Head coaches don’t usually get long leashes in the NFL. A couple years of failing to meet owner and fan expectations leads even those with rings to the exit door in the hopes of winning more as a franchise. Even though the general public, if they’re being honest, understands that head coaches are not 100% responsible for the wins and losses experienced by the team, they ultimately take the fall for the W/L record during their tenure.
How much effect do head coaches actually have on an organization’s wins and losses while on the job? In order to property tier coaches, the methodology must be established beforehand.
I would argue the following parts make up the overwhelming majority of the formula that determines a team’s wins and losses:
- Play calling
- Game planning/scheming
- Talent level outside of QB
- Talent level at QB
- Game day coaching decision-making
Of the things I listed, the head coach is entirely responsible for hiring the people who game plan/scheme and call plays, although some coordinator autonomy and freedom is present in almost all situations where the coach does not have offensive or defensive play-calling duties. He is also fully responsible for game-day decisions, such as when to go for a fourth down, when to kick a field goal, managing time outs and when to challenge plays. He is indirectly, though not entirely, responsible for execution of both QB and non-QB play as he and his staff are teaching the players how to proceed through a play as they deem appropriate, though players can and do make mistakes.
So the head coach has his hand in the majority of the items listed above—things that contribute to a team’s outcome in a given game. The talent level of the team (QB and otherwise) is commonly controlled, at least in the majority, by the team’s general manager—although in some cases the head coach has significant personnel influence.
If we have established what goes into winning and losing in the NFL and we then confirmed how much effect a team’s head coach has on those items, any measurement of coaches, therefore, is an opinion. It’s a determination on how well they execute the things they are responsible for and, by extension, how well the items they do NOT control need to be executed in order to achieve the desired result (making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl).
Based on this methodology, the tiers in which the coaches will be placed are as follows:
- Tier 1—Can win Super Bowl with a good roster/QB play
- Tier 2—Can consistently make playoffs with a good roster/QB play. Need great roster/QB play to win Super Bowl
- Tier 3—Need great roster/QB play to consistently make playoffs
- Tier 4—Need elite roster/QB play to consistently make playoffs
- Tier 5—Unknown
A couple more items on methodology before we get into the tiers:
- This tiering accommodates for fluke seasons. The word “consistently” is used for that reason.
- The word “can” is important. One does not have to have actually WON a Super Bowl to be in the top tier because this is an opinion piece based on whether or not I believe they CAN.
- This tier is NOT a ranking. Order of names within the tier is not relevant.
- Tier placement is not permanent. Were I to complete this exercise next offseason, it would surely look different as more data is accumulated and coaches are faced with roster and QB-play situations they have not yet experienced.
- This piece is intended to be a companion outline for one of this week’s “The Nick & Nolan Show” podcasts on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network.
Without further ado, I give you the head coaching tiers:
Tier 1—Can win Super Bowl with a good roster/QB play
Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, Kyle Shanahan, Sean Payton
Tier 2—Can consistently make playoffs with a good roster/QB play. Need great roster/QB play to win Super Bowl
Anthony Lynn, Brian Flores, Doug Pederson, Bruce Arians, Frank Reich, Jon Gruden, Mike Tomlin, Sean McDermott, Sean McVay, Mike Zimmer
Tier 3—Need great roster/QB play to consistently make playoffs
Dan Quinn, Matt Nagy, Matt LaFleur, Mike McCarthy, Ron Rivera, Pete Carroll, Mike Vrabel, Vic Fangio, Zac Taylor, Bill O’Brien, Kliff Kingsbury
Tier 4—Need elite roster/QB play to consistently make playoffs
Adam Gase, Doug Marrone, Matt Patricia
Matt Rhule, Kevin Stefanski, Joe Judge
Sean McDermott has made the playoffs twice in three seasons and in both seasons he got below-average overall quarterback play relative to the rest of the league. His game management is still a sore spot but improved last year specifically in regards to fourth-down aggressiveness. It’s unknown how much of that was his evolution and how much was a lack of faith in Stephen Hauschka to make longer field goals—the later of which may be determined this year if the Buffalo Bills have a different starting kicker on the roster come Week 1.
McDermott has shown to be a consistently above-average defensive mind, with his defensive blueprint from the Bills/Baltimore Ravens game in 2019 being admittedly used by the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs according to then-Titans defensive back Logan Ryan.
Based on the traits in theory and the track record he has shown thus far, I feel comfortable putting Sean McDermott in that tier. Based on the number of coaches in each tier, that would mean Sean McDermott would be a top-15 head coach in the league, and for Bills Mafia, that’s a solid result right now.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan for Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Nick & Nolan Show” every week on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!