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Who should be the NFL Coach of the Year?

The best team? The best results given the talent available? The best results given the schedule?

NFL: New York Giants at Tennessee Titans
Oshane Ximines cast an early vote for Coach of the Year after the Giants defeated Tennessee in Brian Daboll’s first game as head coach.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL regular season is over, and head coaches are already being given pink slips. The Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers didn’t even wait for the end of the season to dismiss Frank Reich, Nathaniel Hackett and Matt Rhule. Lovie Smith was released after only one season soon after the Houston Texans had the audacity to win their final game on a 2-point conversion and deny themselves the No. 1 pick, and the disappointing tenure of Kliff Kingsbury was terminated by the Arizona Cardinals. More firings are likely to come in an NFL that is not known for patience.

The happier side of things is that some head coaches are seen as having done an outstanding job, and this is recognized by the Associated Press, 50 members of which vote each year to choose the NFL Coach of the Year (COY).

Forbes Magazine published a discussion of who might win COY last summer. They argued that several factors influence the choice:

  • It’s rarely the best coach
  • It’s influenced subjectively by storylines, a narrative that makes an attractive case
  • A great record isn’t what determines it, though past COY awards have on average gone to teams with at least 12 victories
  • Improvement over the previous season is important - on average COYs have won almost 6 more games than their team did the year before
  • Newer head coaches who take over bad teams have an advantage

Here were the pre-season odds for the most likely NFL COY candidates determined last summer by Fan Duel:

From Forbes Magazine via Fan Duel

Their first five choices were prescient - each of those head coaches did an excellent job this season given the teams they had to work with. Nathaniel Hackett, Frank Reich, and Josh McDaniels, not so much. The New York Giants’ Brian Daboll sat at the top of the favorites list along with boy wonder Brandon Staley of the Chargers.

If we look at which teams improved their win total the most from 2021 to 2022, a few teams stand out: Doug Pederson brought the Jaguars from three to nine wins. Dan Campbell led the Lions from 3.5 to 9 wins (counting a tie as 0.5). Daboll managed to take a four-win Giants team to 9.5 and a playoff berth. Nick Sirianni took the Eagles from nine to 14 wins, while Kevin O’Connell got 13 wins out of a team that had eight last season. If we just stick with teams that won at least 12 games, that removes all but Sirianni and O’Connell from the conversation and adds Andy Reid, Sean McDermott, Kyle Shanahan, Zac Taylor, and Mike McCarthy.

But if a good narrative means something, there is no better choice than Brian Daboll. It was universally agreed before the season that the Giants were mostly bereft of talent - they didn’t have a whole lot last year, and because of the salary cap mess inherited by General Manager Joe Schoen, he was forced to release prominent players from the 2021 team such as James Bradberry, Logan Ryan, and Blake Martinez and to not make offers to free agents Lorenzo Carter, Evan Engram, Jabrill Peppers, and Austin Johnson. Throw in a slew of serious injuries, some of them season-ending, and a big question mark at quarterback, and the situation looked bleak before the season began. Some writers predicted the Giants would be the worst or one of the worst teams in the NFL.

We now of course know things didn’t work out that way. Daboll and the coaching staff he hired are getting a lot of the credit for that, justifiably so. But Schoen did his part on the personnel side, hitting big time on at least one draft pick, Kayvon Thibodeaux, and getting good contributions from a few others. He also worked wonders with low-priced free agents and waiver wire pickups who are now significant contributors.

But how talented is this Giants team, actually, and what does it say about the job Daboll and Co. have done? One way to address the question is to use independent objective information about the Giants’ talent level from Pro Football Focus. Many people are suspicious of PFF because its scores don’t jibe with what people think they are seeing with their eyes, or because they are sometimes in conflict with what traditional statistics suggest. But they do have the advantage that they result from people watching every play of every player for every game and deciding how well each one did his job on that play. It’s sometimes not possible to completely separate the credit or blame one player gets for a particular play from another player. But then you and I are not watching every route run by every receiver, every block by an offensive lineman from start to finish of each game (except if you watch Nick Falato’s film clip aggregations for certain Giants players every week).

And in the aggregate, PFF seems to do pretty well. Their overall team scores for the 2022 regular season place the Eagles, Chiefs, 49ers, and Vikings as the four best teams in the NFL, and the Bears, Texans, Cardinals, Colts, and Broncos as the five worst. Sounds about right other than the fact that the Bills, whom most people see as a top four team, graded a bit lower than that while the Vikings are still doubted by some people (a question that will be answered on Sunday). With that in mind, here is a plot of how many games each team won this season vs. that team’s aggregate season PFF grade:

Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus

I’ve included a best-fit line to define a sort of “expected” number of wins given the aggregate performance of the individual players on each team. It’s impossible to separate talent from coaching completely - players improve with good coaching, after all. But for the most part the best players in the NFL are the most talented ones. So let’s just posit that a point that falls far above the trend line is an indicator of a very well-coached team - a team that won a lot more than its talent would have suggested. This might be due to well-conceived game plans, situational use of personnel, specific play designs, in-game strategy, and effective motivation by the staff.

However you choose to interpret the plot, one thing is certain: Daboll and his staff squeezed more wins out of this Giants team relative to the players’ talent level than any other team in the NFL. The Giants were the 29th ranked team in the league with an overall PFF grade of 68.2. That’s better than the 60.3 grade of the 2021 team but worse than their 75.0 grade in 2020 and 74.5 in 2019. (The Super Bowl 2007 and 2011 teams graded 83.5 and 81.0, respectively.) A 9-7-1 record for a team whose talent should have resulted in about 5 wins (or alternatively, winning as much as a team with an 84 PFF grade should) is outstanding. For sure there are other candidates whose teams also fall far above the line. I’ve labeled those, and indeed they correspond to many of the other contenders for COY. But none got more out of less than Daboll did, according to the PFF data.

I’ve also labeled the teams that disappointed the most this year (below the line). Mostly they are the usual suspects: Denver, Indianapolis, Las Vegas. But there’s also the LA Rams, whose head coach, Sean McVay, hasn’t really gotten the flak one might have expected from the Rams’ dismal performance. There’s also one surprise, the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons had six players (all on offense) in 2022 with season PFF grades above 80, which denotes elite play. The Giants by comparison had two (Andrew Thomas and Dexter Lawrence). But Atlanta, in a division full of mediocrity, only finished 7-10.

Some people criticize the Giants’ success this year as being the result of their soft schedule and thus something of a mirage. That’s the way it looked at the start of the season. It’s not how it ended. Below is the current 2023 draft order as given by Tankathon. Draft order is of no concern itself for this discussion, but the chart below includes strength of schedule percentages at the end of the season (because that determines draft order when two or more teams finish with the same record). The Giants’ opponents finished with a collective winning percentage of .526 - sixth-toughest in the NFL. That’s because the Giants played a number of teams that had much better 2022 than 2021 seasons - the Eagles twice, the Lions, the Seahawks, the Jaguars.

Courtesy of Tanakathon

So the Giants’ 9-7-1 record is not a mirage. We don’t know what the playoffs hold for this team - one-and-done or a thrilling run. There’s just one thing we do know: Whether he gets the award or not, Brian Daboll is the coach of the year.