NFL's Best Coaches 2021

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The state of NFL coaching is actually quite good. The best continue to change with the times while the worst are no longer getting recycled. Teams now hunt for the next Sean McVay instead of becoming John Fox’s fourth employer. Coaches have never had more information at their disposal, and they are making use of it, designing smarter passing attacks and cutting down on mindless rushes. On defense, there is a growing understanding that, yes, stopping the pass is more important than the run. There are still bad coaches, but they are considerably better than their counterparts from even 10 years ago.

As I say every year, players, owners, assistants, injuries and acts of God can matter as much as coaching acumen. That’s why, though this is a rankings article, I try not to think of it that way. I view it as more of a compendium, an assessment of where the league’s 32 coaches find themselves right now. How they got here and where they might be going. Last year’s list can be found here. 2019’s is here.

1. Bill Belichick, Patriots
Career Record: 280-136 (.673)
With The Patriots Since: 2000
Last Year’s Ranking: 1

Bill Belichick is a black box. For as expansive as he can be on matters of NFL history or special teams strategy, he won’t provide a window into the thought process that allowed Tom Brady to depart in free agency. Was 2020’s 7-9 record — the Patriots’ first losing season since 2000 — considered a painful necessity all along? Or was it a rare piece of humble pie for a genius who thought he could immediately put his co-icon behind him? Whatever it was, it was in keeping with one of Belichick’s most famous practices: It’s better to be one year too early instead of one year too late. In this case, Belichick’s too early was someone else’s Super Bowl championship. Probably not the result he expected, but it was the process he was always going to follow. Belichick was wrong, as he often is. His gift remains being the least wrong in a business where mistakes are a part of daily life.

2. Andy Reid, Chiefs
Career Record: 221-130-1 (.629)
With The Chiefs Since: 2013
Last Year’s Ranking: 2

Andy Reid has nothing left to prove. Andy Reid has everything left to prove. That’s life in the NFL. Can Reid fix an offensive line that had Patrick Mahomes running for his life in the Super Bowl? Can he find a third weapon behind Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce? Will his defense show up for all 17 games? Is Clyde Edwards-Helaire going to evolve into more than just a Sproles-ian third-down back? Reid creates some of his biggest headaches in the front office. Reid may not technically be the general manager, but ask John Dorsey about the separation of Reid’s church and state. Brett Veach’s seat was drawing some Dorsey heat before a solid offseason, one that indeed remade Mahomes’ shaky line. That third weapon never materialized, leaving Reid without a back-up plan if either of his top two options goes down. These are, of course, the ultimate first-world football problems. There is no other kind when you have won five straight divisions and two straight conference titles. Reid found Mahomes. Now it is Super Bowl or bust until either the coach or quarterback hangs them up. That’s a lot of pressure. It’s also only there if you are one of the greatest of all time.

3. Sean Payton, Saints
Career Record: 143-81 (.638)
With The Saints Since: 2006

Last Year’s Ranking: 3

Sean Payton found his second wind after three years in the 7-9 wilderness, averaging 12 victories over the past four seasons. The problem is, he only tacked on three in the playoffs, and zero in the month of February. Now Drew Brees is working for NBC and Payton’s hunt begins anew. He has yet to tackle the central dilemma of his brave new world: Will it be dual-threat Taysom Hill or interception-threat Jameis Winston under center? It could be both, with Payton blazing another new trail after standing at the vanguard of the modern era’s “completions at all costs” passing revolution. Expanding Hill’s red zone role while letting Winston handle the business between the 20s would not be reinventing the quarterbacking wheel — flip on some college football this fall — but it would be a sensible zag as the rest of the league zigs ever further down the efficiency rabbit hole. Payton has always had the answers. He’s also never had a question this big. It could take him a few seasons to answer it. A coach who has won 11-plus games eight times in the past 12 years has earned that right.

4. John Harbaugh, Ravens
Career Record: 129-79 (.620)
With The Ravens Since: 2008

Last Year’s Ranking: 4

On December 3, the Ravens were 6-5 with 18 of their players on the COVID-19 list. 31 days later, they were 11-5 and back in the postseason for the third straight year. It was a flurry of a finish to an otherwise grind-it-out season. It’s not surprising that 2020 was something of a hangover campaign after an historically-good 2019 ended in devastating playoff defeat. The same is true of Harbaugh immediately steering the ship back to the postseason. The Ravens have played January ball 9-of-13 years on Harbaugh’s watch, winning at least one game seven times. As is the case with any long-term head coach, it is easy to point to seasons where there should have been more. The disappointment comes part and parcel with the triumph. You only get to lose big games when you are consistently playing in them. That is the case year in and year out for Harbaugh, who has mastered the CEO role like few others. In a league with 32 teams, Harbaugh may never win another Super Bowl. He will also never stop putting his team in position to reach them.

