There’s one last bit of business to clean up on the NFL regular season before the Notebook moves its focus to the playoffs and that’s the Coach of the Year. Yesterday, we did an examination of the MVP candidates to see if Aaron Rodgers deserved the favorite’s role. The COY debate also has a clear man to beat—there may be several viable candidates, but if you take Jim Harbaugh at San Francisco, your vote will be taken at face value. If you want anyone else, be prepared to explain yourself.
That’s fair. The 49ers were terrible a year ago and when you factor in the weakness of the NFC West, they were even worse than the 6-10 record suggested. This year, they not only won 13 games, but they did it in a division that looked at least semi-competent at times. And regardless of the W-L record, Harbaugh made Alex Smith look like a starting quarterback in the NFL. Smith may not stop the angst Frisco people feel for not taking local boy Rodgers with the first pick of the 2005 NFL draft, but he no longer stands in the way of a great defense winning games. San Francisco is a realistic threat to win the Super Bowl, and even a lot of doubters might grant them the honor of being better than anyone in the AFC. There’s the Jim Harbaugh resume and it’s awfully impressive. We’ll let the other candidates line up and try and beat it.
Contenders for this honor are going to split into two different groups. The first have what we call conventional criteria. Their teams played a lot better than expected, and because the media will never admit to bad prognosticating, that’s always attributed to the head coach, or they made some sort of benchmark playoff appearance. The other candidates are what myself and a friend of mine call “LaRussa Candidates.” From 1988-90 when Tony LaRussa’s Oakland A’s were running away with division titles, he never got his due in Manager of the Year deliberations because everyone took it for granted. He was essentially penalized for previous success. LaRussa’s hardly the only one, but he’s the guy we named it for back in college, so that’s the name this phenomena takes into the pages of the Notebook over twenty years later. Here’s the breakdown…
Conventional Choices: Jim Schwartz (Detroit), Gary Kubiak (Houston), John Fox (Denver), Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati). If I had to hire any one of these guys to coach my team, Fox would be the first on the list, but he’s also the first I’m throwing out because he went 8-8 and got into the playoffs on a three-way tie in a division with no good team. Put that 8-8 anywhere else and we see it for what it is—a nice first step on the building process and possible good things ahead, but not Coach of the Year stuff. I’m also tossing Kubiak because his playoff run was only about three years overdue. Schwartz makes the list for ending the Lions’ long playoff drought, but when you look at the quality of personnel on the roster, it’s more an achievement built since 2009 rather than any unique coaching done this season.
Lewis is a serious contender. The point that he made the playoffs with a rookie quarterback in a division with two of the NFL’s best is strong enough. But how about the work he did with the defense. We take note of the Bengals’ defense almost casually, forgetting that there’s not a single player on there that really catches anyone’s attention, save for maybe Geno Atkins at defensive tackle who you’ve probably never heard of. On ESPN radio yesterday, Mike & Mike In The Morning was discussing this and Mike Greenberg made a salient point—that if you told him San Francisco would win the NFC West back in August he wouldn’t have been shocked. But if you told him Cincinnati would make the playoffs, he’d have fallen over. Now that doesn’t consider the fact that Frisco didn’t just win the NFC West, they became a 13-win Super Bowl contender, but it does show how weakly regarded Cincinnati was. I recall picking the Bengals to finish ahead of the Browns and feeling like I’d taken the biggest stand of the season. Lewis wins the honor of being the Conventional Choice Challenger to Harbaugh.
The LaRussa Candidates: Mike McCarthy (Green Bay), Bill Belichick (New England), Sean Payton (New Orleans), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh), John Harbaugh (Baltimore). I’ll eliminate Payton and Harbaugh first because I don’t feel like they overcame any unique talent deficiency. Belichick and Tomlin each have huge talent deficiencies in key areas—for the Patriots it’s the entire defense, for the Steelers it’s both lines and the corners, but they each keep churning out wins behind coaching and great quarterbacks. I give the nod to Tomlin, because as tough as Big Ben might be, he’s no Brady, and the AFC North was a tougher division to win. And when all else fails, the Steelers beat the Patriots head-to-head. I also give Tomlin an edge over McCarthy, who had similar problems on both lines, but a lot more playmakers on defense and the superior quarterback. The Pittsburgh boss wins The LaRussa Honor.
That leaves Tomlin and Lewis, the boys from the AFC North to challenge frontrunning Jim Harbaugh. The biggest argument against the two challengers is that neither won a division. It’s Harbaugh’s brother John who’s preparing for a home playoff game in a couple weeks, while the Steelers and Bengals go on the road. Therefore, as impressive as their resumes might be, no one stands up to the 49er head coach. Jim Harbaugh’s Coach of the Year credentials stand up under close scrutiny.