NFL coaches might have more influence on the outcome of a game than any other coaches in any other sport. They get to actually dictate what their players are doing nearly every moment of the game. They have to make real-time decisions about the clock, timeouts, challenging plays, and so on. They have the power to wreck or steal a game.
Welcome to CBS Sports’ official coaching rankings. Over the past couple weeks, we ranked the 10 best players at every single position group — from quarterbacks to kickers and punters (yes, really). Now we turn our attention to coaches. Below, you’ll find my rankings for the top 10 coaches in the NFL right now.
But first, a few notes about the list:
- This is not based on who I think will win the most games in 2020. If it were, Andy Reid and John Harbaugh would be above Bill Belichick, because they have better football teams than Belichick right now.
- This is not based entirely on past success. If it were, Pete Carroll and Mike Tomlin would be ranked higher.
- For Eagles fans specifically: Sean McVay has won roughly 69 percent of his games. Doug Pederson has won roughly 59 percent of his games. McVay took a bunch of flak for a bad 2019 season … when the Rams still won nine games. Pederson has won nine games in back-to-back seasons. He also went 7-9 in his first season, which McVay has never done. On that note, Super Bowls are not the only thing that matters. I’m not going to base my rankings off one game. You can. There’s definitely an argument for Pederson over McVay. But if you don’t think there’s an argument for McVay over Pederson, you’re probably an Eagles fan or you’re weighing the result of one game too significantly.
- The next three coaches would’ve been: Bruce Arians, Sean McDermott, and Mike Vrabel.
On to the list itself.
10. Vikings‘ Mike Zimmer
It still feels like Mike Zimmer is underappreciated. Here’s what he’s done as the Vikings’ coach for the past six seasons:
He’s won 59.9 percent of his games, good enough for a 57-38-1 record. He’s been to the playoffs in half of his six seasons, even though he’s been stuck in the same division as Aaron Rodgers. He’d be 3-2 instead of 2-3 in the playoffs if Blair Walsh hadn’t gone all Blair Walsh on him. As a defensive-minded coach, he always gets the most out of the Vikings’ defense. In his six seasons, the Vikings’ defense has ranked in the top-10 in points allowed five times. The only time they didn’t finish in the top-10 came in his first season in charge, when they ranked 11th.
Zimmer isn’t a perfect coach. He probably needs to win more playoff games to get more respect. But he’s a defensive-minded coach who always gets results out of his defense.
9. Eagles’ Doug Pederson
In four seasons with the Eagles, even though he has dealt with a rash of injuries, Doug Pederson owns a 38-26 record, good enough for a winning percentage of 59.4. He’s made the playoffs in three of four seasons. But of course, the real reason Pederson is ranked this high is because of the 2017 season, when he guided the Eagles to the top of the NFC playoff picture and then navigated a season-ending injury to Carson Wentz by getting the absolute most out of backup quarterback Nick Foles, who turned into a Super Bowl MVP. While the Eagles haven’t cashed in on their potential over the past two seasons, they’ve still managed to make the playoffs in both seasons. Pederson has demonstrated a willingness to be aggressive — most notably in the Super Bowl against the Patriots — that should endear himself to NFL fans who want to see the game continue to evolve.
8. Seahawks‘ Pete Carroll
If this list was based on wins and losses alone, Pete Carroll would rank closer to the top. In his 10 seasons as the Seahawks’ coach, he’s posted a 100-59-1 record (62.8 percent). He’s taken them to two Super Bowls, one of which they won. He’s missed the playoffs only twice. Since he got Russell Wilson, he’s missed the postseason once. With Wilson, Carroll’s Seahawks have never finished worse than 9-7. Carroll was always a lock to make this list. If coaches are judged on wins and losses (spoiler alert: they are) then Carroll is one of the best coaches in football.
So then, why is Carroll ranked this low, behind coaches who have accomplished far less than him? There’s no easy answer to this question, but it’s important to remember that this list is looking forward. It’s not just based on past success. And over the past few seasons, Carroll and the rest of his coaching staff have demonstrated a reluctance to evolve to the changing game. It’s his stubbornness to establishing the run that sticks out, which often requires Wilson to bail the offense out of difficult third-down situations. As analytics have become a weapon that smart teams — like the Ravens — wield to exploit their opponents, the Seahawks have lagged behind.
Carroll is still a great coach. He’s great at developing defenses. He deserves credit for Wilson’s development from a third-round pick to one of the three best quarterbacks in football. But as the league continues to evolve, it’s up to Carroll to evolve with it. To this point, he hasn’t exactly done that. If he does, he’ll jump right back into the top five.
