Week Seventeen: Sean McDermott (Bills at Dolphins)
There was early criticism of Buffalo Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott when he was first given the reigns. Many thought it was a move that indicated a transition or rebuild. Others questioned if his philosophy was compatible with a team that had been built by and played under Rex Ryan. Almost 10 months from now, Bills fans aren’t worried about any of that, they’re preparing for something they haven’t seen in 17 seasons.
There was a lot of chatter regarding McDermott’s 4-3 zone system compared to Ryan’s 3-4 hybrid man system, and the growing pains that would come along with switching systems and playing without a clear starting quarterback. The stats don’t look pretty, but that should attest to McDermott’s coaching. Somehow, someway, and with a little miracle from their friends in Cincinnati, he guided his team to eight wins and a playoff berth.
Going into pre-season, everyone expected the Patriots to claim the AFC East. That left the Bills two spots to end their playoff drought. But with the resurgent Jacksonville Jaguars, and threats like Tennessee, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, hopes looked narrow for Bills fans. Especially after hiring a new coach, and clouds of criticism circulating around him.
That didn’t bother McDermott nor his team. They went out there and won the games they should win, and that’s all anyone can ask for. If it weren’t for Sean McVay and arguably Doug Marrone, Sean McDermott would be a leading candidate for rookie head coach of the year.
Week Fifteen: Mike Zimmer (Bengals @ Vikings)
Mike Zimmer is this week’s Top Dog because he’s built a real program in Minnesota. Every head coach, of course, wants to build a winning team for the season, but you know you’ve arrived when you’ve built a team that can win in every season. And that’s what Zimmer has constructed.
Zimmer has built a team that can win inside and outside. It can score with any team, and it’s defense is as dominant as any other team. He has experienced coaches – OC Pat Shurmur is a former head coach who may get a second chance in 2018, and former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano has rebuilt the offensive line. And he’s nurturing rising young assistants, anonymous now, but you’ll be hearing about coaches such as QB coach Kevin Stefanski and assistant WR coach Drew Petzing in years to come.
Zimmer also has done an impressive job managing much adversity, including his own (numerous eye surgeries). He’s lost key players to knee injuries (Adrian Peterson, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook), and yet, the program he’s building continues to get better. That’s evidenced by the Vikings’ consistent play and growing resilience. In Week 14, they fell behind by two possessions late in the game at Carolina. Past Vikings teams weren’t built to overcome or challenge that kind of situation, but not anymore. The Vikings fought back, and while they eventually lost the game, they put the game in jeopardy for the Panthers.
Zimmer’s taken the Vikings to new heights, and with a lot of rising young players on the roster (e.g., Stefon Diggs, Anthony Barr, Adam Barr, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes), he’s created expectations. It’s been a long time since there were real expectations of the Vikings, but 2017 could be the year the Vikings claim that elusive Super Bowl title.
Week Fourteen: Anthony Lynn (Redskins @ Chargers)
Chargers Head Coach Anthony Lynn had a very bad start to his rookie year as a head coach – four consecutive losses, three straight at home, and several in ugly fashion. He seemed overwhelmed, and his game management skills needed a lot of work.
This is what we wrote in Week 1 when Lynn’s Chargers faced the Broncos: “Chargers head coach, Anthony Lynn, also had difficulty with clock management, burning two time outs in the first quarter, one on a questionable challenge. For their most critical drive of the game – the last drive – the Chargers had only one time out available.”
In Week 3, the Chargers played hard but lost at home to Kansas City 24-10, and Lynn had another rough time managing the game. But we also saw some positive developments. We wrote “Chargers rookie Head Coach Anthony Lynn has his team playing hard for him, and while he still is winless, their record can and will turn around. However, in order to help himself, he will have to improve his clock management. In this game, he burned one timeout with a very questionable challenge call, and while trying to make a defensive stop near the end of the game, his use of a timeout in conjunction with a looming 2:00 minute warning also was questionable.”
By Week 7, we were proved prescient. The Chargers beat the Broncos 21-0, and we wrote that coach Lynn was “improving.”
