NFL Coach of the Year rankings: Cowboys’ Garrett, Patriots’ Belichick nearly even

Asking yourself if Jason Garrett is a better coach than Bill Belichick feels silly — because there isn’t an informed person on this planet who would actually argue that — but it’s entirely necessary at this point in the NFL season. It’s mid-December and teams are beginning to lock up playoff spots, which means it’s time to figure out which coach has done the best job this season.

In other words, who deserves to win Coach of the Year?

Atop the list are Garrett, who has guided the Dallas Cowboys to an 11-2 record without Tony Romo , and Belichick, who has guided the New England Patriots to an 11-2 record despite Tom Brady ‘s four-game absence, trading away Jamie Collins , and losing Rob Gronkowski for the year. And so, this is where the conversation gets silly: How the hell are we supposed to give the award to a coach other than Belichick when Belichick’s team is tied for the NFL’s best record?

That question will hopefully be answered in this article, which will attempt to figure out which coach is the most deserving through 14 weeks of the season. First, for full disclosure, here’s how the NFL staff at CBS Sports voted before the season:

Pete Prisco: Mike Zimmer. He will get the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs without his starting quarterback. That’s good enough for me.

Jason La Canfora: Bill Belichick. No one bounces back from a scandal like The Hoodie (and, well, no one arguably has had more scandals).

Will Brinson: Dirk Koetter. A pretty good option for a first-year coach who could take his team to the playoffs, Koetter will give the Bucs consistency, help them to 9 or 10 wins, orchestrate a breakout year from Jameis Winston and net the honors in his first year in Tampa.

Ryan Wilson: Bruce Arians. The Pittsburgh Steelers forced Arians into retirement after the 2011 season. Instead of spending his days fishing, he served as Andrew Luck’s offensive coordinator, and parlayed that success into turning around the Arizona Cardinals .

John Breech: Andy Reid. Reid takes home this award after leading the Kansas City Chiefs to their first division title since 2010.

Jared Dubin: Bill Belichick. When the Patriots go 12-4 despite not having Tom Brady for four games, voters will reward the man in the hoodie.

Sean Wagner-McGough: Bill Belichick. The Hoodie overcomes Tom Brady’s suspension to lead the Patriots to another AFC East title. Choosing anyone other than Belichick isn’t smart. There’s a reason why the Patriots are always contenders.

So, Garrett was definitely not a favorite to land the award. And that works in his favor.

Tier 5: Jeff Fisher

Jeff Fisher is definitely not in the running for Coach of the Year. USATSI

32. Jeff Fisher — Los Angeles Rams (4-9)

Jeff Fisher tried to not get fired, but he got canned Monday — a day after the Rams gave up 42 points at home against the Julio Jones-less Atlanta Falcons and lost by 28 even after two garbage time touchdowns. So, now that Fisher era is over, let’s take a look at what he accomplished in the months he was allowed to walk the sidelines in Los Angeles:

  • Mortgaged the future for a quarterback who wasn’t ready to play until late November
  • Played Case Keenum
  • Rendered Todd Gurley useless
  • Allegedly banned Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson from Rams games
  • Coached a “middle school” offense that was ranked last in the NFL in yards and points
  • Lost nine games WITHOUT winning seven
  • Tied the record for the most losses as a head coach in NFL history

And that’s a wrap.

Tier 4: Trying not to get fired

Hue Jackson hasn’t won a game. USATSI

31. Hue Jackson — Cleveland Browns (0-13)

Due to Fisher’s incompetence, Hue Jackson is spared the last spot, which is pretty remarkable considering Jackson has yet to win a game. The Browns are 0-13 and Jackson isn’t ranked last. Here’s why: I’m not sure any coach would win with the Browns roster, who are actually doing the smart thing by completely rebuilding.

