Mike McCarthy

No kidding? I don't believe it, either.

Those are the last words I ever thought I’d write in this space, but it appears, at least in some circles, that Green Bay Packers boss Mike McCarthy is a legitimate candidate for the NFL’s coach of the year.

Personally, I’d think the Cincinnati Bengals Marvin Lewis is high on a lot of lists, as well as the Indianapolis Colts Jim Caldwell, the New Orleans Saints Sean Payton and possibly the San Diego Chargers Norv Turner, but looking at recent winners says McCarthy has a shot.

The Associated Press, which determines the award, has consistently awarded coaches who engineer great turnarounds or turn in excellent seasons.

McCarthy, Payton, Turner and Lewis would fall into the former category, while Caldwell would fall into the latter.

My main argument against Caldwell is he rode Peyton Manning and tanked his team’s last two games of the season. To the first point, let’s face it – you or I could win at least nine games with Peyton Manning at the helm. Caldwell was handed the keys to a Cadillac and managed not to crash it. To the second point, I have a hard time giving an award to a guy who didn’t even have the integrity to try to win his team’s last two games. Still, the Colts are 14-2, after finishing 12-4 last season, and in the eyes of some voters that record equals the type of excellence befitting a coach of the year.

The argument against Payton is tougher to make. The Saints finished 13-3 and showed a great deal of improvement over last season, when they finished 8-8. The main problem, if I’m a voter, is they dropped their last three games of the season. Not only that, but they looked bad in doing so. It looks like the rest of the NFL has figured out the Saints and that’s likely to cost Payton some votes. Ultimately, the Saints are a team that was supposed to do well this season, so in reality, Payton just lived up to expectations.

Turner is in an almost identical position as Payton. The Chargers were supposed to be good. They were supposed to compete for the top spot in the AFC. They did both of those things. Turner looks good for two reasons, though. First, the Chargers were a mediocre 8-8 last season, so they’ve improved their win total by five games this season. Second, the Chargers are the hottest, best looking team in the NFL right now. While the Colts and Saints have faltered down the stretch, the Chargers have continued to kick ass. The fact that Turner has his team playing its best ball at the right time will go a long way with some voters. What might work against him is the AFC West, which next to the NFC West is the worst division in football.

To me, Lewis is the candidate that feels right. After finishing 4-12 in 2008 after his team was decimated by injuries, Lewis pulled off a 10-6 season and AFC North title in 2009. Not only is that the kind of turnaround voters like, but Lewis vanquished both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens to win the division. No offense to the Bengals, but both the Steelers and Ravens have more talent than they do, which strengthens Lewis’ case. Under Lewis, the 2009 Bengals drastically changed the way they approached the game, becoming a team that ran the ball and played tough defense instead of relying solely on the passing game. The makeover was impressive and produced a team that went undefeated in its division.

The argument for McCarthy goes something like this. The Packers improved from 6-10 to 11-5 and is one of the NFL’s hottest teams going into the playoffs. McCarthy found ways to patch holes in the offensive line during the season and his offseason hiring of Dom Capers as defensive coordinator looks nothing short of brilliant after the Packers finished second in total defense. McCarthy has turned Aaron Rodgers into one of the best quarterbacks in the game and helped the Packers turn the page on Brett Favre. Unfortunately, McCarthy didn’t beat Favre and the Minnesota Vikings this season and that ultimately cost the team the division title. It’s that last blight that, to me, doesn’t make McCarthy a serious threat.

Here’s the list of the Associated Press’ NFL Coach of the Year for the past decade. In parentheses is the coach’s record followed by the team’s record the previous season. Following that is the win increase and each team’s division finish. Rookie head coaches are marked with an asterisk.

2008: Mike Smith,* Atlanta Falcons (11-5, 4-12) +7, 2nd (wild card)
2007: Bill Belicheck, New England Patriots (16-0, 12-4) +4, 1st
2006: Sean Payton,* New Orleans Saints (10-6, 3-13) +7, 1st
2005: Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears (11-5, 5-11) +6, 1st
2004: Marty Schottenheimer, San Diego Chargers (12-4, 4-12) +8, 1st
2003: Bill Belicheck, New England Patriots (14-2, 9-7) +5, 1st
2002: Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles (12-4, 11-5) +1, 1st
2001: Dick Jauron, Chicago Bears (13-3, 5-11) +8, 1st
2000: Jim Haslett,* New Orleans Saints (10-6, 3-13) +7, 1st

If you want to get into the statistical analysis of the past decade, it breaks down as such.

Rookie coaches: 33%
Coaches rewarded for big turnarounds: 66%
Coaches rewarded for excellence: 33%
Average number of wins: 12.1
Average increase in wins: +5.9
Division winners: 88%

Clearly, voters have historically favored the big turnaround and coaches who win their division. While there are certainly intangibles that factor into the voters’ decisions, such as overcoming adversity (see: Mike Smith), those things can’t be measured. This year’s leading candidates stack up like this.

Jim Caldwell* (14-2, 12-4) +2, 1st
Sean Payton (13-3, 8-8) +5, 1st
Norv Turner (13-3, 8-8) +5, 1st
Marvin Lewis (10-6, 4-12) +6, 1st
Mike McCarthy (11-5, 6-10) +5, 2nd (wild card)

With this in mind, Lewis seems to most closely mirror the overall trends, followed by Payton. Therefore, I’d handicap the race like this.

Lewis, 1:2
Payton, 3:1
Turner, 4:1
McCarthy, 5:1
Caldwell, 7:1

Unfortunately, I’m not a licensed bookmaker, so I won’t be taking any bets.

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