When it comes to many statistics in football, and really any other sport, it’s hard to determine cause and effect. Does a team win because it ran a lot during a game or does a team run a lot because they are winning throughout? Arguments can be made on either side of these sorts of discussions with various stats, and those who want to root for one side over another can choose how they want to decipher the raw data.
A similar thing happens between players. Does one player make another look better? Or worse? It’s not always easy to determine. Last year Eric Decker looked great playing with Peyton Manning. What was to come of him with the New York Jets (incidentally he probably went from the best passing team to the worst, so it’s still hard to say)?
The same also applies to players and coaches. Does a coach improve a player or does the reverse happen? Perhaps it’s somewhere in the middle. Truly interesting debaters arise from these scenarios because, in part, the answers are indeterminable. Maybe RGIII would be better off if he hadn’t gone through Mike Shanahan and Jay Gruden? What about Jay Cutler and his cycle of offensive coordinators and head coaches?
With that in mind, and following the heels of an NFC Championship Game where a series of questionable calls were made (spoiler alert), we will examine those coaches in recent memory who may have been overrated because of the play of their quarterback and the team around them. They’re not necessarily terrible coaches, but certainly ones where we have to pause and look beyond their stats and victories. In some of these cases, we’ve had head coaches that are winning and have won in spite of their own actions and due to the sheer talent of the players they have on the field.
Thus, here are the top ten mediocre coaches that have been boasted by great quarterbacks.
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10 Jim Caldwell
Caldwell only has four head coaching seasons under his belt, but so far it looks like he has been uplifted by some solid quarterbacks. His first two seasons in Indianapolis were with Peyton Manning: they won 24 games and made two playoff appearances, losing once in the Super Bowl. The next season Caldwell went 2-14, but that was sort of by design – Manning got hurt, he had terrible quarterbacks, and they got Andrew Luck, after all. Following his dismissal, he became the quarterbacks coach and later the offensive coordinator for a Ravens team that would be led by an astounding Joe Flacco to a Super Bowl victory. Now Caldwell has the big arm of Matthew Stafford, a talented QB, and earned another playoff appearance, but lost in the first round. He also inherited a great defense, and has yet to distinguish himself from the proven play of those he coaches.
9 Sean Payton
Sean Payton may be the most peculiar one on this list. It looks as if he and Drew Brees were a fantastic tandem, unbeatable in New Orleans and a contender for the Super Bowl ever year. Like some other coaches on this list, he has only been a head coach of one team, and only with one quarterback. The Bounty scandal proved that Payton breaks the rules, but without him, the Saints were 7-9; then they made the playoffs the nest season. How much of this has to do with Payton, though, and how much of it is Brees and his offensive weapons? The Saints have never been solid on defense, and their inability to play well on home field over the last year is inexplicable. They are team that comes off at times cocky, and other times completely lazy, and that’s on the coach. Payton has a system in place that hasn’t changed, his offensive scheme is predictable, and in the NFL if you don’t change, you lose.
8 Jason Garrett
Another head coach who has only been with one team and one quarterback: Garrett’s four and a half seasons with the Cowboys have been tumultuous at best. After three 8-8 seasons, seeing the Cowboys often lose tragically in December to miss out on the postseason, Garrett took the Cowboys to the playoffs, and were a Dez Bryant-catch controversy away from the NFC Championship game. However, he had Tony Romo, and it took Romo playing an MVP-caliber season to get this team to the playoffs (and a great offensive line making the way for DeMarco Murray). Garrett just signed a deal to stay in Dallas for five more years, but you can’t help but feel that he is a coach that has the personality to deal with Jerry Jones and maybe not the talent. With so much offensive skill, and so much investment and attention from ownership, Garrett has had only one winning season.
7 Mike Shanahan
Across three seasons in the late 90s with the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan earned a record-setting 46 victories. He would win seven playoff games in two years, including two Super Bowls. What transpired in Washington though, beginning a season after he was fired in Denver, gives you more than a moment’s pause. For the two Super Bowls, Shanahan had John Elway. Following his retirement, he posted seven of 14 seasons without a winning record, was fired twice, lost in the Wild Card game four times and advanced to the AFC Championship once. And possibly ruined RGIII’s career. Well, that could be an exaggeration, but it was Shanahan’s decision to keep the injured rookie phenom in a playoff game, and ever since that injury he was never the same.
