivers alike (gave up most points in NFL), and barely showed signs of life on offense (19th in PPG). Also, Fox primarily coached a 4-3 defensive scheme with the Panthers; the Broncos have played with a 3-4. This could be one of the situations where the lockout and the lack of coach-player communication really hurts.

    Fox coaches the types of games Broncos fans enjoy: stalwart defense that outworks opponents (and counts on the 12th man: altitude), paired with a grind-out running game. 

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead—the Broncos got a steal.

The Suspect Suspects: Todd Haley, Steve Spagnuolo and Raheem Morris

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    Todd Haley, Chiefs

    It’s strange to think that Haley coached the Chiefs to a 4-12 record in 2009. Last year, at 10-6, they played like a team one ingredient (a more aggressive secondary) from being a real contender. Haley didn’t try to reinvent the wheel and went with what had always worked in KC: pounding the crap out of the ball on the ground. And their defense came to play each week, not lights out, but respectable enough.

    However, there is one massive asterisk to throw on Haley’s success: his 2010 schedule was weak, and I’m talking Roger Goodell motivational speech weak. The Chiefs won games against the Browns, 49ers, Jaguars, Bills, Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks and Broncos—none of which sniffed respectability or .500 last year. Flip half of those bumbling squads to competent teams and last year starts to look more like 6-10.

    Before getting too excited about Haley, let’s see how he does against the Ravens, Patriots, Colts, Packers, Steelers and Jets in 2011.

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—last year was a little too easy.

    Steve Spagnuolo, Rams

    If we drew a line on the Ram’s trajectory over Spagnulo’s tenure, we could put them down for 13-3 this season (1-15 then 7-9). The Rams probably won’t have that sort of success, but I do think Spagnulo is doing a good job with the team. That Sam Bradford came in and started all sixteen games, finishing the season with a 76.5 QB rating, says a lot about Bradford but also about the coach that trusted him and created game plans that allowed him to succeed.

    However, we have to throw down the asterisk again. Here were the Rams wins: Redskins, Seahawks, Chargers, Panthers, Broncos, Cardinals and 49ers again.

    Like the other guys on this list, we have to suspend too much judgment on last year’s success. It’s true that the Rams play in the NFC West so an easier schedule is inherent, but we’ll need a better victory than the Chargers before we get too worked up.

    Verdict on Better Years: Ahead of him—Sam Bradford’s QB rating wasn’t that far off his average when he played non-division teams.

    Raheem Morris, Buccaneers

    In 1998 Morris was a graduate assistant at Hofstra; today, at the age of 34, he’s the head coach of the Bucs. Impressive.

    In his two years he’s quickly turned around both the offense and defense while going from 3-13 to 10-6. However, like Haley and Spagnulo, a fairly major asterisk sits like a planter’s wart on the improvement. Those ten wins came against the Browns, Panthers, Bengals, Rams, Cardinals, Panthers again, 49ers, Redskins, Seahawks and Saints. I probably don’t have to tell you, but only New Orleans had a winning record last year.

    Josh Freeman looked like the real deal (and won me a fantasy ring) but we’ll need another season before making any conclusions. This year, the Bucs have games against the Colts and Packers, not to mention their standard two against both Atlanta and New Orleans. We can talk “turn-around” if they break ten wins a second time.

    Verdict on Better Years: Behind him—the stars rarely align two seasons in a row.

The Suspect Suspects II: Pete Carroll, Tony Sparano and Ken Whisenhunt

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    Pete Carroll, Seahawks

    It’s not really worth examining last season’s Seahawks to get a clue on Carroll. End to end, they were a bad football team during a rebuilding year.

    I lived in Boston when Carroll coached the Patriots and can vouch for the fact that, frankly, he’s not a very good coach. Sorry, Seattle. He’s Nick Saban’s good twin. You’ll give him free passes because he’s a nice guy and the visions of USC’s success translating to the pros are irresistible. But after a while you’ll realize that the Seahawks play in the NFC West, for god’s sake, and you should be winning more than nine games each year.

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—he works best when it’s illegal to pay players.