In Week 14, the “positive developments” that we saw start to emerge in Week 3, fully blossomed. The Chargers dominated the game against the Redskins from start to finish. It was a complete win – as good a performance as we’ve seen from the Chargers in quite a while. Every player seems to know their role, they have an identity in all three phases, and they’re winning with a lot of young players making key contributions.
The Chargers now have a swagger, and that is a credit to Coach Lynn. To start a season 0-4, with three of the losses at home, is as demoralizing as it gets. A pro football locker room can devolve quickly into a cesspool of finger-pointing and media leaks. So it takes a strong and steady leader to keep working as well as keep the peace. This type of skill goes far beyond X’s and O’s – this is about poise, confidence, and belief.
Anthony Lynn has shown all of that. Saturday, his team plays for the division lead. And because of the complete game his team played in Week 14, he is this week’s Top Dog.
Week Thirteen: Kyle Shanahan (49ers @ Bears)
We know that Kyle Shanahan’s record was only 1-10 entering this game, but he’s done a very good job managing games all year and making the 49ers a tough out. He had a bit of a rocky start with his game management early, but since, it’s been solid.
Actually, Shanahan is exactly why we do what we do here at Headcoachranking.com; his work this year illustrates the proposition that a coach actually can be doing a good job, even though the win-loss record doesn’t reflect that. Shanahan has a very young squad, a slew of injuries to front line players, and in this game, he was breaking in a QB who just joined the team – and his offensive system – only four weeks ago.
Nevertheless, he managed this game expertly. While the Bears struggle to score points, they have a better than average defense, and at home, they’ve been a tough team to deal with in 2017.
The Bears led the majority of this game, and since the 49ers lack any real redzone threat at the WR and TE positions, the Niners had to settle for one, then two, then three, and ultimately four FGs. Shanahan had to be frustrated, but he didn’t show it, and he banked on the fact that the Bears wouldn’t score enough points to pull away in any event.
His patience paid off. Trailing 14-12, the 49ers started a drive inside their own 10 with just over five minutes to go in the game – a great situation to see what you’re made of as a playcaller. Not only did Shanahan mix up the calls well, but QB Jimmy Garoppolo looked prepared – a credit to Shanahan and his QB coach Rich Scangarello.
The 49ers not only moved into position for a game winning FG, but they also worked the clock so that the Bears wouldn’t have the opportunity to run anymore offensive plays.
It was only the second win of the season for the 49ers, but one can feel that Shanahan is going to build a real program in San Francisco. His team has played hard all year, his staff has coached backup players well enough to continue to compete better than their personnel allows, and his game management skills are sound. Kyle Shanahan’s second win of his head coaching career makes him Week 13’s Top Dog.
Week Twelve: Sean McVay (Saints at Rams)
Rams Head Coach Sean McVay is doing such a good job that we are well past talking about their ‘potential’ – the Rams are here now, and they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender because McVay continues to perform well. And we don’t even want to mention his age, because, well, it’s irrelevant. He’s simply a very good coach, and on the way to showing he’s a great coach.
This was the marquee game of the week, with McVay matching wits against another of the NFL’s best in Saints Head Coach Sean Payton, and McVay came out firing.
On offense, the Rams’ tempo was terrific all day long. Not only did McVay vary formations, but he varied the tempo, which is hard to do with such a young QB in Jared Goff. He made sure to get young players such as backup WR Josh Reynolds involved early. The Rams scored on their first possession, and never looked back as McVay went right at the Saints’ backup corners repeatedly.
The Rams defense gave a stellar performance as well. McVay yields completely to DC Wade Phillips, and wisely so. With good offensive and defensive units, Rams practices certainly must elevate the focus and quality of the entire squad.
The Rams wisely retained Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel when they hired McVay. Their return units, punter, and kicker all contributed to this win.
When you watch a Rams game, you see a tight operation. When they play, you don’t see a lot of “loose threads” (wasted time outs, bad penalties in key situations, wasted special teams opportunities in flipping field position, etc.) It’s a mark of a well-coached team. Even in their loss at Minnesota the previous week, the Rams did not play well, but they still pushed the Vikings hard.
This is a team that will contend consistently. They’ve been among the most fortunate teams in the league on the injury front this season, but that isn’t the primary reason they’re good. The primary reason is Sean McVay, Week 12’s Top Dog.
