Having Fun with the AP’s Coach of the Year Award

February 3, 2011

Bill Belichick won the Associated Press’s Coach of the Year Award yesterday, the third time he has won the award. This led to me taking a Sporcle quiz on the winners of the award since the first time the AP gave it out in 1957. Unfortunately, I only knew 29 of 54 offhand. I tend to know more about the NFL than most, which explains why I knew 51 of 54 MVP Award winners. Instead of admitting defeat, I decided to write this blog post making fun of the AP for some of their Coach of the Year selections.

The AP Coach of the Year Award seems to go back and forth between a Most Improved Team Award and a true Coach of the Year Award. That explains why Marvin Lewis won last year after leading the Bengals from a 4-11-1 season to a 10-6 season and a division title even though Super Bowl coaches Jim Caldwell’s (14-2) and Sean Payton’s (13-3) had far better records. On the other hand, Todd Haley did not win this year after he led the Chiefs to a 10-6 division title after finishing 4-12 in 2009; Belichick did after leading the Patriots to an NFL-best 14-2 record. Neither one of these awards is wrong because Coach of the Year means different things to different voters. At the time, I’m sure many of the winners throughout history made sense. Yet the ambiguous award definition sometimes leads to odd results, at least in retrospect.

The first thing one notices about the list of award winners is the lack of great coaches on the list. Sure, this is probably a little unfair, since we define a great coach as someone who wins the Super Bowl. The award is voted on each year before the Super Bowl takes place. So yeah, I’m being a bit of a jerk by counting eventual Super Bowl victories against the voters. But it is my blog, after all.

Still, fifteen Hall of Fame coaches served as head coaches at some point during the award’s 54 year history. Six Hall coaches (Sid Gillman, Marv Levy, John Madden, Paul Brown, Chuck Noll, and Hank Stram) all came up empty. Stram and Gillman only coached a few years in the post-merger NFL, so that’s somewhat excusable. Paul Brown’s best days were also behind him by the time the AP starting handing out the award. Of course with that said, he won the UPI Award in 1969 and 1970.

Madden twice led the Raiders to the best record in the NFL (1974 and 1976). In 1974, the award went to Don Coryell, who turned around the Cardinals from 4-9-1 in 1973 to 10-4 division winners in 1974. Coryell was deserving – this was only his second year with the team and the division win led to the Cardinals’ first playoff appearance since 1948. The 1976 award went to Cleveland Brown head coach Forrest Gregg, who led the Browns from a fourth place 3-11 division finish to a third place 9-5 finish. The Raiders went 13-1 and won the Super Bowl. That’s called a miss by voters.

Levy somehow never won despite a record-setting four consecutive AFC Championships. Between 1990 and 1993, the AP decided to give the award to coaches who turned a team around. None of the four coaches that won the award (Jimmy Johnson, Wayne Fontes, Bill Cowher, and Dan Reeves) made it to the Super Bowl. The Cowher selection was somewhat bizarre. In his first season with the Steelers, he led the team to an 11-5 record after they finished 7-9 the season before. They were promptly pummeled by the 11-5 Bills in the divisional playoffs.

But the most egregious omission goes to four-time Super Bowl champion Chuck Noll. How Noll never won an NFL Coach of the Year Award is beyond me. The winners during Noll’s four Super Bowl seasons are ridiculously embarrassing in retrospect: Coryell, Ted Marchibroda (Colts), Jack Patera (Seahawks), and Jack Pardee (Redskins). Marchibroda and Patera both ended their careers with losing records. As I mentioned above, Coryell was deserving. So was Marchibroda, who led the Colts to a 10-4 division title in his first season after they finished 2-12 the previous season. But Patera and Pardee didn’t even lead their teams to the playoffs in the seasons they won. Pardee’s selection might have made sense at the time; now it just looks insane. He “turned around” the Redskins from an 8-8 third place 1978 season (when he was also coach) to a 10-6 third place 1979 season.

