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NFL's Best Coaches 2020

by Patrick Daugherty
Updated On: July 3, 2020, 6:25 pm ET

Five of the NFL’s 32 head coaches have spent time on Andy Reid’s staff. That number is four for Bill Belichick, though it balloons to six if you include his former players Mike Vrabel and Kliff Kingsbury. If you count Reid and Belichick themselves, 13 of the league’s 32 bosses can be linked to just two trees. For all that imitation, Reid and Belichick own the past four AFC Championships, and three of the past four Super Bowls. The fourth was won by Reid disciple Doug Pederson. It would seem there is a clear takeaway: To win in the NFL, it is better to set trends than follow them. 

Two men who have followed that advice are Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, Reid and Belichick’s past two Super Bowl victims. They offer hope that, maybe one day, someone else might lead this list. As for now, Belichick and Reid remain without peer. As I say every year, players, owners, assistants, injuries and acts of God can matter as much as coaching acumen. That’s why, though this is a rankings article, I try not to think of it that way. I view it as more of a compendium, an assessment of where the league’s 32 coaches find themselves right now. How they got here and where they might be going. Last year’s list can be found here. 2018’s is here.     

1. Bill Belichick 
Career Record: 273-127 (.683)  
With The Patriots Since: 2000 
Last Year’s Ranking: 1

The inclination will be to turn 2020 into a referendum on the great Pats debate: Tom Brady or Bill Belichick? I won’t indulge. It’s unknowable, and it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the “post-Brady” wonders Belichick has already worked. With his aging quarterback saddled with an underwhelming supporting cast, 2019 Belichick oversaw a defense that allowed a league-low 225 points. Never in New England had the NFL’s greatest mind surrendered so few points. That formed the backbone of Belichick’s 10th straight 11-win campaign, and 16th in 20 years. That includes 2008, when a torn ACL limited Brady to 11 attempts. We already know Belichick is going to keep on winning. That doesn’t say anything about Brady, who is probably the best to ever do it. It just means that a Lennon found a McCartney. It’s not an either/or. It’s both, but the nature of Belichick’s position means he will get to keep doing it longer than his former quarterback, putting his records further out of reach and adding more glorious chapters to an already incomparable career.


2. Andy Reid  
Career Record: 207-128-1 (.618)  
With The Chiefs Since: 2013 
Last Year’s Ranking: 2

We didn’t need a Super Bowl to tell us Andy Reid’s place in the pantheon. He is the second best coach of his generation, and one of the greatest of all time. We got a Lombardi anyways, forever inoculating Reid against “he never won the big one” caveats while validating two decades of precise, innovative football. Reid has won at least nine games each of his seven seasons with the Chiefs, averaging 11. He has made the playoffs 15-of-21 years as a head coach, doing so with such disparate quarterbacks as Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes. In a copycat league, Reid has always been a trendsetter. 62-year-old Reid’s résumé is now complete, but his tutelage of 24-year-old Mahomes means the Super Bowls could just be getting started.      

3. Sean Payton
Career Record: 131-77 (.630)  
With The Saints Since: 2006 
Last Year’s Ranking: 6

Remember Sean Payton trade rumors? They seem funny now as Payton basks in his second Saints wind, but they were often fueled by the man himself. Payton had seemed to reach the limits of what he could accomplish with record-breaking quarterback Drew Brees. The duo lit up scoreboards and stuffed stat sheets but couldn’t keep the other team out of the end zone. Payton appeared hungry for a change of scenery. He got it in the form of the Saints’ already-legendary 2017 draft class, which has revitalized both coach and team to three straight 11-win campaigns, including 13 each of the past two years. It hasn’t simply been the case of an old dog doing his usual tricks. After a decade of passing pyrotechnics, Payton rediscovered his preferred balance on offense, using two-back attacks to set up Brees’ unparalleled efficiency. Frustration has been found in the playoffs, though Payton has quietly become the 27th winningest coach in NFL history, with the 21st best winning percentage. Only Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin have more victories amongst current sideline bosses. Payton can sidetrack himself — hello, Taysom Hill — but his reinvigorated pursuit of a second Lombardi is not about to run out of steam.   