Week Eleven: Ben McAdoo (Chiefs @ Giants)
It was an ugly win for Ben McAdoo, Giants Head Coach, but the standings don’t care about style points. McAdoo is Week 11’s Top Dog because of what he’s had to deal with over the last couple weeks. His situation is a good example of what a head coach has to deal with well before he even steps onto the field to coach a game.
Over the last couple of weeks, McAdoo has had to deal with the questions surrounding not only his job security, but also those surrounding his relationship with Giants players; namely, do they still want to play for him and put out effort in what already is a lost season?
And all of this is occurring within the New York media bubble, which is essentially, national in nature. It’s one of the decided disadvantages of the Giants job – a lot of emotional and mental energy has to be spent on the large media contingent there. An NFL season is a long grind, and being able to store or conserve that kind of energy is critical to success. It’s not just about the Xs and Os.
It was against this backdrop that McAdoo had to prepare for a Kansas City team coming off a bye, and a head coach in Andy Reid who has as good a record as any coach over the last 20 years in post-bye week performance.
Not many prognosticators chose the Giants to win this game, and it’s quite likely some beat writers had a pre-packaged story about another Giants loss ready to go.
But McAdoo’s team surprised most observers, and they won the game. Again, it was not aesthetically pleasing, but we’re pretty sure the postgame Giants locker room didn’t care how it looked.
So Ben McAdoo is this week’s Top Dog. He showed that often, it’s about the head coach’s skill in showing poise in the midst of chaos. McAdoo is a young head coach, and while he’s made a lot of mistakes, his steadiness for this one week resulted in a much needed win.
Week Ten: Bill Belichick (Patriots at Broncos)
It’s incredibly rare to watch an NFL game and see everything play out as a head coach expects it to – offense, defense and special teams. Usually, each unit will suffer multiple breakdowns during a game, and of course, during individual plays. It’s the kind of stuff to leads to a lot of frustration for the typical NFL fan.
In every game, every head coach knows the following situations will occur: a key 3rd down defensive stop, converting a key 3rd down on offense, a perfectly placed pooch punt, causing a momentum changing special teams play, running a 4-minute offense to burn clock, etc. When all of these plays go your way, you’re looking at a nice “W” at the end of the day, generally speaking.
On Sunday night against the Broncos, the Patriots played perfect situational football, and just as importantly, complementary football. Each unit of their team delivered in every key moment. For example, the Broncos defense caused a nice three and out on the opening drive, and the Bronco fans were loud and delirious. What did the Patriots do on the ensuing punt? Nicely recovered a muff. In turn, the offense came on the field and immediately converted that turnover for a TD and a quick, crowd-silencing 7-0 lead.
The rest of the game played out this way. The Patriots even came out of the game with only one penalty – a hard thing to do when you’re playing at a loud, tough road venue.
We’re sure Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick will find a lot of nits to pick with his team; it’s just what he does. But in that process, there also is going to be a lot of satisfaction while he’s doing it.
Whether you’re a fan of this particular team or not, watching good football is something to appreciate. Bill Belichick is Week 10’s Top Dog of the Week.
Week Nine: Bruce Arians (Cardinals @ 49ers)
The Cardinals came into this game with a record of 3-4, and if they’re going to do anything this season, a win against the 49ers would be critical.
But whenever you’re playing a winless team, strange things can happen if you’re not careful (see Giants at Broncos earlier this season). So it’s incumbent upon any head coach to work against every head coach’s nemesis: complacency.
Arians was playing down two of his very best players, QB Carson Palmer and RB David Johnson, but every team has that issue, and it’s up to every head coach to simply adjust and do the best they can with whatever they have. And in this game, Arians did just that.
Arians didn’t get cute in this game, which is what we appreciated about his work this week. There were two facts about this game that favored Arians. First, both teams were playing with a backup quarterback, only his wasn’t a rookie playing behind a banged up offensive line. Second, he had just acquired a Hall of Fame caliber running back in Adrian Peterson.
So what did Arians do? He blitzed the heck out of 49ers QB CJ Beathard (who actually hung in there very admirably), and he fed the ball to Peterson for 37 carries, a career-high for him. This was a good example of not overcoaching – which strangely is hard to do in today’s NFL.
