We're now just two days away from the start of the NFL playoffs. It was a long, strange road to get here, but here we are. Throughout this week you have likely read a whole lot about the matchups, the players, the tactics, the injuries, and everything else that will affect who advances out of Super Wild-Card Weekend and into the Divisional Round and beyond.
We're here today to add to the list of things that will affect exactly that by taking a look at the coaches. But not just the head coaches. Instead, we want to take a more holistic view, examining each team's head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator. Because the people in charge on each side of the ball will have a whole lot to say in whether or not their teams can advance beyond where they are right now.
A few things worth noting before we dive in:
- I came up with my own rankings to start things off, then ran them by the CBSSports.com staff over the past several days and heavily weighed their input. That process is how we came up with rankings that are both tiered and numbered.
- The tiers themselves should be considered rigid, while the rankings within them are fluid. That means if you wanted to slot one Tier 2 team ahead of another, there would be very little argument. But if you tried to move a Tier 3 team ahead of one of the teams in Tier 1 or 2, that would draw more forceful pushback.
- What you see below is my analysis of why the teams ended up in the tiers they did, and the strengths and weaknesses of the coaches that factored into them.
- Were Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski actually coaching this weekend, the Browns would jump up a tier. Given the importance of Stefanski's play-calling to the team's success, we were left with no choice but to drop them down.
14. Cleveland Browns: Acting HC Mike Priefer, OC Alex Van Pelt, DC Joe Woods
13. Chicago Bears: HC Matt Nagy, OC Bill Lazor, DC Chuck Pagano
12. Washington Football Team: HC Ron Rivera, OC Scott Turner, DC Jack Del Rio
It's really unfortunate that Stefanski won't be able to coach this weekend. The difference in the way he put his players in position to succeed offensively than the way his predecessor (Freddie Kitchens) did was night and day. He showed a fantastic feel for game situations with his play calls, as well, seemingly always busting out a bootleg or a screen at just the right moment. Without him on the sideline, there's simply not enough left on the Browns' staff to be confident in. It's tough to give Van Pelt much credit for the offense when we know how much of it is attributable to Stefanski, and Woods' defense ranked 25th in DVOA this year despite working with better talent than last year's 24th-ranked unit. He was the 49ers' defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator last season, but failed to coax the same type of high-level play out of Cleveland's defensive backfield that he did out of San Francisco's.
There is not much we have seen from Nagy in his three years at the helm that would indicate he's a positive difference maker for his team. Lazor's offenses have ranked, on average, 25th in yards and 21st in points during his five years as an offensive coordinator. Chicago's strong stretch run against a slate of poor defenses is not enough to over-ride the track record those two have established in the past. Pagano is a strong defensive coordinator (not quite as strong in the role as his predecessor, Vic Fangio, but strong nonetheless) in charge of a good unit, but that is not enough to outweigh Nagy and Lazor.
Rivera is an excellent leader of men type, if not necessarily the best game-day tactician or decision-maker. He provides a solid baseline for an organization to build its culture, but that's something that benefits the team in the long-term -- not necessarily in the playoffs, in particular. Turner has shown the ability to coax better performances out of below-average offensive talent than one might expect, but in each of his stops as a play-caller, his teams have ranked very low in explosive plays. Some of that is due to personnel but some of it is also that design of the offense, which favors short, quick passes and inside runs. It's tough to assign Del Rio much credit for the defense given the presence of both Rivera and all those first-round picks up front.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: HC Bruce Arians, OC Byron Leftwich, DC Todd Bowles
10. Seattle Seahawks: HC Pete Carroll, OC Brian Schottenheimer, DC Ken Norton Jr.
For a coach who made his name as a "no risk-it, no biscuit" guy, Arians sure is conservative on game days. The Buccaneers went for it only 14.1 percent of the time on fourth down this season, per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, the sixth-lowest rate in the league. Arians and Byron Leftwich also did not make much of an effort to tailor their offense to Tom Brady's skill set, and that shone through when the team played against opponents with strong defenses and largely struggled to score. The offensive success of this team seems far more attributable to the talent on hand than anything endemic to the system or coaching. Bowles is a fantastic defensive coordinator who coaches one of the most aggressive and versatile units in the NFL. But it's an offensive league, and specifically a passing league, and his defense is better against the run than it is against aerial attacks.
