- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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If there's one thing we already can predict about the end of this regular season, it's that deciding award winners will not be easy. The MVP race is going to be cluttered with quarterbacks named Manning, Rivers, Brady and Vick. The Defensive Player of the Year will be just as tough a call, especially because no clear-cut front-runners have emerged. But for my money, no voting will be as interesting as the one that determines Coach of the Year. There are simply too many viable candidates for that competition to end without somebody feeling like he was stiffed.
This is why I'm getting a head start on this contest. Even though there is a month left in the season, these are the men who have done the best job of coaching -- so far -- and are likely to be holding that award when the postseason begins:
1. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh: Yes, the Steelers have plenty of talented players left over from a team that won the Super Bowl just two years ago. But Tomlin is the leading candidate for this honor because of what he's done in the absence of two of those players. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed the first four games of this year with a suspension, and former star receiver Santonio Holmes was shipped to the New York Jets in an offseason trade. So how did Tomlin respond? He led Pittsburgh to a 3-1 start -- while using backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon -- and now he has the Steelers tied for the AFC North lead with an 8-3 record. The Steelers could've easily fallen apart in the first month of the season. Instead, they're right back where fans are used to seeing them -- in contention for a title.
2. Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay: Give the guy credit for his bravado -- he notably referred to his Buccaneers as the best team in the NFC when they were a surprising 5-2 -- and his ability to galvanize one of the league's youngest rosters. Remember, Morris is leading a team with rookies at four key positions -- running back (LeGarrette Blount), guard (Ted Larsen) and receiver (Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams). He also has a second-year starter at quarterback, Josh Freeman. After finishing 3-13 last season, the Bucs would have been happy to hover around .500. But at 7-4, they're legitimately competing for a playoff spot in the league's toughest division. In other words, Morris is proving why Bucs ownership was so high on making him a head coach at age 33.
3. Todd Haley, Kansas City: Like Morris, Haley has turned one of the league's worst teams of last year into one of its biggest surprises. He's also made the Chiefs playoff contenders the old-fashioned way -- by relying on a strong running game, sound defense and an emphasis on not beating one's self. The Chiefs are plus-7 in turnover ratio, and they have ranked among the league's least penalized teams all season. Just as impressive is the job Haley and his staff have done with quarterback Matt Cassel and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. Cassel is making the transition from game manager to efficient leader and Bowe (14 touchdown receptions) deserves Pro Bowl recognition. Overall, this team is trending up at exactly the right time.
4. Bill Belichick, New England: All you have to know about Belichick is that his team has kept pace with the New York Jets despite his decision to trade Randy Moss in early October. We probably will never know exactly what led Belichick to hit the eject button on the enigmatic wide receiver, but what isn't in dispute is the effect it has had on the Patriots. They haven't missed a beat without him. On top of that, they're tied for the AFC East lead because Belichick has gotten the most out of an offense filled with unheralded (Danny Woodhead, Brandon Tate) and old, familiar faces (Deion Branch). In fact, this year's team resembles the one Belichick led to his first Super Bowl in 2001. Even though quarterback Tom Brady wasn't a star then, that squad thrived because every player on the roster knew his role. Don't be surprised if Belichick finds a way to work similar magic with this bunch.
5. Lovie Smith, Chicago: Smith officially pushed himself into the conversation after the Bears beat Philadelphia last weekend. Until that point, they seemed like a nice story that would fade in the final months of the season. Now they're sitting in the driver's seat in the NFC North with an 8-3 record and plenty of reasons to believe they'll finish strong. What makes this season all the more impressive for Smith is that he's been on the hot seat for months. This team hasn't made the playoffs in three years, and its offense still doesn't have much in the way of dynamic personnel. But the Bears have returned to their familiar formula for success -- relying on their defense -- and that has been enough to ensure Smith will stick around Chicago past this season.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.