Ranking NFL head coaches heading into the 2018 season

By Vincent Frank

As we’ve seen with Bill Belichick in New England, coaching is an important component to winning in the NFL. On the other side of the ledger, coaches like Hue Jackson and Marvin Lewis continue to fail at every turn.

This coming season brings us seven new head coaches. This means that about a quarter of NFL teams decided to change up their entire rebuilding or building process following the 2017 season.

Here, we’re going to go ahead and rank all 32 head coaches. There’s no real surprise at the top or even within the top five. At the bottom, the seven coaches who are starting new careers are lumped in together. It’s almost impossible to rank them without having coached a single game. But there certainly are some major differences between them.

32. Steve Wilks, Arizona Cardinals

With seven new NFL head coaches this season it’s pretty darn hard to see where they rank in the pecking order. That’s why we decided to lump the seven together at the bottom of the rankings. Wilks comes over to Arizona after spending just one season as the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator. Prior to that, he served as a defensive backs coach for the Panthers from 2012-16 and in the same role with the then San Diego Chargers as well as the Chicago Bears.

31. Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears

Nagy earned a head coaching job after only one season as an offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Though, that was a brilliant season under Andy Reid. It saw the Chiefs finish in the top five in total yards and total points. Before taking over coordinator duties, Nagy oversaw the progression of Alex Smith to an elite-level signal caller as his quarterbacks coach from 2013-16 and served as an assistant for Reid in Philadelphia from 2008-12.

30. Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions

The off-field drama notwithstanding, Patricia is one of the most-qualified coordinators to take over a head coaching job in some time. In six seasons as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator, he led that unit to top-10 scoring defenses each season. In fact, New England ranked in the top five of total defense in each of the past two seasons — both resulting in AFC championships. Patricia should do wonders for what has been a stagnant Lions defense.

29. Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts

Talk about serving your time as an assistant before finally getting a chance. It wasn’t until the entire Josh McDaniels fiasco in Indianapolis earlier this year that Reich became a prime candidate for the job. Now, after 13 seasons as an assistant in the NFL, the 56-year-old Reich is finally a head coach. It’s well deserved. Under Doug Pederson last season, he led the Eagles to a top-three scoring offense. Reich previously led the then San Diego Chargers to a top-10 offense back in 2015.

28. Pat Shurmer, New York Giants

Shurmur’s previous stint as a head coach in the NFL didn’t go too swimmingly. Considered one of the best offensive minds in the league, he put up a 9-23 record as Cleveland’s head man in 2011 and 2012. Sadly enough, that represented two of the Browns’ best seasons of the past decade. It’s in this that his tenure at the mistake by the lake wasn’t a detriment to Shurmur being hired by another team.

As an offensive coordinator, Shurmur has led three top-10 scoring offenses in the past five seasons. Though, he did see the Vikings finish 23rd in 2016 before improving leaps and bounds last season. It will certainly be interesting to see how Shurmur does with Eli Manning and the Giants in Year 1.

27. Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders

Having not coached in the NFL since 2008, one has to expect somewhat of a learning curve for Gruden in his second stint with the Raiders. Based on his reputation around the NFL, it shouldn’t be too significant. Though, it’s also important to note that Gruden fielded just two playoff teams in his final six seasons with the Buccaneers.

Gruden has pretty much taken over as the Raiders’ general manager since replacing Jack Del Rio as head coach following a disastrous 2017 campaign in Northern California. He’s hellbent on making his mark with the Raiders as they prepare for relocation to Las Vegas. How 2018 turns out will tell us a lot about the head coach.

26. Matt Vrabel, Tennessee Titans

Vrabel’s ascension to the head coaching ranks is something to behold. He joins this elite group after spending just one season as the Houston Texans’ defensive coordinator. It comes after an injury-plagued Texans defense yielded the most points in the NFL last season. To some, that means Vrabel is not qualified to lead a team. But that’s just surface-based thinking. He’s been among the hottest coaching candidates since leading a dominating Houston linebackers group from 2014-16. The Titans have taken to him in a big way thus far, and we’re intrigued to see what happens in his first season.

25. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals

For fans in Cincinnati, this seems like a horrible reboot of Groundhog Day. It seemed that Lewis’ long tenure as the Bengals’ head coach would come to a conclusion following a disastrous 2017 campaign. Then, out of nowhere, Cincinnati signed him to a contract extension. Here’s a guy that boasts a 0-7 playoff record in 15 seasons as the Bengals’ head coach. He’s also seen this team miss out on the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, regressing at an alarming clip. It really is the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.

24. Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys

Squarely on the heat seat heading into the 2018 season, Garrett is coming off a disappointing 9-7 season in which Dallas missed the playoffs for the sixth time in his eight seasons as head coach. That’s just not going to cut it for America’s Team. With Ezekiel Elliott set to return after missing six games to suspension last season, there’s no excuses for Garrett here. Should Dallas miss the playoffs again, he’ll certainly be out of a job.

23. Hue Jackson, Cleveland Browns

It isn’t just that Cleveland boasts a 1-31 record under Jackson. Though, that’s pretty darn bad. Historically bad. Instead, the issues go far beyond his record. Take the DeShone Kizer situation last season. Jackson played the then rookie signal caller even when it was apparent the former second-round pick was nowhere near ready. It ruined Kizer. This also led to Cleveland putting up just the second winless 16-game regular season in NFL history. Without some tangible improvements from a talented roster in 2018, Jackson likely won’t last the full season.

22. Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills

McDermott may have led the Bills to their first playoff appearance since 1999 in his initial season as their head coach. But it didn’t come without some rather questionable decisions from the former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator. That included benching former Pro Bowl quarterback Tyrod Taylor in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman for a Week 12 game against the Los Angeles Chargers. It resulted in a 54-24 loss with Peterman throwing five first half interceptions. And it almost cost Buffalo a playoff spot. With such a small sample size, this one mistake stands out big time, as does McDermott’s handling of Taylor last season.

21. Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos

After just one season as the Broncos’ head coach, rumors persisted this past winter that GM John Elway and Co. might move on from him. And for good reason. Denver put up a disastrous 5-11 record in Joseph’s initial season. It ranked 27th in scoring and a shocking 22nd in points allowed. The team also lacked competitiveness, losing eight games by double digits. The hope here is that Joseph can turn it around with an upgrade in the form of Case Keenum under center in 2018. If that doesn’t happen, he won’t be long for the Broncos’ job.

20. Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins

There were rumors spreading around the nation’s capital that Gruden’s job might not have been safe following a disappointing 7-9 campaign for the veteran head coach. While Washington did decide to keep him aboard, it’s going to be interesting to see how he works with new quarterback Alex Smith. A lack of truly proven wide receivers and questions on defense could hamper this team in 2018. With a 28-35-1 mark as the Redskins’ head coach, a similar performance as last season would certainly mean the end of Gruden’s tenure in D.C.

19. Adam Gase, Miami Dolphins

Fresh off a surprising playoff appearance back in 2016, the Dolphins were back to their old ways last season. Ryan Tannehill suffered another ACL injury, and missed the entire year. Miami’s handling of this situation doomed the team from the get, forcing it to sign a washed Jay Cutler off the street. The end result was a horrendous 6-10 mark in Gase’s second season as the head coach in South Beach. The backdrop here being his inability to make Jay Ajayi work in his offense, ultimately leading to the Dolphins trading him to Philly on the cheap. Gase is going to need to rebound in 2018 in order to have any long-term security in Miami.

18. Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Koetter “earned” Tampa Bay’s head coaching job after a drama-filled 2015 campaign as Lovie Smith’s offensive coordinator. In the two years since, he has led the Bucs to a pedestrian 14-18 record while seeing the team’s offense finish 18th in scoring each season. All the while, former No. 1 pick Jameis Winston has failed to progress under center. All of this leads to Koetter being firmly on the hot seat heading into the 2018 season.

17. Todd Bowles, New York Jets

Rightfully so, New York handed Bowles a contract extension towards the end of what was a surprisingly competitive season for the rebuilding Jets. Bowles took over a talent-stricken Jets team in 2015, only to lead the squad to a surprising 10-6 record. After struggles on defense and at quarterback in 2016, New York rebounded with a more competitive 2017 campaign. Now that Bowles has his quarterback of the future in Sam Darnold and defenders that are more of a fit in his scheme, look for the Jets to improve even more in 2018. It might not be enough for a playoff spot, but this organization is certainly in good hands under Bowles’ leadership.

16. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers

Considered by some to be the most overrated head coach in the game, it’s hard to argue that McCarthy has not ridden the coattails of one Aaron Rodgers throughout his tenure in Green Bay. To an extent, Rodgers is the NFC’s version of Tom Brady. Take the last two seasons in which Rodgers has missed substantial time, 2013 and 2017, respectively. The Packers posted a 10-7 record in games the future Hall of Famer started those two seasons. In games he was sidelined, Green Bay went 5-10-1. That speaks volumes about McCarthy’s importance (or lack thereof) to the Packers’ success.

15. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs

Speaking of overrated, Reid has now led his teams to exactly one playoff win over the past decade. In fact, the last time a Reid-led squad made it out of the divisional round was back in 2008 with Philadelphia. The issue here has been what many call conservative play-calling. Even then, Reid has a proven track record of success in the regular season. He’s earned a playoff spot in all but six of his 19 years as an NFL head coach. Reid’s offenses have also finished in the top 10 in scoring a whopping 11 times. That’s good enough for him to rank among the top half of coaches around the NFL.

14. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks

People seem to forget that Carroll was a downright failure in his first two stints as a head coach in the NFL. He led the New York Jets to a 6-10 record as their head coach in his only season back in 1994. Then, from 1997-99, Carroll posted a combined 27-21 record in New England before Bill Belichick ultimately replaced him. While Carroll has had success in Seattle (two conference titles and a Lombardi), he’s also among the most overrated coaches in the game.

Last season was a prime example of this. With injuries and the lack of elite talent we’ve seen in the past, Carroll’s Seahawks posted a 9-7 record and missed the playoff completely. It will certainly be interesting to see how this squad performs entering a 2018 season in which both Los Angeles and San Francisco are considered better squads in the NFC West.

13. Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars

A pedestrian 15-17 record in two seasons as the Bills’ head coach earlier this decade had many people concluding Marrone’s best role was either as a college head coach or a coordinator at the NFL level. That ended suddenly in 2017, when the former Syracuse head man led Jacksonville to a surprising 10-6 record en route to earning the AFC South title and a spot in the conference championship game. His ability to get the most out of young talent can’t be overstated. Now, heading into the 2018 campaign, Marrone and his Jaguars are legit Super Bowl contenders.

12. Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans

Houston’s performance during a disastrous and injury-plagued 2017 campaign notwithstanding, O’Brien has built up a name for himself with the Texans. Sure 9-7 records in his first three seasons isn’t anything to write home about. But it’s hard to argue with two consecutive AFC South championships. Now that O’Brien has his franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, the expectation is that Houston will contend for a division crown in 2018. With his pedigree at both New England and Penn State, that could catapult O’Brien into the top-10 conversation moving forward.

11. Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons

A longtime NFL assistant starting with his tenure in San Francisco from 2001-04, Quinn has been considered an elite-level defensive mind for some time now. That includes a two-year stretch in Seattle that saw Quinn’s defenses finish No. 1 in the NFL in both total defense and points allowed. Since taking the helm in Atlanta, Quinn has helped improve what was a shoddy defense. He’s also led this previously pedestrian squad to two consecutive playoff appearances, including the NFC title back in 2016. The foundation is set. It’s now all about Quinn leading the Falcons to consistent championship contention.

10. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton Ron Rivera Carolina Panthers

It’s somewhat shocking that Rivera was on the verge of being thrown to the wolves following a six-win 2016 campaign. After all, that came one year after he led the Panthers to a franchise-best 15 wins and a Super Bowl appearance in 2015. Last year saw Rivera’s squad rebound to the tune of an 11-5 record. All said, Carolina has made the playoffs under Rivera in four of the past five seasons. Prior to taking over as the team’s head coach in 2011, he was a widely respected mind as a defensive coordinator in both San Diego and Chicago. There’s little doubt that Riverboat Ron is among the best coaches in today’s NFL.

9. Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers

After a questionable 0-4 start to his first season as a head coach, Lynn led Los Angeles to nine wins in its final 12 games to nearly earn a playoff spot. It was a thing of beauty watching the longtime assistant build an offense around his strengths. Philip Rivers would go on to have a career-best season while running back Melvin Gordon put up a Pro Bowl performance in the backfield. Defensively, Los Angeles yielded the third-fewest points in the NFL. What a rip-roaring start to Lynn’s head coaching career. And it’s certain that Los Angeles will be in the conference championship hunt this coming season.

8. Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers

Give Shanahan a quarterback to mold around his offense and watch said offense take off. We saw this first-hand during his stint as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, which led directly to Matt Ryan earning MVP honors back in 2016. In San Francisco, Jimmy Garoppolo is Shanahan’s version of Ryan. And in five starts with the 49ers last season, Garoppolo compiled a perfect record while averaging nearly 30 points per game. Simply put, Shanahan is a genius on the offensive side of the ball. He’s already built a championship culture in San Francisco, something that should be taken to a whole new level with a playoff appearance in 2018.

7. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints

Vastly underrated outside of league circles, Payton remains one of the most respected offensive minds in the game. Primarily due to his ingenuity on that side of the ball, New Orleans has posted nine top-10 scoring offenses in Payton’s 12 seasons in the Bayou. During that span, Drew Brees has put up numbers we’ve never seen from a quarterback in the history of the game.

Sure Payton has won just won Super Bowl in his time with the Saints. That should impact him from a historical standpoint. But posting six double-digit win seasons for an organization that had a grand total of five prior to his arrival certainly places Payton among the game’s best coaches.

6. Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson

Long considered a head coaching candidate since his time as Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City, Pederson has not disappointed in two seasons with the Eagles. The team might have won just seven games in his initial campaign back in 2016, but it was evident that Pederson was building something strong. It all clicked this past season with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz looking like an MVP prior to suffering a torn ACL. With Wentz out, Nick Foles would go on to lead Philadelphia to its first ever Super Bowl title, making Pederson among the most popular figures in Philly’s long history of pro sports.

5. Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams

At 30 years old, McVay became the youngest head coach in NFL history when the Rams hired him following the 2016 campaign. This came on the heels of Los Angeles finishing that season dead last in both scoring and total yards. All McVay did in his first season was lead the Rams to a No. 1 ranking in scoring en route to seeing the team earn a surprising NFC West title. It was among the greatest turnarounds in the modern history of the league. Sure one season might be a small sample size, but it’s readily apparent that McVay is the game’s next great head coach.

4. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings

It’s still surprising that Zimmer spent north of two decades as an assistant coach in the NFL before finally landing a head coaching gig. As defensive coordinator for Dallas, Atlanta and Cincinnati from 2000-2013, Zimmer led six top-10 units during that span. Since taking over as the Vikings’ head coach back in 2014, his defenses have ranked in the top-six three times. He’s turned that into team-wide success with playoff appearances in two of the past three seasons, including a spot in the NFC Championship Game last season. Zimmer has built a culture of winning in Minnesota. And it promises to continue over the long term.

3. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers

Some will question Tomlin’s in-game coaching strategy. That’s fine. When you’ve been around as long as he has, questions will continue to be brought up. What we can’t question is Tomlin’s success since he took over the head coaching job from Bill Cowher back in 2007. He’s led the Steelers to a combined 116-60 record with playoff appearances in all but three seasons, including two AFC titles and a Lombardi. Heck, Pittsburgh has never finished under .500 in Tomlin’s 11 seasons as head coach. It’s this continued success that has him among the best coaches in the game.

2. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens

Much like his division rival in Pittsburgh, Harbaugh has been on the receiving end of criticism a whole lot in recent seasons. Given that Baltimore has made the playoffs just once in the past five seasons, that makes perfect sense. It’s still somewhat shocking to see that Baltimore has finished under .500 just once in Harbaugh’s 10 years as a head coach. He has a Super Bowl title and boasts a 10-5 postseason record during that span. Critique all you want, but there’s a reason Harbaugh remains one of the most respected coaches in the NFL.

1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

Was this ever really in doubt? A .743 winning percentage since taking over as New England’s head coach back in 2000. A total of 11 seasons with 12-plus wins. Eight Super Bowl appearances and five Lombardi Trophies. The accolades that Belichick has earned since he was cast off by the Cleveland Browns back in 1995 are almost unlimited. Not only is Belichick the best coach in today’s NFL, he might be the best coach in the history of the league. It’s that simple.