Who Is Best Bet To Win NFL Coach Of The Year?

Photo: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, Coach of the Year. An award that is always rightfully handed out and not massively over-affected by contrived narratives. What a good time.

It may feel simple: just pick some winning teams. The last coach of the year to win fewer than 10 games on a 16-game schedule was Jimmy Johnson back in 1990, who went 7-9, which feels incredibly rigged, but we don’t litigate 30-year-old foolishness.

With that said, while we certainly need the coach of a winning team, we can look at recent winners to better understand which narratives the voters eat up. Your last 10 winners have been:

  • 2020: Browns HC Kevin Stefanski
  • 2019: Ravens HC John Harbaugh
  • 2018: Bears HC Matt Nagy
  • 2017: Rams HC Sean McVay
  • 2016: Cowboys HC Jason Garrett (!!)
  • 2015: Panthers HC Ron Rivera
  • 2014: Cardinals HC Bruce Arians
  • 2013: Panthers HC Ron Rivera
  • 2012: Colts HC Bruce Arians
  • 2011: 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh

Quickly, we notice that first-year head coaches win this award a lot. Stefanski, Nagy, McVay, Arians (with the Colts in an interim capacity), and Jim Harbaugh were all in their first year as head coaches. It makes sense that they’d be big targets for the award, especially if the teams experience a substantial step forward in the win/loss column in their first season. Stefanski added 5 wins; Nagy added 7; McVay added 7; Arians was 9-3 as an interim for an 11-win team after a 2-win season, so that’s probably like 7; and Harbaugh added 7.

There are actually a few more “firsts” hiding in plain sight on this list. 2012 was both Chuck Pagano’s and Arians’ first year in Indy, but it was also Andrew Luck’s first year as the quarterback there. Veteran coach Garrett won in 2016—Dak Prescott’s rookie year at quarterback—and when John Harbaugh won it in 2019, that was Lamar Jackson’s first season as a starting quarterback. In the last 10 years, the only coach to win the award 1) after his first year 2) without a first-year quarterback is Ron Rivera (twice), and Arians again, who did it in his second year with the Cardinals (and with QB Carson Palmer in his second year with the Cardinals). Jackson’s Ravens added 4 wins, and Prescott’s Cowboys added 9.

So let’s build that list real quick. Who are the coaches who are either 1) in their first year or 2) adding a first-year quarterback. The bolded names are coaches who have new starting quarterbacks, but not actually rookie quarterbacks—just quarterbacks they traded for.

  • Brandon Staley +1000
  • Sean McVay +1400
  • Arthur Smith +1600
  • Kyle Shanahan +1800
  • Frank Reich +2200
  • Matt Rhule +2200
  • Robert Saleh +2200
  • Urban Meyer +2500
  • Matt Nagy +3300
  • Nick Sirianni +3300
  • Dan Campbell +5000
  • David Culley +5000

Let’s look at the bolded guys really quickly. McVay and Reich both won double-digit games last season, so I don’t see how they win Coach of the Year if they do that again—it’s more likely that their quarterbacks get the credit. Let’s toss them out. And unfortunately, while Rhule’s Panthers could win a lot more games this year, I don’t think Sam Darnold is enough of a quarterback improvement to get it done. So let’s stick with the traditional options.

  • Brandon Staley +1000
  • Arthur Smith +1600
  • Kyle Shanahan +1800
  • Robert Saleh +2200
  • Urban Meyer +2500
  • Matt Nagy +3300
  • Nick Sirianni +3300
  • Dan Campbell +5000
  • David Culley +5000

The next thing to look at is projected win totals. The Coach of the Year has to bump up win totals substantially off of last year’s numbers—that’s simply non-negotiable.

  • Brandon Staley 9 (7 wins last year)
  • Arthur Smith 7.5 (4 wins last year)
  • Kyle Shanahan 10 (6 wins last year)
  • Robert Saleh 6 (2 wins last year)
  • Urban Meyer 6.5 (1 win last year)
  • Matt Nagy 7.5 (8 wins last year)
  • Nick Sirianni 6.5 (4 wins last year)
  • Dan Campbell 5 (5 wins last year)
  • David Culley 4 (4 wins last year)

So if we stick with everything we know: that you have to improve your team’s win total substantially; that you need a first-year QB or to be a first-year yourself; and that you need to win double-digit games as well, then there’s really only one bet that makes sense.

  • Kyle Shanahan 10 (6 wins last year)

This makes a lot of sense. There’s no way they give the MVP to Trey Lance, no matter how well he plays; and if the 49ers switch between Jimmy Garoppolo and Lance mid-season, that’ll be viewed as a shrewd coaching decision. It’s also pretty publicly known that Shanahan has a lot of personnel sway, so he gets the credit for the evaluation and drafting of Lance anyway. Even if Lance wins Rookie of the Year, that doesn’t preclude Shanahan from winning COTY (see: Prescott, 2016).

Shanahan does have the third-best odds of any of our candidates, but +1800 is still a great price. If you’re looking to buy the over on some of these win totals instead, Nagy is a good target (as I wrote about in my team win totals column), though he’s already won the award once and I don’t think they’d give it to him again. Saleh and the Jets feel like a potentially sneaky good team, especially if that defense takes a step forward under his tutelage (and I think it will). But at the end of the day, Shanahan is the best bet for this award.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Senior CFB Writer

Benjamin Solak is a Senior College Football Writer for The Draft Network and co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft podcast.

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