NFL's Best Coaches 2015

Patrick Daugherty
Rotoworld
Patrick Daugherty ranks the league's 25 best coaches, and evaluates 2015's seven new hires
Patrick Daugherty ranks the league's 25 best coaches, and evaluates 2015's seven new hires

If you had to win a game tomorrow, who do you want coaching your team? Not five years from now, not five years ago. Tomorrow. That’s the guiding principle behind my second annual coach rankings. This is not an exact science. No good coach has ever won without good players. No bad coach has ever gone 2-14 all by himself. Coaches are overpraised and underappreciated in equal measure. But time sorts coaches the way it does anything else. Patterns emerge. The passing years reveal who is lucky and who makes their own luck. Of course, the briefer the career, the more projection is required. That’s where “inexact” comes back in. What effect does Chip Kelly seem to have made in two years? Are Gus Bradley’s losses all his roster’s fault, or is there something it appears he could be doing better? We’re not positive, so we have to make an educated guess. With that settled, here’s my stab at the league’s 25 best coaches. This year’s seven new hires are ranked separately.  


Editor’s Note: 2014’s rankings can be found here.


1. Bill Belichick

Career Record: 211-109 (.659)

With The Patriots Since: 2000

Last Year’s Ranking: 1  


Three Super Bowls were easy for the best coach of his generation. It was the fourth that proved elusive. Bill Belichick spent nine years in the championship wilderness, nine years where his reputation never stopped being questioned. Was he a cheat? A product of Tom Brady? An occultist whose talismanic tuck rules and last-second field goals could no longer be conjured? Fate, after all, seemed to torture Belichick at every turn (see Manningham, Mario and Tyree, David).


The answer is Belichick never stopped being the game’s best coach. In reality, he only got better. If you’re not going to win a Super Bowl, you might as well mix in a 16-0 campaign and 11-5 season where your generational quarterback plays only one quarter. Still, however silly, the “questions” could only be answered with a Lombardi. They have been, and in pure Belichick fashion. Super Bowl XLIX could scarcely have been more Belichick-ian had a hoodie been draped over University of Phoenix’s retractable roof. There was controversy (Deflategate), a narrow victory (four points) and unmatched preparation. Because where you might see a stroke of luck in Seattle’s unfathomable decision to pass from the one-yard line, Belichick’s Patriots saw a second chance they weren’t going to waste. Malcolm Butler’s interception was not an accident. He knew what play Russell Wilson was running better than Ricardo Lockette did. Thanks to good coaching, Butler made his own luck, and Belichick a four-time Super Bowl champion. Butler’s pick was not one fateful play. It was simply one more brilliant setup from a coach who has provided 15 years of them in New England.      


2. Pete Carroll

Career Record: 83-61 (.576)

With The Seahawks Since: 2010

Last Year’s Ranking: 2


The league’s second best coach also made its worst decision of the 2014 season. With 26 seconds remaining in Super Bowl XLIX, Pete Carroll was one yard away from one of the most unassailable résumés in football history. The hammer (Marshawn Lynch) needed only one more shot at the nail. Except Carroll didn’t use his best tool, and now he has the rest of his life to wonder why. Only that’s not the kind of coach Carroll is. In the face of the worst moment of his career, Carroll showed why he’s ascended to such heights. There was no pity sought, no public second guessing. Carroll didn’t blame his assistants. He simply marched forward with the kind of relentless positivity that landed him in back-to-back Super Bowls in the first place. Carroll can only be himself, and it’s an attitude he insists on in his players. Richard Sherman is allowed to talk to his heart’s content. Lynch is made to feel comfortable in his mafia silence. Carroll doesn’t need to mold men because he makes their current form their best form. The few who can’t shape up are shipped out (Percy Harvin). The result is an all-for-one, one-for-all brotherhood that Schiano disciplinarians can only dream of. The result is the baddest, best team of the decade.        


3. John Harbaugh  

Career Record: 72-40 (.643)

With The Ravens Since: 2008

Last Year’s Ranking: 5


John Harbaugh is a game manager. He coordinates neither his offense nor his defense. Harbaugh is a big-picture coach, and the portrait he’s painted is one of the most sustained excellence this side of Foxborough. Harbaugh has been the Ravens’ coach for seven seasons. He’s led his team to at least one playoff victory in six of them. Not even Bill Belichick can claim as many postseason wins (seven) as Harbaugh since 2008 (10). How mentally tough are Harbaugh’s teams? They have more road playoff victories over the past three years (three) than the Raiders do total road victories (two). With Baltimore, it’s never one thing. The defense has ebbed and flowed while Joe Flacco has oscillated between “elite!!!” and Rex Grossman. Harbaugh’s Ravens, more than any other team, just get it done, even if you’re not sure how they’re doing it. Hall-of-Famers come and go, coordinators come and go. The only thing that stays the same is the winning.  


