You don't need a coach who's already won a Super Bowl to succeed in the NFL. After all, 11 of the last 14 champions have managed to reach the top without a head coach who already had a ring. But if you had a choice, you'd pick someone who'd won it all for your team, right? It's like going to someone who's already given you a great haircut instead of a barber school student.
Seriously, never go to a barber school student.
There are, however, only seven active head coaches who fit that profile. So what do you do if you're not a fan of the Ravens/Packers/Patriots/Saints/Giants/Steelers/Redskins? You revise history a little.
OH SO CLOSE
Let's start with the easy cases: coaches who made it to a Super Bowl but didn't win.
John Fox, Denver - A football field is 160 feet wide. That means you could park about four city buses end to end across the field and stay in bounds. That ALSO means John Kasay couldn't do on a kickoff what four city buses can do just sitting there, minding their own business, not giving the Patriots the ball at their 40 with a minute to go in a tie game.
Now let's say Kasay doesn't flub that kickoff. New England gets the ball on their own 25, advances to the Carolina 45, but the drive stalls there and the Patriots elect to try for a long field goal. It sails left almost from the moment it leaves Adam Vinatieri's foot, and that miss leads to another in overtime, allowing the Panthers -- and MVP John Kasay -- to win.
Andy Reid, Kansas City - Jon Bois already mounted an excellent defense of Donovan McNabb's career, so let's back up and see just how easy it would have been for McNabb and Andy Reid to change their public perception. After McNabb threw a 30 yard touchdown to Greg Lewis to cut the New England lead to three, the Eagles attempted an onside kick. But let's imagine they kicked it away instead. If they hold the Patriots to a three-and-out, using their timeouts to preserve clock, Philadelphia gets the ball back at its own 30 or 35 with a minute to spare. That means they only need to pick up 40 yards or so to give David Akers a good shot to tie the game, not the sixty-plus they were actually faced with. And now, a Patriots team that's just lost to Carolina in overtime the year before chokes AGAIN against the Eagles, disgracing Tom Brady forever.
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco - THEY HELD MICHAEL CRABTREE AND THE REFS DIDN'T CALL IT BECAUSE RAY LEWIS HAS DIRT ON ROGER GOODELL.
Jeff Fisher, St. Louis - According to Pro Football Reference, Mike Jones finished his career with 500 tackles even. Just over half of those came with the Rams. 1999 was the year he recorded his fewest tackles in St. Louis. But Titans fans only know and care about one Mike Jones tackle in particular. So imagine he doesn't make it and Kevin Dyson ties Super Bowl XXXIV, and Tennessee goes on to win. Now imagine Jeff Fisher was coaching the team he beat. That'd be weird as hell.
PLAYOFFS ARE HALF THE BATTLE
Now add one degree of separation and consider the coaches who have made the playoffs but not the Super Bowl. How close did they come to climbing the NFL mountain?
Mike Smith, Atlanta - Ten yards away from the end zone, four yards away from the first down with two plays to pick it up. Of course, previously the Falcons had let the 49ers stay close by turning the ball over twice while holding the lead in the second half. Take away either one of those, and maybe it's the Falcons going to New Orleans last year. You can just picture Matt Ryan hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, can't you? (You can also picture him fumbling it, but still.)
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati - In 2005, the Bengals had one of the NFL's top five quarterbacks in Carson Palmer, a top ten running back in Rudi Johnson, and one of the top three wide receiver tandems in Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The defense was pretty porous but managed to lead the league in takeaways. Against the Steelers in the Wild Card game, the Cincinnati defense held on the opening drive, and Carson Palmer threw a 66 yard completion to Chris Henry on the second offensive play the Bengals ran. That was also the play on which Palmer tore his ACL and MCL. Consequently, the Steelers went on to win the game and, eventually, the Super Bowl.
Undo that injury, and is it so crazy to think that the Bengals could have taken Pittsburgh's place along that same path? Indianapolis was the only other team that gave the Steelers real trouble (thanks, Jake Plummer-era Broncos), and Cincy probably had the firepower to keep up with the Colts. Way to change history, Kimo von Oelhoffen.
Rex Ryan, New York Jets - The 2010 AFC Championship ended up being closer, but the Jets were in it for a lot longer in the 2009 edition, leading at halftime and down only three entering the fourth quarter. A bounce here, a call there, and it's Mark Sanchez and company heading to the Super Bowl instead of Indianapolis. Could they have done what the Colts didn't and beaten New Orleans? Yes, and I'll tell you why -- that onside kick only works for the Saints if they're not facing a crazy person, and, if nothing else, Rex Ryan is certainly a crazy person.
Jim Schwartz, Detroit - You don't think winning 10 games is that huge of a deal until your team doesn't do it for 15 straight years, so let's give the 2011 Lions some credit. Their postseason ended early with a 45-28 loss to New Orleans in the Wild Card round, but Detroit was in this game early, leading 14-10 at halftime. So what happened? The answer is "not the running game," as the Lions handed the ball to a running back only one time in the last 30 minutes. The missing piece in Jim Schwartz's 2011 Super Bowl puzzle is obvious: a healthy and unretired Barry Sanders, clearly just as effective as ever at the age of 42.
