Across all sports, the Coach of the Year Award has a misleading title. It’s not about who the best coach is; it’s about which team stunned the most people, or which team overcame the most adversity while staying near the top of the league. That’s what voters are really looking for. By that criteria, there are a lot of coaches who could be worthy of the title “Coach of the Year.”
Belichick led his Patriots to the playoffs with a rookie quarterback. Zac Taylor’s Bengals shocked everyone by overtaking the Browns, Steelers, and Ravens for the AFC North title. Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals could potentially win the daunting NFC West when no one was giving them a shot prior to the start of the season. Matt LaFleur and the Packers repeated as the NFC’s top seed in the regular season despite a series of distractions from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Hell, many people thought the Eagles would compete for the worst record, yet with a week left to play, the Eagles have clinched a playoff berth.
But, barring results from Week 18, none of the coaches mentioned above have anything on Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel and New Orleans’ Sean Payton.
With a victory over the Houston Texans this week, the Titans will officially clinch the top-seed in the AFC and a first-round bye — a feat the Titans haven’t accomplished since 2008. The Titans will have done so despite the absence of star running back Derrick Henry, who’s regular season ended in Week 8, and with quarterback Ryan Tannehill undergoing his worst year as the starter for Tennessee. Yet, despite these adversities, the Titans are one win over the miserable Texans away from securing home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Who would’ve thought that the AFC road to Super Bowl LVI would go through Nashville given that through the first 8 weeks of the season, Henry had accounted for 45.8 percent of the team’s offensive touchdowns (10 rushing, 1 passing) and 36.2 percent of the team’s total yards? No one. Everybody thought the Titans would sink back into mediocrity before floundering out of the playoff race, and while the Titans definitely haven’t been as good as they were with King Henry, they’ve still managed to take down both the Los Angeles Rams and a very hot 49ers team without him in their backfield. That says a lot about not only the team’s resiliency, but also Vrabel’s adaptability as a head coach.
Now, you might be thinking: “Well, certainly, how could anyone compete with what you just said?” Well, what if I told you there was another team, who, despite having several key players miss time due to COVID concerns, despite having the sixth-most players on Injured Reserve throughout the season, despite having to practically play without a quarterback for more than half the season, was vying for a playoff spot in the final week?
Meet the New Orleans Saints. While the Saints are not currently in the NFC playoff picture, it’s not hard to imagine a world where a team quarterbacked by Taysom Hill is fighting for a chance to stay in the Super Bowl hunt. All that needs to happen is for the 49ers to lose to the Rams and the Saints to beat the Falcons. I understand that the Falcons beat the Saints when last they played, but Hill also wasn’t the starter for New Orleans in that game. I also understand that the 49ers beat the Rams when last they played, but let’s be honest, we all know the Rams are the better team, and since the Rams need to win in order to secure a division title, they’ll likely pull out all the stops in order to give the 49ers a run for their money.
If all goes according to plan, the Saints will reach the playoffs, despite the team’s top wide receiver missing the entire season, the team’s starting quarterback going down with an injury midway through the season, and several of the team’s offensive linemen missing games due to COVID and other injuries. That’s insane. That’s actually nuts. The Saints have no business being anywhere close to the playoffs, but through sheer will and unwillingness to let injuries derail their season, they’ve persevered and have the 49ers’ timbers properly shivered.
If the Saints wind up missing the playoffs, I don’t think there’s any chance Payton wins Coach of the Year, but if they do make it, he should be seriously considered. It shocks me that in most of the Coach of the Year predictions I’ve seen as of late, Payton is nowhere to be found. What’s even more shocking are the people I’ve seen instead of Payton.
John Harbaugh? Seriously? You mean the guy whose team was projected to win the division or, at worst, finish second, but has just a two percent chance of making the playoffs with only one week to go? I get that Lamar Jackson hasn’t been available the last three weeks, but Tyler Huntley has been no slouch either. Brian Flores? You mean the guy who had a 10-6 record last season and came into this season with enormous expectations only to be the streakiest team in NFL history, and be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in with one week to go? No. While both of these guys are great coaches, worthy of high praise, neither has had to face the same adversity as Sean Payton and the Saints.
And guess what, when the NFL regular season finally comes to a close this Sunday night, if any one of these teams is going to find themselves still playing games, it’s going to be New Orleans. Give Sean Payton the respect he deserves please!