    Tony Sparano, Dolphins

    Besides keeping Paulie Walnuts under control, Tony is going to have his hands full next season. The Dolphins defense looked good last year—except against the Patriots who filleted the fish 79-21 over two games. Not sure how they expect any success as long as New England has their number like that.

    But the problem is at quarterback. If I heard my coach saying we can go to battle with Chad Henne, I’d look into having Anthony Weiner give him a Twitter tutorial.  Hopefully Mike Pouncy can step in at center and provide Henne with more time in the pocket, but former offensive coordinator Dan Henning probably said it best with a faint praise damning: “Henne's always ready to do what you ask him to do, very studious about the game. Good questions, aware of personalities and idiosyncrasies with player personnel that he has to deal with. No problem working with Chad Henne.”

    Is he supposed to be the quarterback or a YMCA coordinator?

    Regardless, as long as Henne is taking snaps, Sparano is going to be hamstrung as a coach. Not to mention that Ronnie Brown (29) and Rickie Williams (33) just got a year older.

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—even if a veteran comes in to fight Henne for the job.


    Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals

    There are obviously two phases to looking at Wisenhunt: with Kurt Warner and without. I’m not arguing that Warner finished his career as a stud—he never, ever looked comfortable during a blitz—but he’s certainly a step up from Derek Anderson. Last year’s 5-11 was a textbook transition year for the Cards so it’s not fair to draw too many conclusions.

    But here is a statistic I found interesting: In 2009 the Cardinals and Warner attempted the third most passes in the league and finished twelfth in total pass yardage. Normal enough. But in 2010 the Cardinals, now without Warner, attempted the eleventh most passes in the league and finished thirty-first in terms of overall yardage.

    Now at first pass you may say, “What the hell did you expect? Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall and Richard Bartel were throwing the ball.” But that is actually the point. Why were the Cardinals still throwing so much? Shouldn't you look at that QB lineup and say, “Nope. No way. We’re going to the ground.”

    Any guess where the cards were in total rush attempts? Dead last.

    Wisenhunt couldn’t get creative after Warner left. He became the mom in Ace Ventura waiting for Ray Finkle, doing the same thing over and over, continuously forcing the ball to Fitzgerald and Breaston, even though Kurt Warner wasn’t coming home.

    Not to mention a defense, in the NFC West no less, that gave up the third most points in the league.

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—that Super Bowl appearance looks more and more like a team in a really weak division getting hot at the right time.

A Hammer Shy of a Full Toolbox: Sean Payton, Lovie Smith and Jim Schwartz

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    Sean Payton, Saints

    I have trouble putting the Saints into Elite Status. I know their offense has been tops in the NFL for all five years of Payton’s tenure and Drew Brees is an upper tier quarterback. It’s just that, except 2009, they never play like a team I’m supposed to be scared of.

    And this is because they don’t play good defense.

    Even last year when the squad was putting up all the right numbers and fantasy managers had them in Must Start status, the Saints D had that feeling when you watched them of, I don’t know, inflation, or even luck, about them. Then what happened in the post-season? They gave up 41 points to the Seahawks—a team that made history a 7-9 playoff berth—and were done.

    The Saints seem a lot like Mike D’Antoni’s Suns or all those Dungy Colts teams in the early 2000’s that couldn’t get anywhere in January: out-gun the other guy and worry about stops later.

    I realize that this point is greatly thwarted by a 2009 Super Bowl win. But otherwise, under Payton’s five-year tenure, the Saints have exactly one playoff win.

    Verdict on Better Years: Behind him—unless they can line up the Cardinals and the Vikings in the playoffs again, the old adage about offense selling tickets and defense winning games is going to hold true.

    Lovie Smith, Bears

    Few fan bases are harder on their coaches and players than Chicago so Smith has earned deserved respect. ESPN’s coach approval rating, as voted on by fans, has him at 71% at the end of 2010.

    If you examined Smith through the lens of Bears’ fantasy production—always a fun but dangerous exercise—you’d think he’s been terrible. His quarterbacks have been Chad Hutchinson, Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman, Brian Griese and, now, the perpetually miffed frat boy, Jay Cutler. No Bears receiver has broken 1000 yards under Smith and only two have cracked 900. The Bears failed to get a running back to 1000 yards three times in his seven years.