4. Bruce Arians

Career Record: 21-11 (.656)

With The Cardinals Since: 2013

Last Year’s Ranking: 8


Bruce Arians can be a bit of a horse’s ass. When Carson Palmer went down in November, Arians refused to change his offense, dialing up deep bomb after deep bomb for Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley. But therein lies part of Arians’ magic. His No. 2 and 3 quarterbacks combined to start 10 games and he still managed to rack up 11 wins in football’s toughest division. Under previous coach Ken Whisenhunt, losing the quarterback would have started a Max Hall-death spiral. Arians made sure that didn’t happen. He didn’t moan, he didn’t whine. (He did gloat a little.) He didn’t change a damn thing, and the reward was an 11-5 campaign in the face of tremendous on-field adversity. Arians’ philosophy is simple. Run enough to keep ‘em honest, go deep enough to maximize your odds of big plays and blitz enough to keep ‘em on their toes. It’s meat-and-potatoes football he knows how to turn into wins. It took Arians 60 years to become an NFL head coach. It’s taken him two to show he was born for the job.    


5. Sean Payton

Career Record: 80-48 (.625)

With The Saints Since: 2006

Last Year’s Ranking: 4


Saints football is Sean Payton. Few coaches in the history of the league have made a bigger impact on their franchise. The former “Aints” have gone from annual also rans to perennial contenders, and they’ve done it on Payton’s watch. If there’s a problem, it’s that Payton can forget to set said watch. Nevermind Bountygate, a reckless, dangerous scandal that cost Payton all of 2012 — a season where his leaderless team went 7-9 and fielded the worst defense the NFL has ever seen. How about 2014, a year that was a cakewalk on paper, but Chinese water torture in practice. Playing in football’s most winnable division, the Saints turned in one disappointing performance after another, limping to a 7-9 record only made possible by the Bucs flagrantly tanking in Week 17. The sub-.500 campaign was just the second in Payton’s eight years in New Orleans, but an uninspired, undisciplined mess where Payton was rarely on the same page with DC Rob Ryan. From Bountygate on, lack of discipline has become a theme for Payton’s teams. Payton has earned enough benefit of the doubt to last a lifetime in the Crescent City, but he’s now had to tap into it two times in three years. Three in four will have people asking questions that seemed unthinkable in 2011.      


6. Chip Kelly

Career Record: 20-12 (.625)

With The Eagles Since: 2013

Last Year’s Ranking: 6


For Chip Kelly’s detractors — of which there are legion — 2014 was another brick in the wall of his ongoing exposure. “Forget a national title at Oregon — the guy who’s ‘revolutionizing football’ can’t even win the NFC East?” It’s simplistic pablum, the kind Billy Beane has stared down for years in baseball. You don’t have to dig deep to find Kelly’s impact. Let’s just ignore all the things happening outside of public view, like the way Kelly is changing everything from how the league practices to how it sleeps. Let’s focus on something really basic. In two years as an NFL head coach, Kelly has amassed 20 wins and a .625 winning percentage. He’s done so with Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez making 81 percent of the starts at quarterback. That would be lead-footed Nick Foles and 56.3 percent career passer Mark Sanchez. The two most important physical traits for a Kelly quarterback are repetitive accuracy and fleet feet. Foles and Sanchez have neither, and yet here Kelly is, 2-for-2 in 10-win seasons. No, they don’t hang banners for 10-win campaigns, but two years in, Kelly’s plan remains right on schedule. Maybe Kelly will never win a title, but he’s already changed the game.       


7. Mike McCarthy

Career Record: 94-49-1 (.656)

With The Packers Since: 2006  

Last Year’s Ranking: 10


Mike McCarthy backs into parking spaces. He pays with exact change. If he’s told you once, he’s told you twice, kids: No PG-13 movies until you’re 13. McCarthy is a conservative, unimaginative man. He’s also a Super Bowl winning, conservative, unimaginative man. It’s impossible to separate McCarthy from his superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers, so we won’t try. McCarthy has averaged 10 wins per season in Green Bay, and made the playoffs seven out of nine years. That includes 2013, where Rodgers started only nine games. You may argue that the quarterback has made the man, but give the man this: He’s known what to do with the quarterback. You don’t have to like McCarthy. You definitely don’t have to sign off on the shell game he played in the NFC Championship Game. You just have to admit that for however much you curse the guy, he always seems to be coaching his team in big games.  