5. Sean McVay, Rams
Career Record: 43-21 (.672)
With The Rams Since: 2017
Last Year’s Ranking: 7

Sean McVay wasn’t doing things his way. That might be hard to believe for a coach who seemed to arrive fully formed in 2017, but McVay was not happy with his defense as the 2019 season wound down. NFL lifer Wade Phillips had bought McVay valuable time on his non-dominant side of the ball, but he now wanted more. Specifically, his “own Sean McVay,” someone who likes to break and rebuild schemes as much as he does. Enter Broncos OLBs coach Brandon Staley, an assistant precisely no one else had heard of. McVay doesn’t miss small details like the non-traditional linebackers coach doing interesting things for Vic Fangio’s staff. A college quarterback, Staley views defense through a completely different lens. It was a match made in heaven with McVay, taking the Rams from a solid unit to one that allowed the fewest yards in the league. It was a necessary development as McVay lost some of his magic — and patience — with Jared Goff on offense. Naturally, Staley was instantly hired away, but his brief Rams sojourn was emblematic of everything McVay stands for. Perfection is the daily goal. Complacency will not be tolerated. That might not be a great way to live your daily life. It’s the only way to win Super Bowls.

6. Sean McDermott, Bills
Career Record: 38-26 (.594)
With The Bills Since: 2017
Last Year’s Ranking: 11

The best defensive hire of the past decade, Sean McDermott has handled his side of the ball while championing aggressive solutions on offense. That is in terms of both personnel — two trade ups for Josh Allen — and approach. When the run wasn’t working in 2020, McDermott simply abandoned it. The end result was the Bills’ first appearance in the AFC Championship Game since the first Clinton Administration. McDermott’s 23 wins over the past two seasons are the most for any two-year Bills span since 1992-93. Oh, and yeah, that division title? The first since Bill Belichick arrived in New England. McDermott is “no nonsense” without the nonsense. He’s not going to run just for the sake of it. He won’t quarantine his quarterback to the pocket. He wants to win, and understands how to do so in the year 2021. With defensive brains to match his offensive firepower, McDermott has opened the championship window he worked tirelessly to build.

7. Mike Tomlin, Steelers
Career Record: 145-78-1 (.650)
With The Steelers Since: 2007
Last Year’s Ranking: 6

“But Ben Roethlisberger” has lost some of its luster as an anti-Mike Tomlin argument. Tomlin’s quarterback-less 8-8 2019 campaign was one of the most impressive feats of his now 14-year career. Big Ben was back for 2020, but in name only as his arm completed its noodlefication following 2019 elbow surgery. If you think that is just an uninformed blogger’s opinion, ask the Steelers, who required their 17-year franchise player to take a pay cut to return for 2021. The Steelers know Tomlin can lead a football team, even if he’s not always sure when to challenge or call a timeout. That was again vividly demonstrated in the Steelers’ dismal Wild Card defeat to end 2020-21. Sunday Tomlin too often undermines Monday-Saturday Tomlin. The trade off has nevertheless been worth it for a franchise with only three head coaches since 1969, and zero losing seasons on Tomlin’s watch. Tomlin isn’t perfect. As 2020 Bill Belichick proved, no coach is.

8. Pete Carroll, Seahawks
Career Record: 145-94-1 (.606)
With The Seahawks Since: 2010
Last Year’s Ranking: 9

The more he wins, the less popular Pete Carroll seems to become. The Seahawks’ victory totals have increased to 10, 11 and 12 after a nine-win 2017, the low-water mark of the Russell Wilson era. The recent triumphs have been accompanied by just one division title and postseason victory, but the raw data still tells the story of an elite coach. Carroll actually tried to please his most ardent critics in the first half of 2020, leading the league in neutral pass rate through the season’s first nine weeks. Then he lost his nerve amidst a barrage of Wilson interceptions and the Seahawks never discovered a new identity. They limped into the playoffs on the back of a series of unconvincing victories before being summarily dismissed by the quarterback-less Rams. The offensive implosion was enough for even Carroll to move on from OC Brian Schottenheimer. It was the innovative Rams he looked to for Schotty’s replacement. Shane Waldron arrives as Carroll’s most intriguing hire in some time, but the ol’ ball coach will have to let the young buck do things his way for the move to actually pay off. Understandably, that has been hard for someone as successful as Carroll to do. Overrated by himself and underrated by the public, Carroll has coached long enough to become the villain. He could still win another Super Bowl if he picks the right spots to stay out of his own way in January.

