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Tough Decisions For Top Coaching Award

by Matt Wells

Dennis Green, not surprisingly, has been axed by the once again woeful Arizona Cardinals.  Jim Mora Jr. has been canned by the disappointing Atlanta Falcons.  The Dolphins and Steelers need to discuss the futures of Nick Saban and Bill Cowher, respectively.

Perhaps lost among those names are the coaches who have surpassed expectations this past season in the NFL.  Whether these coaches unexpectedly led their teams to playoff berths or whether they were simply able to dominate the rest of the league, these coaches will no doubt find their names on the list for NFL Coach of the Year.Those choosing from a list of candidates may have a tough time deciphering who should come home with the coveted award that proves that you know how to coach better than everyone else.  Sure, it’s no MVP trophy or Lombardi Trophy, but the sentiment is there.  Hats off to the coaches who made a difference this year.  Here are my candidates:

Eric Mangini, New York Jets

The Jets were everyone’s pick to disappoint again.  Armed with a quarterback who is injury prone (Chad Pennington) and a virtually non-existent running game since Curtis Martin is old and banged up, the Jets went into the 2006 season with essentially no offensive threat to anyone.  Mangini had his work cut out for him.

However, Pennington played all 16 games this year and only once gave Jets fans heart attacks this year (11/26 vs Houston).  Pennington threw for over 3300 yards and had more TD passes (17) than interceptions (16).  Hey, even a +1 differential is good enough.

As for that non-existent running game?  Well, Leon Washington led the team with just 650 yards on the ground.  But, what had people talking was the large amount of dedication from such a small man.  That screen pass turned 60-yard reception in Miami Christmas night turned heads; it even won the game.

The defense was solid, led by Jonathan Vilma’s 113 tackles.  Judging by stats alone, DB Kerry Rhodes got snubbed for the Pro Bowl.  Rhodes finished 98 tackles, 5 sacks, and 1 interception; all of those numbers were bested those of Denver’s John Lynch, who somehow got elected in.

Man-genius turned the woeful Jets into a playoff team, as they finished 10-6, earning the AFC’s 5th seed.  I guess those years under Bill Belichick, his first round opponent, paid off.

Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints

Payton spent his last three years in Dallas as the team’s assistant coach under the legendary (or once legendary) Bill Parcells.  He came to a hurricane-ravaged city that was in need of a pick-me-up.  Boy, did he deliver that boost of self-esteem for the city.

Payton was surrounded with talent in New Orleans that wasn’t there under previous head coach Jim Hasslett.  First off, the Saints drafted Reggie Bush with the #2 pick in the draft, making the Houston Texans look like, well, losers.  The Saints, knowing that Aaron Brooks was not the answer at quarterback, made an outstanding offer to ex-Charger Drew Brees.  Throw in the draft pick of WR Marques Colston and you have yourself a darn good team.

Bush, though erratic stat-wise, put up solid numbers, finishing with over 1500 all-purpose yards (including punt returns) and hit the end zone 9 times.  The drafting of Bush electrified the city of New Orleans as well as the Saints.  Fans were on their feet every time Bush touched the ball, whether he caught a pass for 30 yards or he ran the ball for a loss of 5.

Aaron Brooks was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in New Orleans.  The fans knew it.  The organization knew it.  The Saints had essentially two names to choose from regarding starting quarterbacks for the 2006 season: Daunte Culpepper and Drew Brees.  The Dolphins turned Brees down, fearful of the injury he had suffered a year before.  The Saints pounced on Brees, who put up monstrous stats throughout the year.  Try this on for size: 4418 yards, 26 TDs, 11 INTs.  His quarterback rating was 96.2.  Not bad, eh?  Good thing the Dolphins goofed.

Colston, meanwhile, was a late draft pick out of Hofstra.  The Saints already had the likes of Joe Horn at wide receiver, so many figured Colston to be a background player on a mediocre team.  Instead, he was a star player on a playoff team.  Colston, playing in his first season, eclipsed 1000 yards receiving and caught 8 touchdowns.  Along with Bush, Colston was Brees’s primary target.

So, Sean Payton, in his first year in New Orleans, coached his team to a 10-6 record.  The record was good enough for a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs as the conference’s #2 seed.  The team everyone was pulling for is doing just fine, and you can thank Payton for that.

Brian Billick, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens were a manageable 4-2 through the first 7 weeks of the NFL season when Billick decided to ax Jim Fassell as the team’s offensive coordinator.  Billick, in turn, would take over the play calling for the remainder of the regular season.  All that happened was the Ravens going 9-1 with Billick as the play caller.  Smart move?  Yes.

Billick, of course, was helped along by different facets of his team.  Unhappy with the progress of young Kyle Boller, the Ravens brought in veteran Steve McNair from Tennessee in the beginning of the year.  Would McNair fair or would he return to his co-MVP status of a few years ago?  Does 3050 yards and 16 TDs answer the question?  McNair improved the Ravens offense from a year ago and he made it look easy.

Then, there was RB Jamal Lewis.  After his 2066-yard season of 2003, Lewis had averaged less than 1000 yards per season over the last two years.  Lewis, however, picked things up a little in 2006, rushing for 1132 yards and 9 scores.  The 9 TDs were one less than he scored in 2004 and 2005 combined.

