The Buffalo Bills have a better chance at winning the Super Bowl in the 2022 NFL season than head coach Sean McDermott has of winning this coming season’s Associated Press National Football League Coach of the Year Award. McDermott’s body of work and continued success works far past this annual award—so, why can’t the team & coach both win? That hasn’t happened since 2003 (Bill Belichick). If our wildest dreams come true with the Lombardi Trophy, Sean McDermott will not win 2022 AP NFL Coach of the Year.
Looking back at the last 20 years of AP NFL Coach of the Year winners, I focused on trends to establish what path would be needed in order for McDermott to take home the hardware. Two leading factors from the award itself stand out early to me.
Eight of the previous 20 winners had been with the team no more than a year. Currently in the league there are 14 coaches who meet this criteria. I’d personally take guys like Doug Pederson, Robert Saleh, and even Brian Daboll over McDermott when considering this benchmark. This already shows that nearly half the time the award goes to a head coach of a team that shows improvement, not necessarily a mark of continued success.
If we expand this to account for head coaches with six seasons of tenure for one team, 16 of the past 20 winners are included in this grouping. Two of those Awards were won by repeat winner Bill Belichick (2007, 2010). This leaves only two instances where a head coach was named AP NFL Coach of the Year for the first time, while being with their team longer than five years.
The second indicator to consider is the number of wins over the previous season. On average, six wins over the previous year is the “magic” number—11 times of which teams met this threshold. Taking a team largely similar to the prior season and significantly improving its output helps drive the notion that the head coach has created the largest impact. The AP NFL Coach of the Year Award revolves more around improvement of a team rather than general success. Only three times in the past 20 years has a coach won the Award with their team winning fewer than four games more than the previous season.
Sean McDermott is going into his sixth season with the team, having just led the Bills to 11 wins in 2021. Only three times ever has a team won 11 games the year before to see its coach win AP NFL Coach of the Year—of which only one was with their team longer than five seasons (Bill Belichick, 2010). Instead of just doing a case study on the 2010 New England Patriots, if we expand not only the criteria by lowering the threshold to ten games, but also reduce the seasons with a team down to five. In order to allow for variance, we will consider teams that either won ten games the previous year, and coaches who were with their team on their fifth season or later. This would only increase the number of applicable teams to four. In order to account for variables not accounted for, let’s make neither of these two factors exclusive—thus bringing the total list of awards to eight. Listed immediately below are the eight instances where (at least) one of two scenarios were true.
- 2021—Mike Vrabel (11 wins in 2020)
- 2019—John Harbaugh (Ten wins in 2018, 12th season with Baltimore Ravens)
- 2016—Jason Garrett (Sixth season with Dallas Cowboys)
- 2014—Bruce Arians (Ten wins in 2013)
- 2010—Bill Belichick(Ten wins in 2009, 11th season with New England Patriots)
- 2009—Marvin Lewis (Seventh season with Cincinnati Bengals)
- 2007—Bill Belichick (Eighth season with Patriots)
- 2002—Andy Reid (11 wins in 2001)
Wins over Previous Year
No NFL head coach has been crowned AP NFL Coach of the Year when winning the same or fewer games than the prior year. In fact, five of these eight times, the winning coaches’ teams won four more games than the previous season. The exceptions to this rule: Mike Vrabel (2021), Bruce Arians (2014) and Andy Reid (2002). Fifteen wins is an ambitious goal for the Bills this year—one that only allows for two losses in a 17-game season.
While not absolutely necessary, of these eight cases, three AP NFL Coach of the Year recipients had quarterbacks who won the Associated Press National Football League Most Valuable Player Award that same season. The level of play from Josh Allen last year says this is more plausible than the wins over previous year. While not a disqualifier, it can be a double-edged sword as well—as in the broad scope, only four times has an NFL team seen an AP NFL MVP winner and AP NFL Coach of the Year in tandem (and two of those were Tom Brady).
Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers have a combined nine NFL MVPs over the past 20 years, and none were team-paired with an AP NFL Coach of the Year, ever, even in their non MVP-winning campaigns. Ultimately, it appears that winning in spite of the quarterback rather than due to the quarterback is reflected in the voting.
No. 1 Playoff Seed
Six of these eight times when winning AP NFL Coach of the Year, the winner’s team took the top seed in the playoffs. With what continues to be a growing trend, only two kinds of teams help sway voters: better teams and dominant ones. The two exceptions to this are Bruce Arians (2014) and Marvin Lewis (2009).
All-Pro Team Selections
When reviewing these eight situations, the number of All-Pro selections on each team was a huge factor (1, 1, 4, 7, 7, 9, 10, 11). As you can see, it’s safe to say the Bills need to likely clear at least five All-Pro selections—with more than half the recipients’ teams comfortably above that mark. For comparison, Buffalo had two selections in 2021, and a total of five players even receiving votes.
Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks) both are longer-tenured than McDermott. The pair of coaches have also gone 1-1 in Super Bowls with their current teams. To this point, both men haven’t won AP NFL Coach of the Year. This is true for both head coaches—even with MVP-like seasons from their quarterbacks, a great regular-season record, and elite seasons from their best players.
Sean McDermott is still very likely to lose the award to the head coach who can take the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars or New York Giants to nine wins. The highest percentage of votes McDermott received was 7% for the 2020 season, and he registered no votes in three other seasons. Make no mistake though, the work McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have put in for the culture of the organization transcends the AP NFL Coach of the Year Award.