Ranking the NFL Head Coaches 1-32: The Old Guard Reigns Supreme
The players are the main attraction of the NFL, but none of it would exist without the minds behind the product. Being an NFL head coach is one of the hardest jobs in sports, and comes with immense responsibility. They receive credit when things go right and the lion’s share of the blame when it all goes sideways. It’s a job few are made for, and this year, five first-time head coaches will try their hand at leaving their mark on their new franchises. Here’s a ranking of all the head coaches in the NFL.
32. Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals
Kingsbury’s hire is nearly unprecedented. College coaches do make the jump to the pros every now and again, but most have a significantly better resume than Kingsbury, who was fired from his most recent gig as head coach at Texas Tech and went 35-40 over his six years at the helm. His reputation for innovative offensive gameplanning is well-deserved, but everything is different at the pro level. With Kyler Murray as his linchpin, Kingsbury may prove to be well-suited for the job. Until then his lackluster record in college and an absence of any NFL experience will put Kingsbury at the bottom of this list.
31. Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals
Taylor is an equally unusual hire as Kingsbury, as his only NFL experience comes as the quarterback’s coach in Sean McVay’s offense. If he truly learned the secrets of boy genius McVay in his two seasons with the Rams, then this could be a great hire for the Bengals, who have been running the treadmill of mediocrity for over a decade now. As it stands, Taylor’s inexperience means he’s a huge question mark in a transitional period for the Bengals, and may not last more than a few seasons.
30. Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins
Flores is another first-year head coach whose lack of experience plays against him. The Patriots defense was steady and upped their game in a big way come playoff time with Flores leading them, but it was his only season with that level of responsibility. It doesn’t help that the Bill Belichick coaching tree has rarely paid dividends. On the other side of things, Flores is reportedly a great leader, and he has a completely blank slate in Miami to mold the team in his image. He could rise through the ranks quickly, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how his first year will unfold.
29. Matt LeFleur, Green Bay Packers
LeFleur is the other coach from the McVay coaching tree poached over the offseason, but has a slightly stronger pedigree than his contemporary in Zac Taylor. LeFleur was offensive coordinator during the Rams’ breakout season in 2017, and held the same position for the Titans this past year. He’s familiar with the level of responsibility that he’ll have in Green Bay, but didn’t do all that much in Tennessee in 2018, finishing 25th in total offense. LeFleur should bring offensive innovation to a team that desperately needs it, and going from Marcus Mariota to Aaron Rodgers will give his schemes an entirely new look. But being the architect behind a stagnant Titans offense is a black mark on his record, and optimism shouldn’t be through the roof.
28. Freddie Kitchens, Cleveland Browns
Kitchens took over for Hue Jackson a little over a quarter of the way through 2018, and the team looked entirely different under Kitchens. He designed an effective offense around Baker Mayfield, and the players as a whole seemed to love his new energy. He needs to prove that the improvement from last season will carry over and show how he handles a locker room filled with strong personalities, but the bar has never been lower after Jackson. Kitchens could prove to be the face of a new-look Cleveland Browns.
27. Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos
In terms of fit, there wasn’t a better hire this offseason. Fresh off engineering a dominant Chicago defense, Fangio joins the one team that can offer equal levels of defensive talent in Denver. He should have a field day with Bradley Chubb, Von Miller, and the rest of the high-end players. This is Fangio’s first head coaching position, but after 40 years as a coach, he knows what he needs to bring to the table. Fangio is a better bet to succeed than any of the other first-time head coaches, but his lack of experience at the head of an organization makes it hard to rank him much higher.
26. Adam Gase, New York Jets
Gase is now the man charged with ushering in a new era of Jets football, but doesn’t come in with a great track record. His time as head coach of the Dolphins ended with a final record of 23-25 over three seasons, and there were reports of Gase clashing with his players throughout his tenure. His calling card is supposedly offensive innovation, but the Dolphins struggled on offense every year with him at the helm. He suffered from poor injury luck, especially with Ryan Tannehill, so the poor performance can’t be completely chalked up to incompetence. It’s hard to feel optimistic, though. Gase should improve as a head coach after working through mistakes in Miami, and he already has a young and talented quarterback to work with, but Gase has a lot to prove.