8. Bill O’Brien

Career Record: 9-7 (.563)

With The Texans Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: — —


Bill O’Brien is the tale of two Week 17s. Week 17 2013: The Texans were in the midst of a 13-game losing streak, and on track for the No. 1 overall pick. Week 17 2014: The Texans entered with a 4-2 record since their bye (8-7 overall), and an outside shot at a playoff berth. That’s the level to which the Texans’ fortunes changed under O’Brien. Not that O’Brien walked into a hopeless situation. Any rookie coach should be lucky enough to have the best defensive player on the planet (J.J. Watt), and two All-Pros on offense (Arian Foster and Andre Johnson). It wasn’t just that O’Brien whipped a talented roster into 9-7, however, but how he did it. How did O’Brien land on the coaching radar in the first place? Via Tom Brady’s golden arm. What did he do his final year at Penn State? Dial up 32.6 passes per game with true freshman Christian Hackenberg. So what was his plan in Houston? Lead the league in rushing attempts. O’Brien maximized his roster in every which way, tapping DeAndre Hopkins’ superstar potential while making JaDeveon Clowney's lost rookie year a footnote. The Colts have had free rein of the AFC South since landing Andrew Luck. O’Brien has ensured that’s about to change.   


9. Tom Coughlin

Career Record: 164-140 (.539)

With The Giants Since: 2004

Last Year’s Ranking: 9


For as disciplined and traditional as Tom Coughlin may seem, he is a high-wire act. When Coughlin isn’t in disbelief on the sideline, he’s in a volcanic fury. Coughlin belies his grandfatherly image at every turn, and it’s that contradiction that keeps him and the New York Giants going. Coughlin is an elder statesman. He is old school. But he’s also as passionate as any man in football, and still willing to reinvent at age 68. Maybe you can call it self preservation, but how many head coaches with 19 years of experience and two Super Bowl titles would be willing to completely remake their offense? That’s what Coughlin did in 2014, “retiring” longtime confidant Kevin Gilbride. Out were Gilbride’s deep drops and long-developing plays, and in was Ben McAdoo’s quick-hitting attack. The result was a revitalized Eli Manning, and genuine hope for 2015. Coughlin’s teams can be frustrating and inconsistent, but the highs are Super Bowl titles, while the lows are just three sub-.500 seasons in 11 years in New York.  


10. Andy Reid

Career Record: 150-105-1 (.588)

With The Chiefs Since: 2013

Last Year’s Ranking: 7


In 16 years as an NFL head coach, Andy Reid has mastered many arts. He’s gotten no science so exact as apologizing for the misuse of his best players. From Brian Westbrook to LeSean McCoy to Jamaal Charles, Reid has never met a star he couldn’t inexplicably mothball. It was a constant theme for Charles in 2014, at one point prompting Reid to call his own play-calling “negligence.” But if Reid’s play-calling can sometimes be negligent, his clock management can be downright criminal. It’s these glaring flaws that highlight just how good of a coach Reid can be. For despite weaknesses as plain as day, Reid never stops winning. He has 20 Ws in two years in Kansas City, and averaged 9.3 across 13 seasons in Philadelphia. That’s why his continual issues with player use and telling time can almost feel like a personal affront. Reid is so close to greatness, if only he’d get out of his own way. At this point, Reid is an old dog we can’t hope to teach new tricks. But somewhere out there, that championship bone is buried. Stranger things have happened than Reid finally finding it.


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11. Marvin Lewis  

Career Record: 100-90-2 (.526)

With The Bengals Since: 2003

Last Year’s Ranking: 12


Your first clue as to Lewis’ long, strange trip as Bengals head coach lies in his record. Two ties. That’s a remarkable feat for a man who has coached all of his football in the 21st century. Another remarkable feat? A winning record over 12 seasons with one of the losingest, cheapest franchises in NFL history. By now you know the defining statistic of Lewis’ career. Six playoff appearances, zero playoff victories. .000 in the postseason is hard to figure for a man who is .526 during the regular campaign. Another way to look at it? You try making the playoffs four-straight seasons with Andy Dalton. You try going 10-5-1 one year after both coordinators departed to become head coaches. Should Lewis be judged by his postseason eggs, or all the impressive seasons that have gotten him there? 0-for-6 is ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is ignoring the job Lewis has done to pull Cincinnati from the depths of the NFL, making them an annual contender in the league’s most consistently-competitive division.   