Several more Hall of Fame coaches won only one award: Vince Lombardi, Weeb Ewbank, Tom Landry, Bud Grant, and Bill Walsh. Only Walsh and Ewbank won their awards during a championship season.

Lombardi is hands down the most famous coach in NFL history. As far as I’m aware, he is the only coach to have a Broadway show based on his life. He won five championships and finished runner-up a sixth time. Amazingly, he won the award only once – his 1959 rookie season, when he led the Packers to a 7-5 record, the worst of his career. Between 1960 and 1967, Allie Sherman, George Halas, and Don Shula each won the award twice.

If you’re wondering who Allie Sherman is, that’s because you’re either a) under the age of 55 or b) not a Giants fan. The Halas and Shula picks don’t look that back in retrospect, until he realize that Halas’ 1963 season was the only one in which either won an NFL title. Halas somehow won the award again in 1965, even though the Bears finished 9-5 (fourth best in the 14-team league) two years after they won the championship. I’ll return to Shula later – he is worthy of his own thoughts.

Ewbank’s one award was probably more than he deserved. He won the award in the Colts’ 1958 NFL Championship season. But he’s pretty much the black sheep of the Hall of Fame coaches. His career record stands at 130-129-7…or just slightly worse than the career records of Hall of Fame longshots Jack Del Rio and Steve Mariucci.

Tom Landry won the award in 1966, when the Cowboys won the NFL’s Eastern Conference but lost to the Packers in the NFL Championship Game. The Cowboys finished 10-3-1 for the first winning season in their seven year history. Landry was probably deserving even though he was the coach for all seven of those seasons, so he doesn’t really get credit for a turnaround. He did not win the award any of the five times that he led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl. In 1975 and 1978, the aforementioned Ted Marchibroda and Jack Patera won the award.

In 1970, Landry lost to 49er coach Dick Nolan. The 49ers have had a lot of great coaches in their history. Nolan was not one of them. He finished with a career 54-53-5 record. The record in itself isn’t terrible, but Nolan’s reign of terror continued well into the 2000s, when the 49ers hired his son Mike as head coach. Mike went 18-37 in four seasons, so Dick deserves credit for those as well.

The very next season, Landry won his first Super Bowl but somehow lost out to fellow Hall of Famer George Allen. The Cowboys won the NFC East with an 11-3 record. Allen’s Redskins finished second with a 9-4-1 record. In fairness, the Redskins started 5-0, so the voters that cast their ballots in early October probably picked the right coach.

In 1977, Landry lost out to Broncos coach Red Miller. I like to imagine that upon hearing this, Landry first said “who?” and then took out his frustration on the same Broncos team in Super Bowl XII (the Cowboys won 27-10).

Bud Grant won in 1969, which actually makes sense, because that was the first time that he led the Vikings to the Super Bowl (they lost to the Chiefs 23-7). Of course, the Vikings made it back three more times – 1973, 1974, and 1976 – and Grant came up empty each time. In 1974, Coryell won and in 1976, Gregg won. In 1973, he deservedly lost out to Los Angeles Rams coach Chuck Knox, who led the Rams to a 12-2 record after finishing 6-7-1 the previous season.

And then we get to Bill Walsh. If Lombardi is the most popular head coach in NFL history, Walsh might just be the most innovative. He was the first to run the West Coast offense, which nearly every NFL team has incorporated into its repertoire. He turned the 49ers into a juggernaut in the 1980s, but won only one Coach of the Year Award. That was in his 1981 Super Bowl-winning season, when the voters couldn’t help but give him the award – the 49ers finished with both the best overall and most improved record in the league (6-10 to 13-3).

In 1984, Walsh’s best team won the Super Bowl. That team finished the regular season at 15-1 and is one of three teams (along with the 1972 Dolphins and 1985 Bears) that top the list of best Super Bowl champions ever. The award instead went to Chuck Knox, who improved his Seahawk team from a second-place AFC West finish and AFC Conference Championship appearance to a second-place AFC West finish and AFC Divisional Round appearance. Well done voters.

