26 Dec 2006
Sean Payton will win Coach of the Year this season. There are other great candidates (Marty Schottenheimer, Andy Reid, Eric Mangini), but the award usually goes to the coach who brought his team from nowhere into contention. That description fits Payton to a "T."
But who was the NFL's worst coach this year? There's no clear winner (loser?) but a long list of candidates.
Art Shell would be an obvious choice. Shell made many mistakes this season: hiring his overmatched buddy as offensive coordinator, bungling the Jerry Porter situation, letting Randy Moss get away with murder, and so on. His most grievous error: the Raiders are no further along now than they were last year. It's one thing for a first-year coach to have a bad year, but quire another for him to show no signs of progress.
There are mitigating factors in Shell's case. First, there's the fact that a first-year head coach can only do so much. Then there's the Raiders front office, which is still lost in the 1970s. Finally, there was the brutal division schedule that offered the Raiders few cheesy wins. If they played in the NFC West, the Raiders might be 5-11: bad, but not punchline bad.
The Cardinals are in position to go 5-11 in the NFC West, and their head coach has had three years to install his system. Denny Green has done an awful job in Arizona, and he has flopped at a time when the team's ownership is spending money like crazy to shed the team's loser image. Green hasn't been able to field a competitive offensive line despite free agent acquisitions, draft picks, and staff changes. Look at what Payton has done with the Saints line this season and it's clear that there's no trick to fielding a competent line. Green just hasn't gotten it done. And he didn't earn any style points with that post-game tirade after the loss to the Bears.
The Cardinals were a fashionable playoff pick this year. So were the Redskins; some experts had them heading to the Super Bowl, and we're not just talking about Joe Theismann. It may be sacrilegious to suggest that Joe Gibbs was the worst coach in the league this season, but the Redskins were pretty terrible for a team with a high payroll and a coaching staff filled with living legends. Gibbs is supposed to be a master of finding and developing young players, but the Redskins haven't produced any surprise stars in the last three seasons (Chris Cooley and Ladell Betts were high draft choices, not surprises), and major talents like Sean Taylor and Carlos Rogers don't seem to be developing. Gibbs handled his quarterback situation poorly and seemed unwilling to step in and make changes when it was clear that the Redskins offense was in trouble at the start of camp. It was a lousy coaching effort, and only some of the blame can be pinned on owner Dan Snyder for assembling another all-name, no-game roster.
Gibbs' woes in Washington were overshadowed by Tom Coughlin's bellicose blundering in New York. Beware of self described disciplinarians. Real disciplinarians use tight organization and clear communication to enforce rules, but would-be drill sergeants like Coughlin just congratulate themselves for shouting the loudest. Most of the Giants tuned Coughlin out last year, but youngsters like Mathias Kiwanuka didn't know better and found themselves on the receiving end of Coughlin's public tantrums. Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey were right when they said that the Giants were outcoached in 2005 and 2006, but the team that executes cleanly and plays hard can overcome an inferior gameplan. Coughlin's Giants couldn't execute, and by the end of this season, none of them even wanted to execute, unless they had the chance to execute Coughlin.
Was Coughlin the worst coach of 2006? I think we can go lower. In my opinion, the worst coaches have two fatal flaws: 1) They are incapable of fixing their team's problems even after a few seasons and a commitment of resources, and 2) They are divisive and create a toxic atmosphere. Coughlin is divisive, but the Giants really haven't had one recurring problem during his tenure. Gibbs hasn't gotten the Redskins to turn the corner, but he creates a professional work environment for his players. Shell couldn't fix the offensive line and didn't exactly build unity by creating a double standard for Moss and Porter, but he's only been at the job one year.
Then there's Jim Mora. He keeps waiting for Michael Vick to mature. He keeps waiting for the run defense to fix itself. Mora and the Falcons invest money in defenders like Ed Hartwell and Lawyer Milloy and high draft picks on wide receivers, but the results are the same year-in and year-out. The Falcons are never terrible, and I might be easier on Mora if he had a reputation as a class act. But Mora is, by most accounts, a jerk. He's a poor communicator to his players who seems incapable of developing them past the "raw talent" level. And his recent "I wanna coach at the college level" wisecracks, spoken while the Falcons were still very alive in the playoff race, demonstrated just how clueless he is.
It's tough to pass on Coughlin and Green, but I believe that Mora was the worst coach in the NFL this year. His dad might have called Vick a coach killer, but Mora has done a pretty good job of hanging himself without Vick's help in the last two seasons. When firing season starts next week, Mora will probably be among the first to get the boot.
Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?