Sizing up the NFL Coach of Year market

November 17, 2021 08:39 PM

It’s time to thin the herd of candidates for the NFL Coach of the Year Award. 

Passing the midpoint of the season makes it easier to identify all those out of contention to create a smaller population of viable names to analyze. 

Handicapping in this manner provides valuable information for bettors looking to make a late entry into the market or to give those with tickets in hand an idea of where they stand. 

From the original pool of 32 names, 24 can be eliminated.

That leaves a much more manageable group of eight names to analyze. 

Those making this mid-November round of cuts are (odds courtesy of DraftKings):

Mike Vrabel (+ 400)

Kliff Kingsbury (+ 750)

Mike McCarthy (+ 800)

Sean McVay (+ 1000)

Brandon Staley (+ 1000)

Bill Belichick (+ 1200)

Sean McDermott (+ 1600)

Zach Taylor (+ 1600)

That puts a number of noticeable names just on the wrong side of the list.

Matt LaFleur (+ 1400) has relatively short odds but doesn’t make the cut because of his role in the Aaron Rodgers vaccine soap opera. The media members who vote on the award won’t want to show any support for Rodgers, and that will create some guilt by association for LaFleur. 

LaFleur could get a reprieve around mid-December if the Packers continue to win. Until that happens, though, it is hard to recommend any member of the Green Bay franchise with the immunization controversy still simmering. 

Sean Payton (+ 2500) can make a legitimate case for the award, but he just has too many names above him. Kevin Stefanski’s (+ 3500) team is regressing from last year. John Harbaugh’s (+ 4000) won’t come close to the 14 wins he had in winning the 2019 award. Vic Fangio (+ 4000) has never been well received by the national media. Arthur Smith’s (+ 5000) success is leading his team to mediocrity. Bruce Arians (+ 5000) is focused on another playoff run.

There is a long-shot quality to like about Frank Reich (+ 3500), but it’s not realistic enough to contemplate at the moment. 

As an indication of how this market can fluctuate, Matt Rhule (+ 2500) and Ron Rivera (+ 3500) were not even on the top section of the board until both pulled major upsets last weekend. 

With eight names to choose from, the next step is to determine which variables the voters value the most. 

Examining the recent winners using the research method of a thematic analysis shows two categories in which a coach must excel to win the award: dominating win totals and noticeably exceeding preseason expectations. 

Whose season-long achievements can help journalists tell the best possible story?

Based on the analysis of the 20 coaches who have won the award since 2000, a dozen came from high win totals (12-4 or better) and the other eight resulted from a team finishing higher than predicted.

Of course, then and now, a bonus would be given to a coach who can do both. 

Of those 20 winners, the list includes Jim Haslett, Dick Jauron, Mike Smith, Jason Garrett and Matt Nagy, so individual results for one season can outweigh a brand-name bias that surfaces in other individual awards such as MVP. 

The sheer number of upsets and major injuries this season has rattled the standings and makes it appear that as of Week 11, no team will run away and end with a record that looks like Harbaugh’s 14-2 in 2019 or Rivera’s 15-1 in 2015.

The extra game may also impact win totals since some teams may not prioritize a victory if the division is in hand.

Four teams have just two losses. It just doesn’t seem likely that one will have two or three more wins than the next-highest total. Parity is the theme so far this season, and that plays a major role in handicapping the COY.

With that in mind, the focus should be on which coaches will create the most unexpected storyline of the season. 

That is why Vrabel is the clear favorite. 

For bettors who already own a Vrabel ticket, you are in a very good place. For bettors desiring a safe midseason wager, the 400 is a reasonable enough play.

He was 750 before Sunday’s game against the Saints.

Yes, his Titans were the preseason favorites to win the AFC South, but once Derrick Henry went down with an injury, the media narrative focused on whether Vrabel could keep his team afloat. Two straight impressive wins without Henry is giving the media plenty of reason to discuss Vrabel’s coaching acumen. 

The loss of Henry doesn’t make the Titans a better team, but it does increase Vrabel’s stock as a COY candidate. He will get a lot of individual credit for every Tennessee win. 

Henry on the sideline also provides Vrabel a buffer for a poor loss. 

If the Titans lose, the postgame attention will likely center on what the absence of Henry meant. To a certain extent, this provides Vrabel a level of defense against media criticism the other top candidates lack. 

Vrabel has another factor working in his favor — the league-low .353 winning percentage of teams remaining on Tennessee’s schedule. 

Winning a division title in the absence of a franchise player is the type of media narrative that wins NFL Coach of the Year honors. 

