There are fewer great NFL coaches than you may think, and beyond a certain hoodie-wearing curmudgeon in Foxboro, ranking the top ones is a tricky proposition. Being an NFL head coach is an endlessly complex endeavor, filled with all sorts of high-level decision making, and the NFL is an environment that stifles creativity and individuality. Beyond Belichick, even the best of the best still have major flaws as head coaches. Still, there are a few head men who have found consistent success, either through traditional or more outside-the-box means.
Here are the best ten:
10. Sean Payton – New Orleans Saints
The Saints have a consistently mediocre record under Payton, but they’ve never finished worse than 7-9 with him at the helm. He’s lead the Saints to five playoff appearances in his ten seasons as head coach, including a monumental Super Bowl win in 2009 (without which he wouldn’t be on this list). In a division featuring tough teams like the Falcons and Panthers, the Saints continue to be in the mix every season for a division title.
Payton’s star has fallen a little bit in recent seasons, but there is no doubt he’s still among one of the most talented offensive minds in the NFL today. If he can commit to the defensive side of the ball and bring a talented coordinator to be their “Head Coach” for the ageless Drew Brees’s last few years, Payton could have a career resurgence that would vault him up this list and possibly one day to the Hall of Fame. Otherwise, expect his star to continue diminishing the further and further he gets away from his one moment of glory.
9. Dan Quinn – Atlanta Falcons
A highly respected defensive mind from his time with the Seahawks, Quinn was able to blow all expectations out of the water last season by taking his Falcons to the Super Bowl. After suffering a major collapse in 2015, the Falcons were able to bounce back in a big way and be far and away the best team in the NFC in 2016.
While a large portion of the offense’s success can be tied to Kyle Shanahan’s efforts as offensive coordinator, Quinn helped turn this team around quickly following the firing of former head coach Mike Smith. At only 46 years old, Quinn has a very bright future ahead of him as an NFL head coach. It is hard to imagine him not returning to the Super Bowl at some point, and if it weren’t for some shaky coaching down the stretch in February against the Patriots, he would already have a ring on his finger.
8. Mike Zimmer – Minnesota Vikings
Unfortunately for Zimmer, his eye issues seem to get more attention than his actual success as a head coach. While the Vikings didn’t make the playoffs last season with an 8-8 record, that end result was much more impressive than what it looked like on paper. Zimmer lost both his starting quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) and his star running back (Adrian Peterson) early in the season, and his Vikings squad still exceeded all expectations in 2016. During the previous season, when his team was actually healthy, they went 11-5 and would’ve won a playoff game if not for a last-second missed chip shot field goal by Blair Walsh.
A tough head coach who manages to get every last bit of effort from his teams, Zimmer is an old-school coach who paid his dues as a defensive coordinator in Cincinnati (among other places) for years before getting a shot. While he hasn’t reached the same lofty heights as some others on this list, he has gotten as much out of his talent as anyone the last few years, and with the current state of coaching in the league, he already finds himself among the best.
7. Andy Reid – Kansas City Chiefs
While Reid has never won a Super Bowl, he has 11 double-digit win seasons and 12 playoff appearances in 18 seasons as a head coach between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chiefs. What might be even more impressive is that he only has three losing seasons. Kansas City has four straight winning seasons and three double-digit seasons while making the playoffs three of his four years.
Reid is an offensive coach, but his teams have always been competitive defensively, probably because he has never been opposed to having a strong-willed defensive coordinator. Still, there are reasons he isn’t in the top five despite all the sustained success. Reid’s playoff record is a measly 11-12, and his teams have always tended to be closer to good than great. He is also the worst situational game manager of any longtime coach in the league. Over the years, his teams have consistently blown two-minute situations because Reid can’t manage timeouts or the clock. And yes, this stuff matters. The closest he ever got to the promised land as a head coach was the Super Bowl, where faced with a possible long-shot comeback, the Eagles inexplicably took tons of time off the clock, killing their chances.
6. Bruce Arians – Arizona Cardinals
A two-time NFL Coach of the Year, Arians has led Arizona to three double-digit win seasons and two playoff appearances in his four seasons in the NFL. Before his time with the Cardinals, Arians was a very successful offensive coordinator and even won Coach of the Year with the Colts as an intern in 2012.
Even last year, which looked like a disappointment from the outside, was a pretty good coaching job, considering their injuries on defense and Carson Palmer’s age. Arians clearly has a connection with the players, as evidenced by his star turn on Amazon’s All or Nothing last year. The connection seems rooted in Arians’ ability to connect with young African American players, many of whom have had to overcome great adversity (both external and internal) to get where they are.
It will take a late-career, post-Palmer run to elevate Arians even higher on this list.