30. Gus Bradley — Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)

The Jaguars entered the season with playoff aspirations. They thought they had their quarterback, a top receiving crew, and a growing, young defense. Blake Bortles has thrown 15 picks, the Jaguars’ top-three receivers lead the league in drops, and the defense isn’t anything special — even though Bradley once coordinated the vaunted Seattle Seahawks defense.

Oh, and they are not going to the playoffs.

29. Chip Kelly — 49ers (1-12)

Chip Kelly’s in the same situation as Jackson. His roster is devoid of talent, which isn’t his fault. That’s why he gets a pass.

28. Marvin Lewis — Cincinnati Bengals (5-7-1)

When I picked the Bengals to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, it felt like an OK pick considering the Bengals had journeyed to the postseason in each of the past five seasons. Instead, the Bengals have gone 5-7-1. Lewis’ team isn’t as bad as the other teams in this category, but he gets downgraded because his team was supposed to be playoff bound, and they’re not.

27. Todd Bowles — New York Jets (4-9)

The biggest mistake Todd Bowles made was sticking with Ryan Fitzpatrick — not just once, but multiple times. He signed Fitzpatrick during training camp and then refused to bench him as FitzTragic wrecked the Jets’ season. Still, I’m not certain Bowles had any shot at winning this year. Even if he benched Fitzpatrick, he would’ve been playing either Geno Smith , Bryce Petty , or Christian Hackenberg . Bowles wasn’t going to win any games with those three quarterbacks. Bowles isn’t the Jets’ biggest issue.

26. John Fox — Chicago Bears (3-10)

John Fox got dealt a bad hand. Jay Cutler was hurt all year and Brian Hoyer also ended up on injured reserve. Alshon Jeffery was suspended for a quarter of the year and Kevin White pretty much missed the entire season. Still, give Fox credit for the Bears’ effort level. Despite a clear lack of talent at certain positions, the Bears play hard every week.

25. Mike McCoy — San Diego Chargers (5-8)

I’m not sure if Mike McCoy’s team is bad (they’re certainly entertaining!) but he deserves some blame for all of those early season games his team choked away.

24. Chuck Pagano — Indianapolis Colts (6-7)

The Colts should be winning the mediocre AFC South. Instead, they can’t find a way to help Andrew Luck . That’s on the front office and the coaching staff.

Tier 3: No chance to win

Ron Rivera will not repeat as Coach of the Year. USATSI

23. Ron Rivera — Carolina Panthers (5-8)

Ron Rivera went from the Super Bowl to missing the playoffs. His recent decision to bench Cam Newton for a series backfired and the Panthers hardly resemble the team they were a year ago, when Rivera took home the award. Not much explanation is needed to explain why he won’t repeat.

22. Sean Payton — New Orleans Saints (5-8)

By now, Payton is at least getting consistent at this no-playoffs thing. The Saints’ offense is good, but Payton remains allergic to good defense. They’re ranked 25th in defensive DVOA.

21. Bruce Arians — Cardinals (5-7-1)

It’s a shame: If not for a poor kicking game, the Cardinals might’ve been in a position to make the playoffs. Instead, you have Bruce Arians saying stuff like this after a loss to the Miami Dolphins :

“We practiced with a wet ball on Wednesday and didn’t have any problems,” Arians said, per the Associate Press. “But when it continually pours when you have the ball, which was kind of odd, it’s tough.”

Blaming the totally biased weather really isn’t Coach of the Year material.

20. Rex Ryan — Buffalo Bills (6-7)

Rex Ryan is still Rex Ryan. He has absolutely zero case to be Coach of the Year (in fact, he has a better chance to be fired), so enjoy a photo of Rex and Rob biking:

19. Doug Pederson — Philadelphia Eagles (5-8)

The Eagles weren’t supposed to do anything this season and Pederson has at least made them competitive with a rookie quarterback. Pederson certainly isn’t hurting his team. He’s been fine.

