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Mailbag: NFL head coach rankings

4/6/2011

Vishal from parts unknown stretched the NFC West mailbag at the seams with a two-part, nearly 400-word dispatch critiquing my ballot ranking the 10 best coaches in the NFL. I'll break out the main points in bullet items before responding. He wanted to know ...

  • Why past performance mattered more for head coaches, specifically Mike Shanahan, than it did for players in our previous power rankings;

  • How I could justify leaving off the Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith based in part on playoff losses to teams with inferior records, since those teams advanced to the Super Bowl;

  • Why Tom Coughlin ranked third despite enjoying the organizational support and stability that contributed to a lower ranking for Mike Tomlin.

Mike Sando: These were difficult decisions. Some of the trade-offs weren't very satisfying. I put together my ballot over the weekend. Upon revisiting it Tuesday morning, I initially thought I'd left off Smith by accident. Then I remembered he was basically just an odd man out. He's a guy I do think of as being one of the best coaches in the league. John Harbaugh is another one. Those guys are deserving of the recognition they received from our voters. I could have felt good about including them as well.

The point you make on Coughlin and Tomlin is compelling. The Giants have strong ownership. They have had only three general managers in the last 30-plus years. I stand by the No. 3 ranking, but acknowledge that I might have considered ranking him lower if this conversation occurred prior to voting.

Coughlin ranked higher than Tomlin on my list for a few reasons I haven't explained:

  • Coughlin brought quick success and stability to Jacksonville when the Jaguars were an expansion franchise. That was impressive.

  • The Giants became more productive offensively under his watch, even with a young, inconsistent quarterback. Eli Manning is not the greatest passer. The Giants have ranked among the NFL's top eight in scoring four times under Coughlin after never ranking higher than 12th over a 15-year span under four other coaches.

  • Coughlin showed a capacity to change during his Giants tenure, becoming more responsive to players.That was important during the Super Bowl season.

Your question about Shanahan is easier to answer. The abilities a coach possesses early in his career do not necessarily deteriorate the way a player's physical skills deteriorate. Shanahan's 152-108 regular-season record, 8-5 postseason record, nine winning seasons and two Super Bowl titles worked in his favor.


Doug from Newbury Park, Calif., wonders whether I thought the San Francisco 49ers replaced Gary Plummer because they felt he was too critical as the team's radio color commentatory.

Mike Sando: Plummer has been outspoken for years. If his outspokenness were a problem, the team presumably would have replaced him years ago. He had handled the job since 1998 and never held back. Fans accustomed to Plummer will be paying close attention to see how his replacement, Eric Davis, couches his criticisms. I expect Davis to speak his mind in his own style -- a style less combative than the one Plummer brought to the job as a former linebacker.


Joe from Phoenix wonders whether the St. Louis Rams could trade out of the 14th overall choice with a team looking to draft running back Mark Ingram in that spot. He thinks teams are better off with one dominant runner than a committee approach, and he wonders specifically whether New England might be a team to watch from a trade standpoint.

Mike Sando: The Patriots traded up to get Daniel Graham in 2002. They traded up into the 13th spot for Ty Warren a year later. New England has been much, much more likely to trade down in the first round over more recent drafts, however.

  • 2003: The Patriots traded down from the 19th spot with Baltimore, which took Kyle Boller.

  • 2007: They traded out of the 28th spot with San Francisco (Joe Staley).

  • 2008: They traded down from the seventh pick with New Orleans (Sedrick Ellis).

  • 2009: They traded out of the 26th spot with Green Bay (Clay Matthews).

  • 2009: They traded out of the 23rd spot with Baltimore (Michael Oher).

  • 2010: They traded out of the 22nd pick with Denver (Demaryius Thomas).

  • 2010: They traded out of the 24th spot with Dallas (Dez Bryant).

The Patriots would likely have to part with their third-round choice, 92nd overall, to jump three spots to No. 14. Recent history says that is unlikely.

As for running backs, the trend has been toward having multiple backs share the load. No more than seven backs in one season have reached 300 carries since 2007. There were at least nine backs with 300 or more carries in 10 of the previous 12 seasons, peaking with 13 in 2003.

The Patriots have had only one such player -- Corey Dillon in 2004 -- since Bill Belichick became head coach.

None of this prevents New England from climbing three spots to nab Ingram. If it happens, however, it'll be a little surprising.


Rob from Phoenix wonders whether the Cardinals would select Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley with the fifth overall choice, if available, even though the team doesn't have obvious needs on its defensive line. Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller would not be available under this scenario.

Mike Sando: The scouting reports say Fairley projects better in a 4-3 defense. The same could be said for Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett, however, and the Cardinals have learned the hard way about favoring need (tackle Levi Brown) over value (running back Adrian Peterson) when picking fifth.

So, if Fairley is available and clearly the best player, the Cardinals would have to consider him. But I tend to think he projects as a higher-risk prospect based on concerns over his emotional stability and the consistency of his effort. That could scare off Arizona. Throw in other factors -- fit and need specifically -- and I envision the Cardinals going in another direction.