Gary Kubiak, Houston - You know what's unfair? When Arian Foster runs for 132 yards on the 2011 Baltimore Ravens, your defense only allows those same Ravens to score 3 points after the first quarter, and your offensive line doesn't allow Baltimore to record a single sack -- but you still lose because T.J. Yates. That's unfair. Had the Texans won, by definition Lee Evans couldn't have dropped a crucial touchdown in the AFC Championship, and Chase Blackburn can't intercept Tom Brady in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. These are just mathematical facts, against which you cannot argue.
Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis - The Colts also hung with last year's Super Bowl winner for a half, down 4 points entering the third quarter and eventually losing by 15. Indianapolis left points on the board on four separate occasions in this game, however. Andrew Luck was sacked and fumbled in the second quarter when the Colts were at the Baltimore 30 yard line. Adam Vinatieri missed a 40 yard field goal in the fourth. Luck threw a pick on 4th and 1 late in the game with Indianapolis 18 yards from the end zone. And Indy's final drive ended with a turnover on downs at the Baltimore 37.
You're wondering it, so I'll answer: no, none of that happens with Peyton Manning still in Indianapolis. HOT TAKES! GET YOUR HOT TAKES FOR FIFTY CENTS!
Leslie Frazier, Minnesota - I have said some less than charitable things about Christian Ponder in the past, but let me change course for one moment: he is definitely not Joe Webb. With Ponder, even if he wasn't great, the Vikings won four straight to make the playoffs last year. Had he been healthy, maybe Minnesota wins four more! Ok, look. You don't have to laugh that hard. It's just rude.
Pete Carroll, Seattle - One lousy field goal. That's what's separated Pete Carroll from a conference championship game on two different occasions, first in 1997 against the Kordell Stewart Steelers, and the second last year against Atlanta. Is one field goal so much to ask for poor, persecuted Pete Car- actually, no, screw that.
GIMME THREE STEPS
Every other coach in the league today has one thing in common: they've never been in charge for a playoff game. You might think that makes it impossible to imagine their alternate, Super Bowl-winning future. You would be wrong.
Bruce Arians, Arizona - As Offensive Coordinator for the Steelers from 2007 to 2011, Arians was one Mike Tomlin kidnapping away from being the one to lead his team out of the tunnel and onto a victory over the Cardinals. Given that the game was played in Tampa, where random kidnapping is the third largest source of job growth, it's kind of surprising that didn't actually happen.
Doug Marrone, Buffalo - Marrone coached offensive linemen for the Jets for a four year stretch that included the 2004 Jets team that lost in the divisional round to the Steelers by three points in overtime, mostly because New York kicker Doug Brien missed a 43 yard attempt at the end of regulation. Now say Brien makes that kick. Further say that Herm Edwards drives his car, with both coordinators in it, into a coal mine believing it to be an unmarked car wash. There's your Doug Marrone Super Bowl path right there.
Ron Rivera, Carolina - It didn't have to be Mike McCarthy taking the Green Bay job in 2006. Ron Rivera got an interview as well, and there's no reason to think McCarthy's championship in 2010 couldn't just as easily have been Rivera's, so long as you're willing to ignore everything Ron Rivera has done in Carolina.
Marc Trestman, Chicago - If you're a Raiders fan, and I could send you back to the morning of January 26, 2003, would you pick Bill Callahan to coach that Super Bowl? Or would you pick anyone else? Like, say, Oakland offensive coordinator Marc Trestman? Or even star of stage and screen Mandy Patinkin?
Rob Chudzinski, Cleveland - The 2007 Browns, which featured Chudzinski as offensive coordinator, came one win from making the playoffs. Among the teams that beat them that year were the 4-12 Raiders, the 7-9 Bengals, and the 8-8 Cardinals. Put Chudzinski in the driver's seat and they win at least one of those - guaranteed. (The beauty of imagined alternate histories is you can guarantee anything, like "Matt Leinart is a Hall of Famer if he gets drafted by Denver instead.")
Jason Garrett, Dallas - This is too nightmarishly pompous of a scenario for me to explore.
Gus Bradley, Jacksonville - Seattle's defensive coordinator for the past four seasons could have been Seattle's Super Bowl winning coach if the Texas Longhorns would have just stepped up and hired Pete Carroll in December.
Joe Philbin, Miami - Offensive coordinator for the aforementioned 2010 Packers. Yet another dream ruined by Mike McCarthy, who I'm pretty sure Packers fans don't even want anymore.
Dennis Allen, Oakland - The 2011 Denver Broncos had Allen running the defense, but maybe his true calling was as head coach that year, where he could have helped Tim Tebow get his real estate license or apply to law school.
Mike McCoy, San Diego - Alternatively, that same Broncos team could have given the reins to their offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, who commanded an attack which generated more than 28 points exactly three times that year. Wait, no. That's a terrible idea. Why would anyone hire that person to be a head coach anywhere? It's something you'd only do if you wanted to drive away someone you secretly hated...
Ok, I totally get it now.
Greg Schiano, Tampa - I spent hours going over it again and again. There had to be some way, some wrinkle to make it work, no matter how improbable. But the truth is this: there is no way to even imagine the 2012 Buccaneers winning a Super Bowl.
Mike Munchak, Tennessee - Wait, no. If the 2012 Bucs played the 2012 Titans they might win. Your eyes would not, but I wouldn't put a picture of Philip Rivers in this if I cared about your eyes.
DOES NOT COMPUTE
Chip Kelly, Philadelphia - It's very hard to win a Super Bowl when you've never coached, not even as an assistant, in the NFL. And that's why the Eagles just might run the table this year. (Please do not link to this column when Philly is 3-8 and Matt Barkley is the starter.)