18. Mike McCarthy — Green Bay Packers (7-6)

Mike McCarthy has done enough in recent weeks to ensure that he’ll be back next year, but he’s hardly helped his team. His offense, again, has needed tweaks and he’s been stubborn in adapting. Still, he’ll climb up the rankings if the Packers win out and find a way into the postseason. For now, he’s this low on the list because the Packers entered the year with Super Bowl expectations and they haven’t met them.

Tier 2: You can make a case

Gruden has worked well with Cousins, again. USATSI

17. Bill O’Brien — Houston Texans (7-6)

Bill O’Brien is a candidate if the Texans win the AFC South because he will have done so with arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL ( Brock Osweiler ). That takes luck and it also requires good coaching. Give him credit, even if he’s an offensive coach with a horrible offense.

16. Jay Gruden — Washington Redskins (7-5-1)

Jay Gruden deserves credit for continuing to develop Kirk Cousins , who has turned into a pretty good quarterback. Also credit Gruden for getting the Redskins in the hunt for a playoff spot.

15. John Harbaugh — Baltimore Ravens (7-6)

Harbaugh has gotten the Ravens to 7-6 despite having a horrible offense. He’s often overlooked as a quality coach, but he deserves praise for keeping the Ravens afloat with a top defense. If they win their final three games, they’ll win the AFC North.

14. Gary Kubiak — Denver Broncos (8-5)

It’s not Kubiak’s fault that all of his quarterbacks stink. It’s also not his fault the team got gutted in free agency. Yet the Broncos are still 8-5. That’s got to count for something.

13. Mike Tomlin — Steelers (8-5)

As consistent as always, Tomlin’s team sits atop the AFC North despite Le’Veon Bell ‘s suspension and Ben Roethlisberger ‘s injuries. I admire Tomlin’s willingness to go for two after touchdowns and think more coaches should embrace that line of thinking. Tomlin also has that defense playing better than most expected.

12. Pete Carroll — Seahawks (8-4-1)

Carroll is one of the league’s best coaches, but he takes a hit in the rankings because the Seahawks were expected to be great and they have been a bit inconsistent. He also lost to Jeff Fisher.

Tier 1: The actual candidates

Jason Garrett is the leading contender for Coach of the Year. USATSI

11. Mike Zimmer — Vikings (7-6)

The Vikings weren’t supposed to compete when Teddy Bridgewater lost his season, yet Zimmer found a way to hold the team together. He’s repeatedly dealt with injuries (including to himself), but the Vikings are still a team nobody wants to face because of his defense. I don’t think they’d even be a .500 team without Zimmer. A team with a worse coach would’ve cracked by now, but the Vikings didn’t.

10. Mike Mularkey — Tennessee Titans (7-6)

We all made fun of Mike Mularkey for his exotic smashmouth and feared that he’d ruin Marcus Mariota ‘s development. Instead, Mularkey has a chance to get the Titans into the postseason because he’s turned Mariota into a legit NFL quarterback. His running game also works: The Titans are third in the NFL in yards per carry (4.7) and he revived DeMarco Murray ‘s career. The Titans weren’t viewed as a contender to win the AFC South before the season, but they’re my favorite to win it. The Titans won five total games in 2014 and 2015. So, give him credit for winning seven already this year.

9. Adam Gase — Dolphins (8-5)

The Dolphins are 8-5! They’re actually on the cusp of playoff success! That feat is impressive considering the Dolphins went 6-10 a year ago and haven’t won more than eight games since 2008. It’s also impressive given how Gase’s tenure started: One win (in overtime against the Browns) in five games. But since starting 1-4, the Dolphins have only lost once. To do that, Gase turned Ryan Tannehill into a pretty dang good quarterback, as he posted career-highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating. With Tannehill possible done for the season due to a sprained ACL and MCL, the Dolphins’ season will likely end short of the postseason, which will also end Gase’s case for Coach of the Year. But if Gase gets Matt Moore to quarterback the team into the playoffs, he deserves serious consideration.