12. Mike Tomlin

Career Record: 82-46 (.641)

With The Steelers Since: 2007

Last Year’s Ranking: 16


Is Mike Tomlin overrated, underrated or both? Like rival John Harbaugh, Tomlin is an overseer, coordinating neither his offense nor defense. Unlike Harbaugh, his teams can be rather inconsistent. Tomlin has produced a playoff victory in just three of eight seasons, and whereas Harbaugh’s fierce defense has ebbed and flowed, Tomlin’s has seemed in a perpetual downward state. Tomlin has lost to Tim Tebow in the playoffs. That’s a humiliation shared by no other man. So why is Tomlin’s career winning percentage .641? He knows what he’s doing. What do you do if you don’t call the shots on offense or defense? You lead. Tomlin’s players will follow him through the proverbial brick wall, while few coaches deflect more praise or accept more criticism. Has Tomlin been helped along by greats like Ben Roethlisberger and Dick LeBeau? Yes. Do we hold that against every other coach with great supporting casts? No. The Steelers would still be competitive without Mike Tomlin. That’s not the point. The point is a coach with a keen understanding of his duties, and execution of them year in and year out.   


13. Jason Garrett

Career Record: 41-31 (.561)

With The Cowboys Since: 2010

Last Year’s Ranking: 24


Jason Garrett is a lackey, a puppet. So the thinking went as owner/GM Jerry Jones refused to fire Garrett whilst simultaneously stripping him of all obvious power. Garrett entered 2014 with his “passing-game coordinator” calling the plays, and without any years remaining on his contract. It was to be a 16-game (if he was lucky) funeral. Instead, it was a rethink. Of Garrett’s role, of the Cowboys’ offensive philosophy and of Garrett’s reputation. Garrett was tasked with one job: Lead. He did, to 12-4, and within one Calvin Johnson Rule of the NFC Championship Game. With Garrett overseeing, Scott Linehan’s commitment to the run never wavered, and the other shoe never dropped. For the first four years of Garrett’s rule, every triumph was followed by an embarrassment of equal or greater measure. 2014 kicked the embarrassments to the curb, and berthed a new style of Cowboys football. Maybe it will prove to be a one off, but at least for one year, the rest of the world saw the Garrett ol’ Jer has always talked about.    


14. Mike McCoy

Career Record: 18-14 (.563)

With The Chargers Since: 2013

Last Year’s Ranking: 15


Mike McCoy’s two seasons as an NFL head coach have produced the same result: 9-7. The difference between the two? Philip Rivers’ ribs and back. McCoy’s sophomore campaign likely could have been a greater success had his star player not been plagued by a pair of lingering ailments. Injuries in the backfield and along the offensive line were detriments, as well. As it is, 9-7 was an accomplishment, and went a long way toward proving it was McCoy — and not former OC Ken Whisenhunt — who was responsible for Rivers’ revival and the Chargers’ renewed status as a competitive football team. Health will remain a concern for San Diego’s aging core in 2015, but the coach will not.  


15. Mike Zimmer

Career Record: 7-9 (.438)

With The Vikings Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: — —


When people say “fire and brimstone,” they’re talking about Mike Zimmer. The longtime coordinator — 14 years — was every tough-coach cliché you could think of as a rookie. As Greg Schiano and Eric Mangini will tell you, that doesn’t always translate in today’s game. For Zimmer, it did. Not only did he give the Vikings a badly-needed identity, but a surprising 7-9 record in a year where his best player (Adrian Peterson) played only 45 snaps, and a rookie suited up at quarterback. The trick for Zimmer will be repeating the feat in 2015, and not wearing his players out like hundreds of disciplinarians before him. We’d bet on Zimmer finding the right chord to strike. For all the evidence that he’s tough, there’s little to suggest he isn’t fair. That’s the kind of leadership that translates in any era.     