7. Steelers‘ Mike Tomlin
Mike Tomlin has enjoyed a successful coaching career that includes two trips to the Super Bowl and one championship, but the 2019 season, which ended without a playoff appearance, might’ve been his best-ever coaching job. Despite losing Ben Roethlisberger in the early going and being forced to ride out the year with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback, who combined to throw 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, the Steelers managed to win eight games by riding their incredible defense that ranked third in DVOA and first in takeaways. All they were missing was a competent quarterback.
As already mentioned, Tomlin has won one Super Bowl in two total trips. He’s also won 133 games in 13 seasons for a winning percentage of 64.2. He’s never finished with a record below .500. He’s remarkably consistent. Yet it feels like he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves.
6. Rams’ Sean McVay
For as much criticism as Sean McVay took after a disappointing 2019 season, it’s important to put that disappointing season in context. McVay, hired at the age of 30, went 24-8 in his first two seasons with two playoff appearances and a trip to the Super Bowl. His disappointing 2019 season still included nine wins, which means his record after three seasons is 33-15, which means his winning percentage is 68.8. Obviously, given his relative inexperience, there’s a sample size problem that’ll get sorted out in due time, but it’s worth noting that he has a higher winning percentage than every single coach on this list. That’s why he’s ranked this high.
So then, why is he ranked this low? It comes down to the 2019 season, when defenses finally seemed to figure out how to stop McVay’s once vaunted offense. In 2017, the Rams’ offense ranked sixth in DVOA — the year before McVay arrived, they ranked dead last. In 2018, they finished second. But in 2019, the Rams’ offense fell to 17th. Perhaps it was just a one-year fluke, but McVay needs to make adjustments in 2020 if they’re going to survive the most difficult division in football — the NFC West has three coaches on this list.
Still, it’s been an unreal start to his coaching career. Despite the disappointing nature of the 2019 season, let’s not lose sight of how well McVay has done given his age and just how awful the Rams were when he inherited the team.
5. 49ers‘ Kyle Shanahan
It wouldn’t be surprising if Shanahan, only 40 years old, is eventually the best coach in the league. He’s certainly on that trajectory. Like Andy Reid, he’s an offensive mastermind.
It’s difficult to really rely on stats or his career resume, because until the 2019 season arrived, he had been dealt a bad hand. In 2017, the 49ers started Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard at quarterback, going a combined 1-10 with those two quarterbacks before Jimmy Garoppolo arrived via trade and won the final five games of the season. Then, in 2018, Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3, forcing the 49ers to ride out the season with Beathard and Nick Mullens. As a result, Shanahan posted a 10-22 record in his first two seasons as an NFL head coach.
Finally, in 2019, we saw what Shanahan can do with a competent quarterback. With Garoppolo healthy, the 49ers posted a 13-3 record, waltzed their way through the NFC portion of the playoff bracket, and then came up a few minutes short of winning the Super Bowl. While some will undoubtedly be quick to note that this is the second Super Bowl lead Shanahan has blown (he was the offensive coordinator of the 28-3 Falcons), we probably shouldn’t blame Shanahan considering he drew up a game-winning touchdown that Garoppolo flat out missed. If Garoppolo hits that throw, Shanahan wins his first Super Bowl. Instead, Garoppolo missed and now Shanahan is dealing with questions about his ability to win big games.
That seems unfair. But even if you subscribe to the belief that Shanahan chokes in big moments, you can still acknowledge his greatness as an offensive play-caller while realizing that he’s a young coach. He’s only been a head coach for three seasons. He’s only had his quarterback of choice for one of those three seasons. Shanahan should continue to ascend up this list.
4. Saints‘ Sean Payton
After a three-year stretch of mediocrity that saw them win seven games per season from 2014-16, Sean Payton’s Saints have reclaimed their status as an elite NFL team with 37 wins over their past three seasons. If not for some awful luck in the postseason, they might’ve claimed another Super Bowl. Yet even without a second championship, Payton’s Saints remain one of the league’s top teams year in and year out, making Payton one of the league’s best coaches.
In his 13 seasons, he owns a 131-77 record, good enough for a 63.0 winning percentage. He’s made the playoffs eight times. He’s won a Super Bowl. His offenses are almost always good. In 11 of 13 seasons, the Saints have finished with a top-10 offense by points scored.
Payton is one more Super Bowl away from being talked about as one of the league’s best-ever coaches. Considering the Saints are almost always in the playoffs, where their luck has completely evaporated in recent seasons, they’re going to have a decent chance of doing so. But with Drew Brees nearing retirement, Payton is running out of time to get his second. Even if he doesn’t win another Super Bowl, Payton’s legacy as a great coach is already secure.
