Bruce Coslet Award
Editor's Note: I incorrectly listed the Baltimore Raven's coach as Jim Harbaugh instead of John Harbaugh. You might recall that Jim Harbaugh was a quarterback for the Chicago Bears and later the Indianapolis Colts. Yes, John and Jim are brothers.
AFC Coach of the Year
January 2, 2009
Four months of professional football invariably produces coaching success and failure. On the low side there's Kansas City's Herman Edwards, Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, Cleveland's recently dispatched Romeo Crennel, and anyone unfortunate enough to work for Al Davis. But the lowest of the low goes to former Broncos head man Mike Shanahan.
Denver fell apart down the stretch, becoming the first team in league history to blow a three-game lead in the final three games. The Broncos failed to show up for the season finale in San Diego with the NFC West title and the playoffs on the line. They would've been no worse off had they stayed in their hotel rooms. However, coaching awards are based on the successes, and there was no shortage of those either.
Bill Belichick led New England to an 11-5 record. That may sound disappointing, especially since the Patriots missed the playoffs, until you factor the loss of Tom Brady early in the season. Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, the NFL's most underrated coach, faced the meltdown of Vince Young and transformed it into the AFC's best record behind journeyman quarterback Kerry Collins. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin spearheaded a Steelers staff that produced the AFC's stingiest defense, ranking near the top in every important statistical category.
These three coaches turned in admirable performances. But there can only be three finalists, and only one winner.
1- John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
John Harbaugh cut his teeth coaching special teams before taking the Raven's top job. In fact, he was the NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year twice. Therefore, you'd think the Raven's success would be due to special teams. Yet those units were merely average and their offense was anything but a juggernaut.
Baltimore's offense was directed by a rookie quarterback and they produced no 1000-yard runner. Still they managed to top the AFC in rushing and time of possession, a telling stat considering their defensive strengths. They took care of the football, placing third in turnover differential, and were fourth in scoring. Harbaugh and staff made the most of what they had.
Predictably, the Ravens sparkled defensively. They were near the top of the AFC in all pertinent defensive categories and their 26 picks led the conference. What's more, the Ravens' scored more on interception returns (5 TDs) than their opponents did on the ground (4 rushing TDs).
Harbaugh took over a team that lost nine of its last ten in 2007 to finish 5-11 and turned them into an 11-5 playoff team. If not for a disputable referee's call against Pittsburgh they would have won their last six games and likely the AFC North.
2- Tony Sparano, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins did little more this season than win. They ranked 8th in total defense, only 12th against the pass, and surrendering big plays was an ever-present danger.
Miami fared better on offense, producing the AFC's fifth best passing and sixth best running game. But Sparano's Dolphins made their living taking care of the football. They lost only six fumbles and threw but seven interceptions on the way to a plus-17 turnover differential, best in the league.
Sparano assumed a team that in 2007 had made a run at the history Detroit achieved this year. The Dolphins didn't win until Week 15 on the way to a 1-15 record. When they lost their first two games this year it would've been easy to surrender the season. But everything changed for Miami with a Week Three 38-13 thrashing of New England in Foxboro. From there they won 11 of 14, including their last five, in route to the AFC East title.
If it's true that success flows from the top down, credit Sparano with the Dolphins' new attitude.
3- Tony Dungy, Indianapolis Colts
Yes, the Colts are a perennial playoff team. They are expected to win and anything else is a failure for a Dungy coached team. Yes, Payton Manning is alive and well; he is still the league's best passer and is still guiding Indy's aerial assault. The offensive line was stellar, allowing the immobile Payton to be sacked only 14 times.
However, the running game was virtually non-existent. The Colts were dead last in both rushing yards and average per carry and produced only five rushes greater than 20 yards all year. So, with the total reliance on Manning, Harrison, Wayne and the defense, why consider Dungy?
As one dimensional as the Colts' offense was, the defense was rock solid, and a strong defense has Tony Dungy's fingerprints all over it. Indianapolis' defense ranked fifth in the AFC overall and third against the pass. The secondary surrendered just six touchdown passes and only three teams bested the Colts in scoring defense.
Indy stumbled to a 3-4 start, prompting some experts to proclaim their era of dominance over. The eulogy was premature. Dungy led his Colts on a nine game winning streak to reach the playoffs and tie the Steelers (whom they beat 24-20 in Pittsburgh) for the AFC's second best record. Tony Dungy's steady hand and unflappable demeanor kept Indianapolis focused on the long term, not on the early season adversities.