4. John Harbaugh 
Career Record: 118-74 (.615)  
With The Ravens Since: 2008 
Last Year’s Ranking: 8

John Harbaugh has been the Ravens’ coach for 12 seasons. In Year 1, he reached the AFC Championship Game. In Year 5, he won the Super Bowl. In Year 12, he notched a career-best 14 victories. Harbaugh’s accomplishments have come in the hyper-competitive AFC North, most of them with statuesque quarterback Joe Flacco. Harbaugh’s seat has gotten hot once or twice over the years, most recently in 2018. His coolant arrived in the form of Lamar Jackson, a rare young talent, but one who necessitated a complete overhaul of the Ravens’ substance and style on offense. That is not the sort of change most NFL coaches are willing to make, let alone in Year 11. Harbaugh did it in the middle of the season, saving his job and pointing the Ravens back toward a bright future. “If you don't like change, you're gonna like irrelevancy even less,” has become one of Harbaugh’s mantras. That is manifested in his embrace of analytics. You are not going to become an old NFL dog without learning new tricks. Harbaugh got the memo and has put himself in excellent position to become just the 14th head coach to win multiple Super Bowls.    

5. Doug Pederson 
Career Record: 38-26 (.594)  
With The Eagles Since: 2016 
Last Year’s Ranking: 4

Doug Pederson quickly gained a reputation as the league’s analytics prince, but his recent seasons have been more MacGyver than mathematics. If you need to win a playoff game with your backup quarterback, Pederson is your man. A 4-0 finish to steal the division after starting 5-7? Pederson will get it done. Craving normalcy? Pederson hasn’t really had it since Carson Wentz’s 2017 ACL tear. That’s when things got weird and have stayed so. A huge part of it has been personnel. The Eagles routinely don’t have it in the secondary, while the injuries got so bad on offense last year that “Greg Ward” spent time as the No. 1 receiver. Pederson continues to make lemonade out of lemons, which can obscure his continued devotion to cold, hard logic. Even at 9-7, the Eagles remained one of the league’s most efficient offenses last season, as well as one of the most aggressive on fourth down. Pederson knows what he’s doing, and it will look even better if his team can get just a little bit healthier with a little bit better roster.      

6. Mike Tomlin
Career Record: 133-74-1 (.642)  
With The Steelers Since: 2007 
Last Year’s Ranking: 7

The Steelers have only three playoff victories since their defeat in Super Bowl XLV in 2011. They are coming off an 8-8 campaign. So why has Mike Tomlin’s value never been clearer? “(Coach Tomlin) straight up went high school football coach and drew up how we were going to defend Cleveland,“ an anonymous player told ESPN’s Dianna Russini after the Steelers’ Week 13 win over the Browns. “He saved the game.” Let’s not make too much of that. It was simply Tomlin doing his job. But that’s what he did all year after Ben Roethlisberger went down in Week 1. Essentially playing without a quarterback, Tomlin rallied his team to an 8-8 finish. Amongst their defeats were a two-pointer to the 11-5 Seahawks, a four-pointer to the NFC champion 49ers and a three-pointer to the 14-2 Ravens. Six of their eight losses were to playoff clubs. Again, this was with Mason Rudolph and “Devlin Hodges” under center. Tomlin did everything he could to keep his overmatched squad in the hunt until they collapsed to three straight losses after an improbable 8-5 start. Tomlin should have more playoff victories. The same is true of every other long-term coach not named Bill Belichick.     

