The lead up to any NFL season always features a new slew of rankings. From mostly meaningless Madden Ratings to the NFL Top 100 to various site putting out their rankings of position players, there is no shortage to be found. There has been a lot of talk lately about NFL.com ranking Mike Tomlin as the 9th best coach in the league entering 2019. From earlier this offseason, The Sporting News ranked Tomlin 8th. The difference was the placement of Tomlin and Chargers coach Anthony Lynn who NFL.com put 8th and The Sporting News put 9th. USA Today ranked Tomlin 9th with Mike Zimmer ahead of him and Anthony Lynn well behind. From a qualitative standpoint, it seems generally agreed upon that Mike Tomlin is in the Top 10 of NFL head coaches but not in the Top 5. All of the 3 rankings above put Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Sean Payton, Andy Reid, Doug Pederson, Sean McVay and John Harbaugh ahead of Tomlin.
Depending on who you ask from Steelers Nation, the general feeling is that Tomlin is either under-rated in the bottom half of the Top 10 or wildly over-rated. There is not much middle ground. I decided to dig deeper into six key statistics that are generally cited when arguing about the relative success and abilities of head coaches:
- Regular Season Win Percentage (RSW%)
- Playoff Win Percentage (POW%)
- Division Titles (DivT)
- Playoff Appearances (POFF)
- Conference Championships (CONF)
- Super Bowl Wins (SBWs)
There have been 91 head coaches in the NFL since Mike Tomlin took the helm in Pittsburgh in 2007. Of those 90 other coaches, 6 were newly hired after the 2018 season and are not included in these rankings as they have never coached an NFL game. Furthermore, all of the other ranking scales are focused on current NFL head coaches, so it does not make sense to compare Tomlin’s numbers with coaches who did not coach in the league recently. Therefore, I pared the analysis down to 34 coaches – namely, all of those who were a head coach at some point during the 2018 NFL season.
These 34 coaches can generally be separated into tiers based on years of experience. Bill Belichick and Andy Reid lead the pack with 24 years and 20 years of head coaching experience, respectively. The next tier features Pete Carroll, Mike McCarthy, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, Jon Gruden, John Harbaugh, and Marvin Lewis. They have all been head coaches for 11-16 years. Jason Garrett and Ron Rivera are the only coaches who have made it past the 5-year mark but have not reached a decade. Bill O’Brien, Mike Zimmer, Bruce Arians, Doug Marrone, Jay Gruden, Joe Philbin, and Todd Bowels have all been coaches for 5 seasons. Coaches with fewer than 5 years experience are Dan Quinn, Anthony Lynn, Doug Pederson, Sean McVay, Sean McDermott, Adam Gase, Dirk Koetter, Gregg Williams, Vance Joseph, Kyle Shanahan, Pat Shurmur, and Hue Jackson. Matt Nagy, Frank Reich, Mike Vrabel, and Matt Patricia just completed their first year of coaching.
Win percentages in both the regular season and the playoffs are relatively straightforward numbers. These statistics do favor coaches with shorter tenures as they have not had to experience the ups and downs of roster rebuildings. Sean McVay and Matt Nagy sit at the top of the regular season win percentage list with 75% marks. Behind them are Bill Belichick (68%) and Mike Tomlin (65.4%). Of the 34 coaches considered, 10 never made the playoffs (Vrabel, Philbin, Koetter, Williams, Bowles, Patricia, Joseph, Shanahan, Shurmur, Jackson). Additionally 5 more never won a playoff game (Nagy, Lewis, Gase, McDermott, Jay Gruden). This leaves just 19 current coaches that have won playoff games. Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson leads the least with an 80% postseason win percentage, followed by Bill Belichick’s 73.8%. Of this group, Mike Tomlin sits exactly in the middle in 10th with a 53.3% playoff winning percentage. Coaches on the same experience level as Tomlin (10+ years) are mostly similar, led by John Harbaugh’s 62.5%, Sean Payton’s 57.1%, Pete Carroll and Jon Gruden’s 55.6%, and Andy Reid’s 46.2%.