6 Andy Reid
Reid began his head coaching career in Philadelphia, where he spent an impressive 14 seasons, nine of which saw his Eagles make it to the postseason. Of course, all but one of those playoff seasons were with Donovan McNabb, the Eagles franchise record holder in passing yards, TDs, completions, wins, and many other categories. In Kansas City, Reid turned around the Chiefs, leading them to an 11-5 record, albeit on an easy schedule. With their first round loss, Reid is 0-4 in his last four playoff games. Notorious for poor clock management, Reid is good for blowing one or two games a year – including the Chiefs Wild Card loss to the Colts last year that saw them up with a 28-point lead. This year against the Jets, up by two scores late in the fourth, instead of running out the clock against a New York team with no time outs, Reid had Smith throw the ball a few times for incomplete passes (typical Reid). Also, Reid’s decision to run Jamaal Charles seven times against the Titans in Week One, a loss, cost the Chiefs a playoff berth.
5 Ken Whisenhunt
In his second season as a head coach, Ken Whisenhunt brought the Arizona Cardinals from perennial also-rans to playoff contenders. They had gone nine seasons without making it to the postseason, having made it just once since 1982. Whisenhunt led the Cards to their first winning records in nine years as well, winning the NFC West in back to back seasons. More precisely though, Kurt Warner led the Cards. With the decorated Warner gone, Whisenhunt cycled through Derek Anderson, John Skelton, and many others. In three years he was never able to find a replacement, finishing last in the division twice. He was fired, and a year later he would take over a Tennessee Titans team that would be most anemic on offense, going through three quarterbacks and earning the second worst record in the league. They have shot at Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, so we'll see what Whisenhunt can do with a young QB prospect.
4 Norv Turner
In seven seasons with the Washington Redskins, Norv Turner made the playoffs once. Once he was hired by San Diego though in 2007, he made the postseason in his first three seasons. Of course he was inheriting a talent in Philip Rivers, who got his first start in 2006. The Chargers became known for letting down, though, unable to make it to the Super Bowl; they were knocked out of the playoffs in one fewer game each consecutive year. They were also inexplicably slow-starters, and seemed to fail to get up for big games. The Chargers would not make the postseason again for the next three years despite Phillip Rivers earning two Pro Bowl appearances. He’s now the O.C. for the Vikings, where this season wasn’t the most impressive, but to be fair, they had an issue with their star running back.
3 John Fox
In 2003, Fox did in fact led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl, taking them from 1-15 two years prior to within a score of the championship. Of course he followed that with two more playoff appearances across seven seasons, including a 2-14 campaign that led to his firing. Fox most recently has left Denver in a curious mutual arrangement having coached Peyton Manning across two stellar years, but losing two consecutive playoffs games. The first was a blowout in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks and the next was against a visiting Colts team following a bye week, losing ugly as a big favorite. He’s moved to Chicago where the quarterback situation isn't as simple as the one he had in Denver.
2 Mike Smith
Smith has only known one starting quarterback in his coaching career: Matt Ryan. Smith took over in Atlanta in 2008, the same year that the Falcons drafted Ryan. In their seven years together, Ryan played all but two games; so these guys are linked together. Before being fired this year, the Falcons were known as underachievers, a club with a perennially explosive offense and a lackluster defense. The team made the playoffs four times, posting a 1-4 record, which includes a loss with a bye week (they almost blew it again the next year, but Ryan bailed out his team after his team gave up a 20-0 halftime lead to Seattle, and almost blew the game several times after). Of course we have yet to see how Ryan does with another coach, and what Smith will make of his future, but it’s hard to blame Ryan for the Falcons woes, considering that stats he has put up and the plays his made on the field. Who would you rather have?
1 Mike McCarthy
Look no further than the NFC Championship game if you're studying how to spectacularly blow a game. It was typical McCarthy, playing it a little too safe on the road and not trusting his players. Twice he kicked a field goal on fourth and one against the Seahawks. His team wasn’t prepared for a fake field goal in the fourth quarter, and he couldn’t find a way to get a first down late in the fourth quarter with the league’s frontrunner for MVP at the helm. McCarthy has only been the head coach of the Packers, and in his nine years there, he's had two seasons of Brett Favre and seven of Aaron Rodgers, two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks. He and Rodgers won a Super Bowl, but if you had to pick one, who deserves more credit? Why he didn’t put the ball in the hands of his star quarterback to win the game is astounding.
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