The NFL Coach of the year is oftentimes easy to predict. The head coach with the biggest year-to-year improvement in win percentage is more often than not the Coach of the Year. Sure, there are counterexamples, very often involving Bruce Arians. And Bill Belichick wins by default if no other candidate stands out. But Arians did not coach in 2018 and the Patriots just finished one of their more lackluster season in recent memory.
The Case for Gregg Williams
Going simply by this method, Gregg Williams should be the front-runner for the award. The Cleveland Browns improved from 0-16 to 7-8-1, which is a win-percentage improvement of .469. This leads the league, with the Bears and the Texans rounding out the top three at .438 each.
Williams, of course, is just an interim head coach, taking over from Hue Jackson after Week Eight. This could actually strengthen his resumé. He actually took over a 2-21-1 team and turned it into a 5-3 team. This turnaround of .521 win percentage would rank among the top 10 of all time if it were sustained across a whole season.
But as it is, this will probably hinder his chances of getting the award. Except in very rare cases, like when Arians won the award as the interim head coach during Chuck Pagano’s battle with leukemia, the Coach of the Year award goes the head coaches that coached a full slate of 16 games.
The Case for Matt Nagy and Bill O’Brien
Nagy would be an interesting choice. He would follow up another Coach of the Year that won the award in his first season as a head coach: Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams. Like McVay, Nagy inherited a quarterback that struggled mightily in his rookie season. In 2018 Mitchel Trubisky showed signs of growth and Nagy’s creative offense helped him en route to a 12-4 finish.
But that record was largely stemmed by the league’s best defense, coordinated by Vic Fangio. Fangio was a carry-over from the previous regime. With Nagy being an offensive-minded coach focusing largely on Trubisky, it seems a bit off to give him credit for the defense which he left in the hands of Fangio.
O’Brien’s success, on the other hand, seems entirely tied to Deshaun Watson. Where Nagy should at least be credited with helping his quarterback via playcalling, Watson routinely has to outplay O’Brien’s stale scheme and horrible offensive line situation. O’Brien is 14-8 with Watson under center and 1-11 without him over the past two years. Most of the turnaround the Texans had seems to come from the fact that Watson was healthy for all 16 games.
Coach of the Year Through the DVOA Lens
Instead of applying the win-percentage increase, we can also use Football Outsiders DVOA metric. It gives a comprehensive view of how teams performed on a down-by-down basis and includes opponent adjustments.
If we look at which teams improved the most in total DVOA compared to 2017, Houston ranks fourth and the Bears second, while Cleveland ranks fifth. Since we don’t know the splits of Cleveland between the Jackson and the Williams runs, we have to take their rating with a grain of salt. Here’s the full list:
|TEAM||TOTAL DVOA CHANGE 2017-18||RANK||OFF DVOA CHANGE 2017-18||RANK||DEF DVOA CHANGE 2017-18||RANK|
(Defensive DVOA is better when negative)
The Curious Case of Vance Joseph
Ranked third is a mildly surprising team that just fired its head coach: the Denver Broncos. The Broncos improved on both sides of the ball, but mainly on offense. The addition of Case Keenum and the impact of rookie running back Phillip Lindsay lead to a 20-percentage-points improvement over 2017, which is the second highest mark on offense. In terms of DVOA ranking, Denver’s offense jumped from 31st to 14th.
On defense, Denver improved as well, going from -5.50 percent to -9.70 percent. This improvement of 4.2 percentage points ranks ninth among defenses in 2018, and in terms of ranks, Denver jumped from 10th to fifth.
Needless to say, Vance Joseph won’t be getting any awards. Even if his side of the ball did well, Bill Musgrave was running the offense in Denver. This partly explains why John Elway elected to fire Joseph after two years.
DVOA also agrees that Fangio, and not Nagy, was the driving force behind the Bears’ turnaround. The Bears’ defense leads the league at over 24 percentage points improvement, while the offense “only” improved by 11.5 percentage points, ranking sixth.
Interestingly, the Texans’ jump also was carried by the defense. Romeo Crennel‘s unit showed the third best improvement league-wide, while the offense jumped “only” 6.6 percentage points, good for 11th.
DVOA though has another name to consider for Coach of the Year.
The Case for Frank Reich
It’s no other than the rookie head coach of the Colts. In terms of total DVOA, the Colts edge out the Bears by a thin margin. Contrary to the teams below them, it is actually the side of the ball that the HC is specialized in that carried the team’s turnaround. The Colts improved by nearly 26 percentage points on offense, leading the league by a wide margin.
Reich, of course, got Andrew Luck back healthy, but he also designed game plans specifically to keep Luck healthy. Aside from Luck and T.Y. Hilton, Reich didn’t have a lot of proven talent to work with. He started two rookies on the offensive line, and mostly unknowns at running back. Over 60 percent of Luck’s targets and 85 percent of carries went to guys under the age of 27. Reich helped forgotten guys like Eric Ebron and Chester Rogers to career years. But even the proven talent reached new heights. Hilton hit career marks in yards per game and catch rate. Luck had the best passer rating and QBR of his career.
The Colts turnaround was also aided by the defense, which improved by nearly 12 percentage points (fourth in the league). Naturally, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus deserves credit for that part. But consider the circumstances of this pairing. Reich famously became head coach after Josh McDaniels left the Colts at the altar. McDaniels basically hired Eberflus, so he wasn’t even Reich’s own choice.
The Colts also finished the year with 14 players on injured reserve. On Pro Football Reference, one can see how often players were listed as on injured reserve or out each week, and the Colts used those two designations a total of 444 (!) times during the 2018 season. By comparison, the Texans used them 152 times, while the Bears total 105.
Coming in later in the season than everybody else, and learning to work with staff he had no previous connection with, Reich led a young team riddled with injuries to the playoffs and to the biggest year-to-year improvement of his unit and the total team this year. Long story short: he should be the NFL Coach of the Year.