16. Chuck Pagano

Career Record: 33-15 (.688)

With The Colts Since: 2012

Last Year’s Ranking: 21


Slowly but surely — emphasis on slowly — Chuck Pagano’s team is taking on his identity. Andrew Luck continued to carry the Colts on his back in 2014, but for the second-straight season, an undermanned defense overachieved. GM Ryan Grigson has made a habit of giving Pagano shaky personnel, but Pagano has made a habit of coaching ‘em up. Some have been beyond save. 2013 first-rounder Bjoern Werner was a healthy scratch for the AFC Championship Game, for instance. But by and large, Pagano has held up his end of the bargain. He’s been an inspiring leader, and solid defensive boss. He’s even gotten a clue on offense. Of all the adjustments made league-wide in 2014, none was more important than Indy finally letting Luck cut loose. Luck’s attempts skyrocketed to a career-high 616, but his efficiency only improved. Indy’s reward was 458 points, its most since Peyton Manning was calling the shots in 2004. Pagano is still far from perfect. It would be nice if he stopped getting blown out of the building by Bill Belichick. The improvement has been undeniable, however, lessening the sting of losing secret weapon Bruce Arians. Pagano is never going to be a top-five coach, but paired with an elite quarterback like Luck, he’s somebody you can win with.  


17. Ron Rivera

Career Record: 32-31-1 (.508)

With The Panthers Since: 2011

Last Year’s Ranking: 17


Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? Is Ron Rivera a good head coach? Some questions are unanswerable. Rivera was as good as fired after getting off to a 1-3 start in 2013. Then he started riding the Riverboat, rallying his team to an 11-1 finish and first-round bye. Carolina lost at home in the Divisional Round, but Rivera’s walk on the wild side saved his job, and set high expectations for 2014. Of course, they weren’t realistic. Salary-cap issues left behind a depleted roster, while franchise player Greg Hardy played only one game before drawing an indefinite suspension. Cam Newton was forced to make do with a receiver corps led by stone-handed rookie Kelvin Benjamin and … Jerricho Cotchery. The result was another rocky start (3-8-1), and more questions about Rivera’s job security. Then something even more unlikely than 11-1 happened. The Panthers finished in a 4-0 flourish, stealing the division with a 7-8-1 record before winning a Wild Card game against the Cardinals. What have the Panthers’ back-to-back hot finishes taught us about Rivera’s coaching? Not a lot. Rivera’s offense remains unimaginative, while his defense foundered more than it excelled in 2014. Despite his “Riverboat” moniker, Rivera remains one of the league’s most vanilla shot callers. That’s fine if he can start putting together complete seasons. Until then, he’s a coach who’s gotten by on temporary guile and a laughable division.   


18. Jeff Fisher

Career Record: 162-147-1 (.524)

With The Rams Since: 2012

Last Year’s Ranking: 14


Insanity is doing the same Jeff Fisher routine over and over and expecting a different result. One hallmark of a Fisher team? There is no one they can’t beat. Peyton Manning and the NFC Champion Seahawks can attest to that. The problem is all the Sundays Fisher’s teams aren’t AnyGiven™. For though Fisher can beat anybody, he can lose to everybody. Fisher’s teams live on the edge. They bully now and ask “should we really have called that Tavon Austin bubble screen?” later. Occasionally, this will produce the odd 13-3 record (1999, 2000, 2008). More often it results in stunningly inconsistent football that has long since trademarked seven followed by a dash followed by a nine. Fisher has been a full-time NFL coach for 19 seasons. Nine of them have produced 7-9 or 8-8 records. Fisher has finished better than .500 just 31.5 percent of the time, and zero times since 2008. You can argue this hasn’t all been his fault. Fisher didn’t ask for Vince Young or Sam Bradford’s defective ACL. But if the proof is in the pudding, Fisher’s is served as a store bought Snack Pack that looks good before you open it, but underwhelms by the time you finish it.    


19. Jim Caldwell

Career Record: 37-27 (.578)

With The Lions Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: — —


Jim Caldwell is why this exercise can be so inexact. In most ways, Caldwell did exactly what the Lions paid him to do in 2014. He whipped a soft, undisciplined roster of perennial underachievers into an 11-5 playoff club. The 11 wins were Detroit’s most since 1991. The man clearly did his job in the locker room. On the sideline? In Week 12, the Lions headed to New England. No place has been harder to win during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. So what does Caldwell do? He punts from the Patriots’ 39-yard line. He kicks a field goal down 21. Flash forward six weeks, with the Lions trying to close out a playoff game in Dallas. The Lions needed one yard to make life infinitely more difficult for a Cowboys team trailing 20-17. Caldwell doesn’t go for it, the Cowboys get the ball back at their own 41 and complete their comeback from a 20-7 deficit. Those decisions were Caldwell’s season in a nutshell, and part of the reason the Lions scored just 321 points, the 10th fewest in the league despite having all the weapons you could ever dream of. None of that is to even mention Caldwell’s debacle in London, perhaps the worst-coached game of all time. Caldwell can lead. Coaching is another matter.          