The only other year that Walsh had an argument for Coach of the Year was the 1987 season. Although the 49ers finished 13-2, he was overshadowed by Jim Mora, who led the Saints to a 12-3 record, back when that didn’t really seem possible.

This leads to the most stunning stat (I think). The Saints have had three Coaches of the Year and the Seahawks have had two. The Cowboys (5 Super Bowls) and Packers (3 Super Bowls) have had two. The Steelers (6 Super Bowls), 49ers (5 Super Bowls), and Broncos (2 Super Bowls) have only had one. The Raiders (3 Super Bowls) have never had one.

George Allen, Joe Gibbs, and George Halas have all won two awards each. This seems about right for a Hall of Fame coach.

That brings us to the one outlier: Don Shula. Shula won the award a record four times. He somehow won the award three times in seven years as coach of the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s…the same decade that Lombardi won zero. In case you’re wondering, the Colts didn’t win a championship until the year after Shula left, when coach Don McCafferty led them to a victory in Super Bowl V.

Shula later won the award when he led the Dolphins to an undefeated season in 1972, but the AP decided that was enough. After four awards in his first ten seasons in the league, he went 0-for-23 to close out his career.

What does all this mean? Not a thing, other than a bunch of answers fun trivia question. No one really cares about the Award, precisely because a guy like Allie Sherman won more awards than all but six of the coaches in the Hall of Fame. Sustained excellence is a lot harder to maintain than one turnaround season, but it’s just not all that sexy to voters.

Still, it’s amusing that Lindy Infante, Dick Jauron, Buck Shaw, George Wilson, Wayne Fontes, Ray Rhodes, Jim Fassel, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett, and Marvin Lewis all have one thing that Chuck Noll doesn’t: an AP Coach of the Year Award.

Although I’m guessing they’d trade it for one of Noll’s four Super Bowl championship rings.

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The 2011 NFL Coaching Carousel

January 19, 2011

The 2011 NFL coaching carousel ended surprisingly early after the Oakland Raiders promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to head coach yesterday. Seven teams made coaching changes after the season:

Carolina Panthers – Hired San Diego OC Ron Rivera to replace John Fox
Cleveland Browns – Hired St. Louis OC Pat Shurmur to replace Eric Mangini
Dallas Cowboys – Promoted OC/Interim Head Coach Jason Garrett to replace Wade Phillips
Denver Broncos – Hired former Carolina Head Coach John Fox to replace Josh McDaniels
Minnesota Vikings – Promoted DC/Interim Head Coach Leslie Frazier to replace Brad Childress
Oakland Raiders – Promoted OC Hue Jackson to replace Tom Cable
San Francisco 49ers – Hired Stanford Head Coach Jim Harbaugh to replace Mike Singletary

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It took an impending lockout next season, but I think the NFL teams finally got it right for the most part.

Every offseason, a big-name former coach throws his name out as a potential head coaching candidate. This year, it was Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden who floated rumors that they wanted to return to coaching. Even Cleveland Browns GM Mike Holmgren briefly considered coming out of retirement for the second time to lead the Browns.

Last year, it was the Redskins that made the biggest coaching move by hiring former Bronco head coach Mike Shanahan. Buffalo (Chan Gailey) and Seattle (Pete Carroll) also hired former NFL coaches. In 2009, Cleveland hired Eric Mangini and Seattle hired Jim Mora. In 2007, it was Dallas (Wade Phillips) and San Diego (Norv Turner). And so on.

But these moves rarely work. I have no doubt that, without the potential lockout next season, at least one of these seven teams would have made a big splash by luring one of these coaches out of retirement. That would have been a mistake. Luckily for these teams, no owner wants to pay a boatload of cash for a big-name coach when there might not even be football next season.

