Best coaches: Styles, strengths vary
Evaluating coaches is always an interesting challenge. You need to be open-minded in your approach because they're all unique.
Some find results with a no-nonsense, in-your-face style. Others produce by knowing how to massage egos and push the right buttons. What they all understand, however, is that the clock is always ticking on their job security, that a couple bad seasons could easily land them in the unemployment line.
The best coaches in the business deal with that reality by ignoring the unfairness of their profession. They're fully aware that most people outside of their franchises have no clue of what it takes to succeed at their jobs. The public doesn't see all the hours that go into game-planning, the patience that is involved in developing a player and the discipline required in not unloading on the media after hearing a dumb question asked for the third time in a news conference. These men lead for a reason. They have to deal with more than we'll ever know.
This column will give you a clear idea of how many facets of the job coaches can be evaluated on. We could easily get into more, but that would create even more challenges. As we continue Best of NFL Week, here are the bests of coaching:
1. Best X's and O's: Bill Belichick -- A longtime NFL coach once told me that people would be crazy to think the New England Patriots would struggle when they lost coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel after the 2005 season. When I asked why, he said, "Everybody on that staff benefits from having Bill Belichick as the head coach. His fingerprints are on everything."
Since that time, I've held the same opinion as most people who follow this league: Nobody is better at strategy than Belichick. It's not just that he can exploit the strengths of his opponents. He also knows how to keep his players' weaknesses from becoming major issues. We've seen the Patriots win games without Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Ty Law and plenty of other stars at some point over the past decade. The reason for that is simple: Belichick is a tough guy to beat regardless of what he has at his disposal.
2. Best delegator: Mike Tomlin -- Tomlin is the rare head coach who doesn't feel like he must control every last facet of his team. He earned the Pittsburgh Steelers' head-coaching job in 2007 after being a standout defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings and a man reared in the Cover 2 philosophy. Yet that pedigree wasn't enough for him to think he knew better than longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who has continued to run that side of the ball as well as any assistant in the league since Tomlin came to town.
Tomin has been just as willing to let offensive coordinator Bruce Arians do his thing. Like LeBeau, Arians was a holdover from the Bill Cowher era and Tomlin had no problem thinking that he shouldn't fix what wasn't broken. The end result of that approach? The Steelers have played in two Super Bowls in Tomlin's four years and won a championship in his second season.
3. Best ego manager: John Harbaugh -- There isn't a coach in the NFL who has to deal with more outsized personalities than Harbaugh has on his roster in Baltimore. Upon arriving in 2007, he first had to earn the respect of Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis, a man who runs that locker room and could easily have used that influence to undermine a lesser coach. Then Harbaugh had to deal with some other Pro Bowl-caliber players known for their fair share of bravado, linebackers Bart Scott (now with the New York Jets) and Terrell Suggs.
Even the less-vocal stars on that team (safety Ed Reed, wide receiver Derrick Mason and running back Ray Rice) have some swagger to them. You can't be a soft coach and handle that group, nor can you be a heavy-handed taskmaster. You've got to find the right balance to connect with the Ravens. In Harbaugh's case, he's made that task look much easier than it actually is.
4. Best motivator: Mike McCarthy -- This is a tough category because so many of today's top coaches could claim this honor. McCarthy gets it based on what he had to work with last season. Despite losing 15 players to injured reserve, he managed to steer this team to a 10-win season, a wild-card spot in the playoffs and eventually a Super Bowl victory over the Steelers. You don't pull off those kinds of feats by sheer luck.
McCarthy had to convince his team week in and week out that it could overcome the losses of stars such as tight end Jermichael Finley and linebacker Nick Barnett. He had to instill confidence in young, unheralded players -- cornerback Sam Shields, for example -- who turned in key performances when they had to step onto the field.
Any coach can look good when everybody is healthy and focused. The best ones know how to succeed when there are plenty of reasons to expect less from their teams. In one memorable season, McCarthy proved he could get the job done when facing the bleakest of circumstances.
5. Best coach-GM tandem: Mike McCarthy/Ted Thompson -- McCarthy and Thompson couldn't be a better fit for the Green Bay Packers. Thompson is an understated general manager who cares solely about assembling the best roster possible (as opposed to getting ample credit for his team's success). McCarthy is one of the game's more underrated coaches, a blue-collar grinder who knows how to maximize what he's given.