8. Dirk Koetter — Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5)

So, the decision to fire Lovie Smith might’ve been a good call. In Koetter’s first year as the head coach, he’s reached eight wins after 13 games. The Buccaneers haven’t experienced an eight-plus win season since 2010. Furthermore, they’re in line to earn a playoff spot. They’re currently tied with the Falcons for the lead in the NFC South.

7. Dan Quinn — Falcons (8-5)

Dan Quinn was known for his defense in Seattle, but it’s his offense that has the Falcons on top of the NFC South (they hold a tiebreaker over the Buccaneers). A year after the Falcons collapsed down the stretch, they’re maintaining their level of play. Matt Ryan has been the league’s best quarterback in the NFL, Vic Beasley is emerging as a superstar (13.5 sacks), and the Falcons just ended Fisher’s job by putting up 42 points in three quarters without Julio Jones .

6. Ben McAdoo — New York Giants (9-4)

Firing Tom Coughlin after a dozen years and two Super Bowls was always going to be risky. It ended up being a pretty decent move. The Giants kind of have that Super Bowl feel again, because they’re peaking at the right time. Their defense just limited the Cowboys to seven points. They’ve beaten the Cowboys twice. The Giants haven’t finished above .500 since 2012. McAdoo already has them at nine wins and he should snap the team’s postseason drought.

5. Jack Del Rio — Oakland Raiders (10-3)

This one’s simple: The Raiders are finally good after more than a decade of incompetence. A lot of the credit should be directed toward the front office for landing top talents in Derek Carr , Amari Cooper , Khalil Mack , etc. But give credit to Jack Del Rio for his ballsy decision making that has almost always worked in favor of his team.

4. Jim Caldwell — Detroit Lions (9-4)

The Lions lost Calvin Johnson and managed to get better. Barring a collapse, they’re going to win the NFC North and maybe even snag a first-round bye. Truth be told, I wish the award could go to Jim Bob Cooter (not just because of his name), but coordinators are not up for consideration. So, give Caldwell some love for the Lions’ stunningly successful season.

3. Andy Reid — Chiefs (10-3)

The weird part about judging coaches is that the only real time we can evaluate them is on Sundays. We don’t really get to see the behind-the-scenes work that coaches put in from Sunday night until Saturday night. And so, we’re left to judge them off play calling, clock management, and wins. Perhaps that’s why Andy Reid is often overlooked as one of the league’s best coaches. His complete inability to manage time during games is such a liability that it overshadows his work as a play caller and a, well, winner. He must be doing something right all season long to get the Chiefs to 10 wins so quickly, especially with Alex Smith as his quarterback. We might not be able to see what he does before and after games like we can see him mismanage time, but he’s definitely one of the best coaches in the NFL and his team is definitely among the best.

2. Bill Belichick — Patriots (11-2)

The Patriots are 11-2 despite being without Tom Brady for four games, losing Gronk for the season, and trading away Jamie Collins. They’re the best team in the AFC and maybe the NFL. Bill Belichick is the greatest coach in the history of the NFL. This isn’t rocket science. He is worthy of winning.

1. Jason Garrett — Cowboys (11-2)

OK, so here’s why Jason Garrett is the Coach of the Year. He isn’t necessarily a better coach than Belichick — he definitely isn’t — but he fits the criteria for the award perfectly. If the award was given to the best coach period, Belichick would win every year. But it’s not.

It’s given for reasons like these:

  • See substantial improvement after a down year? Check. The Cowboys are 11-2 after going 4-12 a year ago.
  • Overcome a bad situation? Check. The Cowboys are 11-2 despite losing Tony Romo to an injury and dealing with multiple suspensions on defense.
  • Have a good record? Check. They’re tied for the best record in the NFL.

That’s why Garrett has been the Coach of the Year — to this point. Belichick can still steal away the award if the Cowboys drop a few games down the stretch and the Patriots wind up with the league’s best record by more than a game.

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