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NFL 2018: Ranking the NFL head coaches - No. 1 is easy, but after that, it's tougher

Rankings in the sports world are an inexact science. But we do them anyway because we like good debate, we need to write stories, and, maybe we’re gluttons for punishment.

Take ranking the NFL’s 32 head coaches, for example. The top handful or so are clear-cut, at least to us; you can quibble about where they fall 1-5, rearranging them on your own criteria, but after that, things get tougher.

There are a lot of variables, things that we aren’t always privy to: how much say does a coach have over his roster? Is he working with a new general manager? How do you judge rookie head coaches? Before the 2017 season began, few would have placed then-31-year-old Sean McVay, in his first year with the Los Angeles Rams, among the eight to 10 best coaches in the league. But McVay had as good a rookie season from a head coach as we’ve seen in a while. Could Matt Patricia get similar results in Detroit, or Steve Wilks in Arizona?

All that being said, here’s our ranking of the league’s head coaches. No doubt you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, center, led the franchise to its first Super Bowl championship in just his second season leading the team. (AP)
32. Hue Jackson, Cleveland Browns

Someone has to be last. Jackson seems like a personable man, and well-liked by his players, but it’s hard – like, really hard – to manage only one win in 32 games.

31. Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers fired Lovie Smith in 2015 so they could promote Koetter from offensive coordinator. It hasn’t paid off. After going 9-7 in his first season (which didn’t earn a playoff berth), the Bucs posted just five wins last year, the offense isn’t much better and the defense was last in yards allowed. And Jameis Winston is still in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

30. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals

In a league that too often is too quick to pull the trigger on coaches and general managers, Lewis has shown remarkable staying power. This is his 16th season with the Bengals, second only to Bill Belichick in terms of tenure, and after some question as to whether he’d return, Lewis got a two-year contract extension for the new year. While he has taken Cincinnati to the playoffs seven times, all with a wild-card round berths, Lewis has yet to advance the team to the next round.

29. Adam Gase, Miami Dolphins

Hailed as the young savior when he was hired early in 2016, Gase got the Dolphins to the playoffs in his first season, and a late-season injury to Ryan Tannehill meant they were one-and-done. Maybe things would have been different last season had Tannehill been healthy and Gase hadn’t talked Jay Cutler out of bare-bottomed retirement, but Miami’s offseason moves this year don’t inspire much confidence for 2018.

28. Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills

Yes, McDermott’s first season as head coach saw the Bills in the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season. It’s obviously a feather in his cap, but what the heck was that midseason oh-let’s-start-Nathan-Peterman decision? Another team with some head-scratching offseason moves.

27. Jay Gruden, Washington

Four years, one playoff berth, one plus-.500 season, one franchise quarterback run out of town.

26. Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos

His first season wasn’t great, and maybe he should be ranked lower, especially since he inherited a strong defense. But it’s not Joseph’s fault that Denver’s quarterback situation is what it is; that’s on John Elway.

Can they succeed? Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel is among five rookie head coaches this season. (AP)
25. Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans

Anyone who knows Vrabel, going back to his days in college, has said he was destined to be a coach. But will he be a good NFL head coach? It’s hard to judge based off his one season as the Texans’ defensive coordinator last year: the unit did not play as well as it had in recent seasons, but was without J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus for the majority of the schedule.

24. Steve Wilks, Arizona Cardinals

Wilks hasn’t even coached his first preseason game for the Cardinals, and he’s already dealing with some tough situations. His general manager, Steve Keim, was arrested for DUI and has been suspended for five weeks, and one of his tight ends, Ricky Seals-Jones, was arrested for assault after a hotel incident. At least he has Larry Fitzgerald.

23. Pat Shurmur, New York Giants

New York essentially forced out Tom Coughlin to promote Ben McAdoo, but the brevity of McAdoo’s tenure shows that was a Giant mistake. Hopefully the team got things right with Shurmur, who likely has learned a lot since his 9-23 tenure as head coach in Cleveland ended six years ago.

22. Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears

Chicago fans are desperate to believe in their beloved Bears again, and are hoping Nagy and Mitch Trubisky are the answer to their football prayers. They may need to have a little patience though because the roster needs some work.

21. Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions

Could Patricia finally be the Belichick student who excels away from the teacher? (Houston’s Bill O’Brien, who spent years under other HCs before being hired in New England, doesn’t count.) After spending his entire NFL career climbing the ladder in New England, Patricia was hired by a familiar face, former Patriots front-office executive Bob Quinn, to lead the Lions. Right now, Patricia is known for his ever-present pencil behind his ear, but Detroit fans will need him to be known for success in the NFC North.

20. Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts

After the Josh McDaniels fiasco, when the Colts announced a welcome-to-Indy news conference for their new head coach only to see him back out of the job, the franchise turned to Reich. The longtime NFL quarterback has waited a long time for his opportunity, and will be charged with getting the Colts – and Andrew Luck – back to their winning ways.

19. Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders

With the Raiders headed to Las Vegas, team owner Mark Davis is gambling quite a bit – a reported $100 million over 10 years – to fulfill his dream of having Gruden coach the silver and black again. Gruden hasn’t coached in a decade, so only time will tell if Davis hit the jackpot.

18. Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers didn’t make a lot of noise last season nationally, so it’s easy to forget that they went 9-7 with a rookie head coach in a new city last year, a four-win improvement. Lynn deserves his share of the credit.

17. Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys

In seven seasons as Cowboys head coach, Garrett has two playoff appearances and one postseason win. The offense has the tools to be great, which is good because the defense right now … eek.

16. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens

Harbaugh and Joe Flacco had tremendous success during their first seven seasons together: six playoff berths, three AFC championship game appearances and one Super Bowl title. But Baltimore has been playoff-less the past three seasons, and Harbaugh could have a difficult decision to make at some point this season: stick with Flacco or start over with Lamar Jackson?

The antithesis of predecessor Rex Ryan in terms of demeanor, New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles is a steady captain. (AP)
15. Todd Bowles, New York Jets

The Jets were savaged before the 2017 season for having a terrible roster, and while a 5-11 mark isn’t stellar, it was better than what many expected. Bowles isn’t flashy or demonstrative, but he is steady and stand-up, and with the drafting of Sam Darnold, he hopefully has a quarterback for the future as well.

14. Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans

O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith did not get along, and Smith seemingly lost the power struggle. It was announced he has taken an extended leave of absence as GM to care for his cancer-fighting wife, but the Texans hired a new general manager, Brian Gaine, who has a good relationship with O’Brien. Despite some questionable decision-making at quarterback, O’Brien took Houston to the playoffs twice in his first four years.

13. Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers

If the marriage of Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is as meant to be as the 49ers believe, San Francisco could be a force for years to come. Players and observers alike rave about Shanahan’s offensive mind.

12. Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons

He may never live down his team’s loss in Super Bowl LI, but Quinn got the Falcons back to the postseason last season despite that devastating defeat, which is an admirable achievement given how many times we’ve seen Super Bowl losers struggle the next season. With Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta’s new palace, Quinn will be looking to become the first coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl in their home stadium.

11. Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars

Marrone isn’t the partying type – he revealed last year his favorite way to unwind after a win is with a bologna and cheese sandwich and petting his dogs – and his tenure in Buffalo may have come to an odd end, but the Jaguars are no longer a laughingstock under his tutelage. They were 10-6 with their second AFC title game appearance last season, and could be better this year.

10. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers

Rivera was 13-19 in his first two seasons as Carolina’s head coach, but in the five years since the Panthers are 51-28-1 with four playoff appearances and an NFC championship. He’s successfully guiding an enigmatic quarterback and one of the best defenses in the league.

9. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers

It certainly helps when you have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL guiding your team, but McCarthy has been head coach in Green Bay for 12 years and the Packers have been to the playoffs nine times, with one Super Bowl title. That’s an impressive run.

One-hit wonder or here for the long haul? Rams coach Sean McVay led the team to a quick turnaround in 2017. (AP)
8. Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams

Is it premature to put a 32-year-old, second-year head coach so high on this list? Maybe. But the Rams were kings of mediocrity under Jeff Fisher, and even worse in the seasons before Fisher. McVay quickly showed why Jared Goff was the No. 1 pick in 2016 after a disappointing rookie season and the Rams had their first winning season since 2003. And their roster has gotten only better this offseason.

7. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks

Carroll has enjoyed great success in his time with Seattle, and his coaching acumen will be put to the test this year, after an offseason full of notable departures. But more than ever, he may need Russell Wilson to carry the team.

6. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs

There’s one thing missing from Reid’s extensive coaching resume: a Super Bowl win. But he has his teams in contention every year, and with a young gun now in charge in Kansas City, that resume could be completed soon enough.

5. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers

In 11 seasons with Tomlin as head coach, the Steelers have never been below .500 and are seemingly always in the discussion when it comes to Super Bowl contenders. In a league that seems to have significant changes every year, that’s impressive.

4. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings

Zimmer’s Vikings have endured a lot in his relatively short time with the team: his own medical issues, which have included multiple eye surgeries for a detached retina suffered during a 2016 game; the devastating 2016 training camp injury to Teddy Bridgewater; the heartbreaking playoff loss to the Seahawks in 2015. But Zimmer has kept the Vikings together, and, largely, winning.

3. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints

After three straight 7-9 seasons, Payton and the Saints were back in the playoffs in 2017, keyed by two surprising rookies. Now entering his 12th season, Payton (and Drew Brees) rescued a once-moribund franchise and a city devastated by hurricane, and turned the Superdome into arguably the loudest home stadium in the NFL.

2. Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles

What do you do for an encore when you win the Super Bowl in your second season as head coach – and doing it with your backup quarterback leading the way? We’re about to find out how Pederson and the Eagles, one of the most fun teams to watch in the league, handle that.

1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

What is there left to say? He’s happily rumpled, has made tattered sweatshirts into iconic New England fashion, and has taken a franchise that was once a perennial also-ran to dynastic status the likes of which we may never see again. Not playing Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII was an act of hubris, but even with that it’s hard to put anyone else above him.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, in his preferred, sleeves-chopped sweatshirt, stubbornly refused to play CB Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII, but it’s hard to overlook Belichick’s long run of success. (AP)