    Yet, he’s 63-49 with six playoff wins and a (albeit rather poor) Super Bowl appearance. Not bad. There is no secret about the Bears success: by points allowed, they were the number four defense last year.

    All that said, the Bears are not the tough guys on the block anymore. That belt has been handed over to Green Bay.

    Verdict on Better Years: Behind him—unless the Bears can get some help on offense; you can’t win out in January without some threat of a comeback if you go down a couple scores.

    Jim Schwartz, Lions

    Like Mike Munchak and the Titans, the Lions and Jim Schwartz are the other team I’m wishing the best of luck for sentimental reasons. I’m not particularly attached to Schwartz but I do feel terribly for anyone that’s had to root for the Lions since, well, they became a franchise.

    Barry Sanders retiring early because the Lions front office couldn’t manage a lemonade stand is the most egregious unprosecuted crime in history. He was the greatest pure tailback of all time.  You could not touch the man in the open field. Tackling Sanders was like trying to catch a terrier on amphetamines. If he’d had one decent…oh yeah, this about coaches. Some other time, Barry.

    Schwartz has done a good job with what he’s had. His feeble quarterback troika finished the season with 26 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and an overall rating of 82. Not bad considering you were working with a carousel of Drew Stanton, Shaun Hill and sophomore Matt Stafford.

    The defense will improve. Well, it has to. They were last in the league in yards and points allowed in Schwartz’s first year, but jumped to 21st and 19th last year. As soon as Schwartz takes my suggestion and renames the D-line “The Muscle Czars” they’ll be up there with the Packers and the Bears.

    Verdict on Better Years: Ahead of him…hopefully—they play in a brutal division and need Stafford to make The Leap, but karma has to swing around eventually for the Lions.

Also Just Missing That Hammer: Andy Reid, Gary Kubiak and Mike Shanahan

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    Andy Reid, Eagles

    You know that friend that is always dating hot chicks but never lands one that is actually cool and fun to hang out with? That’s Andy Reid.

    Let me explain. He had Donovan McNabb. He had Brian Westbrook. He had Terrell Owens. He had strings of Pro Bowl offensive linemen. He had Brian Dawkins, Hugh Douglas and Jeremiah Trotter. He has a 12th man, a stadium with some of the most passionate fans in sports. Now he has Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson. (Two ___Seans?!)

    And all Philly ever gets is a ten-plus win season and an infuriating playoff exit.

    You can’t fake your way to 118-73 over twelve seasons. But Andy Reid never puts it all together. Sure, some fault goes to McNabb and his tummy problems, but the buck always stops with the head coach. Jokes and stories about his terrible decisions in late game situations and managing the clock abound.

    After twelve years with all these gifts, Andy, how do you not have a Super Bowl? For crying out loud, you even have an amazing mustache!

    Verdict on Better Years: Behind him—he’d almost need two rings to make up for the Eagles' decade of all bark and no bite.

    Gary Kubiak, Texans

    It’s easy to think of the Texans as a good team because they rock top options at each important fantasy position. If you somehow landed Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster on your roster last year—and didn't check the actual standings, a strange but growing phenomenon in the fantasy community—you probably thought the Texans were a dominant team. (And you probably made a nice fantasy postseason run yourself.)

    Kubiak was an offensive mastermind with the Broncos for eleven seasons, most of which he spent with weapons like John Elway, Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis, Shannon Sharpe and Rod Smith, so seeing more solid offense production isn’t surprising. But it doesn’t look like he paid much attention to the defense.

    The truth is, the Texans defense is terrible. Like really terrible. And it has been for all of Kubiak’s tenure as coach. The highest they’ve been ranked by points allowed is seventeenth. Taking Mario Williams over Reggie Bush only helped them at one out of eleven positions.

    That’s what wins championships—or at least gets you to the playoffs. Kubiak hasn’t seen the postseason in his five years on the sidelines.

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind him—the classic case of a coordinator being best at being a coordinator, not a head coach.

