Down is up and up is down this season in the NFL coaching world.
Some of the league’s best coaches are having bad years while some of the least accomplished coaches are turning everything they touch into gold.
The rookie head coaches have been a mixed bag. Some of them are among the league’s best in 2016 and others are struggling.
The list of the NFL’s best coaches through the first quarter of the season is self-explanatory. No. 1 is the best. The list of the worst coaches begins with the “best” of the lot at No. 5 and counts down to the league’s worst coach so far this year at No. 1.
No. 5: Jeff Fisher
Jeff Fisher has been a punching bag, but it takes some coaching to get a marginally talented team to win three straight games after losing 28-0 to a lousy 49ers team in Week 1.
Historically, Jeff Fisher-coached teams that start 2-1 have an 85% chance of being completely mediocre.
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) September 26, 2016
Jeff Fisher has the Rams off to a 3-1 start after Sunday’s 17-13 win at Arizona, and his first smart decision was keeping No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff on the bench and not rushing a rookie quarterback who’s not ready.
Not that Case Keenum is the next Kurt Warner. He’s thrown four touchdown passes and completed 55.4 percent of his throws. The Rams’ offense was supposed to begin and end with Todd Gurley, but he’s only 21st in the league with 216 rushing yards and he’s averaging 2.6 yards per carry.
So the Rams must be a brick wall on defense, right?
Los Angeles is 23rd in yards allowed per game. They’re won their last two games, both on the road, despite allowing more than 400 yards.
Fisher isn’t always the greatest coach between the lines. He lost two challenges Sunday and meekly called for a field goal on 4th-and-inches from the Cardinals 11 in the second quarter. But he has the Rams off to their best start since 2006.
No. 4: Jason Garrett
The Cowboys’ drafting acumen is a big reason why they’re 3-1 without Tony Romo and with a hobbled Dez Bryant.
Fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott has completed nearly 68 percent of his passes without an interception and first-round rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads the league with 412 rushing yards.
Someone has to make it all work on the field, however, and that’s what Jason Garrett has done. The Cowboys have come out ready to play, scoring first in each of their first three games and jumping out to 10-0 first-quarter leads in a 27-23 Week 2 win at Washington and a 31-17 Week 3 home win over Chicago.
On Sunday, the Cowboys fell behind 14-0 at San Francisco and reached into the depth chart to tie the game by halftime with touchdowns from receivers Terrance Williams and Brice Butler before going on to a 24-17 win.
The Cowboys have been without Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith for the last two games and they were without left guard La’el Collins on Sunday.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told the Dallas Morning News via Pro Football Talk that he didn’t expect the Cowboys to be 3-1 at this point in the season.
That seems like an endorsement of his head coach.
No. 3: Doug Pederson
The Eagles’ over-under for wins this season on OddsShark was set at seven.
A week before the regular season began, the Eagles dealt Sam Bradford to the desperate Vikings for a first-round pick in 2017 and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018. The deal seemed like an investment in the future considering it made rookie Carson Wentz the Eagles’ starting quarterback.
It looks like the future is now in Philadelphia.
Wentz has led the Eagles to a 3-0 start under the guidance of first-year head coach Doug Pederson, himself a former quarterback.
The Eagles won their season opener 29-10 at home against the Browns. No big deal.
In Week 2, they won 29-14 at Chicago on Monday Night Football. They might have turned a few heads with that victory.
Then in Week 3, they beat the Steelers 34-3, dealing them their most lopsided loss since 1989.
Now the City of Brotherly Love has fallen in love with Wentz.
And Pederson is a sight for sore eyes after three years of Chip Kelly.
So Doug Pederson beats the Steelers by 31 and a week later his mentor, Andy Reid, is already down to the Steelers by 22.
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 3, 2016
No. 2: Jack Del Rio
Jack Del Rio has earned the nickname “Black Jack” Del Rio for his gambling ways this season.