9. Bruce Arians, Bucs
Career Record: 67-44-1 (.603)
With The Bucs Since: 2019

Last Year’s Ranking: 14

Bruce Arians was comfortable delegating to his coordinators in 2019. For 2020, he chose a higher power. Arians’ team was no longer his alone once he brought Tom Brady aboard, but he kept a surprisingly tight grip on the offense, so much so that it wasn’t working as late as Thanksgiving. Then the mindmeld finally happened. Even as the Bucs got blitzed in their Nov. 29 meeting with the Chiefs, Arians identified it as a turning point. “From there on, we attacked,” Arians said. “I think we were on the same page from there on out.” That was borne out by the stats. Brady entered that Week 12 matchup with a 0.0 QB rating on deep targets over the previous month. That number for the final four games of the season? 138.6. It was the most important adjustment in what Arians deemed a “constant collaboration.” The old war horse met his new quarterback in the middle and was rewarded with a Lombardi Trophy. Good coaching can be as simple as that. It’s true that not everyone has Tom Brady, but even the ones who do don’t always know when to say when (Sorry, BB). A coach who could sometimes be stubborn in Arizona has learned to let go in Tampa. A mini dynasty could be the end result.

10. Kyle Shanahan, 49ers
Career Record: 29-35 (.453)
With The 49ers Since: 2017
Last Year’s Ranking: 8

The widely held hypothesis that Kyle Shanahan is an elite young coach seemed proven when the 49ers advanced to Super Bowl LIV. Then he won six games again. Six is a number Shanahan has failed to clear in 3-of-4 seasons. Instead of serving as an indictment of his competence, it’s more useful as a reminder that this NFL coaching business is really damn hard. Injuries were the culprit in 2020, cutting the heart out of Shanahan’s defense and crippling an offense that already relied more on scheme than skill. It would have been too much to overcome for any head coach. It was also a demonstration that not even Shanahan can will his team to victory on the strength of brainpower alone. He needed more talent and upside on offense, something that was accomplished by trading up for dual-threat quarterback Trey Lance. Conveniently, having a rookie signal caller will buy Shanahan ever more benefit of the doubt if 2021 yet again fails to go his way, but it will still be earned. Even in this offensive golden age, few are designing attacks better than Shanahan. With a little luck and a lot better health, he will soon leave 6-10 behind for good.

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11. Frank Reich, Colts
Career Record: 28-20 (.583)

With The Colts Since: 2018
Last Year’s Ranking: 13

The back-up plan is always operating off his back foot. In the three years since Frank Reich was helicoptered in to clean up Josh McDaniels’ mess, he’s had three different quarterbacks, none of whom were stylistically similar. 2021 will make it 4-for-4, though Reich won’t be starting from scratch with Carson Wentz after ushering him into the league in Philadelphia. It will still be the adaptable coach’s biggest challenge yet. Wentz was one of the worst players in all of football last season, addicted to freelancing while nevertheless failing to hit big plays. Top 10 in rushing attempts under both Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers, Reich will have to maintain balance while rediscovering Wentz’s sweet spot as a passer. With Andrew Luck, it was prace. Jacoby Brissett, deliberation. Philip Rivers, quick passing. Wentz lacks Brissett’s dual-threat and Rivers’ accuracy, so there will be no copy and pasting of blueprints. That would be daunting for any head coach, but Reich has proven quite literally every season he’s up to the challenge. If Reich ever gets a constant beyond “change,” a deeper playoff run could await.

