Championships. Leadership. Awards. Longevity. Statistical records. Likeability. Talent development.
An NFL head coach can be evaluated with many criteria. Generally, winning championships over a long period of time is the easiest (or not-so-easiest) way to the top of any ranking. Who does more with less? Who gets his team to the playoffs the most consistently? Who is the best motivator? Whose team is best prepared come crunch time? And who has the shiny hardware to back it up?
So as of July of 2012, Athlon Sports has magically given the reins of an NFL franchise to you the fans. And you have your pick of the 16 AFC head coaches. The question becomes:
Which AFC coach would you hire to lead your franchise?
Here is Athlon's take:
Note: Age is as of Sept. 5, 2012, the first game of the 2012 NFL season
1. Bill Belichick, New England (2000-present), Cleveland (1991-95)
Age: 60, Regular season record: 175-97 (17 seasons), Postseason record: 17-7 (10 appearances)
Love him or loathe him, there’s no debate who’s No. 1 in the AFC. Not only is Belichick the dean of AFC head coaches (and second-longest tenured in the NFL behind only Philadelphia’s Andy Reid) and a three-time AP NFL Coach of the Year recipient (2003, ’07, ’10), the hooded one is already 10th all-time in career wins. Last season Belichick also became the first head coach in NFL history to win at least 13 games during the regular season in five different seasons (2003, ’04, ’07, ’10, ’11).
In the end, however, what really sets Belichick apart from his peers is his postseason success. His 17 postseason victories are the third-most in NFL history and then there are the five AFC Championships and, of course, the three Super Bowl titles, including back-to-back in 2003 and ’04.
2. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh (2007-present)
Age: 40, Regular season record: 55-25 (5 seasons), Postseason record: 5-3 (4 appearances)
The second spot came down to a pair of AFC North head coaches – Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, who are strikingly similar on several levels. Tomlin has one more year under his belt, but he and Harbaugh have identical regular-season winning percentages (.688), playoff records (5-3) and have split their 10 head-to-head meetings.
It’s extremely close, but for now Tomlin gets the edge over his division rival because of his Super Bowl ring, two AFC titles and a 2-0 edge over Harbaugh in their head-to-head playoff meetings. The fact that Tomlin has won 10 or more games in every season but one so far in his career doesn’t hurt his case either.
3. John Harbaugh, Baltimore (2008-present)
Age: 49, Regular season record: 44-20 (4 seasons), Postseason record: 5-4 (4 appearances)
Younger brother Jim may get more of the headlines and attention for his work with the 49ers, but that shouldn’t take anything away from what the elder Harbaugh has accomplished in his first four seasons as an NFL head coach. Under the older Harbaugh brother, the Ravens haven’t won fewer than nine games in the regular season and have won at least one game in the playoffs each season.
The next step for Harbaugh and his team is getting over the hump in the AFC Championship game. The Ravens are 0-2 in their conference title game, including last season’s gut-wrenching 23-20 loss to the Patriots in Foxboro.
4. Gary Kubiak, Houston (2006-present)
Age: 51, Regular season record: 47-49 (6 seasons), Postseason record: 1-1 (1 appearance)
Despite a sub-.500 record, Kubiak has earned his No. 4 ranking due to his transformation of the Texans from expansion team to Super Bowl contender. It took longer than fans, and probably owner Bob McNair, had originally envisioned, but the first fruits of Kubiak’s persistence and labor came forth last season in the form of the franchise’s first 10-win regular season, division title, postseason appearance and playoff victory. Kubiak has produced a .500 or better season in four of his six seasons at the helm of the Texans. That’s no small feat for any team, let alone an expansion team that had to start from scratch.
5. Rex Ryan, New York Jets (2009-present)
Age: 49, Regular season record: 28-20 (3 seasons), Postseason record: 4-2 (2 appearances)
Some of the bloom has come off of Ryan’s rose as his Jets failed to make the playoffs last season after finishing 8-8. However, Ryan still has yet to post a losing record in his three seasons and did come a game away from the Super Bowl in each of his first two seasons. The bombastic Ryan is perfectly suited to handle the media circus that comes with being a head coach in the Big Apple. In fact, you could say he relishes the spotlight that comes with the job.
But with the spotlight comes the glare, and there’s nothing Ryan can say that can change the facts when it comes to the championship pedigree of the two New York teams. The Giants have won two Super Bowl titles in the past five seasons and a total of four since the Jets won their only Lombardi Trophy, way back in 1969. Ryan has shown he can talk a good game, but he also knows he better back it up with the results on the field, starting this season.
