Look. You know it, I know it, the whole universe knows it. Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott is a heck of a leader. One of the most prestigious honors possible is the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year Award. Will McDermott be deserving of the award in 2021? I sincerely think he will be. Will he get the votes for it? I doubt it. Hear me out...
I took a look at the last decade to see if the AP voters showed any preferences in their tendencies. I stuck with a decade as going much further risks changed trends, voting members, etc. What did I find?
They like “new” head coaches
Of the last ten winners, fully half of them were new to their team. Kevin Stefanski (2020), Matt Nagy (2018), Sean McVay (2017), Bruce Arians (2012), and Jim Harbaugh (2011) were all in their first year as head coaches of their respective teams. Bruce Arians in fact was an interim coach while Chuck Pagano was battling leukemia.
Based on this trend, Sean McDermott will have a harder time getting on the radar for this award. As he enters his fifth season, McDermott will need to stand out in another way. One way to stand out is to...
Improve your team a whole lot
One of the things I was most curious about was comparing a team’s record the year a coach won the award, with the same team’s record from the year prior. I assumed a fast rise to glory would spark interest from the voters.
I was right.
The average change was 6.2 wins more than the year prior. That’s a huge leap in record. In fact, the average number of wins for teams the year before their coach won the award was 6.1. That means on average, coaches DOUBLED their total wins. That’ll get you noticed.
Of the last ten winners, only one team improved by less than four wins. Bruce Arians (again) took home the award after improving by only a single game. We’ll talk more about this season in a minute. That’s bad news for McDermott as the Bills’ 13 wins leaves him with a maximum of four he could improve on. Yep, to get to four wins better, the Bills will need to go undefeated in the regular season (note, the award is given out before the Super Bowl so this is for the most part a regular-season award).
These are the two most common themes but, unfortunately, they are pretty dominant ones. McDermott may have a couple paths to get the votes, but they’re not necessarily all that likely.
Something wacky happens
That 2014 season for the Arizona Cardinals I mentioned that Arians won despite remaining pretty static from the year before? It was because of wackiness. Starting quarterback Carson Palmer missed roughly half the season with an injury to his shoulder, and later a knee injury. His backup, Drew Stanton, missed a lot of time with a concussion and a knee injury of his own. Arians got to 11 wins prominently featuring a third-string quarterback. It goes without saying that this is not the preferred path to a McDermott victory. Arizona was unable to make any noise in the playoffs.
Bruce Arians’s other win in 2012 came after a 9-3 record as the interim coach. One other thing to note is that in both seasons that Arians won, his teams were second in their division. Only one other winner (this last season’s Cleveland Browns headed by Stefanski) did NOT win their division. In both of Arians’s seasons, he persevered despite incredible team setbacks. Again, not the path we want. Is there another path? There is...
In addition to seven out of ten past winners leading teams to first place in their division, a common thread is to be in the upper crust of the conference. Of those seven teams, there were two that finished second in the conference, one that was best in the conference, and one that was best in the league. That team, the 2015 Carolina Panthers, only lost a single game (Week 16 against the Atlanta Falcons).
Two teams also featured league MVPs (Lamar Jackson in 2019 and Cam Newton in 2015). In both cases, there’s a probable sentiment that coaching was responsible for maximizing the player’s talents. A Josh Allen MVP run wouldn’t hurt by any means.
The award commonly goes to new coaches. It almost always goes to a coach who drastically improved his team’s record. Both of those things are off the table for Sean McDermott. The best chance he has to take home the award is for the Buffalo Bills to become a force of nature, and dominate the league this year. It’s hard to stay on top in the NFL. But to have a chance, not only will McDermott need to stay on top, the Bills will have to rise even higher. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not writing off the idea of an even better season for Buffalo. McDermott has his work cut out for him though.