12. Matt LaFleur, Packers
Career Record: 26-6 (.813)
With The Packers Since: 2019
Last Year’s Ranking: 15

Matt LaFleur has gone 13-3 with two different quarterbacks. 2019 had aging, uncertain Aaron Rodgers. 2020 had warpath, MVP Aaron Rodgers. Will there be a third in 2021? LaFleur’s time in Green Bay is why the phrase “a lot going on here” exists. How much credit does he deserve for Rodgers’ 2020 turnaround? How much of the blame does he receive for Rodgers’ alienation? What are LaFleur’s duties behind the scenes? He wasn’t allowed to assemble his initial coaching staff, while there were rumors the front office didn’t even inform him of its intention to select Jordan Love. It’s all very complicated except for the record. LaFleur is off to one of the best coaching starts in NFL history, and is tied for the most wins in football over the past two seasons. As much as it is Rodgers, it is also LaFleur revitalizing the Packers’ rushing attack and putting his own stamp on the offense. It’s possible the entire edifice will crumble without the quarterback, but just ask Mike McCarthy if this thing is as easy as pushing play. You still have to know what to do with the talent when you have it. LaFleur has done that. He’ll worry about what to do if he loses it later.

13. Mike Zimmer, Vikings
Career Record: 64-47-1 (.576)
With The Vikings Since: 2014
Last Year’s Ranking: 10

Mike Zimmer has made the playoffs every odd-numbered year and missed every even. This means … exactly nothing, except that Zimmer’s seven Vikings seasons have been a bit of a long, strange trip. 2020 was no exception, with a dreadful 1-5 start followed by a 5-1 post-bye surge. A 1-3 finish secured the expected even-year opt-out of the postseason, but answered few questions heading into 2021. Will Zimmer ever trust Kirk Cousins? Can he scheme around another transition period on defense? The front office seems to think so after spending three of its first four picks on offense. It also signed Patrick Peterson for Zimmer to rehabilitate. Betting on Zimmer’s defensive prowess has usually paid off. The results have been more mixed on offense as Zimmer has cycled through Gary Kubiak and his various proteges. It hasn’t been for a lack of skill, something that will remain in 2021 with Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Irv Smith complementing Cousins. Maybe Zimmer isn’t an elite head coach. He’s good enough to win with. It could always be the year in Minnesota.

14. Mike Vrabel, Titans
Career Record: 29-19 (.604)
With The Titans Since: 2018
Last Year’s Ranking: 12

Mike Vrabel let his running back touch the ball 397 times last season. So he’s an old school anachronism, right? It’s not that simple. Despite being a “defensive mind,” Vrabel has already gotten two offensive coordinators head coaching gigs through his first three years on the job. He’s also overseen one of the league’s most play-action heavy attacks. He is playing to Ryan Tannehill’s strengths and hiding his weaknesses. The analytics-minded amongst us will complain about Vrabel’s first down run percentage and neutral pass rate, but “EV” isn’t that straightforward when Tannehill is your quarterback. It also underrates the fear opposing defenses live in of Henry. Many smart people will disagree with this take. I am simply of the mind that Vrabel seems to know what he’s doing with the offensive talent he has at hand. It’s more confusing on defense, where the unit free fell in 2020. Even if the personnel deserves the majority of the blame, Vrabel needs more answers than he had last season. 2018-19 suggests he will find them. Vrabel frustrates and intrigues in equal measure. That’s not as common of a ratio as you might think. There is still room to grow here.

15. Brian Flores, Dolphins
Career Record: 15-17 (.469)
With The Dolphins Since: 2019
Last Year’s Ranking: 20

Brian Flores has been ahead of schedule two years in a row. There’s not much more you can ask of a first-time head coach. Flores’ 2020 squad had the rare misfortune of being a 10-6 team to miss the playoffs. That might not have been the case had they not had the even rarer issue of losing their quarterback to the coronavirus for a must-win Week 17. It was a bitter end to another season that was nothing but positive for one of the league’s most downtrodden organizations. The defensive-minded Flores has already succeeded in building a bully on his side of the ball. He hasn’t quite figured it out on offense, where he continues to cycle through coordinators. Although Flores’ rise has been exponential, there could still be speed bumps ahead. He has given every indication he will know how to navigate them.