6. John Fox, Denver (2011-present), Carolina (2002-10)
Age: 57, Regular season record: 81-79 (10 seasons), Postseason record: 6-4 (4 appearances)
Fox’s record may not look that impressive, but in 10 seasons as the Panthers’ head coach he won three division titles and led the team to Super Bowl XXXVIII following the 2003 season. Fox’s overall .506 winning percentage in the regular season is also largely the result of his disastrous 2-14 campaign in 2010, his final season in Carolina. Otherwise, the Panthers finished no worse than 7-9 in any of the other nine seasons he was at the helm. He also took the Panthers to two NFC title games, coming up short against the Seahawks in 2005.
Now in Denver, Fox turned a Broncos team that went 4-12 in 2010 into an AFC West division champion in 2011, albeit one with an 8-8 record. Expectations are even higher this year for Fox and his Broncos, who will have Peyton Manning directing the offense.
7. Mike Munchak, Tennessee (2011-present)
Age: 52, Regular season record: 9-7 (1 season)
Munchak’s got only one year as a head coach on his resume, but he led the Titans to three more wins than the previous season and just missed a wild card berth in his rookie season. Munchak had the unenviable task of replacing mainstay Jeff Fisher, who had been the franchise’s head coach the previous 17 seasons, but now there’s no question whose team this is.
It’s only fitting that owner Bud Adams would hand-pick Munchak as Fisher’s successor. After all, Munchak is entering his 31st season with the Houston/Tennessee franchise. The team’s first-round draft pick in 1982, Munchak spent his entire 12-year playing career as a member of the Oilers’ offensive line and then joined the coaching staff in 1994. Inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2001, Munchak spent 14 seasons as Fisher’s offensive line coach before succeeding his friend and former boss as the Titans’ head coach last season.
8. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati (2003-present)
Age: 53, Regular season record: 69-74-1 (9 seasons), Postseason record: 0-3 (3 appearances)
Lewis deserves plenty of credit for the two division titles and three playoff appearances he has led the Bengals to in his nine seasons in charge. Remember, when Lewis and the Bengals won the AFC North title in 2005 that ended a 15-year playoff drought for the franchise.
However, Lewis also deserves his share of the criticism for his teams’ lack of consistency. Under Lewis the Bengals have yet to post consecutive seasons with a winning record or back-to-back playoff berths. The 2005 season was followed by an 8-8 finish, while the '09 division crown was preceded by a 4-11-1 showing. Lewis led the Bengals to a wild card berth last season, which more than likely saved his job considering the team went 4-12 the year before.
9. Mike Mularkey, Jacksonville (2012-present), Buffalo (2004-05)
Age: 50, Regular season record: 14-18 (2 seasons)
Mularkey is on his second team, but it should be pointed out that he wasn't fired from his first head coaching gig. Even though his second Buffalo team didn't fare as well as the first one (9-7 in 2004, 5-11 in '05), it was Mularkey, and not the team, who made the decision to go in a different direction.
Mularkey resumed his coaching career in Miami before serving as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator the past four seasons. During that time, he helped the Falcons to three playoff appearances and oversaw the development of quarterback Matt Ryan. He now will direct his efforts to turning around a Jacksonville franchise that has missed the playoffs the past four seasons and, more importantly, see if Blaine Gabbert can become a capable NFL quarterback.
10. Norv Turner, San Diego (2007-present), Oakland (2004-05), Washington (1994-2000)
Age: 60, Regular season record: 107-113-1 (14 seasons), Postseason record: 4-4 (4 appearances)
Turner is the most difficult veteran head coach to rate for this exercise. He gets points for his longevity, as his 14 seasons as a head coach is second only to Belichick’s 17 among his AFC peers. He also has won 107 regular-season games, making him one of only 35 coaches in NFL history to surpass 100 victories.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that he has a sub-.500 record in his career, has only made it to the playoffs four times, and is on his third team. Half of Turner's 14 seasons as head coach have ended with a .500 or worse record. That said, Turner also could very well lead his Chargers to the AFC West division title and/or the playoffs this season, so there’s the potential for him to write a new chapter to his coaching career in 2012.
11. Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis (2012-present)
Age: 51, First season as NFL head coach
Pagano has yet to coach his first NFL game, let alone a game on any level for that matter, but considering his background, you have to like his chances. Pagano is the fourth former Ravens defensive coordinator since 2002 to become a head coach. Two of the members of this club – Marvin Lewis and Rex Ryan – are still on the job with the team that hired them and rather high on this list, while the other, Mike Nolan, didn’t enjoy quite the same success. Nolan went 18-37 in four forgettable seasons as the 49ers' head coach. No doubt Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay and Colts’ fans alike are hoping Pagano follows more in the footsteps of Lewis and Ryan, rather than Nolan, when it comes to his head coaching tenure.
