The AFC North has three head coaches that have taken their teams to the playoffs and another head coach that showed signs of growth throughout a turbulent season.
1) Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
A coach with a career record of 69-77-1 doesn’t seem like a likely candidate to top the list of head coaches in the AFC North.
However, Lewis’ ability to pull off successful seasons with young talent and a nearly constant stream of players in legal trouble makes him the best coach in the AFC North.
The other successful coaches in the AFC North have benefited from inheriting significant amounts of talent and from excellent front office decisions. In contrast, Lewis has been forced to deal with a penny-pinching ownership and management staff who couldn’t resist signing Charles Manson if he was released on parole and was able to run a 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds.
The 2011 season is a perfect example of the excellence of Lewis’ coaching acumen. Last season, the Bengals headed into the season with a rookie starting quarterback, a rookie No. 1 wide receiver, and a starting running back who had experienced legal trouble in the offseason.
Of course, Lewis also was forced to contend with the disgruntled former starting quarterback on the roster who vowed never to play for the team again. Many analysts had ample reason to predict that the Bengals would be among the worst teams in the NFL. Lewis surprised the league by leading the Bengals to a 9-7 record and a playoff appearance.
Many other coaches around the league performed far worse with much better talent. Defying the expectations of everyone but the players inside of the Bengals’ locker room is undeniably Lewis’ greatest achievement as a coach.
If the Bengals’ young core of players continues to improve, Lewis will make a return trip to the playoffs and have a serious chance at earning his first playoff victory as an NFL head coach.
2) Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
Some may argue that Tomlin’s 60-28 record, two Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl victory, and four playoff appearances during his tenure as head coach of the Steelers speak for itself and that he should top this list. The simple fact that Tomlin has led the Steelers to a winning record in each of his seasons and has kept the Steelers in the conversation of Super Bowl contenders every season is a major accomplishment.
However, Tomlin’s job has been made much easier by the Steelers’ savvy personnel decisions in the front office and by a solid foundation left in place by former head coach Bill Cowher. Being successful with the talent that Tomlin has been given isn’t a tough task.
Sure, the Steelers have been forced to deal with some bumps in the road during Tomlin’s tenure, but not the types of major challenges with which teams such as the Browns have been forced to wrestle. The true test of Tomlin’s coaching ability will occur in the not-so-distant future as the core group of players inherited by Tomlin begins to retire or leave the team and Tomlin will consequently be forced to develop his own set of key players.
The Steelers' organization cherishes longevity and continuity at the top, and barring a major change in the team’s fortunes within the near future, Tomlin will be head coach of the Steelers far into the future.
3) John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
In other divisions in the NFL, Harbaugh would top the list. In the AFC North, Harbaugh is no better than the third best coach despite posting a career record of 49-24 and making the playoffs in each of his four seasons as head coach.
Despite near-constant infusions of talent on offense, Harbaugh has been unable to significantly improve the Ravens’ offensive attack on a lasting basis. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been erratic, and the Ravens’ offense still largely centers around their running game despite the acquisition of Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin and explosive second-round draft pick Torrey Smith.
Additionally, despite being one of the most talented teams in the AFC, the Ravens haven’t been able to advance to the Super Bowl. Some may argue that the blame for Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal shouldn’t fall on Harbaugh, but when you’re the head coach of an NFL franchise, shouldering all of the criticism and blame for your team’s performance comes with the territory.
Harbaugh is a talented coach, and reaching two AFC Championships in four seasons in his first head coaching job is a major accomplishment. However, for him to rise on this list, he’ll need to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl or bring about lasting improvement in the offense.
4) Pat Shurmur, Cleveland Browns
Shurmur’s dismal 4-12 record as head coach of the Browns speaks for itself. In his first season as head coach of the Browns, Shurmur often looked overwhelmed and outmatched. Shurmur’s inexperience was reflected in the Browns’ disorganization on offense and the offense’s poor play in general. The Browns didn’t defeat a single team with a winning record during the 2011 season. Some fans even called for Shurmur to be fired.
Although his first season with the Browns was largely a disappointment, Shurmur did give Browns fans reason for hope towards the end of the season. The fact that Shurmur kept the team focused and motivated in spite of the drama surrounding Peyton Hillis was a major accomplishment.
Towards the end of the year, the Browns were extremely competitive in games against their AFC North rivals, nearly defeating the Bengals and Steelers. If the Browns can build on that progress in 2012, Shurmur will ensure that his tenure as head coach lasts a bit longer.
However, if Shurmur delivers another failed season, Browns fans will surely be calling for his ouster and hoping for the thousandth time that Bill Cowher will be willing to leave the friendly confines of the CBS studios and rejoin the team with whom he got his first coaching position in 1985.