16. Kevin Stefanski, Browns
Career Record: 11-5 (.688)
With The Browns Since: 2020
Last Year’s Ranking: — —

Bill Belichick is no longer the most recent Browns head coach to win a playoff game. It took Kevin Stefanski one season to do what Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine, Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens couldn’t muster in 21. (Editor’s note: Never mind the fact that Stefanski was actually at home with coronavirus as the Browns triumphed in Pittsburgh.) There was no secret to Stefanski’s success. He did exactly what he was hired to do. Along with a hefty draft and free agency investment, Stefanski immediately stabilized one of the league’s leakiest offensive lines. He transformed Baker Mayfield from one of the worst play-action quarterbacks to one of the best. In 2019, Mayfield’s play fake QB rating was 102.5, good for 21st in Pro Football Focus’ database. In 2020, it was sixth best at 121.9. Stefanski turned the front office’s backfield investment into a pair of 800-yard runners in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. And until the moment got a little too big for him in the Divisional Round — a bad challenge, a worse punt — Stefanski managed games to near perfection. His offense was at its best late in the year despite the absence of Odell Beckham. A calm, rational presence who understands what works in the modern NFL, Stefanski’s arrow is screaming upward.

17. Ron Rivera, Washington Football Team
Career Record: 83-72-1 (.535)
With The Football Team Since: 2020
Last Year’s Ranking: — —

7-9 just hits different under Ron Rivera. Brought in to restore order to a directionless — some might say lawless — franchise, Rivera posted the Fisher Hieroglyph for the third time in four Washington seasons. The difference this time was, 7-9 was good enough to win the worst division in football. Having bought the ticket, Rivera’s club almost took the ride with a near Wild Card upset of the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs. You could argue it was all a fluke, but Rivera didn’t even have the benefit of a real quarterback. Three signal callers started at least four games during the regular season. None of them featured in the playoffs, where QB No. 4 Taylor Heinicke made the second start of his career at age 27. Washington’s turnaround from 3-13 in 2019 began with Rivera’s defense. Paired with No. 2 overall pick Chase Young, Rivera whipped the league’s No. 27 unit into No. 4 by points and No. 2 by yards. Rivera knows what to do when he has the horses on his side of the ball. Now he needs bridge quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to have the same effect on offense as the Football Team lurches toward a permanent solution. Rivera has always provided a high baseline. He just needs a little help from his offensive friends to win divisions and playoff games.

18. Matt Nagy, Bears
Career Record: 28-20 (.583)
With The Bears Since: 2018

Last Year’s Ranking: 16

The Bears have never had a losing season under Matt Nagy. His 28 wins are literally double what John Fox produced the three years prior. So why does Nagy still get an incomplete grade? For starters, he has struggled on his own side of the ball. Nagy has never produced a top-20 offense by yardage, just once cracking the top 10 in scoring. That 2018 squad was buoyed by an historically good defense that generated an abnormal amount of points. In the two years since, Nagy’s unit has been 29th and 22nd in scoring. To his credit, the defense has not regressed as much as expected since DC Vic Fangio’s departure in 2019. Nagy also has a convincing alibi for his offensive struggles in his quarterbacks. Mitchell Trubisky is a problem no coach could solve. Nagy has had an in-the-middle situation and produced in-the-middle results. Justin Fields offers the promise for something more. Despite a three-season sample size, we still have no idea if Nagy is the kind of coach who can unlock it.

19. Matt Rhule, Panthers
Career Record: 5-11 (.313)
With The Panthers Since: 2020
Last Year’s Ranking: — —

The Matt Rhule Panthers startup continues to rake in VC money. Rhule and his rhetoric have generated endless goodwill since arriving in Carolina. The Year 1 returns were promising, but like any young enterprise, Panthers Inc. requires ever more investment. Rhule stabilized the defense, though it has yet to be “fixed.” Phenom OC Joe Brady coaxed career years out of his entire skill corps … and remained bottom 12 in both scoring and yardage. 2020 was a positioning of chess pieces. Being ready to strike in 2021 will require more progress on defense and a fourth-year leap from a 23-year-old quarterback on his third head coach. Sam Darnold was an interesting place for the league’s trendiest staff to plant its flag. He at least comes with untapped upside, something Teddy Bridgewater did not provide. Rhule has said all the right things, and mostly done them, too. The process is good. The results are still on track to come later.

