NFL

Five most overrated NFL head coaches entering 2017

NFL head coaches Marvin Lewis Cincinnati Bengals
Ethan Sears
Written by Ethan Sears

People tend to judge NFL head coaches by one facet: wins. This is just as flawed as judging a pitcher, quarterback or goaltender by the same metric.

Coaches– in football especially — exert an incredible amount of influence over the outcome of a game. Between calling plays, time management, and essentially deciding the stylistic of identity of their team, coaches are easily the most influential people not under center in a given football game.

But that doesn’t mean they decide the outcome themselves.

A good team can hide the flaws of a bad coach just as a good coach can hide the flaws of a bad team. But when we look at wins as the sole metric by which to rate a coach, we fail to see that. Instead, we should be judging coaches by how their teams perform relative to the talent on a roster.

Obviously there’s no perfect way to project how many games the Green Bay Packers should win just by looking at the roster and some stats, no matter how advanced a model you have. But it’s not hard to know that a team with Aaron Rodgers as its quarterback should be contending for a Super Bowl every year.

Likewise, coaches should also be judged for the side of the ball they specialize in. Bill O’Brien, who we’ll get to shortly, was hired by the Houston Texans because of his reputation as a quarterback guru. With that in mind, let’s not judge him positively because the Texans had one of the best defenses in football last season.

Coaches should be held to a that type of standard rather than the baseless standard of wins. This list holds them to that standard.

These are the most overrated NFL head coaches entering the 2017 season.

Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers

Perhaps no head coach in all of sports — let alone football — embodies the flaws in judging a head coach by wins quite like Mike McCarthy. The Packers have been successful under his tenure, making the playoffs in all but two seasons and winning Super Bowl XLV. But their level of success doesn’t measure up to their talent, especially in recent years. Much of that is directly due to Mike McCarthy.

McCarthy’s offensive system is fatally flawed because it isn’t designed to help the quarterback, it’s designed to force the quarterback to make plays. With Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre being the only two starting quarterbacks McCarthy’s ever coached, he’s gotten away with it. However this has not happened without doing serious damage to Green Bay’s title hopes on a yearly basis.

McCarthy, for the most part, refuses to scheme receivers open or use route combinations that play off each other. Instead, he tends to isolate receivers and force them to get open in 1-on-1 situations, putting Rodgers in a position where he has to extend plays and do things out of the pocket. Again, Rodgers is very good at this, and Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Martellus Bennett are all more capable of getting open in 1-on-1 situations than most.

But Green Bay’s offense still stalls with too much regularity.

Over the first nine weeks of last season, the Packers were 15th in passing offense efficiency, per Football Outsiders’ premium database. In 2015, the Packers were 27th in passing offense efficiency over the last eight weeks of the season. Both years, Rodgers was able to bail everyone out and get the Packers to the playoffs. But that’s not something he does because of McCarthy, it’s something he does in spite of McCarthy.

Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans

Bill O'Brien

The Houston Texans hired Bill O’Brien because he developed a reputation as a quarterback whisperer as New England Patriots offensive coordinator and Penn State head coach. Through three seasons, nearly everything Bill O’Brien has done at the quarterback position has been completely and utterly incompetent. Let’s give O’Brien a pass for 2014, his first year on the job when he brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was generally competent before getting hurt.

Instead, lets focus on the last two seasons.

To start off 2015, you may remember, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett were competing for Houston’s starting job. To add to the pressure, the Texans were featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks. The decision was portrayed dramatically on the show, with O’Brien naming Hoyer the starter and stressing that he would not be on a short leash.

It turned out that a long leash ended up being most of one game. Hoyer was benched in the fourth quarter of Week 1. Mallett proceeded to start the next four games, over which he was generally bad and the Texans went 1-3, including a Week 5 game in which he was benched for Hoyer. Mallett was released less than 10 days later after missing team flight to Miami (more on that here).

