Coach-of the-Year ballots will be collected shortly, and expect Mike Smith, John Fox and maybe, just maybe, Mike McCarthy at the top of the list. But I'd make an argument for the Colts' Bruce Arians, too, even though he's the slam-dunk choice for Interim Coach of the Year.
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My point is that those are the guys who will be recognized, but that doesn't mean they're the only ones who deserve to be ... because they're not. Here then are five guys I'd like to mention now, mostly because they probably won't be mentioned when the votes are tabulated later.
Mike Shanahan, Washington
Not only does he have the Redskins on a six-game tear; he has them in a position to do something that none of Washington's last four head coaches could -- namely, win a division title. Moreover, he's doing it with a rookie quarterback, a rookie running back and a defense depleted by injuries and led by a 37-year-old linebacker. After losing to Carolina, Shanahan talked about the rest of this season as an evaluation for 2013, and he got jumped by critics ... for all the right reasons. Realizing his mistake, he backtracked, tried to clarify his remarks and hasn't lost since -- knocking off four straight division opponents in the process. When Washington earlier this season lost linebacker Brian Orakpo and defensive end Adam Carriker, it looked as if they'd limp to the finish line. Instead, they're working on the second-best current winning streak, with Sunday's game determining who wins the NFC East. That's a credit to Shanahan, who had an 11-21 record in Washington before this season, and it's a credit to a club that was supposed to settle into a long winter's nap by now. Every year for the last nine seasons, at least one division is clinched by a club that was last the preceding year. Maybe this is Washington's turn. If so ... Hail to Mike Shanahan.
Leslie Frazier, Minnesota
My mother once told me that good things happen to good people, and there are few better people in this business than Frazier. He's not only kind, compassionate and understanding; he's one helluva football coach. These Vikings were supposed to be a dead-bolt cinch to bring up the rear of the NFC North for a second straight season, and there were rumors that Frazier might be on his way out. Yeah, sure, and you can time Adrian Peterson with an hourglass, too. Frazier is one of the year's best feel-good stories, and hallelujah. With everyone talking about Peterson and his exploits, it's about time we recognize the coach that has Minnesota in the playoff picture. He beat San Francisco. He beat Chicago. He beat Houston. In short, he won games he shouldn't have, and that's usually a sign of a coach who knows what he's doing. The Vikings don't have a top-15 offense; they don't have a top-15 defense; and they're minus-2 in the turnover differential. Yet, somehow, they're alive, and, yes, Peterson is a big reason. But so is this guy.
Pete Carroll, Seattle
Carroll hasn't had a winning season in Seattle ... until now, that is. And now he has a team so dangerous, so hot, so freakin' intimidating that nobody wants to meet the Seahawks in the playoffs. In their last three games, they outscored opponents 150-30, and that includes a 42-13 hammering of San Francisco and Jim Harbaugh -- the worst loss in Harbaugh's short pro career. The Seahawks probably won't win the NFC West; the 49ers will. But tell me you'd rather meet these guys now. They're a load. Russell Wilson can't lose. Marshawn Lynch is the league's second-leading rusher. And that defense ... it hits as hard as San Francisco and lately has been more effective. When Carroll this season turned over his offense to an undersized rookie quarterback, I wondered what he was doing. After all, wasn't he the guy who told us Matt Flynn was the answer at that position? But that's why Carroll makes the big bucks. He acknowledged the obvious, which was that Wilson had the better training camp and preseason, and he was willing to take the leap. It didn't matter that Flynn had the experience or the bigger contract. What mattered, Carroll reminded us, was which quarterback gave him the best chance to win. Smart man.
John Harbaugh, Baltimore
Before this season started, I thought the Ravens were a team ticketed for the next train south. It wasn't just that they lost Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs; it was that there were too many issues going on with them. There was Joe Flacco's contract. There was Ray Rice's contract. There was Ed Reed's summertime blues. And there was an offensive line with too many holes. Cincinnati seemed ready for takeoff in the AFC North, which meant someone -- Pittsburgh or Baltimore -- would have to step back, and I chose Baltimore. I underestimated Harbaugh. I know, he had that three-game losing streak where the Ravens looked miserable ... and he fired his offensive coordinator with three weeks left ... and he lucked out with that fourth-and-29 in San Diego. But he just won his second straight AFC North championship, for crying out loud, and that counts for a lot. All I know is that there are fewer coaches in this league more predictable than Harbaugh. Every year you can count on him in the playoffs. Moreover, every year he wins at least one playoff game, and tell me who else can say that the last five seasons. Someone? Anyone? At some point, we must recognize Harbaugh for what he is: One of the game's sharpest, shrewdest and best head coaches.
Jeff Fisher, St. Louis
If the Rams lose this weekend in Seattle, they wind up with another sub .500 record, and you know what? I couldn't care less. For the first time in a while, the arrow is pointing up, and, Jeff Fisher, take a bow. Fisher restored a toughness, a competitiveness and a physical dimension to this team that was missing when he took over. Oh, yeah, he also restored winning. The Rams are 7-7-1, and consider that an achievement over last year's 2-14 train wreck. That earned St. Louis the second pick of the draft, and Fisher promptly dealt it to Washington for three first-rounders (including the sixth in 2012) and a second-round choice. With the second selection, the Redskins chose RG3; with the trade, the Rams chose long-term benefits, hoping to surround a core of outstanding young players -- including quarterback Sam Bradford -- with blue-chip picks in the future. Fisher gambled that he could make the Rams competitive for now, and he gambled right. He beat Washington. He beat Seattle. He never lost to San Francisco. And he produced the best record in the NFC West (4-0-1). In that 49ers' game, he benched rookies Chris Givens and Janoris Jenkins for curfew violations, then had them run stadium steps 90 minutes prior to the contest. The message got through. Both were important contributors down the stretch as the Rams won four of their last five, and credit Fisher. He won in Tennessee, and he'll win here. Guaranteed.