20. Mike McCarthy, Cowboys
Career Record: 131-87-2 (.600)
With The Cowboys Since: 2020
Last Year’s Ranking: — —

Mike McCarthy returned from his coaching gap year having rebranded himself as an analytics maven. To say he was an unconvincing salesman would be putting it mildly. The coach whose picture belonged by “uptight” in the dictionary during his Packers days becoming a numbers guru seemed too great a stretch even for 2020. But McCarthy did his damndest. The Cowboys’ fourth down attempts spiked from 16 to 31, good for second in the league. McCarthy didn’t tamper with OC Kellen Moore’s preference for tempo, keeping the offense top two in neutral pace while vaulting from seventh to second in total plays. The Cowboys crept upward in neutral pass percentage and improved from 18th to ninth in two-point attempts. It wasn’t all talk. It also wasn’t effective as McCarthy dealt with endless injuries on offense and historically bad play on defense. 2021 has to be better on both fronts, but how long will this old dog be able to stick with his new tricks if this season gets off to another poor start? Which brings us back to the central question of the McCarthy era: Why him? Why count on reinvention instead of creating something new? A culture as stale as the Cowboys’ needed a big bang. McCarthy was a blank stare. Sometimes that gets the job done. Most others, it keeps the seat warm for the next guy.

21. Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals
Career Record: 13-18-1 (.422)
With The Cardinals Since: 2019

Last Year’s Ranking: 21

Through two years on the job, Kliff Kingsbury is most famous for kicking when he should go for it and going for it when he should kick. A sub-.500 coach in the Big 12, Kingsbury has been a genuinely bad game manager. He’s yet to overcome it with play design. Kingsbury has kept things interesting with his rushing attacks but proven surprisingly stale as a passing-game coordinator. The pace and 4-5 receiver sets are good. Keeping DeAndre Hopkins glued to one side of the formation and focusing so many attempts underneath are bad. Kingsbury hasn’t had an aerial plan beyond “Kyler and DeAndre, try to break the internet.” Kingsbury has not been irredeemable. Flawed though it is, the offense has at least gotten incrementally more productive. The Cardinals’ defense was also surprisingly feisty in 2020. Things could just be so much better if Kingsbury was living up to his college billing. The passing must get more vertical, and the points more plentiful. If that doesn’t happen in 2021, it will become increasingly difficult to forgive Kingsbury’s poor tactical decisions.

22. Jon Gruden, Raiders
Career Record: 114-110 (.509)
With The Raiders Since: 2018
Last Year’s Ranking: 19

The Raiders have paid Jon Gruden $1.57 million for each of his 19 victories his first three years on the job. Just five of those have come after Thanksgiving, with the Raiders typically in full-on collapse by December. Post-Turkey Day, Gruden’s squads have gone 5-12, getting out-scored 511-384. Not exactly what you would expect from one of the highest-paid coaches in the entire world. Gruden’s offenses have been fine, finishing in the top half of DVOA each of the past two seasons. He has conjured career-best play from Derek Carr, making him one of the most efficient quarterbacks of the most efficient era. It is in the front office where Gruden and his hand-picked T.V. GM Mike Mayock fall ruinously short, crippling the team on defense. Gruden’s squads have allowed an average of 454 points, never surrendering fewer than 418. That places impossible strain on the offense, leaving zero margin for error with an attack that focuses on the run and station-to-station passing. It’s a match made in hell, one for which Gruden has no one to blame but himself. Gruden can still scheme on offense. It’s of little importance since he can’t seem to do anything else. A reunion that could have gone better than expected with a different power structure is instead as bad as feared.

23. Joe Judge, Giants
Career Record: 6-10 (.375)
With The Giants Since: 2020
Last Year’s Ranking: — —

Joe Judge began his Giants career with bits. No names on jerseys, etc. It made him an easy punchline for a slumping organization. Things started off equally poorly during the regular season, where Judge’s squad produced 0-5 and 1-7 records. The second half was much better, with the G-Men closing 5-3 and coming within a Nate Sudfeld cameo of winning their pathetic division. With offense exploding league wide, the Giants were a rare bulwark for the other side of the ball, surrendering 94 fewer points than the year prior. That was the ninth best mark in football after three seasons of finishing 23rd or worse. The problem was Judge’s offense, which showed zero second-year improvement under erratic starter Daniel Jones. The front office is throwing weapons at the issue, but it will fall to Judge to make lemonade out of Jones’ lemons. Judge can sometimes feel like a “football guy” parody — he took the Sudfeld thing just a little too personally — though he has successfully toed the line of instilling a hard-nosed attitude while keeping his players’ respect. There’s a chance 2020 was Judge’s ceiling. The fact it wasn’t the floor campaign so many were expecting was a surprising, encouraging development.