    Mike Shanahan, Redskins

    Shanahan won two Super Bowls and 138 games with the Broncos while having the pleasure of coaching Terrell Davis and John Elway; not to mention he picked up a third ring as offensive coordinator of the ’94 49ers.

    It’s tough to envision equal success with the Redskins.

    And I mostly say that because the Redskins, like the Raiders, have that dark cloud of crappy management hanging over them. Good football minds, Steve Spurrier, Marty Schottenheimer and Joe Gibbs have all coached in DC with zero success and left town with a furrowed brow.

    I don’t know why Shanahan is going to be any different. Once Dan Snyder talks a walk, we can have this discussion again.

    Verdict on Better Years: Behind him—always tough when you’re talking yourself into John Beck.

The Figureheads: Mike Tomlin and Jim Caldwell

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    Mike Tomlin, Steelers

    Tomlin is a little hard to gauge as a head coach. On paper, the Steelers have been one of the most dominant teams in the last four years, with two Super Bowl appearances and one ring. ESPN recently awarded Tomlin “Best Delegator” for NFL head coaches and reported that he cedes all offensive control to Bruce Arians. And no one disputes that it’s Dick LeBeau’s defense; by points, the lowest the Steelers have been ranked during LeBeau’s seven-year tenure is twelfth. Wow.

    So does all that make Mike Tomlin a good coach?

    Even though you get this picture of him wandering down the hallways, sticking his head in coordinator meetings and asking if anyone wants coffee, I’d say yes. No one’s going to start mentioning him in conversations with Belichick and Walsh if he wins another ring, but there is something to be said for managing a team and keeping all the pieces in order.

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead of him—as long as LeBeau’s around.

    Jim Caldwell, Colts

    I’ll be honest. I’m not sure if Jim Caldwell is a real human. Isn’t that just a mannequin that occasionally moves it’s mouth? Is his headset even on?

    What does he do? The Colts’ offensive coordinator wears number 18, has pocket mechanics like a cyborg and frowns like a grumpy muppet when something goes wrong.

    The defense plays just well enough not to be huge liability, but just crappy enough where you’re not sure if they always have eleven guys on the field.

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead of him—until the exact moment Peyton Manning retires.

The Real McCoys: Mike McCarthy, Rex Ryan and Jim Harbaugh

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    Mike McCarthy, Packers

    I have a little bit of bias towards Mike McCarthy. In 2005, my 49ers hired three Mikes: Nolan, Singletary and McCarthy. Two of them went on to run an amateur goat rodeo for five years; the other—fleeing after only one year of the rodeo—went to Green Bay and coached the team to 48-32, seven playoff wins, one Super Bowl ring and perhaps the greatest “Tell me how my ass tastes!” in NFL history.

    As I watch Alex Smith pinball around the pocket and then attempt to assassinate Frank Gore with a 100 MPH screen pass, I sigh and think what could have been.

    Anyway, provided injury or contract disputes don’t change the picture, the Packers are the NFC’s Baddest Boys on the Block. They show up each week with simple, exploiting game plans. They play suffocating defense. They don’t make costly mistakes. They control the clock with a metronomic running game. They have a quarterback that turns the volume up to eleven when it counts. They give off a palpable swagger. They play on a home field you don’t want to visit in January.

    Sound familiar? Yeah, they’re your new Patriots. Sorry.

    Verdict on Better Years: Ahead of him—no reason this team can’t string another couple rings together.

    Rex Ryan, Jets

    For all of his talking, strange bedroom interests and general buffoonery, Rex Ryan appears to be a pretty good coach. Except for an absolute pounding at the hands of the Patriots last year (45-3), the Jets lost three regular season games by four points or less; and were a fourth quarter stop short of going to the Super Bowl.

    Ryan has fluidly incorporated his stalwart defense scheming from Baltimore; the Jets were the number one defense in NFL by points and yards in 2009 and third and sixth in 2010. The running game hasn’t lagged either, tallying the first and fourth most yards in the league over those same years.

    You win in January by stopping and counting on the run—even if Mark Sanchez is your quarterback.

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead of him—bringing pride to the J-E-T-S will be quite a feet—um—I mean, feat.