Carroll has a Super Bowl ring. He built one of the best defenses of this century and for a while, changed both how the league evaluated cornerbacks and how it built coverages. But his conservative nature too often undermines his team's ability to win -- or at least hampers it. There's a reason why Russell Wilson is always having to stage late-game comebacks, and it's because the Seahawks play in a shell until it's too late to do so and then need their quarterback to come bail them out. It's clear that neither he nor Schottenheimer were ever really on board with the #LetRussCook movement, as they torpedoed it at the first opportunity. (Wilson threw a few picks in a three-game stretch where the defense was such a disaster that he felt he had to try to win the game on every play. The solution? Stop passing on early downs and play slower, for some reason.) Norton seems like a solid coach, but this is still Carroll's defense (and it wasn't very good for most of the year) and "former Seahawks defensive coordinator" has not exactly been a successful coaching archetype elsewhere in the league, so it's tough to use him to elevate the staff as a whole.
9. Indianapolis Colts: HC Frank Reich, OC Nick Sirianni, DC Matt Eberflus
8. Tennessee Titans: HC Mike Vrabel, OC Arthur Smith, OLB Coach Shane Bowen
7. Pittsburgh Steelers: HC Mike Tomlin, OC Randy Fichtner, DC Keith Butler
6. Green Bay Packers: HC Matt LaFleur, OC Nathaniel Hackett, DC Mike Pettine
5. Los Angeles Rams: HC Sean McVay, OC Kevin O'Connell, DC Brandon Staley
This was by far the toughest tier to sort out. We had these teams in a completely different order as recently as Wednesday, and a different order the day before that. You could rank any of them, anywhere from No. 5 to No. 9 and I would not argue with you at all. It's probably not a coincidence that there are three coaches in this tier that may end up head coaches next season, by the way. There's a reason we think so highly of these groups.
Let's talk about those three coaches: Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, and Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley.
Eberflus was formerly the linebackers coach in Dallas, back when Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch were playing at their peak. He came to Indianapolis and immediately installed a defense that focuses on limiting big plays at all costs, conceding short passes and rallying to the ball to make tackles before the receiver can gather a head of steam. They've been extremely successful at that since he got there, and this year DeForest Buckner took the entire defense to another level. Indy's ability to get high level play out of players not previously considered high level players (like Kenny Moore) or revitalize players who looked done elsewhere (like Xavier Rhodes) is also a feather in Eberflus' cap.
Smith's offense is remarkably simple, and remarkably effective. The Titans leverage heavy formations, heavy doses of play-action passes, and otherworldly athletes to make big plays in both the run game and the passing game. The way the Titans have found increasingly creative ways to make sure defenders are trying to tackle Derrick Henry from the side instead of straight on (like designing cutbacks and windbacks and split zone action into his runs) has helped him break into the secondary with greater regularity as the season has gone on, and their use of crossing routes, zone-flooding concepts, and Ryan Tannehill's mobility and accuracy has juiced the passing game's explosiveness far beyond where it was last season.
If it weren't for one of the guys in the next section, Staley would be my pick for coordinator of the year. The way he has built his defense back to front, utilizing light boxes to encourage opposing defenses to run the ball, then playing the run well anyway, is something that should sweep through the league over the next several seasons. He has been far more creative in his use of Jalen Ramsey than Wade Phillips was, and that's really saying something. He also out players like Michael Brockers and Morgan Fox in position to succeed more than ever before, and was able to generate a pass rush without the benefit of explosive edge rushers that other top defenses have.
I wanted to find a way to move the Colts up in these rankings. The problem was that I also wanted to find a way to move the Titans up, and I felt like both Mike Tomlin and Matt LaFleur needed to be moved up in the rankings as well. Ultimately, we couldn't find the justification for elevating them above the combination of Staley and Sean McVay -- whose offense is still among the best-designed and best-called in the NFL -- even if he does get too conservative in fourth down and short yardage situations on occasion.