While win percentages are relatively straightforward regardless of experience, the four cumulative data points can be harder to compare. For instance, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid have more playoff appearances than any other coach has seasons in the league. Belichick’s numbers are obviously off the charts (16 Division Titles, 17 Playoff Appearances, 9 Conference Championships, 6 Super Bowls) in his 24-year career. In order to normalize the data for the rest of the coaches, I divided the four cumulative data points (Division Titles, Playoff Appearances, Conference Championships, Super Bowls) by the years of coaching experience for each coach.
On average, these 34 coaches won Division Titles in 26% of their seasons, had Playoff Appearances in 40% of their seasons, won a Conference Championship in 7% of their seasons and won a Super Bowl in 3% of their seasons. These numbers are almost identical to the “expected” averages where 1 in 4 teams (25%) wins a division title each year, 6 in 16 make the playoffs (42%), 1 in 16 wins a conference title (6%) and 1 in 32 wins the Super Bowl (3%). The slight variations are because the years of experience encompass years when other coaches not included in this ranking were in the league.
Sean McVay and Matt Nagy both have perfect marks of winning division titles in all of their coaching seasons. Bill Belichick (66.7%), Bill O’Brien (60%) and Mike Tomlin (50%) come next. All 29 other coaches are below 50% for division titles. The Wild Card adds an additional factor for Playoff Appearances, adding Frank Reich to the perfect mark list with McVay and Nagy. Belichick has made the playoffs in 71% of his seasons and Andy Reid in 70%. Mike Tomlin is tied for 8th in this metric with Doug Pederson at a 66.7% clip of making the playoffs.
As we hear often in Pittsburgh, simply making the playoffs is not seen as enough. A coach is expected to have success once he gets there. Sean McVay leads the pack in Conference Championships, having reached the Super Bowl in 50% of his seasons. Not surprisingly, Belichick comes in second at 37.5%. Doug Pederson (33%), Dan Quinn (25%) and Mike Tomlin (16.7%) round out the Top 5. Of the 34 coaches, only 12 have won a conference title. While Bill Belichick has won the most Super Bowls, Doug Pederson has been the most efficient with 1 Lombardi Trophy in his 3 seasons (33%). Belichick comes in second at a remarkable 25% clip. No other coach is over 10% with John Harbaugh 9% followed by Mike Tomlin and Sean Payton (8%) rounding out the Top 5.
Among the 34 coaches considered, after Belichick’s 9 Conference Championships, Pete Carroll and Mike Tomlin are the only others with more than one. Of all 85 men that have coached since 2007, only Mike Holmgren (3), Tom Coughlin (2), Mike Shanahan (2), and John Fox (2) have made more than one Super Bowl. To win a Super Bowl is even more elite company. While Belichick has 6 Lombardi Trophies, no other current coach has more than one. Carroll, Tomlin, Payton, Gruden, Harbaugh, and Pederson are the only other active coaches with a Super Bowl victory. Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan are the only coaches during the last 12 years with more than one Super Bowl. Additionally, retired coaches Mike Holmgren, Tony Dungy, and Gary Kubiak have won the Super Bowl.
Ranking The Coaches
In order to accurately compare and rank the 34 current coaches with their contemporaries, I used a standard deviation metric for each of the six data points. Each coach received a standard deviation score in each of the 6 categories. A score of 0 meant they were perfectly in line with the average marks of the current coaches. Scores in the negative meant they trailed their colleagues in a given category while scores in the positive indicated they were above average by a certain degree. In the end, I added together the 6 standard deviation scores for a Total Coaching Score.
Not surprisingly, Bill Belichick tops the rankings with a Total Coaching Score of 10.40. In 24 years of coaching, his 6 Super Bowl wins are nearly 3 standard deviations above league average and his 9 AFC Championships are 2.5 standard deviations above average. Coming in second is Sean McVay with a Total Coaching Score of 9.71. McVay’s only below-average category was in Super Bowl victories. In third place is Eagles coach Doug Pederson who has also seen significant success in a short career. Pederson has a Total Coaching Score of 9.52, nearly half of it coming from his 1 Super Bowl victory in 3 seasons (4 full standard deviations above average). There is a clear separation between the Top 3 coaches in the rankings and the other 31. The Top 3 all have Total Coaching Scores above 9.5, more than double any other coach in the rankings.
In fourth place is……Mike Tomlin.