5. John Harbaugh – Baltimore Ravens
While his Ravens have only been to the playoffs once in the past four seasons, it does not fully reflect the ability of Harbaugh as a head coach. His Ravens have won at least ten games in five of his nine seasons coaching the team and they have only finished below .500 once. More importantly, they are 10-5 in the playoffs (including a few late losses to New England where the Ravens were the better team), including a Super Bowl win in 2013.
The biggest knock on Harbaugh is that his teams don’t show up against inferior regular season competition the way they do in the playoffs, but with a below-average Joe-Flacco-led offense the past few seasons and no decent run game to help, Harbaugh has generally found a way to keep his teams competitive. They do this by being tough as nails on defense. I promise you: No Patriots fan ever wants to face the Ravens in January, no matter how badly they struggled during the regular season.
For what it’s worth, if Jim Harbaugh had stayed in the NFL (he had no business ever being fired for what he did for the 49ers), he would probably be top three on this list.
4. Mike McCarthy – Green Bay Packers
Mike McCarthy is clearly a brilliant offensive mind. As far as the design and execution of offensive football goes, there aren’t many better. As a head coach, I’m a little more skeptical, although his results speak for themselves. Finishing up his 11th season with Green Bay, the Packers have made the playoffs eight straight times. In a tough division like the NFC North with the Lions, Vikings and even the Bears at times, McCarthy has kept his Packers in the mix every season. He also has a Super Bowl title, winning it all over the Steelers in 2011.
Still, there are clear, definite weaknesses, game management and commitment to defense being the two biggest. McCarthy is a little like a mix between Andy Reid and Sean Payton. Like Payton, he neglects defense in favor of offense and has a Hall-of-Fame quarterback, and like Reid, he manages the game terribly and consistently coaches his team out of close games. There is also a feeling that with Aaron Rodgers, making the playoffs is the minimum, and what really matters is playoff success. McCarthy’s career playoff record is 10-8. Good, but not great. Still, Rodgers gives you a chance every year and with at least five more good years left, McCarthy may end up in the Hall of Fame.
3. Mike Tomlin – Pittsburgh Steelers
Since being named Steelers head coach in 2007 at only age 35, Tomlin has made his team a constant playoff contender. He has led Pittsburgh to seven playoff appearances in ten seasons and has two Super Bowl appearances (and one title) to his name. His teams are almost always physically and mentally tough, competing on both sides of the ball. He helped with the turn-around of Le’Veon Bell into the best running back in the league after a tumultuous rookie season and turned a sixth-round pick into the best wide receiver in the league in Antonio Brown.
Tomlin’s style is distinctively old-school. He believes in toughness and execution, not necessarily X’s and O’s wizardry. While this strategy has resulted in some embarrassing playoff outings over the years where he (and Dick LeBeau) were badly out-coached, those games were usually against the Patriots and Belichick, and under his leadership, the Steelers have become the second-best team in the AFC over the last handful of years.
2. Pete Carroll – Seattle Seahawks
While Patriots and Jets fans older than 25 still do a double-take seeing him on this list, there is no denying that Carroll has risen to the coaching elite since taking over the Seahawks in 2010. He is coming off his fifth straight double-digit win season. With two Super Bowl appearances (and one victory), since 2014 the Seahawks have become the class of the NFC, and Carroll is almost certainly the individual most responsible for that.
He was gutsy enough to pick Russell Wilson over a newly signed Matt Flynn as a rookie and then transformed him from a third-round undersized quarterback to an elite signal-caller. His fingerprints are all over the Seahawks’ dominant defense. This isn’t a hands-off coach who got lucky because he just happened to coach a bunch of defensive talent. Carroll has always been a visionary defensive coach, especially in the secondary. His philosophy of having a big physical secondary and smaller, faster front-seven players – giving the defense a feeling of all the players being around the same size – is a perfect fit for the modern NFL.
Carroll was also instrumental in selecting those players, precisely because they fit his defense. Michael Bennett was an undrafted free agent and Richard Sherman was a fifth-round pick, so we aren’t talking obvious calls here. Both are still great, and if they give Pete Carroll another Super Bowl title, given his success at USC, he will be thought of as the premier college/pro crossover success story ever. Impressive for a guy who inexplicably gave away a Super Bowl by deciding to pass the ball on the goal line against the Patriots..
1. Bill Belichick – New England Patriots
As if there was ever any doubt, Belichick tops the list as the standalone top head coach in the league. Fresh off his fifth Super Bowl championship with the New England Patriots, he is far from done. In his 17 seasons with New England, he has finished with double-digit victories 15 times. The Patriots have won 14 AFC East titles and have appeared in 11 AFC Championship games. His record more than speaks for itself.