In the NFL Playoffs, head coaches can win games with outstanding game plans and preparation periods or cost themselves wins by icing up on game day. Read up on the head coaches of this year’s playoff field, as they rank from twelve through one.
12. Gary Kubiak: I’ve never heard of another head coach who missed the playoffs each of his first five years on the job and was rewarded with a sixth year. The patience of Texans owner Bob McNair was rewarded, however, as Kubiak led Houston to its first playoff appearance, in asserting themselves as the best team in a division with the Peyton Manning-less Colts, the Titans in their first year without Jeff Fisher, and the 5-11 Jaguars. The Texans’ four-win jump, from 6-10 last season to a 10-6 mark this year, is attributed largely to Kubiak finally hiring a good defensive coordinator in veteran Wade Phillips. I’ll bet Kubiak will regret allowing his team to enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, and while it is not Kubiak’s fault that he lost his top two quarterbacks or star players such as Andre Johnson and Mario Williams for such lengthy stretches, I still say the Texans have the worst head coach of the twelve playoff teams.
11. Marvin Lewis: I like Marvin Lewis and me ranking him here is more of a testament to the greatness of these other head coaches than it is any kind of slight on Lewis. What Lewis has done, in leading a team that went 4-12 last season and lost Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, and Johnathan Joseph to a playoff berth, with a rookie quarterback at the helm, in a division with the Steelers and Ravens, is incredible. That being said, the rocky tenure that has been Lewis’ nine years in Cincinnati, which includes merely two one-and-done playoff appearances as his team enters Saturday’s matchup with the Texans, is certainly a mark against him.
10. Jim Schwartz: Schwartz and Lions general manager Martin Mayhew have done an incredible job since taking over in Detroit, following the 2008 season in which the Lions completed the NFL’s first 0-16 campaign. Schwartz has completely changed the culture of the Lions, from laughingstock to one of the league’s most physical, athletic, and tough-minded teams. The only thing that pushes Schwartz down the list is the fact that he’s never been a head coach in a playoff game before.
9. Jim Harbaugh: In his first year as an NFL head coach, Harbaugh has led the storied 49ers franchise to its first playoff appearance in nine years, as they steamrolled through the NFC West with a 13-3 record. Though an offensive guru by nature, himself a former Pro Bowl quarterback, Harbaugh has coached to the strengths of the roster he inherited and tweaked in San Francisco, promoting a blue collar, ground-and-pound philosophy that has featured one of the league’s stingiest defenses. I’m tempted to rank him higher than ninth, but I’m going to slow the roll of the rookie coach here.
8. Mike Smith: The Falcons were a mess of a franchise when Smith arrived in Atlanta in 2008, and the Dirty Birds have done a complete 180 since then. Atlanta had never compiled consecutive winning seasons before Smith’s tenure began, but has won at least nine games each of his first four years, with three playoff appearances. Smith has rode one of the league’s most well-balanced, complete rosters to a 43-21 regular season record, but is still searching for his first playoff win.
7. John Harbaugh: After too many mediocre seasons under Brian Billick, the Ravens turned to Harbaugh as their head coach in 2008. He has proven Ravens management to have been right with that decision since day one, as he has compiled a 44-20 regular season record and 4-3 postseason record. Baltimore is the only team in the NFL that has reached the playoffs each of the past four seasons, and this year, they will benefit from having a bye through Wild Card weekend and at least one home playoff game for the first time in the Harbaugh era.
6. John Fox: After first taking a Panthers team that went 1-15 the year before his arrival to a Super Bowl appearance in his second year, and having now taken a Broncos team that went 4-12 last year to a division title in his first year in the Mile High City, Fox has proven his worth as a coach who shrinks from no challenges. This season, Fox showcased the flexibility to employ the NFL’s most unconventional offense, and has reinforced his reputation as a defensive genius by taking Denver’s defense from one of the league’s worst in 2010 to one of its best this year.
5. Tom Coughlin: Having endured the firestorm of scrutiny that is the New York media and fanbase from the day he set foot in the Big Apple, Coughlin has been a model of consistency as Giants head coach, having led the G-Men to three division titles, five playoff appearances, arguably the greatest Super Bowl upset in NFL history, and has not had a losing record since his first year with the Giants in 2004. While some bristle at his regimented, disciplinarian style, players respect the honesty and compassion with which Coughlin treats them, as well as the tireless work ethic he brings to his profession.
4. Sean Payton: Perhaps the NFL’s most brilliant offensive game-planner and play-caller, Payton has completely changed the level of expectations for the Saints franchise from among the league’s most woeful to a true powerhouse. Payton’s time in New Orleans has produced four playoff appearances, three division titles, and a championship in Super Bowl XLIV. Though the defense for the Who Dats has been somewhat disappointing this season, New Orleans has the ability to go point for point with anyone, thanks to a balanced attack and a plethora of playmakers.
3. Mike Tomlin: Being asked to fill gigantic shoes following the 38 combined years and five championships of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, Tomlin has exceeded even the wildest of expectations that could have been placed before him when he was hired as head coach of the Steelers in 2007. After leading Pittsburgh to an AFC North title in his first year on the job, Tomlin became the youngest Super Bowl-winning head coach in history, with the Steelers’ victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Tomlin then led his group back to the big game last season, before losing a 31-25 heartbreaker to the Green Bay Packers. Though being hailed as a young defensive genius when he was hired, Tomlin showed exceptional maturity and humility by keeping legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau on his staff, following Cowher’s departure. Tomlin is widely regarded as an outstanding motivator and having won four of his last five games that Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play, he has found multiple ways to win games.
2. Mike McCarthy: Another offensive mastermind in the mold of Payton, McCarthy took over a Packers franchise that floundered to a 4-12 finish in the final year of the Mike Sherman era, and has placed the moniker “Titletown” back on Green Bay, Wisconsin. After leading the Pack to a 13-3 record and a berth in the NFC Championship Game in Brett Favre’s final year in Green and Gold in 2007, McCarthy’s presence has been vital in the development of superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers. McCarthy followed up a Super Bowl championship with a third of his roster on injured reserve last year, by leading to the Cheeseheads to an NFL-Best 15-1 record this year.
1. Bill Belichick: Three rings, four conference championships, nine division titles. Need I say more? I wasn’t even going to bring up the two rings he won as a coordinator, but I guess I just did. While having Tom Brady would make any coach’s job easier, the Patriots are consistently among the league’s best when it comes to game plans and in-game adjustments. From serving as defensive coordinator to general manager and almost every role in between, no head coach has more control over their team than Belichick has in New England. Though some of the personnel moves Belichick has made since the departure of his trusted associates Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff have raised eyebrows and created weaknesses in the Pats’ roster, when the game comes down to X’s and O’s, you want Belichick on your sideline.