While one coach righted a ship that was used to winning and another turned around one that lost big in 2007, with a rookie quarterback at the helm no less, there is only one clear choice for the AFC's top coach. Tony Sparano took last year's version of the Detroit Lions and constructed a division champion, resurrecting Chad Pennington's career in the process.
2008 AFC Coach of the Year
Tony Sparano, Miami Dolphins
AFC Coach of the Year
You needn't look far to find candidates for the AFC's top coach. Jeff Fisher (Tennessee) and Romeo Crennel (Cleveland) turned in worthy performances in 2007. Fisher led a Titan team with no true stars to the playoffs and Crennel gave Browns fans something to cheer about after Halloween for the first time in recent memory. But the three nominees were an easy choice.
Bill Belichick- New England Patriots
Belichick's offense lit up the conference in 2007. The Patriots led the AFC in points, total yards, and yards per play. They led every major passing category, set an NFL record for points scored, and Tom Brady threw an amazing 50 TD passes against only nine interceptions. Yet, despite their pass-oriented offense New England was second in the AFC in time of possession and rushed for over 115 yards a game while losing only 6 fumbles. Furthermore, only Cleveland and Cincinnati allowed fewer sacks.
The defense was overshadowed to say the least. But don't overlook this consistent unit's contribution to the Patriot's success. They ranked third in total defense, fifth against the pass and fourth against the run, and topped the AFC in sacks. What's more, their unbeaten season was no fluke. The Pats beat six of the NFL's 12 playoff teams, four of them badly and three of them on their home fields. If that isn't enough, New England beat four division champions.
Success isn't new to Belichick and New England. But Belichick has the reputation of being a strict perfectionist, expecting nothing less than flawlessness from everyone on the team. Every Patriot, including the eccentric Randy Moss, bought his philosophy. Is he a jerk? Probably. A cheater? Maybe. The fact is that Belichick gets his message across and his players emulate his determination.
Norv Turner- San Diego Chargers
Turner is supposed to be an offensive mind, although his past stints as a head coach belie that image. Oddly, it was the Chargers' defense that drove the team. Although they ranked only eight in the AFC in total defense they were fourth where it counts, surrendering 17.8 points per contest. Only New England sacked more quarterbacks, and San Diego recovered 18 fumbles and picked off 30 passes for a league best +24 in turnover differential.
It certainly appeared that Norv Turner was on his way to taking another talented team to a mediocre finish in 2007. The Chargers were bland at best through the first 10 games, which included an embarrassing 30-16 home loss to the Chiefs. In November they surrendered an NFL record rushing performance to Minnesota rookie Adrian Peterson during an equally ugly 35-17 drubbing.
Yet, to Turner's credit, the ship didn't sink. San Diego rallied to win their last six regular season games, won an anemic division and entered the playoffs on a role.
Jack Del Rio- Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars boast the AFC's top rushing offence, leading the league in yards per game and per carry. Pro Bowl running back Fred Taylor, who became the NFL's most underrated back when Curtis Martin retired, was the key factor. And QB David Garrard's mobility didn't hurt. Even though the Jaguars ranked only seventh in passing, Garrard tossed 18 touchdowns against only three picks (a better ratio than Tom Brady).
One might expect a team coached by a former hard-nosed linebacker to be tough on defense. Jacksonville fulfilled that expectation in consistency if not in dominance. The Jag's defense ranked a respectable but somewhat average sixth in the AFC in total defense. But they had no glaring weaknesses. Del Rio's defense was sixth in points allowed, sixth against the pass, and fifth against the run. The only trouble spot came in their propensity for surrendering big plays in the passing game. Jacksonville gave up 49 pass plays of more than 20 yards, fourth worst in the AFC.
But it's not so much the on-field performance that earns Del Rio consideration; it's his willingness to make the tough call. It took courage to drop a former first round draft choice in starting QB Byron Leftwich in favor of David Garrard. Del Rio made it work to near perfection. And his team has attitude. Although postseason performances aren't considered in choosing the conference's top coach, the Jags went into New England and gave the undefeated Patriots everything they wanted in the divisional playoff. Such confidence flows from the top down.
2007 AFC Coach of the Year
Bill Belichick- New England Patriots
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All statistics and rankings researched through NFL.com. Rankings are against other AFC teams only.