This might come as a surprise but Tomlin has a Total Coaching Score of 4.71 and is above league average marks in all six categories. The only category where Tomlin is more than 1 standard deviation above average is in Regular Season Win Percentage while his Playoff Win Percentage is about 1/2 of a standard deviation above average. Rounding out the Top 5 is Pete Carroll with a Total Coaching Score of 3.77.
The most average coaches in the league (those with a Total Coaching Score) closest to 0 are Houston’s Bill O’Brien and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer. O’Brien’s Total Coaching Score is 0.25 and he is below average in 3 of the 6 categories. Zimmer’s Total Coaching Score is -0.22 and he is also below average in 3 of the 6 categories. Both coaches have 5 years of experience.
At the bottom of the rankings is, not surprisingly, Hue Jackson who the Browns somehow did not can after going 1-31 in his first two seasons as head coach. Jackson has a Total Coaching Score of -7.60. Joining him at the bottom are other short-term head coaches who failed to make the playoffs including Pat Shurmur (-6.81), Kyle Shanahan (-6.76), Vance Joseph (-6.52), and Matt Patricia (-6.27).
Here is a chart of all of the data:
Comparing Tomlin with his Cohort
Averaging out season results based on coaching tenures is a good way to normalize the data. However, as one can see by the rankings, it does give an advantage to coaches who have been in the league a short amount of time and seen significant success. Arguably, it is much more impressive that Bill Belichick has been able to sustain the success he has had over a 24-year career than what Sean McVay and Doug Pederson have done in 2 and 3 years, respectively. At the outset of this post, I identified Mike Tomlin with a tier of coaches who have been at the helm for more than a decade. Belichick is the clear and obvious top coach in the league, but Tomlin is generally ranked below the other coaches of his experience tier, including Pete Carroll, Sean Payton, and John Harbaugh. Recently-fired Packers coach Mike McCarthy deserves consideration in this tier as well, along with Jon Gruden, Marvin Lewis, and Andy Reid.
Of this cohort of 8 coaches that were hired before 2009, Mike Tomlin and Pete Carroll are the only ones to reach more than one Super Bowl. Carroll, Tomlin, Gruden, Payton, Harbaugh, and McCarthy have all won a Super Bowl while Andy Reid is 0-1 in Super Bowl appearances. Reid does have the most playoff appearances (14) and division titles (9) of the group, but he also has 7 more years of coaching experience than the rest of the group (except for Marvin Lewis’ 16 years). Pete Carroll and Mike McCarthy both went to the playoffs 9 times in 13 seasons while Tomlin has been to 8 postseasons in 12 years. Sean Payton has been to the playoffs 7 times and Jon Gruden just 5 times in their 12 years of coaching. John Harbaugh has been the most efficient of the group with 7 playoff appearances in 11 years as coach, though he has the fewest division titles with just three.
It is worth noting that these are total career statistics so Pete Carroll’s numbers include his time with the Patriots, Gruden’s numbers include his time with the Bucs and Raiders and Reid’s numbers include results with the Eagles. Nevertheless, it should be fairly obvious that Mike Tomlin is in no way falling behind his cohort of coaches. Even if you added in the two other coaches with more than five years of experience (Jason Garrett and Ron Rivera), Tomlin would still be ahead of them. Recency bias can be a strong factor in impressions of coaches. Additionally, playing in the AFC in the shadow of Bill Belichick has certainly tainted the view of coaching success in the NFL. Belichick is an off-the-charts exception to the rule. Tomlin’s career has been at least as good if not slightly better than the rest of his non-Belichickian cohort.
So where should Mike Tomlin rank among NFL head coaches? He is certainly not on the elite level of Bill Belichick. Sean McVay and Doug Pederson have seen tremendous success in a short amount of time at the beginning of their careers. When compared against the current crop of 34 coaches, there is a mathematical case to be made that Tomlin is above average in all six major statistical categories and deserves to be considered among the Top 5 current coaches in the league. Additionally, when Tomlin is considered against all 85 men that have coached in the league since 2007, the statistical analysis puts him in the Top 5 once again with a Total Coaching Score of 7.51, behind Bill Belichick (14.92), Doug Pederson (14.06), Sean McVay (13.63) and Jim Harbaugh (7.81). Tomlin is in the same range as Harbaugh, Tony Dungy (6.74), Mike Holmgren (6.69) and Pete Carroll (6.39). The data is clear that Tomlin should be considered in the Top 5 among current NFL coaches.