Arians walked out of Levi’s Stadium with a 20-10 win, the Cardinals are 4-4, and have a chance to go over .500 with a Thursday night victory at home over the Seahawks. Bruce Arians, HCR’s Top Dog for Week 9.
Week Eight: Pete Carroll (Texans @ Seahawks)
The Seahawks won an offensive shootout against the league’s brightest young star, Texans QB DeShaun Watson. In what may have been the most entertaining game of the season thus far, fans were able to see the amazing skills of Watson, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, Texans DE Jadeveon Clowney, and Seahawks S Earl Thomas.
But was it great football? One could (rightfully) argue that defensively, it was awful football – a 41-38 score clearly indicates a defensive disaster.
Offensively, it wasn’t much better. That seems a bit counter-intuitive given all the points scored, but from a coaching standpoint, much rested on the athleticism of the players and defensive breakdowns. For example, Seattle simply can’t protect its quarterback. And if you can’t protect your quarterback, you’re really not playing great offensive football. Russell Wilson simply is so gifted that he is able to overcome Seattle’s offensive line struggles pass protecting and run blocking. And then there’s Seattle WR Paul Richardson, whose ability to win 50-50 balls is elite.
So if the Seahawks really didn’t perform that well offensively or defensively – or at least not up to their standards – why is Pete Carroll this week’s Top Dog?
Because Pete Carroll is great at the one thing that every head coach strives for – the ability to create a relentlessly positive culture for his players’ self-belief to blossom.
There may not be anybody better in the entire league.
Carroll constantly works on creating, expanding, and maintaining a “can-do” attitude with everyone in the entire organization. It’s his calling card (on top of being an excellent defensive coach), and he is consistent with it. So when the Seahawks needed to drive the field in barely over a minute with no timeouts, his staff and his players didn’t flinch – they knew they could do it. Carroll has created a culture where self-doubt is eliminated, and that translates into spirited play. Which translates into W’s.
Week Seven: Bill Belichick (Falcons @ Patriots)
Coaching an NFL team to do exactly what you want it do is hard work. There are 3 phases, of course, offense, defense, and special teams, and no matter how well you might fine tune and control your own work, there’s another coach on the opposite sideline scheming to ruin your day.
That’s probably the hardest part of the job; trying to anticipate precisely how the opposing coach is going to ruin your day.
In this game, Bill Belichick and his staff did a masterful job. Particularly so given a week of hype about “Super Bowl Rematch” and revenge narratives. This is a team that has had a target on its back going on 17 years now – they’re the regular season Super Bowl for every team – so working to train a team’s focus on the game at hand and not the external distractions is quite a skill.
Notwithstanding the Falcons’ recent offensive struggles, this was a dominating performance by the Patriots. Every phase of their game worked, and worked exactly the way they wanted it to work. It’s a rare thing to see in any NFL season, and it is something to be appreciated.
Special Teams. The Patriots had the ball first to open the game, and were forced to punt. The Falcons mounted a good first drive, that resulted in a relatively short FG attempt. This was a good sequence for the Falcons to assert some early control over the game. Their defense did its job on the opening drive – quelling the enthusiasm of a loud home crowd – and the offense did a good job of getting in scoring position. All the Falcons had to do now was convert a short FG with a reliable veteran kicker. Belichick had other thoughts. Recently acquired DE Cassius Marsh sliced through the Falcons’ line and blocked the FG attempt. Now it’s still 0-0 and momentum had swung back to the Patriots.
Offense. After the FG block, the Patriots offense took the ball for its second possession. After fizzling on drive number one, and seeing its special teams unit make a play, a three and out is not something that is to be tolerated if you’re a team with high standards. The Patriots offense furthered the momentum swing of the blocked FG with a nice drive culminating in a TD and 7-0 lead.
Defense. Near the end of the first half, with the Patriots leading 10-0, the Falcons had a nice drive going that stalled; the Falcons now faced a 4th and 6 at the Patriots’ 47-yard line. The Falcons, inexplicably, decided to go for it. If the Patriots defense could make a stop, their offense would get the ball near midfield with three timeouts left and nearly two minutes on the clock. The Patriots defense followed through with a stop, the offense came on the field and converted for a TD and what felt like an insurmountable 17-0 lead.
