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The entirely-too-early 2019 NFL Coach of the Year race features some surprising names

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Some new names have jumped to the top of the league’s coaching ranks through four weeks.

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

What else have we learned so far at the quarter mark of the season? Shaquill Barrett is the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner. Gardner Minshew is the early favorite for Rookie of the Year. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Saints have the best offensive lines. And Jay Gruden is still the coach most likely to be fired first.

Giants head coach Pat Shurmur was on the hot seat coming into the 2019 season. His first year in New York was a bust, and his second looked equally pessimistic after general manager Dave Gettleman either traded or allowed former Pro Bowl players like Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon, and Landon Collins to leave last spring. His counter-punch to those blows was to make the most-derided pick of the draft.

The Giants appeared doomed to a depressing fate. Their head coach would be the ritualistic offering the franchise hoped would break the chain. But after four weeks, New York is playing .500 football and possess one of the league’s most electric young quarterbacks in rookie Daniel Jones. If the club can keep this up, Shurmur could go from receiving his termination notice at the end of the season to receiving votes for the NFL’s coach of the year.

That’s a long way away, and putting any coach on a pedestal with 13 weeks left in the season is no safe bet. But in a season that’s seen a handful of early MVP candidates rise above the fray, and Shaquil Barrett stand atop the defensive player of the year mountain, one quarter of the year is time enough for some snap judgments. And if four weeks is enough time to turn up the heat on some of the league’s biggest disappointments, it’s a good time to dole out some praise as well.

Given September’s surprises, who are some unexpected names who’ve overachieved to start 2019? These are the sideline generals who may merit coach of the year consideration if they can keep this pace — some of whom have escaped a spot on a preseason hot seat to give themselves a little more job stability as temperatures drop.

Pat Shurmur, Giants

Shurmur began the season with the league’s second-best odds to be fired. An 0-2 start made bookmakers look smart. Then he made the move that helped eschew Ben McAdoo out of New York by benching Eli Manning, and everything got better.

Unlike McAdoo, Shurmur had a viable plan B thanks to Jones’ better-than-expected start to his rookie campaign. 2019’s sixth overall pick has kept up the pace that made him the preseason’s most impressive passer, scoring five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) in his first two starts and, more importantly, rallying the Giants from an 18-point second-half deficit to defeat the Buccaneers in Week 3.

Shurmur and Jones exceeded expectations in September, and they did so without Golden Tate (serving a four-game PED suspension) and, for seven quarters of Jones’ starts, Saquon Barkley (ankle injury). Jones’ composure in the pocket was a big part of that, but New York’s offensive line has overachieved to give him and his tailbacks a little more room to operate.

Shurmur’s relied on a steady diet of run-pass options to ease his young quarterback into the pro game, and it’s worked. The question now is whether the Giants can sustain this, and how dangerous they can be one Tate and Barkley are back in the lineup at full strength. They’re going to need all the firepower they can get to bolster a defense that ranks 26th in the league in yards allowed per play, even after facing a rudderless Washington team in Week 4.

Bruce Arians, Buccaneers

The Buccaneers leapt at the former two-time NFL Coach of the Year’s decision to reconsider retirement. Arians leapt at the opportunity to work with Jameis Winston, whom he’d mentored when the Tampa quarterback was a teenage quarterback trying to find his way. The Bucs’ new coach effectively opened up the playbook and told the fifth-year passer to go big, and it’s paid off.

Winston was the star of Tampa’s 55-point explosion against the Rams, throwing four touchdown passes to engineer one of the season’s biggest upsets to date. He’s currently in the midst of his best statistical season even after a horrendous start (one touchdown, three interceptions in an opening day loss to the 49ers); his 8.4 yards per pass are sixth-best in the league and significantly more than former MVPs Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady.

Imbuing Winston with any kind of consistent goodness would be enough to cement Arians’ reputation as a quarterback’s best friend. There’s been more to like in Tampa, too. Ronald Jones has shown signs of life at tailback after a wretched rookie campaign, and Chris Godwin has stepped up to be a true running mate alongside Mike Evans at wideout.

The Bucs have also shown growth on defense thanks the the serendipitous union of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and sudden destroyer of worlds Shaquil Barrett. While Barrett and his nine sacks in four games are the headliner, no team has been stingier against the run through four weeks; Tampa’s 2.9 yards per carry allowed is the lowest number in the league.

