If the NFL coach of the year award went to the best coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick would win it every year. But the prize is determined, as a practical matter, by the extent to which a coach pushes him team over and above its loose, general expectations when the season began.
When the season began in Oakland, no one expected much from the Raiders. Reeling from the abrupt termination of receiver Antonio Brown, who had been nothing but a distraction during his limited time with the team, the Raiders could have fallen apart. They didn’t.
Now, with a 5-4 record and upcoming games against the Bengals and Jets, the Raiders could be 7-4 after 11 games. And if they finish with a playoff berth, Gruden will be a clear finalist for the only prominent individual award given to any head coach.
Gruden’s not the only candidate, at this point. The leader comes from the other Bay Area franchise, given the performance of the 8-0 49ers under Kyle Shanahan. Others to watch include Packers coach Matt LaFleur, Colts coach Frank Reich, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, Bills coach Sean McDermott, and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.
Then there are the coaches who have fought through adversity, resulting from quarterback injury. From Steelers coach Mike Tomlin (who lost Ben Roethlisberger in Week Two) to Panthers coach Ron Rivera (who lost Cam Newton in Week Two) to Saints coach Sean Payton (who went 5-0 without Drew Brees) to Chiefs coach Andy Reid (who beat the Vikings and almost the Packers with a guy who was out of football in 2018).
This one remains wide open, and it won’t come into focus until the playoff field is set. For now, though, Gruden’s candidacy needs to be taken seriously — especially if the Raiders end up playing beyond Week 17.