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The biggest problem that owners have when making coaching decisions is the parity in the NFL. Every team thinks that they are one great coach away from being Super Bowl contenders, so they reach out for a big name to put them over the top. Most of the time, they are not.

Look at the Washington Redskins’ list of head coaches since Daniel Snyder took over as owner in 1999:

2001 – Hired former Chiefs head coach Marty Schottenheimer out of retirement. Went 8-8 in one season.
2002 – Hired Florida Gator head coach Steve Spurrier. Went 12-20 in two seasons.
2004 – Hired former Redskin head coach Joe Gibbs out of a 12-year retirement. Went 30-34 in four seasons.
2008 – Hired Seahawk OC Jim Zorn. Went 12-20 in two seasons.
2010 – Hired former Bronco head Mike Shanahan after one year retirement. Went 6-10 in first season.

Snyder seems like the type of guy that would call a Hail Mary on every offensive play. Only one of the five coaches that Snyder has hired wasn’t a Hail Mary. Zorn was the only patient, well-thought out hire; unfortunately he turned out to be completely incompetent.

Coaching an NFL team takes insane amounts of time that I can’t even begin to comprehend. There’s only so much time a person can reasonably be expected to put in at a job before they start getting frustrated. A guy like Shanahan has already won two Super Bowls and put in 14-hour days for 15 years as the Broncos’ head coach. Why in the world would he care that much about turning around a dysfunctional organization? I’m sure it sounded good on paper, after Shanahan had already blocked the memories of how hard it was to build a team. But I’m guessing it took him about two weeks to realize that he had an overbearing owner that doesn’t understand the salary cap, a $100 million crybaby for a defensive tackle, and a quarterback so washed up that a division rival let him go for nothing.

Predictably, the Redskins were a train wreck. I could describe the reasons why, but I think I’ll let Melly Mel “Tell it like it is” Jackson take it from here:

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Melly Mel.

In the past couple of decades, the list of former head coaches that have succeeded with rebuilding a second team begins and ends with Bill Belichick and Dick Vermeil. Sure, Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden won Super Bowls with their second teams, but both took over teams that were established.* Dungy’s Colts already had Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison and just needed a motivating presence to get them over the top. And Gruden took the Buccaneer team that Dungy built to the Super Bowl in his first year.

* I thought about including Tom Coughlin with the Giants, but I’m not sure he even counts as a success. The Giants caught fire in the 2008 playoffs and won the Super Bowl, but that’s pretty much all he’s done. Prior to the Super Bowl run, he was on the hot seat and only escaped firing because of the playoff run. In his tenure with the Giants, they have won exactly zero games in the playoffs not including the 2008 run. I can’t even really call that a success story – in seven seasons, he happened to catch lightning in a bottle once for a five-week stretch.

The common theme with these former coaches that have succeeded with a second team is a unique skill. Dungy was the best motivator in the league; Gruden was the best at working 18-hour days and breaking down film; Vermeil was the most energetic, emotional coach. These hires worked out because each team needed the skill that the coach brought. The Colts already had a brilliant offensive coach on the field in Peyton Manning, so they needed a defensive-minded, positive motivator. The Bucs needed an Xs and Os-minded coach to take the core that Dungy built over the top. And the Rams were on of the saddest franchises in the league (they had nine consecutive losing seasons in two cities between 1990 and 1998), so they needed an emotional, energetic coach to restore confidence.

The former coaches that fail miserably are those that don’t bring anything particularly special to the table other than a big name. Shanahan, Gailey, and Carroll all were fired from their previous head coaching jobs after several losing seasons. They all had poor seasons, the 7-9 Seahawks’ wild card win notwithstanding. Before them, you can pretty much fill in the blank on former NFL coaches that failed miserably in their second jobs: Norv Turner; Marty Schottenheimer; Art Shell; Wade Phillips; Jim Mora Sr; Jim Mora Jr.; Dennis Green; Dave Wannstedt; the list goes on and on.

