Ranking the 15 best coaching staffs in the NFL in 2018
It’s a coaches league in 2018, and a great and innovative staff is more advantageous than ever. So which teams have it best?
December football means running the ball and playing tough defense. Earlier this fall, jet sweeps and innovative offense ruled the day. In January it will be about taking care of the football and managing the clock with everything in the line. Coaching in the NFL is not easy. The job is constantly changing as teams grow and adapt to one another.
A static coach is a losing coach. The best coaching staffs are constantly watching film of 31 other teams plus college and high school schemes around the country, looking for every edge. The best coaches surround themselves with other brilliant men and women. No single coach can do everything, and the top coaches know they need help from offensive and defensive coordinators, special assistants, and special teams gurus. It’s a players league, but 2018 has increasingly become a coaches league, where innovation and in-game adjustments rule the day. If you don’t have a forward-looking coaching staff in 2018, you’re a step behind everyone else.
With that in mind, let’s rank the top 15 coaching staffs as the season draws toward the playoffs. You’ll notice that most of the playoff contenders are on this list. That’s not a coincidence, and it’s not a prisoner-of-the-moment thing either. In 2018 if you don’t have a strong coaching staff, you start every game at a deficit to your opponent. But which team has the biggest advantage?
Tier V — Sometimes just competence is enough
15. Tennessee Titans
I would’ve ranked the Titans staff higher in the preseason, but they’ve underwhelmed this fall. The jury is out on head coach Mike Vrabel, and I expected so much more from Matt LaFleur’s offense — though it’s hard to penalize him when the centerpiece of the offense Marcus Mariota hurt his elbow Week 1 and has not been right all season. Dean Pees leads the defense after many successful years in Baltimore, and this staff while inconsistent has the Titans right back in the playoff hunt.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are the NFL model of consistency with just three head coaches over the past 49 years, which is approximately 41 fewer than the Cleveland Browns. Mike Tomlin is actually the shortest-tenured coach of that trio. He’s in his 12th season, taking a break only occasionally to play Dr. Foreman on House. So why so low? Tomlin’s team always seems to underachieve against the dregs of the league. In the past six seasons, Tomlin’s Steelers went an impressive 41–17 against teams .500 or better, but they were also an awful 20–18 against losing teams. That’s reared its ugly head again this year as Pittsburgh again struggles for playoff positioning, needing a big win against the Patriots to offset ugly 4th quarter losses to the Broncos and Raiders. When the Steelers fail time and again to show up against bad teams, despite all their talent, how does that not count against the coaching staff at some point?
13. Buffalo Bills
Can you even name anyone on the Bills coaching staff? Probably not. But go look at that roster and tell me how that team has won five games. Look at last year’s team and tell me how that’s a playoff team. HC Sean McDermott is 14–16 with the Bills and that is an absolute miracle. He’s kept the defense near the top of the league despite a historically bad offense, and now he’s winning games where the only healthy running back on his roster is the quarterback his team drafted in the first round. Imagine what this guy could do with some talent.
Tier IV — Not going anywhere anytime soon
12. Seattle Seahawks
Remember when you counted Seattle out this fall? The Seahawks sure do, and you can bet Pete Carroll does too. Carroll remains one of the game’s great motivators and continues to turn coal into diamonds on defense. But he’s getting negative credit from his coordinators, especially OC Brian Schottenheimer who apparently still thinks its the 1970s. What Schottenheimer is (and isn’t) doing with future Hall of Fame QB Russell Wilson is absolutely criminal. How do you have a top-five QB built perfectly for 2018’s rollouts and read options and have him stand in the pocket and hand it off all game? Seattle’s coaches get credit for keeping this defense good and in the playoff hunt, but they lose credit for stunting the offense.
11. Minnesota Vikings
I’m a Vikings fan and I love our coaching staff, but how high can you really rank a team that just fired its offensive coordinator a week ago? Kevin Stefanski was aces in his first game in the new role against Miami, but we’ll see how the offense holds up against a playoff team. Stefanski was the hot option in waiting, so this offense should trend up. Still, you can’t ignore what Mike Zimmer and DC George Edwards have done with this defense year after year. Minnesota struggled the first month of the season but has had the league’s best defense since.
10. Indianapolis Colts
Maybe people will finally start to notice the Colts after their impressive shutout of the Dallas Cowboys. The Colts have won seven of eight after a rough start, and they are above average at everything. Frank Reich was not a first choice head coach, but he and OC Nick Sirianni have turned this offense around and helped Andrew Luck turn back into the franchise QB many wondered if he’d ever be again. They’ve also fixed a broken line and turned Marlon Mack into a real RB, and DC Matt Elberflus has the defense humming. The real credit for the Indianapolis turnaround should go to GM Chris Ballard, but the coaching staff gets a lot of credit too.
9. Los Angeles Chargers
You might have expected the Chargers higher but let’s not be a prisoner of the moment. I had the Chargers staff in my top ten before the season, and they stay there now in about the same place. I’m still not totally sold on HC Anthony Lynn and definitely don’t love his game management skills, but Lynn gets a lot of help from his coordinators. Former head coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Gus Bradley make up one of the best one-two OC-DC punches in football, and this staff keeps L.A. charging forward year after year despite a constant barrage of injuries. This Chargers team is finally ready to make a run — but don’t be surprised if both Whiz and Gus get new opportunities next year.