     John Harbaugh, Ravens

    Harbaugh puts together smart, simple gameplans and manages the clock pretty well. Most importantly—forgetting needing OT against Buffalo—the Ravens only lost one game they “shouldn’t have” in 2010 (Cincinnati). Otherwise their L’s came to the Patriots (OT), Atlanta and Pittsburgh—that last one being the real problem. The Steelers have, for lack of a better word, owned the Ravens during Harbaugh’s tenure. Baltimore is 2-4 in the regular season and 0-2 in the postseason against Pittsburgh. Ouch.

    If Joe Flacco can advance past B-level quarterbackdom—and certainly part of Harbaugh’s job is helping him do it—then the Ravens have some good years ahead of them. 

    The biggest non-game challenge Harbaugh will face off is replacing the irreplaceable Ray Lewis and, neck issues-pending, Ed Reed. With all due respect to Terrell Suggs, those two have been the thunder and lightning within the Ravens defense. It’ll take a great coach to fill their gaps when they’re gone.

    Verdict on Best Years: Ahead of him—but only if he can get the Ravens to punch the Steelers in the mouth when it counts.

Older McCoys: Tom Coughlin and Mike Smith

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    Tom Coughlin, Giants

    Coughlin is one of those coaches that I never think of as a good coach, but I guess, actually is. Over fifteen years as the Giants and the Jaguars head coach he’s had seven 10-plus win seasons and eight playoff victories. Except his first and last seasons with the Jags, his offenses are always roaming around the top of the league in terms of production. His defenses are a little more suspect but seem to get the job done.

    I dunno. He just doesn’t feel like an NFL head coach. I never think of Tom Coughlin and imagine him scheming game plans late into the night, playing catch with his QB or working with linebackers on the finer points of screen recognition. He feels more like that neighbor that shouts at you when you walk on his lawn.

    Verdict on Better Years: Behind him—unless he’s going to coach another few decades.

    Mike Smith, Falcons

    Anyone who saw the Falcons give up everything shy of their children to get Julio Jones during the draft knows Smith will be coaching with an added degree of pressure in 2011. Essentially the message is: This is your team. We don’t have spendable chips to acquire any more pieces.

    Personally, I thought the haul of draft picks was too much. I like Jones and first round wide receivers have proved to be good bets in recent years (usually after a couple seasons), but spreading the field wasn’t an area the Falcons needed that much help. Their weakness was in stopping the pass, not completing them.

    Regardless, even though Smith has an impressive 33-15 record in his Falcons tenure, the Super Bowl Appearance clock starts now. The quarterback is there. The receiving corp is there. The running game is there. The run stop is there. The home field advantage of turf and dome noise is there. The coach is there.

    Verdict on Better Years: Ahead of him—with his expensive new toy, they’d better be.

Mt Olympus

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    Bill Belichick, Patriots

    Tough to say much about Bill Belichick anymore. Here’s why I’m afraid (I’ll say 200 “Hail Walsh’s” when I’m done here), he may be the greatest coach of all time: the coaches who work under Belichick that then take head coaching positions at other teams never amount to much.

    Bill Walsh was more of a coach of coaches; he developed a school of thought to be perfected. The West Coast Offense spawned great careers: Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, Mike Shanahan, Mike McCarthy, Jon Gruden, to name a few.

    But name one coach that left Belichick University and had consistent success. One. Waiting…waiting…waiting. Romeo Crennel had a single good season with the Browns. That’s it.

    Belichick hasn’t devised a system like the West Coast Offense, he just analyses film and creates game plans. If your strong-side tackle has trouble pivoting out on a five-step drop, you can be sure Belichick will exploit it. If your weak-side linebacker over-pursues on screens, you can be sure Belichick will exploit it. He doesn’t miss your team’s weaknesses. He doesn’t miss his own team’s strengths.

    It’s very easy to let an overblowing of the Jets filming incident or allegiances as a fan sway opinion, but Bill Belichick is the best coach in the game today…and probably ever. That said…

    Verdict on Best Years: Behind—if there are better years to come…well…holy crap.

    [Follow Caleb on  Twitter or Bleacher Report if you want more musings. He also wrote a book called The St George's Angling Club, which you can buy on Amazon.]