The NFC South is still wide open due to QB injuries (Drew Brees, Cam Newton) and disappointing starts (Atlanta). Tampa has shown off the talent to compete for a playoff spot this fall. If it gets there, it could be Arians’ biggest success story so far.

Doug Marrone, Jaguars

The fact the Jaguars are tied for first place in a sloppy, sometimes illogical AFC South race is no surprise. The way they got there is.

Nick Foles’ debut season in Florida lasted all of eight passes before a broken collarbone pushed him to injured reserve. That threw sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew into the fire, but instead of folding like low-grade construction paper, the Jaguars have gotten stronger as the season’s worn on.

The Jaguars hung tough in losses to the Chiefs and Texans to start the year, then rallied for wins over the Titans and Broncos to improve to 2-2 and show Minshew can be more than just a last resort behind center. The first-year QB has avoided rookie mistakes through the air (seven touchdowns, just one interception) and his 106.9 passer rating is sixth-best in the league.

He’s not the only player to outperform expectations under Marrone in 2019. Leonard Fournette has gone from a plodding disappointment (3.3 yards per carry in 2018) to the NFL’s third-leading rusher through four games. Calais Campbell turned 33 this season and remains a complete wrecking ball.

While nine different players have at least half a sack, the rest of the Jags’ once-dominant defense has underwhelmed. Unlocking Minshew and Fournette’s potentials has been enough to overcome those lapses so far, but Marrone’s postseason hopes could rely on his ability to make Jacksonville the quarterback-smothering monster it was en route to the AFC title game in 2017.

Still, things have been better than expected for the embattled Marrone, who turned a handful of negatives into a motivating positive force for the Jaguars.

If he can just figure out an elegant solution to his Jalen Ramsey trade situation, everything will be coming up Doug.

Sean McDermott, Bills

Buffalo’s quest to go 4-0 was derailed by the Patriots, but the Bills still have a clear path to the playoffs in a top-heavy AFC. McDermott has coached up a smothering defense that held Tom Brady to one of the worst performances of his career and currently ranks second in the league in yards allowed.

McDermott has turned young players like Tre’Davious White and Tremaine Edmunds into blossoming stars, and rookie Ed Oliver — tied for third among all defensive tackles with seven QB hits so far — could be next. Developing another rising athlete would make the third-year head coach one of the game’s most valuable influences. Josh Allen has alternated good performances with bad ones to kick off his sophomore season in the NFL. If he can find any kind of stability behind center, he can turn the Bills into a true threat in the AFC.

Buffalo has a very forgiving schedule coming up, with six games remaining against teams that have one win or fewer after four weeks. While catching New England may be a tough task, it’s not hard to see how the Bills would earn their second postseason invite in three years. Pushing one of the league’s most downtrodden franchises to the playoffs, especially with a quarterback advanced stats absolutely hate, is prime coach of the year resume material.

Kyle Shanahan, 49ers

Shanahan’s 49ers are the last undefeated team in the NFC; after three weeks they had just one fewer win than they did in all of 2018. That 3-0 record came at the expense of Arians’ Buccaneers (not bad) and the Bengals and Steelers, who have one win between them (and it was because Pittsburgh played Cincinnati in Week 4). Even so, San Francisco has overcome injury concerns on both sides of the ball to float to the top of its division and demonstrate Shanahan’s seaworthiness.

He’s helped Jimmy Garoppolo maintain his place among the upper tier of conference quarterbacks despite a receiving corps of relative unknowns after tight end George Kittle. Garoppolo only has a 5:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but half those picks caromed right off his receivers’ hands. Turn those into completions and he’s staring down a 109.2 passer rating — a theoretical sixth-best in the league (just ahead of Minshew). As is, he’s been the driving force in the NFL’s third-best scoring offense, all without Jerick McKinnon or Tevin Coleman in the backfield. That duo has combined for just six carries to begin the season due to injury.

The Niners’ defense has been similarly impressive while allowing only 18 points per game. DeForest Buckner has been on an early Pro Bowl pace, bringing seven pressures, per SIS, from the middle of the line. That’s helped create the havoc that’s allowed pass rushers like Dee Ford and Arik Armstead (four sacks, seven QB hits between them) to clean up along the edges. That group should get even better as rookie Nick Bosa, the third overall pick, works his way back to full strength after dealing with injury through the preseason.

Like every other coach on this list, Shanahan has plenty to prove. He’s off to a better start than anyone else in his conference, though. That’s a pretty good spot to be in.