Instead of doing the conventional thing and kicking the extra point when the Raiders tied the Saints 34-34 with 47 seconds left in Week 1, Del Rio went for two and it paid off.
On Sunday, the Raiders led the Ravens 14-3 in the first half and 21-12 in the fourth quarter, but fell behind 27-21. Then Del Rio’s troops showed some resiliency. Derek Carr moved the Raiders 66 yards on six plays for the go-ahead touchdown, a 23-yard pass to Michael Crabtree. It was Crabtree’s third touchdown catch of the game.
The Raiders are one of the few teams projected to improve this season that actually have improved. Up-and-coming teams can struggle on the road, but not Del Rio’s team.
Through four games, the Raiders (3-1) have won all three of their road games and lost their one home game. That home loss doesn’t seem so bad considering it came against the Falcons.
If Del Rio keeps up the good work and earns a long tenure with the Raiders, perhaps his nickname will become “Silver and Black” Jack.
No. 1: Mike Zimmer
Twelve days before their season opener, the Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater to a knee injury so gruesome that some players threw up.
The Vikings got to within a missed field goal of the NFC divisional playoffs last year, but 2016 looked like it could have been a lost season without Bridgewater.
Sam Bradford, a quarterback who had been serviceable at best in his career, arrived via trade. But after one half of football that lost-season fear seemed warranted. The Vikings were trailing 10-0 at Tennessee.
Who knows what Mike Zimmer said at halftime, but the Vikings won the game 25-16 on four Blair Walsh field goals and two defensive touchdowns with Shaun Hill at quarterback.
Bradford was ready to start in the Vikings’ home opener against the Packers in Week 2, but Adrian Peterson went down with a torn meniscus after gaining just 19 yards through three quarters. Still, the Vikings managed to win that game 17-14 then stunned the Panthers at Carolina 22-10 in Week 3 before improving to 4-0 Monday night against the Giants.
Zimmer must have done something to keep his team emotionally buoyed after losing Bridgewater, and after making his living on the defensive side of the ball for nearly two decades as an assistant coach, he’s overseeing a defense that’s seventh in the league with 306 yards allowed per game and second only to the Eagles (who have played one less game) with 12.5 points allowed per game.
No matter how the 2016 season unfolds from this point, it won’t be a lost season in Minnesota.
No. 5: Bruce Arians
The Cardinals were supposed to be on a mission to get to the Super Bowl this year after being humiliated in the NFC championship game by the Panthers last year.
It’ll be awfully hard to accomplish that mission after a 1-3 start.
The Cardinals opened the season with a 23-21 home loss to the Patriots. As well as the Patriots did without Tom Brady, Arians should have been able to take advantage of his absence.
The Cardinals’ only win came against interception machine Jameis Winston and the Bucs in Week 2. Arizona is the only team in the NFL without any first-quarter points. That speaks to a lack of mental or physical preparation. Or both.
Arians has won the NFL Coach of the Year award twice. He could still win it this year but he’s got a lot of work to do.
No. 4: Adam Gase
The Dolphins (1-3) seemed ready to turn the corner after their 0-2 start. In Week 1, they were 31 seconds away from winning at Seattle before giving up the game-winning touchdown and losing 12-10. Then in Week 2 they roared back from a 31-3 deficit and came within a Hail Mary of winning at New England.
That’s when leading receiver Jarvis Landry angrily proclaimed that the Dolphins can’t be an “almost” team.
Well, the Dolphins almost lost to the winless Browns at home in Week 3. If it weren’t for Cody Parkey’s missed field goal at the end of regulation, the Dolphins wouldn’t have been able to pull the game out in overtime.
The Dolphins regressed in Week 4, going scoreless in the game’s final 54 minutes and falling 22-7 at Cincinnati.
It’s only 3 games, but how lucky are the #Eagles that the Rams picked Goff and Adam Gase picked the Dolphins?
