The NFL is very much a players’ league but there’s no mistaking that quality coaching is the difference between the razor-thin margin of a win and a loss in today’s game. While coaching staffs have ballooned to dozens of folks responsible for everything under the sun, the media and fan scrutiny is typically directed at just one individual leading the charge for each team.
With that in mind, here’s a look at how each head coach stacks up against their peers. The 2017 season is a month away from kicking off but the storylines are abound with coaches around the game, including six new faces joining the fold — five for the first time leading an NFL team. While the best of the best are easy to pick out of the crowd nowadays, things do get a bit harder the further down the list one goes.
1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
At this point, there’s really not much left to say about The Hoodie. He certainly has his detractors as a result of a handful of scandals but when it comes to wins, losses and rings, Belichick is in a class all by himself. Last season’s incredible Super Bowl comeback only helped add to his legend and it seems like an entire generation of NFL fans are conditioned to the Patriots being the team to beat year in and year out.
2. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
Hard as it is to believe, but Carroll is the oldest head coach in the NFL and will turn 66 at the beginning of the season. Like a fine wine however, the veteran coach is as good as ever and consistently puts together one of the league’s best defenses. Many doubted whether the atmosphere of fun he had back in USC would translate to the NFL level but Seattle’s success has proven that it very clearly has.
3. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
Few will list Tomlin as one of the best X’s and O’s head coaches in the game but that would be a disservice to the Pittsburgh coach who has complete command of both sides of the ball and a Super Bowl ring to his name for an iconic franchise. He’s been around for more than a decade with the Steelers and has won at least 10 games seven times to go along with a tidy winning percentage (.644) in the regular season alone. Plus, with the likely exception of the top two names on this list, there are few coaches players would rather play for than Tomlin.
4. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
It’s hard for a Super Bowl winner to be overshadowed in his own family but that’s probably just the way the older Harbaugh brother likes things heading into 2017. Despite most of his experience coming on special teams, he’s developed one of the best all-around franchises during his tenure that consistently has a tough defense and a smash-mouth offense. Harbaugh has finished with a losing record just once and has won two thirds of his games in the playoffs (10-5) despite getting beat up each year in one of the toughest divisions in the league.
5. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers
The drop-off from the top two or three coaches in the league to the next tier has some separation in the minds of many but McCarthy is firmly toward the tops of the latter group thanks to his remarkable consistency. The Packers have finished worse than second in the division just once during his tenure and have won the NFC North six times. Add in a Super Bowl ring and lofty win percentage (.651 in regular season, .556 in the playoffs) and it’s a pretty solid resume for Green Bay’s coach. The lone issue is some disappointing postseason results but getting there is half the battle.
6. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
Super Bowl XLIV is rapidly sliding further into the rearview mirror but Payton remains one of the top offensive-minded coaches around. The Achilles’ heel for the Saints has been the defense and it’s not like the front office has helped Payton out all that much in recent years as the team has slid to three straight 7-9 campaigns. Still, roughly 20 other teams would love to make a trade in order to install Payton as their head coach.
7. Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders
Del Rio has helped transform the Raiders from a franchise that was down in the dumps to one that looks like it will be an annual Super Bowl contender for the next several seasons. He proved last year that he’s not afraid to gamble in a league designed to be conservative and he has really embraced the team’s ethos from the glory days. Add in a solid track record from his days in Jacksonville and his ability to coordinate a heck of a defense and Oakland is quite happy with their head coach.
8. Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
A two-time NFL Coach of the Year, 2016 was a big reversal in the trend that Arians had been building out in the desert. Despite the 7-8-1 record, he still has quite the track record with Arizona and has done a masterful job in getting veterans and rookies alike to play at a high level.
9. Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
Being the head coach of the Cowboys is one of the more difficult jobs in sports and after being just average for several years early in his tenure, Garrett has finally started to hit his stride as a coach. He’s worked with the front office to develop a plan when it comes to personnel and did a masterful job bringing along the rookie backfield of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott last season. He smartly re-tooled the coaching staff to provide more support and about the only thing left to do is find some more postseason success.
10. Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons
Quinn has just two seasons under his belt but he’s been a breath of fresh air in Atlanta. The Super Bowl collapse will always be a part of his tenure but he’s left his mark on the franchise and the team reflects what he wants on the field. Despite the setback on the biggest stage in sports, Quinn smartly re-tooled his entire staff to bring in more new ideas — a sign of a coach who is much wiser than his record would indicate.
11. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
Riverboat Ron has collected a pair of Coach of the Year trophies and had some extraordinary success down in Carolina. While sustained success (no back-to-back winning seasons) has been a bit elusive, there’s no doubt that the highs have been incredible with Cam Newton and company even if they did fall short of a Super Bowl win.
12. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
It took too long for him to get a head coaching gig but Zimmer has done a solid job turning around the fortunes of the Vikings. The defense has been what you expect for somebody with his X’s and O’s acumen and he’s managed the offense well enough despite lacking a ton of talent in the trenches and losing a starting quarterback on the eve of the 2016 season. Coaching in the NFL is in his blood and Zimmer has a chance to rise quickly on this list if he can stay healthy and have even more productive seasons.
13. Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans
O’Brien did his best work as a head coach in guiding Penn State through the post-Joe Paterno era and the resulting scandal at the school but he has proven to be plenty capable back in the NFL with the Texans. He’s gone 9-7 for three straight years and won the division twice despite some incredibly bad, almost comical, quarterback play and the loss of the NFL’s best defensive player for a season. Fans in Houston may be a little frustrated over O’Brien’s inability to break through but he’s been better than many think.
14. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
This will be Reid’s 25th season in the league and 18th as a head coach. That kind of longevity brings a lot of success, including seven division titles and 11-plus wins in three of four seasons since moving to Kansas City. While winning a lot of games over a lot of years is nice, the mind-numbingly bad decisions when it comes to clock management and the lack of postseason success hampers the overall outlook on the coach.
15. Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
Gruden is still below .500 overall during his stop in Washington but he’s helped re-tool the roster despite plenty of dysfunction in the franchise and managed to guide the franchise to its first back-to-back winning seasons in two decades. It will still take a lot more winning in order to move past brother Jon in the coaching community but the 50-year-old is doing his part so far.
16. Adam Gase, Miami Dolphins
Gase has worked with an impressive list of coaches over the years and made the most in his head coaching debut to jump start a turnaround in Miami and make a surprising appearance in the postseason. Folks around the league are high on him going forward and he’ll certainly be one to watch if he can develop Ryan Tannehill into a top-tier starting quarterback.
17. Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts
Despite a lengthy resume filled with positives on the defensive side of the ball, Pagano has struggled to turn the Colts’ D around during his time in Indianapolis. Despite those issues, he’s still never finished below .500 over five seasons and has made it to the AFC title game not all that long ago. A lot of his success can be placed at having Andrew Luck at QB but Pagano deserves praise for navigating some murky waters when the signal-caller hasn’t been in the game due to injuries.
18. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
Lewis is in a similar mold to Andy Reid in that he’s been around a long time and won a lot of games during the regular season. He’s taken the Bengals to the playoffs seven times over 14 seasons. The problem is he’s 0-fer when it comes to wins in the postseason and his teams have a reputation for lacking discipline.
19. Ben McAdoo, New York Giants
It’s rare nowadays for a team to elevate somebody internally when searching for a new head coach but that’s just what the Giants did in picking McAdoo to lead the franchise going forward. He has proven to be a steady hand in helping the offense rack up points and has gotten the most out of quarterback Eli Manning. He inherited a lot but going 11-5 and leading your team to the playoffs in a debut season is pretty good work.
20. Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He made his name as a college coach but Koetter has fit in quite well since moving up to the NFL level and brought plenty of excitement on the offensive end. He’s played a big role in Jameis Winston’s development as a young signal-caller and nearly made the playoffs in his first season as the Bucs’ head coach. Tampa Bay has certainly been trending upward since he arrived in town and that looks to continue.