24. Vic Fangio, Broncos
Career Record: 12-20 (.375)
With The Broncos Since: 2019
Last Year’s Ranking: 22

There hasn’t been much Vic Fangio could do about the past two seasons. And much he has not done, limping to a 12-20 record as he waits on reinforcements from the front office. They arrived in the skill groups last season, just not under center, wasting the replenishing of the pass-catching coffers. On his own side of the ball, Fangio has had some players to work with, but they are under unrelenting pressure from the lack of production on offense. They’ve also been hurt, with Bradley Chubb missing most of 2019 and Von Miller missing all of 2020. With a healthy Miller and Chubb joining forces with an overhauled secondary, Fangio will be in defensive business for Year 3. Whether he gets a Year 4 is entirely dependent on Teddy Bridgewater finding another gear or Drew Lock making a third-year leap. Neither development is terribly likely. 62-year-old Fangio’s first head coaching gig is having the feel of the wrong place at the wrong time, though he is a good enough defensive mind that he could change his own fortunes with even slightly improved quarterback play.

25. Zac Taylor, Bengals
Career Record: 6-25-1 (.203)
With The Bengals Since: 2019
Last Year’s Ranking: 24

I don’t know if Zac Taylor is the worst coach in the NFL. Or the best. Or smack dab in the middle, etc. I don’t know anything about Zac Taylor. Seemingly no one does. That’s a dubious “accomplishment” through 32 career games, but an understandable one. Taylor inherited a decrepit roster in transition and has achieved exactly as such. There could be no deeper level to it. “It is what is” as one of Taylor’s colleagues might say. Or it might be that Taylor is just as overmatched as his rebuilding squad and we have no way of knowing it. We need more information, and we are going to get it in Year 3. That will be Year 2 for Joe Burrow, Year 5 for Joe Mixon, and Year 1 for Ja’Marr Chase, the best receiver prospect since at least Amari Cooper. Alibis remain in the form of Burrow’s rehab from a devastating knee injury and the Bengals’ horrendous offensive line, but if Taylor can’t put some sort of imprint on that skill group, he probably doesn’t have much to offer as an NFL head coach.

New Hires (In Alphabetical Order)

Dan Campbell, Lions
Career Record: 5-7 (.417)

One way to know you’ve made an interesting hire? One of his suggested Google searches is “kneecaps.” By now you know all about The Quote. Dan Campbell is here to take your kneecaps, etc. Taking Campbell at face value, he is throwing the modern football car into reverse. Smash-mouth defense, running the ball, etc. If you dig a little deeper, there was something new age-y in his initial comments. “I'm a big mind-over-matter person and a lot of you are going to think I'm a kook a little bit here, but I do believe you can will things to happen in some regard,” Campbell said. "If you're a really positive thinker, I think positive things can happen to you and those around you. … They feel your energy." Campbell, who was prone to these sorts of asides during his long-forgotten tenure as Dolphins interim coach, stayed player-friendly with his hires, stocking his staff with one recently retired NFLer after another. We laugh, but the tone certainly needed changing in Detroit, especially after the ludicrously pompous Matt Patricia era. At worst for the Lions, Campbell is a readymade fall guy for yet another rebuild. The best-case scenario is that he puts a modern spin on football’s oldest clichés of toughness and determination, shaking up an organization in dire need of being stirred.

David Culley, Texans
Career Record: — —

David Culley spent the past two seasons leading the Ravens’ thoroughly underwhelming receiver corps. Before that, he was quarterbacks coach for the Bills’ uninspiring 2017-18 offenses. Now he is the oldest first-time head coach in NFL history. “David will do a good job,” were the words of his former boss Andy Reid. “He’s a people person, he’ll bring energy to the building and he is one of the most loyal guys I’ve ever been around.” Notice what Reid did not say. This hire wasn’t about winning now. Culley is being asked to serve as a human shield for a free-falling organization where things are going to get worse before they get better. Culley would not be the first NFL head coach to ride relentless positivity to surprising results. It just won’t be possible in the talent-bereft, picks-barren environment he has landed in. It’s a thankless job. David Culley is the man who said he would do it.

Urban Meyer, Jaguars
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Urban Meyer is one of the greatest football coaches who has ever lived. It would be hard not to let that go to your head. Has Meyer? Well, he recently signed Tim Tebow as a tight end. He also tried to hire a strength coach who was fired from his last gig for alleged bullying and racism. Meyer could do the NCAA-to-NFL leap the easy way or the hard way. He has opted for the latter, and finding the spot where the galaxy ends and the brain begins will be the story of his pro career. Even in a league where you can’t recruit, Meyer just landed the biggest prospect since 2012. Trevor Lawrence will provide invaluable breathing room as Meyers sorts through what he actually needs to do to win at the highest level. And win he will if he can locate the proper patience and humility. That will be a tall order for someone who burned out in college even after he won 90.2 percent of his games at Ohio State.