However, the word that is synonymous with the Ravens is DEFENSE.  Are you ready for this?  The Ravens were #1 when it came to yards allowed per game (264.1 … 40 yards better than #2 Jacksonville).  They were #1 in yards allowed per play.  They were #1 in 3rd down defense (the opposition converted 28.8% of their third down attempts).  The Ravens defense was even the least penalized of all defenses in both the number of penalties and the number of yards.  Ray Lewis and Bart Scott led the way with 103 tackles each.  The team accumulated 28 interceptions in just 16 games and they returned 5 of those picks for touchdowns.  Now, that’s defense.

Billick may have a hard time getting the nod for Coach of the Year since the defense could help him win every game 10-7.  But, that 9-1 record after he took over the play calling is what got him on this list.  The Ravens, who finished 13-3, earned a first round bye in the AFC playoffs.  They are the #2 seed behind the San Diego Chargers.

Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles

November 19 – In a home game against the Tennessee Titans, star QB Donovan McNabb is run out of bounds by the defense.  McNabb grabbed his right knee in pain.  The result was a season-ending torn knee ligament for McNabb.  With McNabb went the Eagles’ playoff chances.  Game over.  Better luck next year.

With fans clamoring for A.J. Feeley, coach Andy Reid inserted Jeff Garcia in the quarterback slot.  Yes, that Jeff Garcia.  The same Jeff Garcia who got ousted in San Francisco and failed in Cleveland and Detroit.

At 5-5, the Eagles had remaining schedule consisting of four road games – one in Indianapolis and the other three in the stadiums of all three of their division rivals.  The two home games were against playoff hopefuls, Carolina and Atlanta.

After a not-so-shocking loss to the Colts in Indianapolis, the Eagles managed to win a Monday night game against Carolina.  Still, at 6-6, the odds of Jeff Garcia leading the team to the playoffs were worse than Matt Millen making the Lions a winning team.

The critical stretch of road games in Washington, New York, and Dallas would make or break the season.  With Jeff Garcia, people were leaning towards the “break” option.  Wrong.  Garcia would lead the Eagles to wins in all three buildings.  Throw in a meaningless win against Atlanta and the Eagles were 10-6.  They were amazingly division champs, and they were heading to the playoffs.  Garcia threw 10 TDs and 2 INTs this year.  Not too shabby.

I am not an Eagles fan.  In fact, the only team I hate more than the Eagles are the Giants (guess who I am rooting for Sunday – E-A-G….you get the point).  However, I’m doing something I never thought I would do – give props to them.  What Andy Reid did was amazing.  He coached his team through a tough stretch without his star player.  He coached them to a division title.  Some of the guys on the FOX pregame show are even picking the Eagles to head to the Super Bowl.  Well done, Coach Reid, well done.

Jeff Fisher, Tennessee Titans

Kerry Collins started the season at QB for the Titans, leading the team to a rock solid 0-3 start.  Rookie extraordinaire Vince Young entered and started his career off with a 2-4 mark.  Sitting at 2-7, the Titans were…well, they were done.  Like the Eagles after the loss of McNabb, they were looking towards next season.  They were also looking at what golf resorts might meet their needs.

Then, something happened.  Vince Young started playing like he was possessed.  First came a win over the Eagles in Philadelphia.  Then, came the game that made everyone see Vince Young in a new light.  Down 21 points in the fourth quarter against the Giants, Young led the team on three scoring drives.  He would throw for two touchdown passes and run for another.  Down 21-0 with 9 minutes to go, the Titans would win 24-21.  Vince Young’s name would be etched into Titans lore, just eight starts into his career.

Young would follow up that performance with three more wins.  An 0-5 team was suddenly 8-7 and, with a lot of help, could actually reach the playoffs, something no 0-5 team had ever done.  However, Young and the Titans would lose their last game to the New England Patriots, making the Titans an 8-8 team for 2006.

But, give coach Jeff Fisher some props for Coach of the Year.  When the team was 0-5 and 2-7, rumors swirled that Fisher was virtually out the door.  The organization would not tolerate this kind of play, no matter how good a coach Fisher had been in the past.  Seven games later, the Titans were a .500 team, Vince Young is the top candidate for Rookie of the Year, and Jeff Fisher looks like a genius, since he helped Young work out the kinks.  2007 looks good for these guys.

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The selection committee for NFL Coach of the Year obviously has their hands full with such a wide group of deserving candidates.  You have teams who barely pulled into the playoffs (Jets, Eagles), teams that cruised in (Saints, Ravens), and teams that just missed the postseason (Titans).

So, who is your choice?

**IMPORTANT NOTES**

Lovie Smith (Bears), though at the top of some people’s lists, was not included due to the lackluster play of Chicago in the second half of the season.  Rex Grossman was benched towards the end of the season and the defense became a shell of themselves in the second half.

Also in the running: Bill Belichick (Patriots) for playoff appearance despite lack of big-name receivers , Marty Schottenheimer (Chargers) for coaching team to best record in NFL, Herman Edwards (Chiefs) for coaching his team to a playoff berth despite losing QB Trent Green for half of the season.

By Matt Wells

27 years old. From New Jersey. I'm a fan of all four major sports, though I know most about football and baseball. Favorite teams: Sabres (NHL), Yankees (MLB). General fan of baseball and football, as well.

One reply on “Tough Decisions For Top Coaching Award”

Maybe Payton and Mangini could share the award. I can’t see how one would clearly deserve it over the other. They both equally do. I’m also glad you mentioned Belichick, because I think that this was his best job since 2001. Injuries and free agency have ravaged the Pats yet they keep finding ways to win.

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