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Under-the-radar coaches have teams rising (mostly) from obscurity

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Marvin Lewis' Bengals have a tough road ahead, but 2011 has already been a strong season. (US Presswire)  
Marvin Lewis' Bengals have a tough road ahead, but 2011 has already been a strong season. (US Presswire)  

Jack Del Rio is this season's first casualty among coaches who failed to get it right, and it won't be long before he has company. But coaches on the way out aren't my concern here; coaches who get it right are, and I'm not talking about obvious choices like Jim Harbaugh or Mike McCarthy.

I mean guys virtually no one will consider when Coach of the Year polls open; coaches who are doing the best with what they have and making progress that isn't always measured by wins. In short, I'm talking about coaches who've done more with less than almost anyone out there, but who haven't been recognized.

Until now.

John Fox, Denver Broncos: People said he couldn't win with Tim Tebow as his quarterback; that all he was doing by playing the former Florida star was allowing Tebow to demonstrate why he can't make it in the NFL. Yeah, sure, and 6-foot quarterbacks like Drew Brees can't, either.

It's not just that Fox had the courage to make the move; it's what he did with it. After the Broncos were shredded at home by Detroit, he decided he could keep losing with Tebow in a conventional offense or tailor his attack to suit his quarterback's unique skills. So he took the mountain to Tebow, went to an option offense and, literally, starting running the table. The Broncos beat Oakland. They beat Kansas City. They beat the Jets. And they beat San Diego.

Maybe Tebow's not your idea of a quarterback -- he's not John Elway's -- but he's 5-1, and I don't care how he or the Broncos got there. The record speaks for itself. All I know is that before the season I asked people close to the team what the over/under on wins was, and we all agreed on six games. Well, guess what? The Broncos not only are there; they're in the middle of the playoff race after a 1-4 start. John Fox, take a curtain call. You changed quarterbacks, you changed offenses, you changed a team's psyche and maybe you changed how people look at Tim Tebow.

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Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals: He was a frontrunner at midseason, but a couple of losses dropped him off the radar. Still, I don't want to minimize what Lewis has done, which is to win in the NFL's toughest division with a rookie quarterback and rookie offensive coordinator.

That wasn't supposed to happen after the lockout, but it is ... with Cincinnati only a game behind Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North. No, I don't expect the Bengals to stay there, not with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Houston left on the schedule. But I don't care. Lewis has done the unimaginable, which is to take a club with a new offense, a new quarterback and a new lead receiver and turn it into a division contender.

I know, his defense deserves credit, and so does his defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer. But Lewis held this thing together, much as he did in 2009 when he overcame a string of setbacks to win the division and the Coach of the Year award. Now look what he and the Bengals have done: Subtract their starting quarterback and two leading receivers from last season ... yet get better. Way better. That, folks, is what I'd call an achievement.

Hue Jackson, Oakland Raiders: People tell me the Raiders are nothing more than the best team in a rotten division, and that's not true. Maybe the AFC West isn't the strongest, but I know a couple of teams there that are causing havoc for others -- with Oakland first in line.

Jackson has not only overcame the loss of running back Darren McFadden, who has missed his past four starts and most of the fifth; he overcame the loss of his starting quarterback, too. I know, subbing Carson Palmer for Jason Campbell is a trade up, but Palmer was called in off the couch and hadn't done much of anything since last season. So Jackson plugs him in, the Raiders lose a couple of games, then start knocking down opponents.

Keep in mind these guys lost their owner, too, and maybe that's not such a big deal in some NFL cities. But it is when Al Davis is running your club. Of course, there's more than McFadden or Campbell or Davis that Jackson has had to overcome. There's experience. He's a rookie head coach who was supposed to be penalized by the lockout.

He's also a guy heading an organization with a recent history of losing ... and I mean losing big. The Raiders not only haven't had a winning season since 2002; they haven't had more than four victories in four of the past eight years. Now Jackson has them on target for their first division title since they last went to the Super Bowl, and that deserves to be recognized.

Mike Munchak, Tennessee Titans: Munchak is another rookie coach with a quarterback and offensive coordinator new to his system. Logic tells you it can't work in a year where the lockout erased offseason workouts and minicamps, but logic has nothing to do with what's happening in Tennessee.

The Titans were supposed to be OK because they have the league's best running back in Chris Johnson ... except they don't. Johnson not only isn't the top back; he's not in the top 15. He ranks 18th, and only because he ran for a season-best 190 yards last Sunday -- his second 100-yard effort in three weeks.

Johnson has been one of the league's big disappointments, but the Titans haven't. In fact, they're the only team keeping Houston from running away with the AFC South, and they're doing it after losing their second-best offensive playmaker, Kenny Britt, for the year.

Yes, Tennessee lost to Jacksonville, but so did Baltimore. The Titans also knocked off the Ravens.

Munchak had no easy assignment when he took over. He followed Jeff Fisher, did it in a lockout season and did it with his two best playmakers on offense either out or ineffective. Yet, somehow, he has kept the team afloat, and he has done it with an old-school approach that has an impact on the team dress code on road trips, the atmosphere in the locker room, the attitude of players and the Titans' performance on the field.

Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans: Like Del Rio, he had to make the playoffs or suffer the consequences. Unlike Del Rio, it looks as if he'll make it ... and against all odds.

He started the season without top running back Arian Foster. He lost top receiver Andre Johnson for six games. He lost his top defensive player, linebacker Mario Williams, for the season. Then he lost his starting quarterback ... and his backup quarterback ... and will make the stretch run with third-stringer T.J. Yates calling signals. Or is that Jake Delhomme?

All I know is that there have been speed bumps that might've stopped someone else. Not Kubiak. He not only has the Texans on target for their first playoff appearance; if the season were to end today, Houston would be the AFC's top seed. Remarkable? You bet.

A year ago he was supposed to be fired. Only he wasn't. So he got smart and hired Wade Phillips as his defensive coordinator and, suddenly, the league's 32nd-ranked pass defense is No. 2 and the 30th overall defense its first. Kubiak has been criticized for the Texans' shortcomings in the past; he should be applauded for what he … and the club … have done this season.

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