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The NFL almost never gets Coach of the Year right

Sean McVay had a more remarkable season with Rams than when he won, but the voting criteria is flawed

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Sean McVay’s only Coach of the Year honor obviously came in 2017, when he did the one thing that a head coach has to do to get serious consideration to win the award, which is to be in charge of a team that most people assume is bad and then make them look good. McVay took over an L.A. Rams team from Jeff Fisher that ranked last in scoring and went 11-5 in his first season, allowing him to dominate the Coach of the Year voting in 2017.

Now consider that the six coaches who won the award before him and the one who won after him are no longer with the team they were on when they were “the best coach in all of football”. If a great coach is supposed to be around for at least a decade, like Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, or Andy Reid, then how could the “BEST COACH IN FOOTBALL RIGHT NOW” not make it more than another three seasons?

Sean McVay won the award in 2017, but he didn’t win the award when the Rams went to the Super Bowl in 2018 and he didn’t win the award when the Rams won the Super Bowl in 2021. Will McVay win the award in 2023 after completing arguably the most impressive season of his career?

Probably not.

If the reason for that is “because Kevin Stefanski” or “because John Harbaugh” did better, then fine. But most likely the reason is because he’s Sean McVay and media doesn’t feel the need to promote that McVay is a great coach.

Should McVay win the award? Maybe. But most of all, the perceptions of what constitutes a true “coach of the year” needs to change. How do I know this?

Well, Brian Daboll, Jason Garrett, and Ron Rivera make me feel pretty damn confident that the criteria for “best coach in football” is very flawed.

Coach of the Year?

The 2022 Coach of the Year was Brian Daboll because he took over a 4-13 Giants team and got New York into the playoffs at 9-7-1. Now the Giants are 5-11 and it’s only by the skin—winning three in a row (nevermind that the Patriots and Commanders are two of the worst teams in the NFL)—that Daboll has managed to duck the calls for him to be fired after an atrocious 2-8 start. Not that it couldn’t still happen.

The Giants have lost their last three games, including getting blown out by the Saints and their recent loss to the Rams, and if Daboll isn’t fired within a week then he’s definitely on the hot seat in 2024.

How could “the best coaching job in the entire NFL in 2022” be on the hot seat in 2023?

Because it was not the best coaching job in the NFL in 2022. Daboll’s 2022 season was not impressive, but the Internet allows itself to be swayed by the element of surprise instead of by being impressed with actual coaching accomplishments like the type of leadership and strategic success like we see with Harbaugh’s Ravens, McVay’s Rams, or Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers.

I would rather see Andy Reid win Coach of the Year in spite of Kansas City’s mediocre season this year than to see it go to Todd Bowles because even if the Bucs manage to win the NFC South without Tom Brady, at least I know that if every single writer in the NFL business had to choose between Reid or Bowles to be the head coach of THEIR favorite team, it would be unanimous.

Why did Brian Daboll win Coach of the Year if he’s so bad?

Daboll took over a team that had gone 4-13 and they made the playoffs at 9-7-1.

However, it was always expected that the Giants would win improve, if not for at least two reasons above all else:

  • The worst teams ALMOST ALWAYS experience regression to the mean that will lead to winning more games the following season; that’s statistical probabilities, it’s not coaching
  • Per Sharp Football Analysis, the New York Giants had the easiest schedule in football in 2022

Brian Daboll essentially won the lottery, he wasn’t the Coach of the Year. If New York had hired Kevin O’Connell instead of Daboll, not only would the Giants have won at least 9 games...they probably would have won more. O’Connell led the Vikings to a 13-4 record in his first season on the job, but he finished sixth in voting.

Why wouldn’t O’Connell be favored over Daboll if he won four more games than him?

Because Minnesota had gone 8-9 the year before, people know Kirk Cousins is a better QB than Daniel Jones, and the Vikings had the infamous record of winning all their one-score games. It was considered a “fluke” and it didn’t help that the Giants beat the Vikings in the playoffs.

But the playoffs do not factor into Coach of the Year. O’Connell was a better coach than Daboll last season and he’s proving it again this season. KOC nearly survived the loss of Cousins and rotating through three atrocious backup quarterback options, while Daboll’s Giants lost 89-17 in two games against the Cowboys and he was blown out 30-6 by a Raiders team that had just fired Josh McDaniels.

Daboll winning coach of the year in 2022 is not only a joke, it’s a long-running joke that happens almost every season. Will it happen again in 2023?

Previous Winners

Sometimes Coach of the Year makes sense but the fit never works or was destined to end, such as when Jim Harbaugh won with the 49ers in 2011 or when Bruce Arians won for his job in an interim role with the Colts in 2012. Of course, Harbaugh was out of the NFL by 2015 and Arians skipped to the Cardinals in 2013 as a coaching free agent.

Arians won the award again in 2014 because the Cardinals had gone 11-5 (after a 9-1 start) but the team parted ways with after the 2017 season.

Another two-time winner in that span was Ron Rivera. He won the award in 2013 and 2015, making Rivera a legend in the eyes of Coach of the Year voters: I mean, TWO-time Coach of the Year? That should put him in the Hall of Fame! That’s like winning TWO MVPs! He’s the Lamar Jackson of coaches!

Except that Rivera was fired by the Panthers at the conclusion of the 2019 season and he is moments from being fired by the Commanders with a reputation was one of the worst coaches in the league. A person who has seemed “checked out” for over a year.