Belichick’s team completely controlled this game – start to finish, and play to play. There weren’t any lapses. It’s not something we see often, and since we did in this game, Bill Belichick is this week’s Top Dog.
Week Six: Doug Pederson (Eagles @ Panthers)
The Eagles now are one of the NFL’s best teams – quite an achievement in only Doug Pederson’s second year. And while he has been the beneficiary of excellent front office help (GM Howie Roseman pulling off the draft day trade that netted QB Carson Wentz) and experienced coaching help (former head coach and DC Jim Schwartz), it’s Pederson’s temperament that guides the entire enterprise.
As a player, Pederson was a popular teammate. Supportive and smart, and that is exactly what he brings to this team, especially rising star QB Wentz. Along with former Bills QB and OC Frank Reich (who also is very well liked around the league), the two have created a positive and comforting environment for Wentz to blossom. And it’s worked.
We do have our reservations of Pederson’s use of analytics personnel talking into his headset with respect to situations like 4th down calls (we still don’t agree with a 4th and 8 decision near midfield in an earlier game), but it’s his prerogative as head coach, and he’s stated publicly, every decision ultimately is his on game day.
This was a good measuring stick game for the Eagles and Pederson, as the Panthers are a physical and confident bunch, and QB Cam Newton’s game was on the rise. And a Thursday night road game really tests the game day acumen of any staff.
But Pederson’s team came through with flying colors. All phases played well in this game – which well could be a turning point game in their season. Not only because of the separation the Eagles now have in the W-L column in their division, but in the development of a winning culture – one that is contingent upon players believing and trusting in one another and their coaches. This game was an important validation for Pederson, and for that, he is our Week 6 Top Dog.
Week Five: Anthony Lynn (Chargers @ Giants)
It’s still way too early to make a firm determination as to whether Anthony Lynn will be a successful, long term head coach, but there are two things we’ve noticed about him that we like. First, his teams play hard for him and second, he’s a classy guy – even with a tough 0-4 start and close losses on top of that, he hasn’t lost his cool.
Coming into this game, his Chargers were 0-4, facing a long east coast trip against a desperate 0-4 home team. Not to mention that back home in Los Angeles, their small fan base was dwindling fast.
If Anthony Lynn loses this game, he’s facing a long flight home with an 0-5 team and no fan base. And 11 more games left on the schedule. Nothing about that would be considered attractive.
As if things weren’t bad enough, his Chargers start the game by giving up a safety and fall behind 9-0 after the first quarter. If the team lacked fight or poise, it certainly was going to expose itself now. And if a team lacks those things, that is a direct reflection of the head coach.
Well, Anthony Lynn’s team fought back, ultimately winning a close game. Lynn still has much room for improvement as a head coach (e.g., clock management), but his ability to keep a team together and fighting hard for him gives us hope for him – and the fan base.
Anthony Lynn is Week 5’s Top Dog. Well done Coach Lynn.
Week Four: Sean McDermott (Falcons @ Bills)
Every year, a lot of ink is spilled by sportswriters and “insiders” making predictions about the upcoming season. And if there was one nearly unanimous prediction, it was this one: The Bills will be in for a long, bad season. Some even went so far as to say the organization was ‘tanking’ for the overall #1 pick in the 2018 draft. And after watching many former key players leave the team (Sammie Watkins, Robert Woods, Stephon Gilmore, etc.), many of their fans had to be thinking the same thing.
And when this game showed up on the schedule, prognosticators were circling the letter “L” next to the Bills’ name.
Well, perhaps those predicting the Bills’ demise may be right after 16 games are played, but so far after 4, Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott is proving he knows his team better than most.
McDermott has his team playing hard-nosed, disciplined football, and exhibiting the hallmarks of a well-coached team. Can it finish strong? Yes, the Bills outscored the Falcons in the 2nd half. Can it come from behind? Yes, the Falcons led at the half. Does it have an identity and stay true to that identity? Yes, it’s a team that knows it isn’t going to throw it 40 times and that LeSean McCoy is its best offensive player, and that he should get the ball (he rushed 20 times and caught 3 passes). Can it play defense? Yes, the Bills haven’t given up a passing TD all year and caused 3 turnovers in this game.