20. Lovie Smith

Career Record: 83-77 (.519)

With The Bucs Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: — —


When the Bucs recycled Lovie Smith, they fancied themselves a reloading club, not a rebuilding one. That questionably-laid plan took its last-gasping breath just 11 days into the season, where Smith’s team got disemboweled 56-14 in the Georgia Dome. Atlanta led 56-0 with 16:47 remaining. From that moment on, a new course was set: The No. 1 overall pick. Smith’s 2-14 team got out-scored by 133 points, with its lone accomplishment coming in Week 17, where it snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Along the way was some truly wretched football, and a coach who was maybe more with the times than Monte Kiffin, but not that much more. Smith’s résumé is such that he can’t yet be considered the next Wade Phillips, an aging retread who can no longer hack it as a head coach. But if 2015 goes even half as poorly as 2014, forced retirement will deservedly be in Smith’s future.   


21. Gus Bradley

Career Record: 7-25 (.219)

With The Jaguars Since: 2013

Last Year’s Ranking: 18


Gus Bradley is not a miracle worker. St. Francis of Assisi himself could not have made the 2014 Jaguars a contender. But this bad? As a rookie head coach in 2013, Bradley began his NFL career by limping into the Jags’ bye week at 0-8. Then he turned water into wine, coaxing a 4-4 finish out of one of the most talent-barren rosters in the league, and setting the stage for a step forward in 2014. What Jags fans got instead was two steps back. There would be no 4-4 stretch. That’s because there wouldn’t be four wins all season. Thanks to a league-low 249 points, the Jags got out-scored by 163 en route to a dismal 3-13. Bradley was again playing without a full deck. He had a rookie quarterback (Blake Bortles) doing his best Jake Locker impression, and a No. 1 playmaker (Justin Blackmon) who never played a snap. Bradley’s secondary picked off a league-low six passes even though the pass rush actually generated some heat. But no matter how valid, Bradley won’t be afforded any more excuses in 2015. An imprint must be made. That’s not necessarily fair, but it is life in a league where you are what your record says you are. Right now, Bradley is 7-25.   


22. Jay Gruden

Career Record: 4-12 (.250)

With The Redskins Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: — —


Jay Gruden was a middle-of-the-road offensive coordinator. As a head coach, he’s just trying to keep his team on the road. Gruden has perhaps the most thankless job in sports. For owner Daniel Snyder, the Redskins are a play thing. FedEx Field is Snyder’s sandbox, and “Jerry Jones without the charm or football background” is his mission statement. Snyder manufactures more needless drama than any man on the planet. That’s the hornet’s nest Gruden has stepped into. Despite his undistinguished career as a play-caller, Gruden managed the undermanned 2014 Redskins about as well as any man could have. There was no fake happy talk for an ineffective Robert Griffin III, and no mystery as to who was calling the shots. Gruden was his own man for a team where that can get you fired. Of course, some of Gruden’s decisions left much to be desired. Colt McCoy shouldn’t be playing quarterback and Jim Haslett shouldn’t be coordinating defense, let alone on the same team. But if Gruden didn’t bat 1.000, he still laid the groundwork for success in a dysfunctional organization. There’s just no guarantee Snyder lets him see it through.  


23. Mike Pettine

Career Record: 7-9 (.438)

With The Browns Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: — —


Mike Pettine was the Browns’ safety school after they decided to set their sights higher than Rob Chudzinski University. Turned down by all other bastions of higher football learning, owner Jimmy Haslam eventually packed his bags and backed into Pettine College. At first, the backdoor maneuver appeared as brilliant as firing Chudzinski was rash. 7-4 at Thanksgiving, the Browns found themselves in their first playoff race since 2007. That’s when things went Full Cleveland. The GM meddled, the quarterback unraveled, the backup imploded. In the middle was Pettine, who could never find the tourniquet for a postseason dream gushing blood. How much of this was actually Pettine’s fault is up for debate, but the evidence doesn’t suggest clean hands. First-rounders Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel were entitled messes who showed no signs of development. Josh Gordon regressed, the running backs never knew who would be starting. Thrust into chaos, Pettine didn’t calm, he exacerbated. With the situation only darkening in the offseason — OC Kyle Shanahan has departed for Atlanta, and Manziel is in rehab — the deck is stacked against a sophomore surge for Cleveland’s fall-back coach.       


