Let me give a disclaimer, so this doesn’t come off as a complete trashing of the analytics community. Yes, advanced stats and analytics have a place in the game of football and sports in general. But they are not…I repeat, NOT the end all be all.
They exist to provide supplemental information to what happens on the field, but even then, they do not always tell the entire story. That said, the latest list from Pro Football Focus ranking the top head coaches in the NFL is another noggin scratcher.
First, to shorten a long explanation, PFF ranks these head coaches based mainly on the talent level of their rosters. Factors like salaries of starters on offense and defense are taken into account. Information on their list is taken over a decade between 2011 and 2021. So, new head coaches like Miami’s Mike McDaniel, Minny’s Kevin O’Connell, and the Giants’ Brian Daboll are omitted.
Based on the last 10 years, I don’t think anyone will take issue with the top three of this list. Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, and Andy Reid have successfully won Super Bowls since 2011. Of the three, only Harbaugh won his Super Bowl with a non-star at the quarterback position.
In their explanation of how this list was calculated, PFF drops a line saying, “It’s easy to win games with good players…. most competent NFL coaches would still manage to be competitive for a playoff spot with Patrick Mahomes as their starting quarterback.”
Kansas City has had the scariest offense in the NFL for the last four years. They mention Mahomes, yet two of the top three coaches on the list won with all-time great QBs, and in the case of the Chiefs, they have had a pretty stacked roster during Mahomes’ time as the starter. New England didn’t always have the most talented roster, but Belichick did have Brady for most of the period considered for this list. But again, I have no issue with Mr. Hoodie claiming the top spot.
No. 4 is where this list begins to get dicey. Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals ranks fourth on the list. He’s ahead of coaches like Matt LaFleur, Kyle Shannahan, Mike Tomlin, and Pete Carroll. And Kingsbury’s been fortunate enough to have a young franchise QB in Kyler Murray in his first three seasons as an NFL head coach.
They’ve also had talented teams that faded late in the last two regular seasons. Kingsbury also has an all-world wide receiver on his roster named DeAndre Hopkins. Trust me, nobody is buying Kingsbury as the fourth-best coach in the league over the last 10 years or 10 days. It doesn’t matter.
Carroll at No. 5 is one you can’t be mad at. Well, I guess you could, but it wouldn’t be fair to his success. If it were ranked solely on what the Seahawks did in 2021, I’d be crushing this pick. It feels like Seattle fell off completely a few years ago, but they’ve had double-digit wins in three of the last four campaigns, and qualified for the postseason in those three seasons. Seattle had one of the worst offensive lines in the league but one of the better QBs in Russell Wilson until this offseason.
LaFleur and Shanahan rank Nos. 6 & 7, respectively, and have both been more successful than Kingsbury in the eyes of most. In Aaron Rodgers, LaFleur was blessed with the best regular-season QB since Peyton Manning upon arriving in Green Bay. He also strolled into having Davante Adams during his first few years as a head coach.
Unlike many other teams, Green Bay builds mainly through the draft. So, you won’t see them chasing many high-priced free agents. Although, when you have Rodgers at QB, that can help make up for any deficiencies elsewhere on the roster.
On the flipside of LaFleur is Shanahan. Kyle has a QB that does nothing but win yet isn’t considered the primary factor in the 49ers’ winning over the last three years. With Jimmy Garoppolo under center, San Francisco has played in two NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. But ask anyone in the Bay Area the primary reasons for the Niners’ success lately and they’ll tell you about the defense first, the running game second, then maybe Jimmy G third.
The thing that makes this coaching list hard to quantify is the disparity between some of these coaches in experience. Kingsbury and LaFleur have only been head coaches for three years. Compared to coaches like Belichick, Carroll, Reid, and Harbaugh, that’s a pretty wide gap. Harbaugh has the least amount of head coaching experience of the top three, and he’s been directing Baltimore’s since 2008.
Slots 8-10 also have me wondering just a bit. Mike Vrabel, Frank Reich, and Mike McCarthy. Vrabel and Reich have each been head coaches for four years, and have led the Titans and Colts, respectively, to the postseason multiple times. Were this my list, I’d have other coaches in their spots but based on PFF’s calculation system, this is what we have.
For coach McCarthy, I’ll just say this. He was fortunate to have inherited Rodgers in Green Bay for all those years. It’s only been two years in Dallas, although that first season felt like three. There are other coaches I’d rank above McCarthy, and I’m about to get to them, but taking the last 10 years in consideration, I’m OK with him bringing up the rear.
Two names that immediately come to mind that aren’t in PFF’s top 10 NFL coaches are Mike Tomlin and Sean McVay. I guess their rosters have been too talented and highly paid over the designated time frame. Tomlin’s Steelers had just three seasons where they haven’t finished above .500 since 2011.
In McVay’s first five years as an NFL head coach, the Rams have never finished with less than nine wins. They’ve played in two Super Bowls under McVay, including winning the most recent one in February. But McVay’s team has been laced with stars, placing their talent level well-above average. McVay’s one of the best coaches in this league. I don’t need Pro Football Focus to validate that.
What I see are lots of holes in this list. But that’s what you get when you take a game with human elements and attempt to reduce it to nothing more than algorithms and stat sheets. I’ll give PFF credit for compiling these lists. It isn’t easy, but I can’t agree with their Top 10.