McDermott now has consecutive wins against two Super Bowl contenders in the Broncos and Falcons. His team is playing with high energy, and most importantly, belief. That is one of the primary job responsibilities of a good head coach: instilling the belief it is prepared to win.
McDermott is doing that. Which means he might not be one who reads preseason predictions, but he is our Top Dog of the Week.
Week Three: Sean Payton (Saints @ Panthers)
After starting another season 0-2, and three straight 7-9 seasons, people were starting to murmur the words “hot seat” around Sean Payton, even though he is regarded as possibly the most gifted offensive playcaller in the game.
This matchup against the Panthers was made even more challenging considering a long trip to London was on deck – the prospect of a long flight with an 0-3 team simply isn’t attractive for any head coach.
Pile on top of this the opinion of many feeling that the Panthers are a deeper and more experienced team, and were playing with a lot of confidence on defense – they’d given up a total of 6 points in the previous two games – Payton certainly had a tough task this week.
This game would be a stern test for any head coach. The bottom line: the murmurs were only going to become shouts, or they were going to fade into the distance.
Payton and his staff didn’t disappoint Saints fans. They won, but it was how they won that breathed new life into their season. They dominated the Panthers, showing focus, preparation, and discipline (the Saints still haven’t committed a turnover this season). Better yet for Saints fans, they controlled the game and its outcome. All in all, a satisfying divisional road win for the Saints.
Now the Saints go to London to face a squad perhaps just as desperate as they were – the Dolphins. But for Week Three, Sean Payton is our Top Dog.
Week Two: Jim Caldwell (Lions @ Giants)
The Lions’ 24-10 road win was as complete a win as the Lions have had in a long time. The team played complementary football, all three phases excelled, and multiple players, young and veteran, contributed.
Jim Caldwell sometimes receives criticism for appearing either stoic or unaware. Like many coaches, however, trying to judge someone off of their physical appearance or behavior is a mistake. All we can look at is the end result, and in this case, Jim Caldwell had his team playing well against a motivated and talented Giants team.
Let’s start with the offensive game plan. The Lions have struggled to run the ball for a long time, and the Giants have a stout front – Damon Harrison is one of the very best run stuffers in football. But the Lions were determined to stay patient with the run, even with talented Matt Stafford at QB. The Lions proved they can play winning and at times even dominating football with Stafford throwing for only 122 yards. They also proved that stats are misleading – those 122 passing yards were all high quality yards, coming at critical junctures. In other words, and generally speaking, what good is it to throw for 300 if 250 of those come in the late 3rd and 4th quarter when the game has been decided? The Lions’ patience with the run game paid off.
Likewise, the defensive game plan was just as sound. They played fast, and their back end is of solid veteran quality, which lends itself to good communication, particularly important when facing quality receivers such as Brandon Marshall, Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram.
And Jim Caldwell put his return game in the hands of a 5th round rookie, Jamal Agnew, who rewarded Caldwell’s faith with a game-changing punt return TD.
So for giving Lions fans a sense of what a ‘complete team’ feels like, Jim Caldwell is our Week Two Top Dog.
Week One: Jack Del Rio (Raiders @ Titans)
Since his return as a head coach, Jack Del Rio has exhibited an excellent feel for his team. Last year, he made some game-deciding judgment calls that while we might have doubted as sound, worked out for him and his team – they won a lot of close games that could have easily gone the other way. But as his squad has gained valuable experience, and the talent on the team has improved, Del Rio also has shown a steadier and steadier hand as an in-game decision-maker.
This year, Del Rio faces much higher expectations, and coaching with expectations is a lot different than coaching when no one expects anything out of you. This matchup was a good measuring stick game for the Raiders – the Titans are a talented, young and up and coming team much like the Raiders.
The Raiders performed in a professional, disciplined fashion – capitalizing when fortune presented itself (a failed game-opening onside kick by the Titans), and showing consistent faith in an untested rookie placekicker on some long attempts. Basically, they were imaginative yet disciplined in all three phases.