To summarize: O’Brien lied to Hoyer about trusting him as a starter, went to Mallett way earlier than anyone expected, Mallett stunk, got benched and proceeded to oversleep for a flight, resulting in his release.

But wait, there’s more!

After that disaster, O’Brien knew the Texans had to fix their quarterback situation in the offseason. So what did the Texans do? They signed Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract without O’Brien having met him or, judging by the size of the contract, having watched his tape.

Osweiler was benched late in the season and general manager Rick Smith had to bribe the Cleveland Browns with a second round pick to take Osweiler’s mammoth contract. After that, the Texans had to give up more draft assets to trade up this year in order to select Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson No. 12 overall. If O’Brien’s record is any indication, Watson should run for the hills.

O’Brien’s quarterback record is not the only reason to disbar him as an NFL head coach for eternity. Far from it. He routinely makes errors in the most basic aspects of game management.

In the 2015 playoffs, O’Brien made a big show of using defensive end J.J. Watt in the red zone — so much so that ESPN sideline reporter Lisa Salters, assigned to the game, was aware of the plan at kickoff. In the second quarter, with the Kansas City Chiefs up 13-0 and Brian Hoyer in the red zone for the first time all game, O’Brien brought in not just Watt, but defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. The Texans ran a draw for Watt, who lined up under center, and lost a yard.

Hoyer threw an interception on the very next play and the Texans wouldn’t get that close to scoring again in what became a 30-0 loss. It was later revealed that Watt was playing with five fully or partially torn muscles. There are countless more examples of O’Brien’s rank stupidity on the sidelines, but we only have so much space.

The Texans have managed to win despite him, thanks to a strong defense (which he has nothing to do with) and a weak schedule. As long as O’Brien is around, however, there will be an eternal obstacle in their path to contention.

Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts

Pagano was given the gift of Andrew Luck and has failed to deliver, as the Colts have missed the playoffs the past two seasons. It’s unfair to blame Pagano for Indy’s roster-building — that falls on Ryan Grigson, who was rightfully fired, a year too late, after the 2016 season. Grigson tried and failed (horribly) to build a Super Bowl contender around Luck, but don’t let that overshadow Pagano’s own failings.

The Colts may not have had a championship roster, but Luck alone gives them a roster good enough to make the playoffs in the woeful AFC South. Yet, they failed to do so. We can give Pagano a pass for 2015, when Luck got hurt and played just seven games and Grigson set him up for failure.

But last season, the responsibility rests on Pagano. The Colts missed the postseason by a single game and one they could have won easily: a Sunday night matchup against the Texans. A win would have put them past Houston and won them the division at then end of the year, as they would have had the tiebreaker over the Tennessee Titans.

The Colts were up 13-3 at halftime and 13-9 late in the third quarter with the ball on Houston’s eight-yard line on 4th & inches. Pagano made the right decision to go for it but proceeded to put Luck in shotgun and throw the ball. Houston outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus easily came in and beat tight end Jack Doyle at the line for a sack.

The Colts somehow recovered from that, held a 23-16 lead and the ball, with just over two minutes to go. Easy, right? Just kill the clock. Houston had two timeouts left. All the Colts needed was a first down.

Pagano managed to screw it up by passing on second down. Wouldn’t you know, Luck got sacked and the Colts suddenly faced 3rd & 20. At that point, when there was a real argument for passing before the two-minute warning, Pagano put the ball on the ground for a one-yard loss. Brock Osweiler (BROCK OSWEILER!!!) proceeded to lead a game-tying drive. Then, in overtime, he led a game-winning drive. Pagano’s game management cost Indy the game, and with it, the division title.

Pagano’s handling of playcalling and timeout management is among the worst in the league. His offensive philosophy, based on press conferences and games themselves, seems to be that you win when you run, something proven wrong years ago. He also frequently puts Andrew Luck in poor positions to succeed. The Houston game is just one example of poor game management, but over the course of the season, Pagano seems to mess up more often than he succeeds.

Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals

Unlike the rest of the coaches on this list, there’s not anything Lewis is cripplingly bad at that hurts the Bengals. He isn’t the best coach in the world, but he’s not a major obstacle to winning. He simply fails to get anything extra out of a football team.

Lewis has coached the Bengals since 2003, a span over which they have failed to win a playoff game, and not for lack of talent. Between 2003 and 2008, he had Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh at their peaks, Rudi Johnson and Cedric Benson at running back, both of whom rushed for over 1,000 yards three times in Bengal uniforms, and Carson Palmer at quarterback. Yet, despite finishing 11th or better in offensive efficiency each year from 2003 to 2007, the Bengals played in just one playoff game and lost it (Palmer went down with an injury on his first pass of the game).

Why did the Bengals fail over these seasons when Palmer was healthy (save their lone playoff game) and the offense was dynamic? Their defense was regularly among the worst in football. Lewis, of course, is a defensive coach, having held coordinator jobs in Washington and Baltimore before being hired in Cincy. Throughout Lewis’ 14-year tenure, the Bengals’ defense has held a higher DVOA — Football Outsiders’ measure of efficiency — than its offense just six times.

It’s tough to blame Lewis for the playoff losses. The Bengals have had incredibly bad luck in those games: Palmer got hurt in 2005, top receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones missed the 2015 Wild Card matchup against the Colts, Jeremy Hill fumbled and Vontaze Burfict went nuts against the Steelers in 2016, a game the Bengals were lucky to be competitive in since Andy Dalton was hurt.

But it does say something that the Bengals consistently lean on the unit he isn’t coaching, how multiple offensive coordinators: Hue Jackson and Jay Gruden have taken head coaching jobs elsewhere while Lewis has languished in perpetuity, thanks mostly to an ownership group that seems content with the status quo and coddling red-flag players. Hiring good coordinators is a skill and no doubt a skill Lewis possesses.

However, it’s not a good thing when the coordinators seem to be carrying more of the brunt of success than the coach himself.

Ben McAdoo, New York Giants

In McAdoo’s first year as Giants head coach, New York finished 11-5 and made the postseason — a substantial improvement upon the previous year when he was offensive coordinator. However, that improvement came in two areas, neither having to do with offense. First, the Giants went from 30th to second in defensive efficiency. Second, they regressed to the mean in close games — mostly because Tom Coughlin’s clock management was so bad in 2015 that having anyone but him made for a substantial improvement.

On offense — McAdoo’s area of expertise — the Giants were 22nd in efficiency, a decline from 2015. They used ’11’ personnel — one back, one tight end and three wide receivers — a stunning 92 percent of the time, per Sharp Football, nearly 200 more total plays than any other team. This made things predictable for opposing defenses, allowing them to, at times, make an offense featuring Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard look obsolete.

That’s partly because, schematically, McAdoo’s offense is obsolete.

McAdoo is a Mike McCarthy protege, having worked with him in Green Bay as the Packers’ tight ends and later quarterbacks coach. His offense very much resembles his mentor’s.  The Giants, like the Packers, put receivers in far too many one-on-one situations instead of scheming them open. The difference is that instead of Aaron Rodgers, they have Eli Manning.

It doesn’t help that the Giants had next to no rushing attack, or that their offensive line was terrible. But McAdoo made the offense even more predictable by throwing the same personnel at opposing teams over 90 percent of the time. New York’s improvement had less to do with him and more to do with free agent signings and Landon Collins’ development turning their defense into a juggernaut.

Let’s keep that in mind as we head into next season.

About the author

Ethan Sears

Ethan Sears

Ethan Sears is the publisher of sports web site EthanSears.com and will graduate in 2017 from Rye High School in Westchester County, New York. He has loved sports from an early age and intends to have a long career in journalism.

Ethan interned at the New York Post in the summers of 2015 and 2016. He also writes for Giants Wire, USA Today's New York Giants blog. In addition to writing and editing his own website, Ethan is the sports editor for his school paper, Garnet and Black. You can follow him on Twitter @ethan_sears.