The only former head coach that was hired this offseason was the Broncos’ John Fox. Fox falls somewhere between these two categories. He is a good hire for the short-term, because the Broncos are trying to be a more open organization (John Elway even posted Twitter updates on the coaching search) after the closed-door regime that former coach Josh McDaniels ran. Fox is a personable player’s coach that seems to fall into the “right time, right guy” category.

But here’s the problem with Fox: does anybody, anywhere really think that Fox will turn the Broncos into a Super Bowl contender? I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Still, I think Fox was probably a good hire for the Broncos. The organization is a complete mess after the Josh McDaniels era. Fox is pretty much performing the same role as Gerald Ford did after the Nixon presidency. Sure, you don’t expect great things out of him, but his personality will provide a stabilizing force that will get the Broncos organization back on track.

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I tend to like the other five promoted coordinators. Frazier and Garrett are two “right place, right time” guys. Both the Viking and Cowboy organizations have dealt with their fair share of inner tumult in the past season. Like Fox, Frazier and Garrett are calming, thoughtful coaches that will stabilize their teams. As an added bonus, Frazier has one of the best defensive minds and Garrett has one of the best offensive minds in pro football.

I like Hue Jackson and Pat Shurmur for two different reasons. I heard a few analysts arguing that the Raiders and Browns were both on the right track, so they shouldn’t have fired their coaches. I suppose that technically they were – the Raiders finished 8-8 for their best season since 2002 and the Browns finished only 5-11, but beat both the Saints and Patriots. But let’s be honest: neither one of those teams is going to be a contender anytime soon. Why not bring in a young, energetic coach to try to turn things around?

Jackson and Shurmur are both relatively young 45-year old first time coaches. As I mentioned earlier, rebuilding an organization takes a ridiculous amount of energy and optimism that only a first-time head coach can provide. Maybe they will flame out like Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini. But maybe they’ll be the next Sean Payton or Ken Whisenhunt – two young coaches that led the Saints and Cardinals to the Super Bowl for the first time ever. When you hire a first-time head coach, it’s impossible to tell what kind of head coach you’re going to get. But if you’re the Raiders or Browns, what do you have to lose?

And then there’s Ron Rivera. I feel bad for the guy. Rivera is of Hispanic descent, so approximately 74 teams gave him a token interview in the last four years because of the Rooney Rule. Finally, after enduring the exhausting hiring process every offseason he gets hired…by the Carolina Panthers. Carolina has a unique situation – they are both the worst team in the NFL currently and they aren’t really built for the future. Poor Rivera is set up for failure. I call this a good hire for the Panthers, insofar as “willing to actually take the job” was probably the number one qualification among potential head coaches.

The last coach is San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, formerly the head coach at Stanford. As this Charlotte Observer article points out, the only group of coaches that perform worse than former head coaches are college coaches. The last big-name college coaches that stepped up to the pros were Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, Bobby Petrino, Mike Riley, Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis, Nick Saban, and Steve Mariucci. Only Mariucci finished with a winning record. Kiffin, Petrino, Riley, Spurrier, and Saban were all complete train wrecks.

Harbaugh is an interesting case. He’s not the prototypical career college coach and has only been coaching since 2004. Unlike many of the other college-to-pro coaches, he actually had a long, productive NFL career. And if he has questions on the differences between college and the pros, he can always ask his brother John, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

But if Harbaugh fails as an NFL coach, it will surprise precisely no one. The coaches above emphatically demonstrated that coaching college football takes an entirely different skill set than coaching pro football. Harbaugh is in a better position than the rest of the college-to-pro coaches, but for as high as his stock was after Stanford’s season, his entire pro resume consists of two years as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders.

Even with that said, I think Harbaugh is a solid hire, just like the other six coaches. I don’t know how well each will do, but at least for now, they are the right hires. Guess we’ll find out in 2012.