As the storm clouds gather for the coaches who won’t be coaches a week from now, the sun is eventually going to shine on one of the coaches whose teams outperformed preseason expectations.
Ultimately, preseason expectations drive everything. From high bars to low bars and every peg in between, coaches are judged based on what we generally expected their teams to do. When it comes to coach of the year, the question becomes which coach took his team the farthest beyond what anyone thought he would?
The candidates for 2017 include, in no particular order, the following men:
Doug Pederson, Eagles: From fourth place in the NFC East a year ago to, as soon as Monday night, the No. 1 seed in the conference. Who legitimately expected the Eagles to win the NFC East? Few did, and the team’s rise not just to the top of the division but the top of the NFC makes Pederson a prime candidate for the honor.
Mike Zimmer, Vikings: A disastrous 2016 had a here-we-go-again vibe early, with the mysterious post-Week One knee injury to quarterback Sam Bradford and the Week Four ACL tear suffered by talented rookie Dalvin Cook. A loss in that same game to the Lions dropped the Vikings to 2-2. Since then, they’ve gone 10-1. And Zimmer has done it in a season after having more than a half-dozen eye surgeries.
Doug Marrone, Jaguars: The pieces were generally there a year ago, but the performance definitely wasn’t. This year, an unlikely AFC South crown and a still-lingering shot at a bye justifies consideration for Marrone. Cutting against his candidacy is the lingering presence of, as defensive lineman Malik Jackson referred to him during Friday’s PFT Live, “Coach Coughlin.”
Bill Belichick, Patriots: Another year, another 12-win season. Another No. 1 seed. Another run looming for the Super Bowl. The greatest coach of all time deserves consideration for the annual honor, especially given the glaring evidence provided eight days ago, in a head to head game against the Steelers, about the value of a stubborn adherence to and respect for situational football. Even if he’s not the coach of the year, he’s the coach any team should want, in every year.
Sean Payton, Saints: Three straight years of 7-9 quickly has become a balanced offense and balanced roster that likely will win the division — and that could perform well on the road in the postseason. Payton deserves credit for resolving the Adrian Peterson situation and realizing that Alvin Kamara had the skills as a rookie to carry a significant workload.
Ron Rivera, Panthers: From managing Cam Newton‘s shoulder injury to finding a way to balance Newton as a runner and a thrower, Rivera has presided over a turnaround that has the Panthers still alive for a division title, and very much in the hunt for a Super Bowl appearance.
Sean McVay, Rams: Recent wins at Seattle and Tennessee have rocketed McVay to the top of the list for many, and for good reason. In his first year, McVay has taken a 4-12 roster and turned it into something special. The fact that he’s doing it at the age of 31 could be the tiebreaker for plenty of voters.
Pete Carroll, Seahawks: Racked by injuries and lingering roster weaknesses, Carroll nevertheless has his team in striking distance for a playoff berth. If they make it, he deserves to be at least mentioned.
John Harbaugh, Ravens: A litany of injuries and chronic offensive struggles made it hard to pile up wins early. But they kept chugging and overachieving and could end up with a playoff berth — to the dismay of teams like New England and Pittsburgh.
Others who merit mention in this article, albeit not their own blurb, are Steelers coach Mike Tomlin (the final moments of the Patriots loss killed his candidacy), Chiefs coach Andy Reid (the midseason swoon will keep voters from saying “Oh yeah!” to Big Red), Chargers coach Anthony Lynn (an 0-4 start kept many from noticing what came next), Falcons coach Dan Quinn (Atlanta hasn’t cratered after last year’s horrific Super Bowl defeat), and Bills coach Sean McDermott (he’s turned around the culture quickly, but the quarterback shuffle sent the season off the rails).
The hay won’t be fully in the barn until next Sunday. How the final six seeds play out in each conference will be a major factor regarding how these coaches end up getting recognized the night before the Super Bowl as the best coach of the year. And they all hope that they’ll be unable to attend the ceremony in person.