NFL News & Analysis

Ranking the NFL's best head coaches ahead of the 2021 season

Jan 17, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid on the sidelines during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Cleveland Browns at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 NFL Draft and free agency now well in the rearview mirror, OTAs and minicamp are giving us some much-needed clips of our favorite players in action. In preparation for the 2021 NFL season, PFF has ranked the numerous position groups, posted simulation results for the campaign and discussed enticing bets on the PFF Daily Betting Podcast and the PFF Forecast.

Head coaches are generally out of the spotlight until Week 1 hits, but let's bring them into the fold. In ranking the top head coaches heading into the 2021 season below, the criteria were quantitative. But unlike with offensive and defensive play callers, they were not folded into one all-encompassing rating system for betting or fantasy the way each side of the ball is. The reasons for this are the relatively stochastic nature of fourth-down decisions, close games and other small-sample events.

Nonetheless, a coach’s ability to get more wins out of his team than wins above replacement of their roster, their ability to win games by multiple scores (as well as lose relatively few games by multiple scores) and fourth-down decisions all factored into these rankings.

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1. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs

Prior to Super Bowl 54 in 2019, I wrote about how Andy Reid was the best head coach in football. Since then, he went on to win his first title, navigated a pandemic offseason, helped his team to a 14-2 record during the 2020 regular season, won a playoff game with his backup quarterback playing the second half and reached the third Super Bowl of his career. Andy Reid’s Chiefs have never gone under their market season win total, and they are again the Super Bowl favorites going into the 2021 regular season. Reid is now the standard by which the rest of the league is evaluated.

Now, he was thoroughly outwitted in Tampa Bay by Todd Bowles in Super Bowl 55 last season, as the debts associated with playing much of the season with a banged-up offensive line, and failing to develop a third option behind Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, came due.

But that loss represented the first time the Chiefs fell by multiple scores since 2017 and the first time they failed to score a touchdown since 2014. Long derided as a coach who struggled in the two- and four-minute offenses, and one who was better at winning blowouts than close games, Reid propelled his Chiefs to a 9-1 record in one-score games in 2020, including winning the last seven games of the regular season by one score (not counting Week 17’s game of backups).

With a rebuilt offensive line, and Steve Spagnuolo back to run the defense, look for the Chiefs to flirt with the 12.5 wins they are projected to receive by the market this fall.

2. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens

Harbaugh is the second-most tenured coach in the NFL, and he will forever have a place in lists like these after getting a team quarterbacked by Joe Flacco across the finish line in 2012. What is most impressive about Harbaugh is how much he’s adapted to the needs of the NFL circa 2021.

Whether it’s by building defenses from back to front, adapting his team to suit the needs of a once-in-a-generation talent at the quarterback position or listening to the math on fourth-down decision-making (he went for it 64% of the time when he should have in 2020, among the league’s highest rates), Harbaugh is one of the best coaches in the league currently and has a Hall of Fame case to make.

3. Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers

In 2019, LaFleur elevated what was fundamentally a nine- or 10-win team to 13-3 with Aaron Rodgers playing below his normal standard. In 2020, he got the Packers to a legitimate 13-3 record and Rodgers to the MVP podium. He enters 2021 as the league’s highest-rated play caller in our metrics, and despite his decision at the end of the 2020 NFC Championship game, he’s been mostly good at the edge cases, going for it on fourth down 75% of the times he should have in 2020, good for second in the NFL.

LaFleur reminds some of former 49ers and Panthers head coach George Seifert (although without the early Super Bowl title). But when the Hall of Fame quarterback in Rodgers eventually leaves, what will this team's record look like?

4. Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills

I wrote about McDermott when the Bills extended him last year, and everything I said then is true now. Buffalo won in 2019 despite poor quarterback play from Josh Allen, in large part because the team got great value out of its defense and hid some of the young signal-caller’s deficiencies by pushing some of the “easy” buttons and making plus-expected value decisions.

That changed in 2020 when Allen became one of the league’s best passers, as all of the work put into extracting additional edges were exponentiated by great quarterback play. One negative on the Bills' ledger in 2020 was that they were conservative on fourth downs, going for it in advantageous situations just 36% of the time, which ranked near the bottom of the league. However, this is more than made up for in their run-to-pass ratio and overall approach to the running game on both sides of the ball.

5. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints

It flies under the radar how impressive it was for Payton to take the 2020 New Orleans Saints to another 12-4 season.

For one, Drew Brees missed significant time again, and the Saints went 3-1 in his stead (they were 8-2 in games Brees missed due to injury in the Brees-Payton era). Additionally, Brees was mostly cooked in 2020, with an average depth of target equal to 6.6 yards, surpassing only Jimmy Garoppolo and Alex Smith.

Furthermore, with Jared Cook and Emmanuel Sanders disappointing, and Michael Thomas hurt, Payton helped a running back — Alvin Kamara — have surplus value over replacement (WAR = 0.23, second only to Derrick Henry in football). This is a rarity, and it will likely have to occur again, among other things, for the Saints to go over their win total of nine this season, which is only that high because of Payton’s history of turning water into wine down by the Bayou.

6. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

I’ll admit that there is some legacy built in here, as Belichick has lagged behind for the past decade in terms of making correct decisions on fourth downs, with the 2020 Patriots going for it on just 39% of admissible situations. That ranked 24th in football, and the team surrendered 0.5 expected points in the process.

That said, last year's team earned just the 21st-most wins above replacement in the NFL but still managed to win seven games in a division where the Bills and the Dolphins reached double-digit victories. It remains to be seen if they can win with Cam Newton or Mac Jones moving forward. But if someone can, it’s likely Belichick.

7. Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns

After the Vikings inexplicably let Stefanski leave the building following the 2019 playoffs, I wrote that he was the offensive mind the team needed. Despite a really noisy 2020 season in which Cleveland's No. 1 wide receiver was lost for the season due to injury, three straight games were played in inclement weather and a late-season contest against the Jets was played with no wide receivers active, the Browns won 12 total games for the first time since Bill Belichick was their head coach.

Stefanski went for it on a league-high 81% of admissible fourth downs in the first three quarters of close games (included playoffs), but the fourth down he didn’t go for in the playoffs against the Chiefs will likely haunt him for some time. Nonetheless, things are looking up in Cleveland.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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