— Eliot Shorr-Parks (@EliotShorrParks) September 30, 2016
Adam Gase was brought in to snap Ryan Tannehill out of his perennial mediocrity. So far, however, it looks like the same old Tannehill. With six touchdown passes, he’s on pace to throw 24, the same number as last year. He’s also thrown five interceptions, which puts him on pace for 20. He’s never thrown more than 17 in a season.
The 38-year-old Gase hasn’t been much of a quarterback whisperer in Miami and so far he’s no coaching wunderkind.
No. 3: Ron Rivera
Of all the teams in the NFL that are 1-3 or worse, no team has fallen farther to hit those depths than the Panthers.
And no coach’s stock has taken a bigger tumble than that of the reigning Coach of the Year.
It’s never easy to start the season on the road against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Panthers’ 21-20 loss to the Broncos is the type of defeat that has to be taken in stride. However, the Panthers seem to be ceding control of the NFC a little too easily to the Vikings and Falcons. As stern as the Vikings’ defense is, the Panthers went scoreless against Minnesota at home in the final 50 minutes of their 22-10 loss in Week 3.
The defending NFC champions have to do a little better than that.
The Panthers’ only win was more difficult than it had to be. They didn’t take control at home against the 49ers until the third quarter, opening up a 31-10 lead. The 49ers (1-3) pulled to within 34-27 with less than eight minutes left in the game before the Panthers pulled away again.
Rivera has led the Panthers to three straight NFC South titles and a Super Bowl, but he’s been inconsistent even in that success. After a 12-4 season in 2013, the Panthers needed only a 7-8-1 record to win the division in 2014. Then last year they went 15-1 and looked like a perennial power in the making.
They don’t look like one this year.
No. 2: Jim Caldwell
After starting the season 1-7 last year, Jim Caldwell kept his job by going 6-2 in the second half of the season.
The Lions are off to a 1-3 start this year, and Caldwell might not be able to keep getting away with slow starts with general manager Bob Quinn in his second season.
If it weren’t for Matt Prater’s field goal with four seconds left at Indianapolis, the Lions would be winless. The Titans and Bears, both 1-3 teams, have beaten the Lions. Detroit’s other loss came at Green Bay. That’s an understandable loss, but the Lions fell behind 31-3 in that game before their too-little, too-late rally made the final score 34-27.
Andre Roberts’ punt return with two minutes left put lipstick on the Lions’ pig of a performance Sunday, making the final score 17-14 against the previously winless Bears.
Another game where Jim Caldwell doesn’t have the #Lions ready to play and Stafford starts cold. Can tweet this 11 times a year.
— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) October 2, 2016
Going up against Brian Hoyer, the Lions had a chance to build on the momentum of their late-game surge in Green Bay. Instead, they’re three games out of first place in the NFC North.
No. 1: Gus Bradley
This is a Lifetime Underachievement Award just as much as it is an indictment on Gus Bradley’s work this season.
Bradley has never started better than 1-3 through four games in any of his four seasons as Jaguars coach, although after starting 0-4 in 2013 and 2014 the Jags have started 1-3 in each of the last two years. That kind of glacial improvement, however, isn’t going to cool Bradley’s hot seat.
With a young offensive core of Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns and all the focus on defense in free agency and the draft, the playoffs were at least supposed to be a possibility for the Jaguars this year. But they’ve been one of the league’s bigger disappointments.
Who knows where the Jaguars would be if they had pulled out that Week 1 game at home against the Packers. They had the ball at their own 37 down 27-23 with 3:17 left, but they had no timeouts remaining and were stopped at the Packers’ 14 with 23 seconds left.
Instead of building on that close loss to a playoff-caliber team, the Jaguars laid an egg in Week 2 at San Diego, committing 14 penalties and falling 38-14.
The Jaguars couldn’t hold a fourth-quarter lead in a 19-17 home loss to the Ravens and almost blew a 23-6 lead in beating the Colts 30-27 Sunday at London.
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