7. Sean McVay
Career Record: 33-15 (.688)  
With The Rams Since: 2017 
Last Year’s Ranking: 3

The key to Sean McVay’s success as a play-caller has been his manipulations of Jared Goff. With the offensive line in disarray and Todd Gurley looking like a shell of his former self, it was much more difficult in 2019. Increased pressure had Goff running for the hills, and Gurley was not an effective safety valve. In the context of that offensive dysfunction, 9-7 was almost impressive. There remains zero doubt about McVay’s ability to scheme offense. The question has become if he’s biting off more than he can chew in other areas. Les Snead is the general manager, but McVay’s fingerprints are all over the team’s hyper-aggressive moves in the trade market. The Rams now have an over-leveraged roster and a shortage of draft picks to fix last year’s issues. McVay has also parted ways with war horse DC Wade Phillips in favor of obscure 37-year-old Brandon Staley. McVay is doubling down on his McVay-ness. Long term, McVay remains a strong bet. He is one of the NFL’s best coaches with obvious room to grow. Short term, McVay might have to work through some growing pains before getting back to the Super Bowl.    

8. Kyle Shanahan 
Career Record: 23-25 (.479)  
With The 49ers Since: 2017 
Last Year’s Ranking: 15

Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback finally got healthy, but that is not the reason he reached his first Super Bowl as head coach. The key to Shanahan’s 2019 was trust in his key lieutenants coming to fruition. Robert Saleh on defense. John Lynch in the front office. As they did their thing, Shanahan did his, deploying a lethal rushing onslaught despite lacking anything resembling a true lead back. Shanahan ground his opponents into dust with the running game while picking his spots with an uneven passing attack. That’s what makes the 49ers’ 2019 so promising. Shanahan wasn’t undermanned only in the backfield, but also the receiver corps. This was not an offense overflowing with weapons or excellent individual performances. It was Shanahan making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the trait that separates exceptional coaches from ordinary ones. Leaning on scheme instead of talent isn’t the easiest way to make an NFL living, but Shanahan has now proven both as an assistant and head coach that he has the right Super Bowl stuff.      

9. Pete Carroll 
Career Record: 133-90-1 (.596)  
With The Seahawks Since: 2010 
Last Year’s Ranking: 5

Pete Carroll has stacked up victories everywhere he’s been. Now it’s become a vision quest for the league’s oldest coach, who must not only win, but do it his way. That means running the ball — come hell or high water — despite having one of the most efficient, explosive quarterbacks of the 21st century. Russell Wilson has been reduced to openly begging for a more aerial, up-tempo offense, but there is little reason to expect 68-year-old Carroll to change his ways as he chases his platonic ideal of football. For all the internet fuss, the results have remained strong. The Seahawks have averaged 10 wins in six seasons since their Super Bowl triumph, never posting fewer than nine. It’s just impossible not to think that Carroll could have it even better if he stopped handicapping his offense. Wilson is a nuclear weapon at quarterback. The Seahawks have to stop employing him like a WWI-era dogfighter. Carroll is not only one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, but football history. Nothing between now and retirement will change that. It would still be nice to see him go down swinging instead of running.    

10. Mike Zimmer 
Career Record: 57-38-1 (.599)  
With The Vikings Since: 2014
Last Year’s Ranking: 9

Mike Zimmer’s stone age 2019 football produced a playoff victory and head-coaching gig for OC Kevin Stefanski. If you are going to insist on establishing the run, that’s not a bad outcome. Another good outcome was having Gary Kubiak at the ready to replace Stefanski. Kubiak will continue to pound the rock and complement it with a devastating play-action attack, playing into both Zimmer’s wishes and Kirk Cousins’ strengths. Defensive-minded Zimmer takes care of his side of the ball. That’s a huge bar for any head coach to clear. The next step is finding the right stewards for the unit you don’t coordinate, and Zimmer has done so in Kubiak, Cousins and Dalvin Cook. Kubiak’s old school mentality makes for easy jokes on Twitter, but it also has him in excellent position for his fourth playoff appearance in seven years.

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