24. Ken Whisenhunt  

Career Record: 47-65 (.420)

With The Titans Since: 2014

Last Year’s Ranking: — —


Ken Whisenhunt’s final year in Arizona: Five wins, four quarterbacks. Ken Whisenhunt’s first year in Tennessee: Two wins, three quarterbacks. Whisenhunt has coached 64 games since Kurt Warner retired. They’ve been quarterbacked by nine different signal callers, with no one starting more than 17 games (John Skelton). Whiz has had great success with veteran QBs, from his time with Warner to his year coordinating Philip Rivers in San Diego. Without them, he’s been sub-Lovie Smith. There’s no veteran quarterback walking through that door in Tennessee. GM Ruston Webster is out of his depth, while the team is seemingly sold on 2014 sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger. Mett has some nice tools, but is a statue waiting to be felled and injured on any given play. Even if Mett stays healthy, there is nothing in Whiz’s history to suggest he’ll develop him. Whiz struck while his Rivers iron was hot. It’s Tennessee that’s going to get burned.     


25. Joe Philbin

Career Record: 23-25 (.479)

With The Dolphins Since: 2012

Last Year’s Ranking: 25


The grandest of mediocrities, Joe Philbin is not an NFL coach. He is a shrinking violet garbed in an aqua polo and adorned with a headset. He is a man unloved by his players, outwitted by his rivals and overwhelmed by his duties. An “offensive mind,” Philbin does not call his own plays. That leaves his primary function as “leading.” This is not good because Philbin’s primary failing is leadership. Not every NFL coach is going to be Pete Carroll or Mike Ditka. Loud does not equal “lead.” But if you’re going to be the quiet type, you better have a firm grasp on the pulse of your team. This is something Philbin insisted he didn’t have when he pled ignorance again and again in the Dolphins’ “Bullygate” scandal. Philbin’s locker room was fracturing into factions, and whether it was willful or intentional, he had no idea. Once Philbin finally does discover his problems, he ships them out instead of coaching them up. Brandon Marshall and Vontae Davis have both thrived since Philbin sent them packing, while the Dolphins have spent millions and many draft picks trying to replace them.


Not that Philbin’s failures all come behind closed doors. As a game manager, his top innovation has been calling late timeouts on defense in one-score games. This brilliant tactic helped produce two wins in 2014 … for the Packers and Lions. Philbin’s other speciality is dialing up field goals. Unfortunately for Dolphins fans, only five teams had worse field-goal percentages last season. Philbin is John Harbaugh if he never won. He’s Mike Tomlin if he never showed fire. He’s Jason Garrett if he never smiled. He is the worst coach in the NFL.   


New Hires


1. Rex Ryan, Bills 

Career Record: 46-50 (.479)


When it comes to developing quarterbacks, Rex Ryan finds himself along the same longitudinal lines as Lovie Smith. Ryan coaches up signal callers somewhere between Greenland and Baffin Island. He is an outpost of quarterback learning. When it comes to defense, however, Ryan is arguably without peer. Nemesis to Bill Belichick, Ryan schemes to overachieve like no other. When he does have the horses, no unit is more imposing. Ryan has the defensive horses in Buffalo. The problem is, he still doesn’t have the quarterback. E.J. Manuel is arguably worse than any situation Ryan found himself in down state. But if we’re talking the strengths of 2015’s seven new hires, Ryan’s defensive prowess is the strongest. Maybe he’ll run into the same quarterback dead end he did in New Jersey. At least he’ll give Buffalo the defense it deserves, and the leadership it lacked under egomaniac Doug Marrone.     


2a. Dan Quinn, Falcons

Career Record: — —  


In a hiring season almost entirely devoid of new faces, Quinn’s is the freshest. He is a defensive-minded hire for a team that desperately needed one. The question is, was he a key cog in the Seahawks’ defensive machine, or just a product of it? Machine hires are a notoriously mixed bag. Ex-Ravens defensive assistants? Typically doing pretty well. Ex-Patriots coordinators? Not so much. Quinn need look only 350 miles down the road to see what he’s up against. Quinn’s predecessor in Seattle, Gus Bradley, was hired by the Jaguars to much fanfare in 2013. Two years later, he has seven wins. The good news for Quinn is, he has a talent base in place on offense. That’s a luxury Bradley wasn’t afforded. Quinn can devote his full attention to a defense that’s somewhere between shambles and mockery. If he can get it in something resembling order, Quinn will be on the fast track to “best hire of 2015” status.  