25. Pat Shurmur, New York Giants
This upcoming season will be an important one for Shurmur. Dave Gettleman believes the team can still compete with Eli Manning at quarterback, and it’s on Shurmur to manufacture an offense around him and Saquon Barkley, a task made infinitely more difficult after trading Odell Beckham Jr. His previous head coaching experience with the Browns was not good, to say the least; the team went 9-23 and he was fired after two seasons. Shurmur is best working on the offensive side of the ball, but the Giants were only middle of the road in total offense last season. Shurmur is a fine coach, but with a lack of talent outside of Barkley on offense, it’s not an optimistic outlook for 2019.
24. Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Arians was in the upper echelon of coaches during his time with Arizona, manufacturing a high-flying offense that revitalized Carson Palmer’s career for a short time. The team never took the next step, though, and topped out at an NFC Championship game appearance. Arians is now tasked with another reclamation project in the form of Jameis Winston down in Tampa. Arians has the pieces to recreate what he had in Arizona and brings a disciplinarian attitude that the Bucs probably need, but that doesn’t always sit well with players. Arians’ track record is better than any of the coaches around him on the list, but there are enough question marks here that he doesn’t rank higher.
23. Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders
Gruden is tough to rank. On one hand, the Raiders clearly weren’t looking to win last year, and their record was predictably dismal after trading two of their best players for draft picks. Gruden has a championship pedigree and did a solid job of team-building the last time he was in Oakland. On the other hand, all of that happened last decade, and the Raiders looked really bad at times in 2018. The Gruden experiment is still in year one of ten, so we can’t completely judge Gruden yet. For this season, though, he’ll likely be behind another losing year for Oakland.
22. Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans
Vrabel’s rookie season as a head coach was filled with ups and downs. At times, the team looked much better than they had the previous season. As a whole, they missed the playoffs and their offense was in the bottom half of the league again. Mariota’s glass bones didn’t help much, either. The players seem to love Vrabel, and their defense was stingy last season, which is where Vrabel does his best work anyways. Vrabel has the locker room behind him, and it’s time to show results.
21. Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions
Similar to his fellow sophomore head coach, Patricia’s first season yielded a disappointing record, but the team showed improvement in the area he was expected to shore up. The Lions’ offense was extremely disappointing at times, but the defense improved considerably over the course of the season, and could realistically make the leap to a dominant unit in 2019. With this year’s draft in the rearview mirror, Patricia has the guys in place to fulfill his vision. Whether that vision becomes reality is his biggest question mark heading into the new year.
20. Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars
Marrone gets points for the Jags’ heroic effort in 2017, coming within minutes of defeating the dreaded Patriots in Foxborough with Blake Bortles at the helm. The team then regressed in a big way the next season, and stumbled their way to a top-ten pick. It’s a pivotal season coming up for Marrone with big free-agent acquisition Nick Foles coming to town. He’s proven he can coach a playoff team, but last year shouldn’t have been so bad with all the talent they have on defense. This year will likely define who Marrone is as a coach, but for now he’s just below average.
19. Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts
Reich exceeded expectations in his first year as a coach. Thanks to a revamped offensive line, Reich designed an efficient and dangerous offense that put up points while getting the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hands quickly. Indianapolis wasn’t expected to have a big year, but they ended up in the playoffs with one of the best offenses in the league. Reich made a good impression, but next year will show how much of last year was his scheme and how much of it was just Luck returning to form.
18. Sean McDermott
McDermott has handled the Bills’ turnaround well. He led the team to their first playoff birth in years in 2017, then switched gears and led the team through a rebuilding year while mentoring Josh Allen. The players like him, and he appeals to others outside the building as well, convincing a handful of key free agents to sign with Buffalo. McDermott’s reputation rides entirely on Allen’s development, and next season should be very telling in regards to his future in Buffalo.
17. Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears
Like Reich, Nagy exceeded any expectations he had as a rookie head coach in Chicago. He appears to have effectively designed an offense around the limitations of young QB Mitch Trubisky and led the team to a division title, missing out on a playoff victory by inches. Nagy needs to prove that his offense, predicated on misdirection and scheming guys open, can translate to playoff production, and how the defense performs after the departure of Vic Fangio will reflect heavily on Nagy. Still, Chicago seems to have found a coach very well suited to their personnel, and there’s reason to be excited for Bears fans.
16. Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers
Shanahan has been impressive during his two years at the head of the Niners, all things considered. He managed to get decent production last year out of a group devoid of high-end talent after Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a torn ACL, even if the team ended the season with the second-worst record in the league. Shanahan has his work cut out for him to meet expectations in 2019, but if he made Nick Mullens look like an NFL quarterback, there’s no reason to not be optimistic about the future with Shanahan as the main man.
15. Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins
If it wasn’t for Alex Smith’s brutal leg injury, we’d be talking a lot more about how well Gruden coached in 2018. He zigged when everyone else zagged, creating a ball-control offense perfectly suited for the combination of Smith and Adrian Peterson while helping build an above-average defensive unit. Few organizations have experienced the player turnover at key positions like Washington has over the last few seasons, and Gruden has taken it all in stride. Gruden’s coaching legacy will be defined by the development of new franchise QB Dwayne Haskins over the next few years.
14. Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans
O’Brien’s tenure with Houston has been a bit of a rollercoaster. The team only has one losing record in his five years as head coach, but his long-term prospects weren’t bright until Deshaun Watson came to town. O’Brien has done a good job of bringing Watson along and has developed a dangerous combination with Watson and DeAndre Hopkins. He didn’t do much to accommodate for the team’s poor offensive line performance, though, and Watson has taken a beating over his first two seasons as a result. O’Brien has his areas that need improvement and must capitalize on his best season as a coach last year, but on the whole the Texans could be doing much worse in the head coach department.
13. Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers had a stellar campaign in 2018 before Lynn was thoroughly outcoached by Bill Belichick in the playoffs. Still, to that point, it was a fine season with Lynn at the helm. The offense was dangerous and Philip Rivers had his best season in years, while the defense was one of the better units in the league. Lynn needs to get more out of that defense with the talent they have, and this season will show how legitimate Rivers’ late-career revitalization really is. But Lynn has a bright future if 2018 was any indication.
12. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
Riverboat Ron didn’t make many appearances in Carolina last season, as the team struggled through injuries to their star quarterback and ended up with a 7-9 record. Rivera has brought along the young pieces on defense well, and finishing 7-9 with Cam Newton hobbled as he was is impressive. Rivera needs to show something this year if he wants to keep his job; the Panthers’ past success shows he can lead them to the playoffs, but if he can’t do it this year, he might be gone. Rivera’s relatively successful track record keeps him higher on the list for now.
11. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
It was was quite the disappointing year for the Vikings, who many had pegged as contenders after replacing Case Keenum with Kirk Cousins. They couldn’t recapture the same magic, and missed the playoffs entirely. The team wasn’t built to cater to Cousins’ weaknesses, and while they attempted to remedy that this offseason, it’s a pivotal year for the franchise and Zimmer next season. The defense underperformed, but Zimmer’s past success on that side of the ball speaks for itself coming in to 2019. Zimmer must elevate everyone around him for the Vikings to reach their full potential; he’s done it before, and must do it again to keep his job.
10. Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
Garrett’s coaching job in the second half of the 2018 season is the only reason he’s still eligible for lists like these. His seat was absolutely scorching until Dallas went on a tear following the Amari Cooper trade, leading his team to the playoffs despite a tough year all around. Garrett has done a solid job of bringing along young talent while at the head of the Cowboys, but has failed to make the leap to legitimate contenders at any point. This is the year to do it if it’s ever going to happen.
9. Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons
It’s unlikely that any coach in the league not named Belichick could have overcome the rash of injuries the Falcons suffered last year. Every key contributor on defense went down, leading to a disappointing finish. But given how good the unit has been over the last few years under Quinn, it’s a good bet that last season was the outlier. He knows what it takes to be a champion after coming oh-so-close several years ago, and has shown he can elevate his team to that level.
8. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
2018 was not a good year for Mike Tomlin. The locker room completely fell apart under his watch as his star running back sat out the season and his star wideout demanded a trade after the team underperformed and missed the playoffs completely. Tomlin’s hold on the locker room appears to be tenuous, but his molding of a dominant defensive front and extensive experience still put him in the top ten. This year is perhaps his most important yet; Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have much time left on the clock, and their championship window seems to be closing quickly. If he can recover from a disastrous year and continue to bring along his defense, Tomlin will remain one of the better coaches in the league.
7. Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles
Pederson has proven himself to be one of the best coaches in the league since his hiring in 2017. He brought the Eagles their first Super Bowl title with a backup at quarterback, and made the playoffs this year after Carson Wentz was hurt once again. He puts each player in a position to succeed, and his grasp and utilization of the read-option has helped change what the average NFL offense looks like today. Pederson must continue his run of success to break into the upper echelon, but he looks to be a steady figure in Philadelphia for years to come.
6. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
Harbaugh was the man behind the most dramatic in-season transformation of any team in recent memory. After suffering through the poor play of Joe Flacco, the team finally made Lamar Jackson the starter, and created an entirely new offense in the middle of the season to suit his talents. Not only did it work, it helped the team earn a playoff birth. The results of that playoff birth show there’s a ways to go for Baltimore, but simply getting to that point is impressive work by everyone on Harbaugh’s staff. It was one of the best coaching jobs of Harbaugh’s career, but he needs to build upon it to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
5. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
2018 may have been Carroll’s finest coaching job, considering how things looked before the season started. Many pegged Seattle to be in a rebuilding year, lacking high-end talent on both sides of the ball outside of Russell Wilson. Instead, Carroll led his team to a playoff berth and coached his players to play up to their full potential. To get to where they did was quite impressive, and Carroll remains as one of the best coaches in the league.
4. Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams
McVay’s first two years have been more successful than anyone could have possibly imagined. He followed up an incredible 2017 with an even better 2018, leading his team to a Super Bowl appearance. He fell short, but there’s no brighter future out there than McVay’s. He’s still the new guy on the block so he still sits in the fourth spot, but there’s very little reason to believe he won’t continue his success and become a top-three coach in short order. He’s the face of the new NFL coaching generation, and while anything can happen, it’s a good bet McVay has himself a Super Bowl ring within the next five years.
3. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
Payton has always been one of the best minds in football, and it was more of the same in 2018. It would have been easy to crumble after a heartbreaking loss to the Vikings in the previous season’s playoffs, but Payton bounced back better than ever. His team was one blown call away from going to the Super Bowl, and put together dominant performances on both sides of the ball. Their defense was above average for most of the season and took it to another level in the playoffs despite lacking big names, while Payton engineered another elite year from Drew Brees and created the most dangerous offense in the NFL. As long as Brees and Payton are with the team, the Saints are always contenders.
2. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
Reid put together an absolute masterpiece of a season in 2018. He completely changed the Chiefs’ offense, designing it around the ridiculous talents of Patrick Mahomes and earned the quarterback an MVP trophy in his first season as a starter. Mahomes’ talent is so obvious that it can be tempting to say it was more him than Reid, but Reid is the mastermind behind everything in Kansas City. He put together the most explosive offense in football and was this close to a Super Bowl berth. Reid has his downsides, but he continues to be an offensive savant with a mind that few others can match.
1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Reid and Payton had excellent seasons, but the top coach remains unchallenged. Belichick overcame a hobbled Rob Gronkowski and a suspended Josh Gordon to earn a first-round bye, then proceeded to overhaul the offense during their bye and the Patriots centered in on ball control and tough defense to win their sixth Super Bowl championship. Everything is easier with Tom Brady at quarterback, but Belichick’s mastery and willingness to mold his schemes around his personnel remains unparalleled throughout the league. One day, someone will take this mantle when Belichick is gone. But until that day, he will remain the best coach and most valuable person in the entire league, bar none.