In 2016, the award went to Jason Garrett for coaching the Cowboys to a 13-3 record one year after he coached them to a 4-12 record. A good note for people who want to win the award: Make sure you are bad at first or taking over a bad team!

Of course, the Cowboys were knocked out of the playoffs immediately, Garrett was fired at the end of the 2019 season, and he’s now ridiculed as one of the least-savvy NFL people in media. But he won Coach of the Year over Belichick, who finished second.

Let’s just repeat that again for anyone not understanding the point: In 2016, Jason Garrett won Coach of the Year (as in an award for coaching football well) over Bill Belichick. Why? Because Jason Garrett had coached the Cowboys to a 4-12 record the season before.

That same year, Adam Gase got more votes than Andy Reid.

Mike Tomlin Coach of the Year: 0

Ron Rivera Coach of the Year: 2

The 2021 Coach of the Year, Mike Vrabel, has gone 12-21 since then.

The 2020 Coach of the Year, Kevin Stefanski, went 15-19 in the two years after winning and to his credit, has a much better case in 2023. The Browns being 11-5 checks almost every box: Had no quarterback for most of the season, the team was not expected to be this good, they were bad last season, and he’s having success with a historically-terrible franchise.

If Stefanski wins the award, okay. But let’s keep tally again if that happens...

Andy Reid Coach of the Year: 1

Kevin Stefanski Coach of the Year: 2?

Something does not compute.

So who should win Coach of the Year?

Probably someone who is having a great season regardless of how the team did the year before or regardless of how much they have surpassed my personal expectations of how good the team actually is.

It’s ridiculous that someone should win Coach of the Year simply because I underestimated and miscalculated the strength of their team.

So you get an award because I was wrong about you?

John Harbaugh, Ravens

Perfect fit. Because it’s the best team in the NFL, they won the hardest division, and he’s a coach with a long resume of success. It’s a no-lose pick.

Sean McVay, Rams

Great coach who also had to lead a team with the fewest resources for 2023 and he got them into the playoffs. He also beat some good teams and nearly beat the best team, the Ravens. There’s no way that anyone will look back at awarding McVay and feel the same as they did when they awarded Brian Daboll. Or Mike Smith.

Kyle Shanahan, 49ers

They were the best team in the NFC and most fans agree that whatever the 49ers are cooking, they want some of it. The fact that some of his disciples, DeMeco Ryans and Mike McDaniels, are two of the top innovators in football today and Shanahan has continued to have success with the 49ers is worthy of note.

Dan Campbell, Lions

It’s a little early for me to say that Campbell couldn’t get fired in a few years, but if the award were to go to the coach who best defined the season and era, then Campbell wouldn’t be a bad choice. At least we could all agree that as far as this season goes, Campbell won the division, hired the best assistant coaches, and is representative of what many fans and players want in a head coach.

Kevin Stefanski, Browns

If there’s one person who gets credit for winning when they shouldn’t, it’s Stefanski. It’s probably more impressive that he won games with Deshaun Watson than he’s winning with Joe Flacco. Because Flacco looks good and Watson was atrocious. Either way, going 11-5 in the AFC North the Browns deserve attention.

Mike McDaniel, Dolphins

He shouldn’t win now that the Dolphins have been blown out for the third time this season, but I think the unit we’ll always remember from 2023 is the Miami offense. If McDaniel can string together more successful seasons than this, he should work his way up to Coach of the Year. What’s so wrong with asking a coach to work his way up to that instead of being gifted the award because “I was surprised you won any games at all!”

Who should not win the award?

Shane Steichen, Colts

They have the third-easiest schedule in the NFL. Do not hand the award to somebody because you didn’t realize that their team had an easier path to 9-7 than other teams. Steichen is currently tied with Stefanski and Ryans for the best odds to win the award.

If the NFL gives it to Steichen just because the Colts went 9-8 when most thought they would go 6-11 or something, that’s asking to look bad in hindsight. It’s just as valid to award someone like McVay, who we know will always be revered as a Super Bowl-winning head coach with many accolades.

DeMeco Ryans, Texans

Put it this way, if the Texans lose to the Colts this week, he’ll be swept by Steichen. If you lose 0-2 to a coach that I don’t think should win, how could you win? The Texans are in the same boat: YOU thought they’d be 6-11 and it turns out they’ve won nine games with an easier than average schedule. The Texans lost to the Falcons, the Panthers, and they got blown out 30-6 to the Jets.

No way is he the coach of the year just because you didn’t think C.J. Stroud could make or almost make the playoffs as a rookie.

Mike McCarthy, Cowboys

Not that anyone is clamoring for McCarthy, but the Cowboys could go 12-5 and get the two-seed, chasing down the Eagles in the final month. This is still a team that blew out eight opponents, which is stunning, but they’re unlikely to be able to compete with the 49ers in the playoffs and they’re vulnerable to lose in the first round.

Who will win?

If the NFL wants the award to still look good in 5 years, they’ll award McVay or Harbaugh.

Since that won’t happen, it probably goes to Stefanski. If it goes to Steichen, that’s doomed to repeat the mistakes of Brian Daboll and Mike Smith. Steichen could turn out to be an amazing coach...but if that’s the case, then there’s nothing wrong with waiting until we know it. Not just when we think it because WE were wrong about their teams.