By Don Banks | Jan. 4, 2019
With just 30 days away from Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, a few items to consider on the NFL playoff coaching front:
Bad News for Bears?
Though the balloting might be a bit closer than expected, the consensus favorite for the NFL’s Coach of the Year honor, as selected by the Associated Press’ panel of voters, appears to be Chicago’s Matt Nagy (balloting was conducted earlier this week). The Bears’ bold and creative rookie coach took his club on a worst-to-first ride, going 12-4 and winning the NFC North by a comfortable three-and-a-half games over second-place Minnesota.
It made for Chicago’s first playoff season since 2010, and rejuvenated a fan base that was in the midst of its longest postseason drought since the Bears went 13 years between trips, from 1964-76. All of which bodes very poorly indeed for No. 3-seeded Chicago’s chances this weekend at home against sixth-seeded Philadelphia in the first round of the NFL playoffs. Even if Nagy’s club is favored by six points.
Why is there reason to beware, Bears fans? Well, because one of the most dominant trends in the league in the past 10 seasons is to have the eventual NFL Coach of the Year winner lose in his playoff opener that season. It has happened a stunning eight times in the past decade (80 percent) — even to the likes of the great Bill Belichick, the Wizard of Foxboro.
• In 2017, the Rams’ Sean McVay won the award, but No. 3-seeded Los Angeles lost in the first round at home to sixth-seeded Atlanta.
• In 2016, the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett took the honor, but No. 1 Dallas fell at home to fourth-seeded Green Bay in its divisional round opener.
• In 2014, the Cardinals’ Bruce Arians was Coach of the Year, but fifth-seeded Arizona lost at fourth-seeded Carolina in the first round.
• In 2013, the Panthers’ Ron Rivera won, but his No. 2-seeded Carolina club lost at home to fifth-seeded San Francisco in its divisional round opener.
• In 2012, Arians won for the job of leading the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs as a 12-game interim coach while Chuck Pagano battled leukemia, but the No. 5 Colts lost in the first round at fourth-seeded Baltimore. (A side note: Pagano had returned to the team by then, but offensive coordinator Arians missed the playoff matchup, taking ill and being hospitalized in Baltimore the morning of the game.)
• In 2010, the Patriots’ Belichick won Coach of the Year with his 14-2 team, but No. 1 seeded New England was upset at home by Rex Ryan’s sixth-seeded Jets in the divisional round.
• In 2009, the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis copped the honor, but Cincinnati never wins playoff games, and the No. 4 seeded Bengals lost at home to the No. 5 Jets in the first round.
• And in 2008, the Falcons’ Mike Smith took home the award for leading Atlanta to the playoffs in his rookie season, but the fifth-seeded Birds lost at fourth-seeded Arizona in the first round.
That’s eight Coach of the Year winners losing in their playoff openers in the past 10 seasons. The only exceptions being San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh in 2011, who led his No. 2-seeded 49ers to one playoff win, before falling at home to the No. 4 New York Giants in overtime in the NFC title game, and repeat-winner Rivera in 2015, who took No. 1 Carolina (15-1) all the way to the Super Bowl that season, but lost that game by two touchdowns to top-seeded Denver.
At the very least, that portends the Bears probably aren’t winning the Super Bowl this season, presuming Nagy’s victory as Coach of the Year. The last coach to claim the honor and win it all in the same season was Belichick in 2003, whose dynasty-in-the-making Patriots that year earned their second Lombardi Trophy by besting Carolina by three points in Houston. Belichick is the only coach this century to turn that trick, although Dick Vermeil and the 1999 St. Louis Rams managed it as well in the past two decades.
Old vs. New
This weekend’s four games offer nice balance on the coaching front. There will be three Super Bowl-winning head coaches at work in the first round, and three playoff coaching novices. Seattle’s Pete Carroll, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson already own rings, with Carroll making back-to-back Super Bowl trips with his 2013-14 Seahawks.
On the other spectrum, Indianapolis’ Frank Reich, the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn and Chicago’s Nagy will be making their head coaching playoff debuts. And then there are the two coaches from Texas: the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett and Houston’s Bill O’Brien. Both are making their third playoff trip with their respective clubs, with matching 1-2 career postseason records to show for it.
Every matchup in the first round, except for one, offers an experienced coach versus newcomer angle. Reich is coaching against O’Brien in Houston. Lynn is going up against Harbaugh in Baltimore. And Nagy will take on the defending champion Eagles and Pederson in Chicago. Only the Carroll-Garrett coaching pairing in Dallas will feature a game where both men own playoff experience.
Looking at the larger 12-team playoff field as a whole, adding the threesome of New Orleans’ Sean Payton, Kansas City’s Andy Reid and Belichick to the mix in next week’s divisional round brings a ton of playoff been-there, done-that. That’s an impressive 10 Super Bowl trips and 38 playoff berths represented, with Belichick logging eight of those Super Bowls to go with one each for Payton and Reid.
Depending on outcomes, we have a chance to have an eye-popping five Super Bowl winning coaches working next weekend, perhaps matching wits with some of the best young coaching minds in the game, such as the Rams’ Sean McVay, Reich, Lynn and/or Nagy.