Robert Saleh, Jets
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What is Robert Saleh up against? The last Jets coach to finish their tenure with a winning record was 2000 Bill Belichick back-up plan Al Groh, who went 9-7 his one year on the job. Groh enjoyed the gig so much he resigned to coach the University of Virginia. Saleh arrives on the scene with four years of coordinating experience at any level, only one of which was for a winning team. But what a team it was. Saleh molded the 2019 49ers’ raw defensive talent into a bulldozer, one that might have been a Super Bowl winner had Jimmy Garoppolo not missed a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders. Saleh’s life wasn’t as charmed in 2020, though his accomplishments might have been even more impressive, as the Niners remained a top-five defense by yardage allowed despite a truly astounding wave of injuries. Saleh has proven he can cook the meal if you give him the ingredients, a bar many coaches never clear. He will also never be accused of being low energy, as his “get back coach” can attest. The modern NFL can be unforgiving for a defensive-minded head coach, but Saleh knew who to emulate on his non-dominant side of the ball. Kyle Shanahan’s cupboard was raided to populate the offensive staff. Saleh checks all the boxes. That’s all you can ask of a first-time head coach.

Nick Sirianni, Eagles
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Sometimes a new coach will win the press conference and nothing else. Nick Sirianni doesn’t have to worry about that. Sirianni’s Eagles introduction had the feel of two children stacked together inside a suit. Earnest but overeager. Thoughtful, but about what exactly? Sirianni failed to burnish his initial impression when he revealed he liked to gauge prospects’ competitiveness by … playing rock, paper, scissors. Belichick game-planning for Super Bowl XXV this ain’t. It’s simple. Sirianni wants to strip away the excesses of the Doug Pederson era, making the game easy for his players and difficult for his opponents. Rocket science, we know, but Pederson had a way of making things complicated for everybody. Sirianni spent the past three seasons watching simplicity put into practice by Frank Reich, who had to build systems around Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers on the fly. Reich played fast under Luck, slow with Brissett and somewhere in between with Rivers. In other words, he adjusted to what his players did best. If that is going to be Sirianni’s guiding principle, it doesn’t matter what embarrassing stuff he says in press conferences. He’ll have hit the nail on the head of coaching.

Arthur Smith, Falcons
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Arthur Smith survived four different head coaches in Tennessee only to be greeted by Ryan Tannehill as his best option at quarterback as a first-time offensive coordinator. A challenge seemingly guaranteed to return a former TEs coach back to obscurity instead buoyed Smith to league-wide renown. Buttressed by Derrick Henry’s power running, Smith turned career-long disappointment Tannehill into an elite “pick your spots” passer. The unlikely combination produced one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses despite the run-heavy lean. The Titans were sixth in 2019 offensive DVOA and fourth in 2020. It was textbook “make the most of your personnel.” Smith’s adaptability is good news for the Falcons, as he won’t be able to clone his Titans formula in Atlanta. Matt Ryan is a less athletic passer than Tannehill, while there is no Derrick Henry walking through that door. There is not even a Devonta Freeman in one of the league’s most anonymous backfields. Smith will have to scheme up his aging, statue-esque quarterback and hope recently un-retired 71-year-old DC Dean Pees can work miracles with a seriously undermanned group.

Brandon Staley, Chargers
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Brandon Staley did all the right things as Rams defensive coordinator. He said all the right things in his offseason press conferences. He’s worked for all the right people. The results will simply fall into place, right? We know it’s never that easy with first-time head coaches — especially with the Chargers — but Staley has the feel of a man in the right place at the right time for an accursed organization. A former college quarterback turned defensive mastermind, Staley has one of the most unique backgrounds in the NFL. He also has one of its best young building blocks in Justin Herbert. That is to say nothing of the talent on Staley’s side of the ball, where he has all the tools he needs for his “stop the pass first, worry about everything else later” approach. Staley has the right players, mindset and mentors. There is no such thing as a “just push play” situation for a franchise, but Staley with the 2021 Chargers is about as close as you can get.