2b. Todd Bowles, Jets  

Career Record: — —


Todd Bowles was the league’s best assistant coach in 2014. His undermanned defense didn’t just overachieve, it suffocated its opponents. Bowles’ Red Curtain allowed just 299 points, the fewest surrendered by Arizona since 1994. Bowles is a maximizer of talent, and Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson give him two fierce building blocks in New York. But he’s also inherited a rookie coach’s worst nightmare: No quarterback. Will he work around this like Bill O’Brien, or be sunk by it, a la Mike Pettine? Bowles is a brilliant football mind, one who will succeed if given the right tools. There’s just no guarantee he’ll get them from the Jets, an organization on its third general manager in four seasons. If Bowles fails, it won’t be because he wasn’t the right man for the job. It will be because the job didn’t give him the right men.    


4. Gary Kubiak, Broncos  

Career Record: 61-64 (.488)


Kubiak has a pretty simple job in Denver — keep the car running. Peyton Manning’s machine began to sputter down the stretch of 2014, but Kubiak should inject new fuel. Kubiak’s time in Houston ended in humiliating fashion, but he rebounded nicely by coordinating the best offense in Ravens history last season. A Mike Shanahan disciple through and through, he’ll install a run-heavy offense in Denver, the kind Manning began to rely on in November and December. Fresh off coaxing an elite campaign out of Justin Forsett, Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme should mesh well with C.J. Anderson, a one-cut runner who loves to get downhill. Kubiak will have to make a few adjustments. Famously loath to let Matt Schaub audible, Kubiak will have to deal with the changes Manning makes at the line. But these are two brilliant offensive minds, ones who should find a middle ground. Kubiak will be the brain to pick for Manning that John Fox never was. Retread or not, Kubiak is the right man at the right time for the win-now Broncos.    


5. John Fox, Bears

Career Record: 119-89 (.572)


John Fox chews gum like no other coach. He also claps quite well. When it comes to everything else, he’s indistinguishable from “Create A Coach 1.” Fox is extremely conservative, but that hardly makes him unique amongst NFL head men. He’s also extremely cagey with the media, but again, that is not a differentiating factor. Fox is just there, overseeing, clapping and chewing gum. His Plain Jane skill-set isn’t necessarily a liability. His copy-and-paste coaching comes with a floor of 6-8 wins. It’s just that his ceiling is not that of a champion, even if he came within three points of a Super Bowl title in 2004. Broncos GM John Elway admitted as much when he fired Fox in January. Elway didn’t think Fox could get the Broncos to the next level. It was a conclusion he drew after four years of watching Fox prove it on the field. Year 1: Fox treats Tim Tebow as alien being. Year 2: Despite having one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Fox kneels out the final 0:31 of regulation in the AFC Divisional Round. The Broncos lose in double overtime. Year 3: The Broncos are dismantled in the Super Bowl. Year 4: The Broncos are dismantled in the Divisional Round. In Chicago, Fox will be on time. He will be on task. He will not be an above-average NFL coach.        


6. Jack Del Rio, Raiders

Career Record: 68-71 (.479)


If you’re looking to inspire, you don’t hire Jack Del Rio. But inspiration is pretty low on the Raiders’ to-do list. The Silver and Black have 56 wins in 12 seasons since appearing in Super Bowl XXXVII. That’s an average of 4.6. Reggie McKenzie’s teams have gone 2-22 on the road since he took over as general manager in 2012. So, no, Del Rio is not being brought in as a savior who can win hearts and minds. He’s being brought in as a competent coach who can win a few damn games. It’s a task he should be up to. Del Rio won fewer than eight contests just three times in eight full seasons as Jacksonville’s head coach. He was a fine guiding hand until Blaine Gabbert came along. Del Rio’s ceiling is not the Sears Tower, or even the Eiffel Tower. He is not a championship hire. He’s an order restorer, one who should make the Raiders watchable every couple of Sundays. Even a baby step like that is a big step for the second-worst organization in football.     


7. Jim Tomsula, 49ers

Career Record: – –


Jim Tomsula is an interesting story. He is not an interesting interview. Will he be an interesting hire? The man Tomsula is replacing, Jim Harbaugh, was ranked No. 3 on this list last year. Harbaugh is one of the brightest minds in all of football. He is not the kind of coach typically forced out of his job, let alone replaced by a man with no head-coaching experience in America. Tomsula’s lone HC experience anywhere came with the Rhein Fire. He is a shot in the dark for an organization that had grown tired of Harbaugh’s attitude (and salary), but wants to somehow sustain his winning. The 49ers are basically hoping they’re doing something so crazy — and cheap — it works. That’s an easy way for the front office to take control of the bottom line and the locker room, but a curious approach to competing with the Seattle Seahawks. Maybe brain trust Jed York and Trent Baalke have found a diamond in the rough. More likely, they’ve found their Jim Zorn.  


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