8. Baltimore Ravens
This might be the last hurrah for this version of the Ravens management team, but they’re going out in style. There’s been a lot of talk that the team and John Harbaugh may be ready to move on after a decade together, and that may be the case, but Harbaugh will be the hottest name on the market if he’s available. The good Harbaugh has had exactly one losing season, and that will hold true again despite losing his quarterback and revamping the entire offense midstream this fall. Longtime GM Ozzie Newsome is retiring and I fear a bit for what the Ravens could look like if both he and Harbaugh leave together, but for now Baltimore may have one last run.
Tier III — The kings of innovation
7. San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Shanahan is 10–20 as a head coach, so this is quite the vote of confidence. But Shanahan has had a dearth of talent and a slew of injuries, yet he consistently has the team competing and keeping almost every game close. The 49ers have 10 one-score losses in games they’ve kept closer than they should’ve, and Shanahan is 6–2 with Jimmy Garoppolo and only two years removed from directing one of the best offenses in NFL history. He is an offensive genius. He’s taken guys like Nick Mullens, Marquise Goodwin, Matt Breida, and Jeff Wilson off the scrap heap and turned them into consistent producers. Mullens ranks 4th in yards per attempt and 2nd in yards per completion, Breida is top five in yards per carry, and George Kittle is suddenly a stud tight end. Get Shanahan some healthy players, please and thank you.
6. Chicago Bears
Ladies and gentlemen, your Coach of the Year, Matt Nagy! Nagy was my pick entering the season and it looks like he should get the award unless the Chargers steal the AFC 1-seed. Nagy’s Bears have blown a few weird ones — he cost them a win Week 1 and the team forgot how to tackle against the Dolphins — but Chicago is also 10–4 and could’ve won all four of those losses. Nagy and OC Mark Helfrich have done miracles with the offense considering how bad Mitchell Trubisky has looked at times, and Vic Fangio has brought back the Monsters of Midway defense that often wins games all on its own. Khalil Mack was the powder keg that lit the Bears defensive tinderbox, but it’s the coaches that have the team playing at the highest frequency.
5. New Orleans Saints
You can’t argue with success. Sean Payton is 117–73 lifetime and adds seven playoff wins and a Super Bowl ring, and he’s got a good chance to add a second one this February. He’s worked with Drew Brees and OC Pete Carmichael for a decade and, rather than growing stale, is constantly innovating the offense and adding something new. Last year he remade everything around all-everything RB Alvin Kamara. This year he’s added the Taysom Hill wrinkle (and gotten Brees to buy into it, which is no small part). Add in names like Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland in management and Dennis Allen and Mike Nolan on the defense and it’s no wonder this team runs along successfully year after year.
Tier II — An advantage in every facet of the game
4. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles might have been #2 this summer (or even #1 for the real prisoners of the moment), but this is hardly a slight. Doug Pederson is one of the best in-game managers with his innovative strategies and decision making, and Jim Schwartz has long been one of the best defensive minds in football (but even he can’t turn four guys off the street into cornerbacks). The offense hasn’t quite found its way this year with the loss of minds like Frank Reich and John DeFilippo and constant turmoil at the QB position, but it’s easy to forget this team was left for dead one year ago right now before riding Nick Bleeping Foles to a Super Bowl ring.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid gets a lot of crap for his clock management and shoddy playoff record, but I’m here to celebrate the immaculate job this guy does year after year. In 20 years as a head coach, Reid has now made the playoffs 14 times. He’s had a top 10 offense 12 times and won 11 playoff games, and he’s going to win more this year. And like any good coach, he has plenty of help. Longtime DC Bob Sutton gets the job done — just watch how much better the Chiefs defense will be now that Eric Berry is back — and coached a top 10 defense four of the past five years. Eric Bienemy has done wonders with Patrick Mahomes and the offense and could be a head coach candidate, and the ever steady “special assistant” Dave Toub gives the Chiefs a special teams advantage for the umpteenth straight season. Reid just needs a ring this year so everyone will finally get off his back.
2. Los Angeles Rams
Sean McVay is the reigning Coach of the Year after taking the #32 offense in 2016 and turning it into #1 a year ago. For his encore this year he had former bust QB Jared Goff among the MVP favorites until a recent swoon, and he’s turned Todd Gurley into an all-time fantasy running back and made stars out of Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Every other team in the NFL is looking for its own McVay to innovate the offense, and you can’t ask for a better offense-defense punch than McVay and Wade Philips. Don’t forget about ol’ Bum’s kid. The Philips family has ruled the NFL defensively since the 1980s, and it’s just an added bonus that Wade is too old to get another head coaching job. He and McVay aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and it feels like a ring is only a matter of time. But they’re not #1 yet.
Tier I — The winner, and stilllllll champion …
1. New England Patriots
You were expecting someone else? Bill Belichick has a .730 win percentage… in the postseason! This week’s loss breaks a nine-year streak with at least 12 regular season wins, and the Patriots have won 10+ every season since 2002. In an era of parity and change, that is just flat out remarkable consistency. Bill Belichick has coached in 11 of the 52 Super Bowls!!
New England really does have the GOAT. His name is Bill Belichick.