12. Joe Philbin, Miami (2012-present)
Age: 51, First season as NFL head coach
Philbin, like Pagano, is 51 years old and entering his first season as a head coach at any level. Philbin has nine years of NFL coaching experience, all of those with Green Bay. Prior to becoming the Dolphins’ 10th head coach in franchise history, Philbin served as the Packers’ offensive coordinator for the past five seasons, where he worked with future Hall of Famer Brett Favre and reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.
The quarterback situation in Miami is slightly more unsettled than the one in Green Bay or even Indianapolis, where Pagano has Andrew Luck, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, to build around. And in the end, much of Philbin’s success as a head coach will be tied to his ability or inability to identify and develop his franchise quarterback. Could it be Ryan Tannehill, the first quarterback taken by the Dolphins in the first round of the draft since Dan Marino in 1983? Only time will tell, but this much is clear - Philbin’s Fins will need to show signs of progress early if he hopes to be in charge long enough to find out.
13. Pat Shurmur, Cleveland (2011-present)
Age: 47, Regular season record: 4-12 (1 season)
Shurmur’s first season as the Browns’ head coach was anything but impressive, but it’s what he does from here out that really matters. The Browns are probably at least a year or two away from contending for a playoff spot, but thanks to some recent strong drafts, the postseason should become a realistic goal in the near future.
Shurmur was hired by Cleveland president Mike Holmgren after two seasons as the Rams’ offensive coordinator. During that brief tenure, he helped the Rams improve from 1-15 in 2009 to 7-9 in 2010, thanks in large part to the performance of quarterback Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Now Shurmur has two new offensive weapons to build around in 2012 first-round picks running back Trent Richardson (No. three overall) and quarterback Brandon Weeden (No. 22). The path back to respectability and competitiveness in the AFC North needs to start this year, otherwise Shurmur is sure to hear it from the Dawg Pound.
14. Dennis Allen, Oakland (2012-present)
Age: 39, First season as NFL head coach
Allen by far was the hardest one to “rank” for this. Not only is he the current youngest NFL head coach at 39, he only has a total of 10 years of NFL coaching experience under his belt. He’s been a coordinator a grand total of 18 games, as he served as Fox’s defensive coordinator in Denver last season. A fast-riser in the NFL coaching ranks, he now gets to prove his mettle in the revolving door of head coaches that is Oakland.
Allen is the Raiders’ 18th head coach in the franchise’s illustrious history, but their eighth since 2000. Allen is also the first hire made by new Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie and the first Raiders’ head coach with a defensive background since John Madden retired following the 1978 season. Given the franchise’s history and reputation, Allen could either make a name for himself as the next great Raiders’ head coach or be simply known as the guy who kept the seat warm for whoever’s next.
15. Chan Gailey, Buffalo (2010-present), Dallas (1998-99)
Age: 60, Regular season record: 28-36 (4 seasons), Postseason record: 0-2 (2 appearances)
Buffalo could surprise and earn a playoff berth in 2012, but if that happens, I suspect more of the credit will go to the Bills’ offseason additions, namely free agent signee Mario Williams, than to Gailey himself. Gailey does have a winning season and a division title in his four seasons as a head coach. However, he’s yet to win a playoff game and has won a total of 18 games since posting 10 wins in his first season as the Cowboys’ head coach in 1998. Gailey enjoyed more success in his six seasons as Georgia Tech’s head coach (44-32) than he has in four pro seasons.
16. Romeo Crennel, Kansas City (2011*-present), Cleveland (2005-08)
Age: 65, Regular season record: 26-41 (5* seasons)
Crennel is getting a second chance in Kansas City, but that’s mainly because of the disaster that Todd Haley left behind. Crennel went 2-1 in the Chiefs’ final three games last season following Haley’s dismissal, posting the best winning percentage (.667) in his career during that small sample size. Crennel won 10 games with the Browns in 10-6, but that wasn’t even good enough to make the playoffs, and he went 14-34 (.292) in his three other seasons at the helm in Cleveland. He’s also 65 years old, so this is more than likely his last head coaching shot.
*Crennel served as the Chiefs' interim head coach for the last three games of the 2011 season.
— By Mark Ross, published on July 10, 2012
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