21. John Fox, Chicago Bears
To say things have been trending in the wrong direction with Fox is to understate things a bit. He does have two Super Bowl appearances to his credit and has developed some quality defenses over the years but he was run out of Denver just prior to the team getting a ring. The results in Chicago have been anything but inspiring and given the shape of the Bears’ roster, Fox has a ton of work to do going forward.
22. Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles
A sharp departure from predecessor Chip Kelly, Pederson had an up-and-down first season with the Eagles. Still, 7-9 isn’t a terrible debut as a first-time head coach with a rookie quarterback and there are several around the league who are excited over the prospect of Pederson developing the talented Carson Wentz.
23. Mike Mularkey, Tennessee Titans
Mularkey has developed some solid NFL offenses over the past 15 years but has only finished better than .500 twice as a head coach over three different stops. To be fair he’s inherited some really awful rosters but turned in his best work this past season by getting the most out of Marcus Mariota and turning around the fortunes of the Titans.
24. Hue Jackson, Cleveland Browns
Jackson developed a stellar reputation as an offensive coordinator in the league and had an impressive first year as a head coach back in 2011 when he guided Oakland to a then-surprising 8-8 mark. He took over the worst situation in the league over in Cleveland last year and it almost seems impressive he was able to coax out a single win from the team. Brighter days are ahead for the Browns under Jackson at least.
25. Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers
While his last name no doubt opened plenty of doors in the NFL, Shanahan has put together some incredible offenses and managed to see just about everything during nearly a decade as a coordinator. He faces an uphill battle trying to turn around the 49ers but will have both patience and plenty of coaching acumen to guide him through things. Just don’t ask about the Super Bowl.
26. Todd Bowles, New York Jets
Things started out so well for Bowles upon arrival in New York, finishing with a shocking 10 wins and nearly making the playoffs. It’s been all downhill since then as high expectations were met with underwhelming results. He’s still a bright defensive mind but being saddled with one of the worst rosters in the league won’t help dig out of this hole with the Jets.
27. Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams
McVay became the youngest head coach in league history when the Rams hired him, just a decade removed from playing college football himself. The rapid rise has been the result of some top-tier offensive efforts though and he’s well regarded for the amount of prep work he puts in each week. It won’t be easy leading L.A. back to prominence but there’s plenty of upside when it comes to his future.
28. Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills
McDermott has a lengthy list of accomplishments as a defensive coordinator over the past several seasons and finally gets his head coaching opportunity up in Buffalo. He should bring a lot more structure to the team right away but will have to deal with high expectations and plenty of pressure from a fan base desperate to reach the postseason.
29. Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions
Ever since that loss to the Saints in the Super Bowl, Caldwell has failed to win a postseason game and is just a tick over .500 for his career as a head coach. He’s had some future Hall of Famers at quarterback to work with but never can seem to get over the hump and has a history of frustrating losses in the second half of the season.
30. Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars
Marrone has shown flashes as a coach but closer examination of his record reveals a perfectly mediocre tenure leading a franchise. The way he left Buffalo still leaves a bad taste with some folks and there’s not a ton of faith being put in him to turn around things in Jacksonville. Still, if he can get the most out of quarterback Blake Bortles going forward then he can rise quite a bit on this list in future years.
31. Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos
Joseph inherits perhaps the best situation of any first-time head coach in 2017 given the amount of talent on the Denver roster. Still, he’s vastly inexperienced and only has one year of being a coordinator in the NFL prior to getting the job, which means there should be plenty of learning on the fly for him.
32. Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers
Amazingly, Lynn was just a running backs coach at this time last year in Buffalo but has risen quickly since then to take over in Los Angeles. He has less than a season’s worth of coordinator/head coaching experience though so despite a lot of respect at the way he runs things from those around the league, there still will be a learning curve with the Chargers. Add in dealing with the move from San Diego to L.A. and playing in a soccer stadium for the next few years and this isn’t the easiest of situations for Lynn to take over.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.