3. Ravens’ John Harbaugh
First, let’s review John Harbaugh’s resume, because it deserves praise. In his 12 seasons as the coach of the Ravens, he’s averaging 9.8 wins per season, has made the playoffs eight times, has won a Super Bowl, and just seized his first Coach of the Year award. But what solidified Harbaugh’s status as a top-three coach is his work over the past two seasons, specifically with Lamar Jackson.
First, Harbaugh made the switch from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson midway through last season. Despite their drastic difference in playing styles, the Ravens went 6-1 with Jackson at quarterback. Last offseason, the Ravens proceeded to make changes to their offense to cater it toward Jackson’s strengths. That might seem like an obvious thing to do, but in the NFL, it doesn’t always happen. Coaches are sometimes resistant to change. They’d prefer for their players fit their system rather than the tailoring the system around their players. Harbaugh, along with the rest of his coaching staff, built the perfect offense for Jackson’s undeniable talent, and was rewarded with an awesome 14-2 season that ended too soon in the playoffs. But with Jackson installed as the team’s long-term starter, the Ravens are set to build off that season and eventually take it a step further.
Harbaugh has also demonstrated a willingness to use analytics to make better in-game decisions. While many coaches in the NFL are resistant to change, Harbaugh has embraced change. The Ravens converted an NFL-high 17 fourth downs at an NFL-high success rate of 70.8 percent.
It’s Harbaugh’s willingness to evolve that makes me feel confident his placement on this list will age well. Not to mention, he’s going to be paired with Jackson for the next decade. The pair has already won 19 of its 22 regular-season games together. All that’s missing is success in January.
2. Chiefs‘ Andy Reid
Finally, Andy Reid got the reward his stellar career so thoroughly deserved. After going 130-93-1 with the Eagles for 14 years, but failing to capture a Lombardi Trophy, and after averaging nearly 11 wins per season in his first six years in charge of the Chiefs, Reid finally put it all together in his 21st season as an NFL head coach. In 2019, Reid’s Chiefs went 12-4 to push his record with the team to 77-35 (68.8 percent) before going on to win the Super Bowl. Reid’s resume is now complete. He’s won 61.8 percent of his games across his two coaching jobs. He’s seventh all-time in wins. He’s got his Super Bowl. And with Patrick Mahomes locked in as the team’s long-term starting quarterback, Reid is going to jump up the all-time wins leaderboard in the years to come and likely add more Lombardi Trophies to his cabinet.
It’s more than just the wins and now, playoff success. It’s also about how Reid’s teams win.
He’s the best offensive coach in the league. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that any team would be successful with Mahomes at quarterback, but it’s difficult to imagine another team having as much success with Mahomes that the Chiefs are enjoying through two full seasons. Together, Mahomes and Reid boast a near identical, but slightly better winning percentage (including the playoffs) than Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s winning percentage together. Without Reid, it’s impossible to imagine Mahomes becoming the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000-plus yards and 50-plus touchdowns in a single season in his first-ever season as an NFL starting quarterback. And let’s not forget that Reid enjoyed plenty of success with a game-manager type of quarterback in Alex Smith. He’s managed to win games with someone like Matt Moore as recently as this past season. There’s a reason Reid’s teams are almost always stellar on offense. It’s not always the quarterbacks. But it is always the coach. In Reid’s 21 seasons as a coach, his offenses have finished in the top 10 in points 13 times.
if Belichick retires before Reid, he’ll be replaced atop this list by Reid.
1. Patriots’ Bill Belichick
The undisputed best coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick, is also arguably the greatest coach in the history of the sport. Heading into his 21st season in charge of the Patriots, Belichick has won an astonishing 74.1 percent of his regular-season games with the team. He’s averaging 11.9 wins per season. He’s been to the playoffs in 17 of those 20 seasons, posting a 30-11 record in the postseason, good enough for a 73.2 winning percentage. He’s been to nine Super Bowls — again in 20 seasons. He’s won six Super Bowls — the most in NFL history. Heck, even before he arrived in New England, he managed to take the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs. He even won a playoff game in Cleveland. The Browns haven’t won a playoff game since.
Nobody should be questioning Belichick’s position atop this list. His greatness is undeniable.
That said, he is facing arguably the biggest challenge of his coaching career. With Tom Brady having departed New England for Tampa Bay in free agency, Belichick is going to be forced to win games without arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. But the evidence suggests Belichick will be able to overcome Brady’s departure. He’s won plenty without Brady before. In 2008, the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel after Brady tore his ACL in Week 1. In 2016, when Brady was suspended for the first four games, the Patriots went 3-1 with their second and third-string quarterbacks. If anyone can survive Brady’s departure, it’s Belichick, who is constantly at the forefront of innovation and has always demonstrated a willingness to adapt and an eagerness to mold a team around its strengths, no matter what they may be.
Regardless of how the 2020 season unfolds for the Patriots, Belichick will remain atop this list until he retires.