Still, none of that is a slight to Reich, who has had tremendous success in Indianapolis despite facing some extremely odd roster situations. The way he and Sirianni designed this offense, with all of its crossing routes that complement the power running game, plays perfectly to the strengths of the team. Similar things could be said about Vrabel. His defense might be the single weakest unit among this group of teams, though, which is what kept them toward the lower end of the tier rather than the higher end. The reason the Steelers and Packers ended up ahead of the Colts and Titans is because the strength of their staffs are their head coaches, rather than coordinators on one side of the ball or the other. But if one wanted to flip them around in any other order, I wouldn't mind too much.
4. New Orleans Saints: HC Sean Payton, OC Pete Carmichael, DC Dennis Allen
3. Buffalo Bills: HC Sean McDermott, OC Brian Daboll, DC Leslie Frazier
2. Baltimore Ravens: HC John Harbaugh, OC Greg Roman, DC Don Martindale
1. Kansas City Chiefs: HC Andy Reid, OC Eric Bieniemy, DC Steve Spagnuolo
These four teams all have elite head coaches, at least one elite coordinator, and a second coordinator who is decidedly above-average. They're the best coaching staffs in the postseason. They're also looking like a pipeline for future head coaches, with Allen, Daboll, Roman, Martindale, and Bieniemy all known to be receiving consideration this offseason already, and Frazier and Spagnuolo probably deserving of another shot at some point in the future, assuming their respective units keep finding success as long as they stay in their current roles. Carmichael is also one of the league's best-kept secrets, a guy who has been second-in-command for the New Orleans offense since 2009 and yet has somehow never been considered a serious candidate for the top job elsewhere.
Payton remains one of the game's small handful of best offensive minds, as evidenced by his designing a brand-new offense around Taysom Hill within a week's time when Drew Brees went down with an injury. There are few coaches better at putting star players in position to succeed. Allen's defense always seems to start slow and finish fast, and that was the case this year as well. The Saints enter the playoffs with what sure looks like a top-five defense, which makes them one of the favorites in the NFC.
McDermott, my preseason pick for Coach of the Year, is just a fantastic coach in all respects. He and his staff have built a new roster from the ground up around Josh Allen, and it's taken a step forward every year they've been there. Daboll, by the way, was the coordinator I was alluding to above. What he has done with the Bills offense this season is something every team should aspire to. They have layered new concepts and wrinkles on top of all the stuff they'd done over the past couple years, and married it with an aggressive mindset and trust in both their quarterback and skill position players. Frazier and McDermott have gotten the defense to round into shape over the second half of the season, and considering the track record of both coaches on that side of the ball (as well as the presence of much of the same personnel from the past two years), we should buy into that improvement.
I'm still sort of flabbergasted that neither Roman nor Martindale was hired for a head coaching job last offseason. To think it might happen again this offseason is just wild, considering the success they have had. Roman and the Baltimore offense went through a bit of a lull during the first half of this season, but have been firing on all cylinders again for a while now. He does an incredible job leveraging Lamar Jackson's skill set, and the design of his running-game schemes has long been among the best in the league. Martindale might be the NFL's most underrated coordinator, having built an elite unit whose versatility and aggressiveness is nearly unrivaled in the league at the moment. It helps to have elite talent, to be sure, but the way he weaponizes it is something to be envied. The way Harbaugh has adapted his personality and coaching style to his personal since making the change from Joe Flacco to Jackson is remarkable, and should be emulated by other coaches whose teams experienced similarly dramatic changes.
Reid was an elite coach long before last season, and it should never have taken a Super Bowl title for people to admit that. One of the best offensive minds in football for the better part of two decades, he never stops evolving, never stops tinkering. He and Eric Bieniemy are in charge of the league's most explosive offense, and keep finding new ways to add to what they do. It's all still based on the West Coast principles Reid has always utilized as the foundation of his offense, but they've infused it with spread concepts, option routes and runs, heavy motion, and more. It's fantastic. And Spagnuolo totally changed this defense when he arrived last year, and it's gotten even better in Year 2. Everyone here just does their job extremely well.