Last week Kingsbury was the favorite with odds less than 5-1. Then came the loss to Carolina and an almost 50 percent jump in his odds. The higher odds don’t necessarily translate to value for the former front-runner. A lot needs to go right for Kingsbury to win. The Cardinals must win the NFC West, hold off McVay’s Rams, keep Kyler Murray healthy and, most importantly, have Tennessee trip up multiple times against its relatively weak schedule.

Those with Kingsbury tickets should have some guarded optimism. Those without Kingsbury tickets really have no need to join the party right now.

After a loss to Minnesota last weekend, Staley is another one whose odds rose. His candidacy, like that of Kingsbury, is in an uncertain holding pattern.

First came an impressive 4-1 start before the Chargers started chargering — beating themselves with mistakes — and the shine has somewhat come off Staley. 

Staley for COY still has a pulse because Los Angeles had such low expectations. If the Chargers can find a way to get a double-digit win total and a division title over the shaky Chiefs, Staley will be back in play. And if that’s the case, he will receive favorable treatment from the media.

The affable Staley conducts media-friendly press conferences filled with convenient sound bites. He makes the lives of the voters easier with his communication style. Having a symbiotic relationship with the media can go a long way to winning this award.

While on the topic of news conferences, that brings the attention to Belichick, the anti-Staley. 

His truncated answers to questions and surly behavior in front of the camera is a detriment, even though there is no debate he is one of the greatest coaches in sports history.

What he is doing this season in New England with a rookie QB has all the ingredients needed for a successful COY campaign. That doesn’t mean a bettor should blindly back him at this time.

Belichick has won the award three times, but all came after dominating seasons with the Patriots going 14-2, 16-0, 14-2. Even if the media members despised Belichick and wanted to punish his prickly behavior, he had to win the award based on those superior records.

How voters historically have treated Belichick for this award is an integral factor when handicapping him. The last time he won the award was after the 2010 season. That 14-2 record got only 30 of the 50 voters to support him. 

Nine straight division titles followed. None earned him another COY award.

The last time he even earned a vote was for the 2017 season when he received just one after a 13-3 record. Doug Marrone of Jacksonville had two. 

Belichick’s 12-1 odds are very enticing, but the better bet would be the Patriots to track down Buffalo to win the AFC East at 300. It’s a much smaller return, but this wager removes the subjectivity. 

The Patriots are only half a game behind Buffalo and have yet to play their division rival. Next up for New England is Atlanta, and then comes a matchup against Tennessee in Foxboro. That will be a crucial game as it relates to this award. If New England wins, it might be very hard for voters to deny Belichick the award. 

Voters may appreciate the work of Mac Jones more than his coach, so look at him at 125 to bypass Ja’Marr Chase for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Staying in the AFC East, there should be plenty of concern for those who backed McDermott for COY. Voters won’t necessarily penalize him for just one loss, but what happened to Buffalo in Jacksonville has major implications for his case.

Plenty of trickle-down action comes from that loss — the Bills were unable to add to their win total, it sent a lifeline to the Pats for the division crown and it leads to questions of how a first-place coach could lose to the Urban Meyer train wreck. 

While one loss might undo the McDermott campaign, just a singular sentence creates similar concerns for McCathy. Once Dallas owner Jerry Jones was quoted as saying he carefully goes over the game plan with his coach, McCarthy’s reputation took a hit. Instead of the talk being about how he has Dallas atop the NFC East, it was if he is a Barry Switzer-like patsy doing the bidding of his meddling owner, someone not beloved by the NFL’s media. 

Solely based on current results, McCarthy at 8-1 would have value. That is not the case when perception becomes reality. 

Taylor deserves a lot of credit for bringing life back to the Bengals. At 16-1 it would be a nice payday if he could win, but the odds would need to be higher to recommend that play. His team has lost two straight and ends the season against Baltimore, Kansas City and at Cleveland. 

That leads to one more option, and that is McVay. Bettors should not write him off because of his team’s two-game losing streak. As a result, his odds have risen and he is out of the top couple of spots. That’s a situation for a possible value play, especially for those desiring a candidate who isn’t the favorite and one with higher odds.

If you fit this profile, consider McVay, but show some patience. 

Hold off on making any decision on McVay until after this weekend’s game against Green Bay. A bounce-back win for the Rams would give McVay the type of media traction he needs to get back into contender status. After the Packers, Los Angeles hosts Jacksonville. 

Two straight wins would put the Rams in the position to go to Arizona for one of the biggest second-half games of the season.

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