Dirty Dozen: Critiquing the Coaches
Sean Payton sure sacrificed this year: $250,000 of his salary to provide extra incentive for Gregg Williams to sign on as the Saints' defensive coordinator. It's one of the main reasons New Orleans is 13-1 after finishing 8-8 last season and why I'll vote for Payton for coach of the year.
I have time to change my mind, of course. The ballots are due at noon ET on Jan. 4, a vote run by and counted by the indefatigable Barry Wilner of the Associated Press, one of sports journalism's hardest-working unknown assets.
In any case, my opinion is that with Williams' help, Payton turned in 2009's best coaching performance. Others did nicely, including a couple I'd never have expected to put on on a top six list -- Norv Turner and Wade Phillips, good guys who I've always considered career coordinators one step above their level of competence as head coaches.
So here are the top six and bottom six performances by a coach in a starring role this season -- not counting folks like Steve Spagnuolo, Jim Schwartz, and Raheem Morris, who inherited someone else's problems. Jim Mora and Eric Mangini don't get the exclusion. They've been head coaches before this. Nor does Dick Jauron, already fired by the Bills.
1. Sean Payton, New Orleans: As noted, he provided the money for Williams, who's turned around the defense. He's piled up points without a true superstar receiver (Marques Colston is good, but no Hall of Famer). And he made the likes of undrafted running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell into solid workhorse players. If Reggie Bush could stay healthy ....
2. Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis: Some casual football followers may not even know Caldwell's name or think Tony Dungy is still coaching the Colts. Guys who call Colts games on TV sometimes make it sound like Peyton Manning or offensive coordinator Tom Moore run the team or that Bill Polian is pulling strings from the owner/president's box. The fact is that Caldwell has made some subtle changes that have nothing to do with Manning, Moore, or Dungy, including switching defensive coordinators and modifying the Tampa 2 defense by beefing up the middle of the defensive line.
3. Andy Reid, Philadelphia: Ridiculed and abused in his own city, he's got a good shot to go at least as far as his sixth NFC championship game in ten seasons. The problem is that Philadelphians blame Reid and Donovan McNabb for the fact that the Eagles have never won a Super Bowl while their three despised division rivals have 11 among them. With his new offensive threats, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Michael Vick (?) , Andy might have a shot. Or not.
4. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati: Sure, his record as the Bengals' coach is 55-55-1, but we forget that his three predecessors were 52-124 with a penurious franchise that has saved its money by getting miscreants on the cheap. Lewis was a great defensive coordinator, and he finally has gotten the defense where he wants it. He's also made it through 90 percent of a season without off-field problems.
5. Norv Turner, San Diego: Started slowly as always (2-3) but now has won nine in a row, even with LaDainian Tomlinson on the downside, Shawne Merriman recovering from knee surgery and Jamal Williams out for most of the year. Some of it is the work of A.J. Smith, who has found some first-rate replacements. But Turner, who's generally been considered too player (and media) friendly to be a good head coach, gets a lot of the credit too.
6. Wade Phillips, Dallas: He's been in an impossible situation for the three years he's coached the Cowboys. He works for an owner who wants to be his own coach -- Jerry Jones hired him because he figured Wade would be compliant. He coaches a team that's not as talented as both Jerry and the media (especially local broadcasters) make it out to be. Yes, the Cowboys got lucky that Miles Austin turned out to be what they thought they'd get when they traded far too much for Roy Williams. But in his low key (and seemingly bewildered) manner, Phiillips has a team that might at least win a playoff game. On the other hand, they may not get there. Maybe Wade will be fired, but he's done his best.
27. Brad Childress, Minnesota: He coaches a team that, on paper, is the most balanced in football and probably the most talented. And he may have a point by wanting to rest Brett Favre. But he knew what he was getting when he went after Favre. And he doesn't seem to be earning much credit in the locker room. The talent can go deep into the playoffs but Childress may screw it up (check out his clock management in a lucky win over Baltimore). The good news for Chilly: he has a four-year contract extension.
28. Gary Kubiak, Houston: Every year, the Texans are supposed finally ready to get over the 8-8 hump. Yeah, they're challenging, but only at 7-7 with a roster full of guys who are underachieving. Don't say injuries -- everyone has them and don't say Kris Brown missed two late-game field goals that could have them at 9-5. Matt Schaub may be the problem -- a coach-killer just good enough to get you beat. Kubiak's fault? He's supposed to be a QB guru.
29. Eric Mangini, Cleveland: It's not that he's a bad coach -- he has the Browns playing better late in the season. (Although why didn't he play Jerome Harrison sooner?) But he's too set in his ways for a young guy and he often treats his players like high schoolers -- laps for minor mistakes and long practices if the session is less than perfect. (In other words, staying after school). Not the kind of personality that will mesh with Mike Holmgren. If Holmgren fires Mangini, he might consider Martin O'Neill, the coach of Randy Lerner's Aston Villa soccer team, which has moved into the elite top four in England's Premier League. (Holmgren could help O'Neill with the Xs and Os.).
30. Jim Mora, Seattle: (And don't call him 'junior.'' He doesn't call himself that.) I'm not sure what made him good enough to be identified a year early as Holmgren's successor. Heck, they could have held on to Jim Zorn (see below). Sure, Seattle has a lot of injuries. And it's an old team because a lot of drafts weren't very good -- one reason GM Tim Ruskell resigned. But Mora just isn't an inspirational coach. Never was. And he has a temper even if he doesn't show it, unlike his his dad, who made the postseason enough to be able to rant "Playoffs!!! Playoffs?''
31. Lovie Smith, Chicago: Smith may not be fired because the McCaskeys owe him $11 million. And yes, losing Brian Urlacher, the heart of the defense, doesn't help, especially when Urlacher went down in the first game. But Smith and Jerry Angelo should have dug a little deeper on Jay Cutler before giving up all that they can give for him. Maybe it's not Lovie's fault that Cutler morphed into Rex Grossman. Every QB who comes to Chicago seems to do that. Lovie's Super Bowl run wasn't a fluke -- he's a good coach. But he seems bewildered this season with a team that got old too quickly.
32. Jim Zorn, Washington: Should this count? Zorn was effectively fired at midseason when Vinny Cerrato and Dan the Fan brought in Sherm Lewis to call plays. And Zorn never really was a head coaching candidate when he was hired. Was that goofball fake field goal a deliberate ploy to stick it to Snyder and Bruce Allen? And while we're discussing it, what makes Allen the answer? He took over Tony Dungy/Rich McKay personnel in Tampa that was good enough to win a Super Bowl his first year there and the team went steadily downhill. Sounds like he was drafting the wrong guys.