We first caught a glimpse of this tandem's confidence and toughness three years ago, when they sent a tempestuous Brett Favre packing. This past season we saw how great McCarthy and Thompson could be when at their best. It was impressive enough that the Packers won the Super Bowl despite barely making the playoffs.
What's even more jaw-dropping is how dominant they look for the near future. They have Pro Bowl talents (quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews), rising stars (cornerback Tramon Williams, tight end Finley) and aging veterans who defy the supposed limits of their age (cornerback Charles Woodson, wide receiver Donald Driver). With McCarthy and Thompson in charge, it's hard to believe the Packers won't be challenging for more championships over the next 5-6 years.
6. Best at telling it like is: Todd Haley -- Every coach in the NFL understands the importance of being candid. Haley is defined by that characteristic. He's been on blast since the moment he took over the Kansas City Chiefs two years ago and you can't argue with his results. The same team that went 4-12 in 2009 finished 10-6 last season, largely because his players responded to his no-holds-barred approach. Haley has gotten more production out of his younger talents -- including wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, linebacker Derrick Johnson and running back Jamaal Charles -- by constantly reminding them of where they can improve.
When the Chiefs had that lousy season in his first year, he said that they wouldn't have won more games if "we had 16 Vince Lombardis" on the staff. Haley was just as straightforward about how far the Chiefs were from being an elite team when they had sealed the AFC West crown last December.
This isn't anything new, by the way. Haley used the same tactics to push stars such as quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Anquan Boldin when Arizona made the Super Bowl in the 2008 season. And those players would tell you the same thing about Haley that his current roster is surely learning: He may get under your skin with his relentless, unfiltered honesty, but he'll also make you better in the process.
7. Best innovator: Chan Gailey -- Gailey hasn't had much success in Buffalo, but that's not because he lacks creativity. This is the same man who created the "Slash" role for Kordell Stewart when he was a raw quarterback hoping to find a way to contribute to the Steelers in the 1990s. (Gailey was the team's offensive coordinator at the time.)
Gailey also was running the Chiefs' offense in 2008 when injuries forced him to rely on an unproven, unheralded quarterback named Tyler Thigpen for 11 games. All Gailey did at that point was junk his more conventional offense for a spread system that played to Thigpen's strengths and enabled the quarterback to throw 18 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions.
Now Gailey is working his magic again with Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. A backup for most of his first five seasons, Fitzpatrick threw for 3,000 yards with 23 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions in 2010. The simple truth is that no head coach is capable of doing more with less than Gailey. His problem is that he always keeps winding up with less.
8. Best sense of humor: Rex Ryan -- This one isn't even close. Most head coaches in the NFL don't know how to laugh easily. The ones who do have a hard time doing it publicly. Ryan, on the other hand, operates with the ease and comfort of a misplaced comedian working on his second career. He's not afraid to wear costumes to news conferences or poke fun at his players or opponents.
What really puts him over the top is his knack for self-deprecation. As seriously as Ryan takes his profession, he's also smart enough to know that it doesn't hurt to have plenty of fun when you're actually out living your dream every day.
9. Best postgame interview: Rex Ryan -- Ryan earns this honor as well because he's funny, quick-witted and actually forthcoming. Like every head coach, there are thoughts that he doesn't always share in front of a microphone or tape recorder. Yet he is a good bet to give you something every time he walks away from a win or a loss. In a league where too many coaches try to control the media, Ryan understands that it doesn't hurt to be a little more free-wheeling when facing reporters.
10. Best game face: Tom Coughlin -- If you're a New York Giants fan, you know exactly why Coughlin wins this award. Nobody in the business has a more recognizable scowl than this man. Coughlin doesn't just appear pained when things aren't going right for his team. He looks like a man who has never caught a break in his life. I can still remember Coughlin's frozen face during the Giants' NFC Championship Game win in frigid Green Bay in January 2008, when the temperature dipped below the zero.
Thankfully the man rarely smiles on the sideline, because he might have cracked his face open with even the slightest of grins during that contest.
What I'll always recall about Coughlin that day is that there really wasn't much difference between his facial expression that night and those he displays on any other game day. His players and coaches may see something else behind the scenes, but it's become his trademark for a reason.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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