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Debating the best candidates for NFL Coach of the Year halfway through the 2019 season

Kyle Shanahan has the 49ers off to an 8-0 start, but he’s not the only coach with a valid argument for the award.

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Back in September, when the 2019 season was fresh on the horizon, SB Nation’s NFL writers took on a set of predictions for the upcoming year. They were ... not great.

But in the midst of all these terrible takes, one thing we largely hit on was 2019’s top coaches. Through eight weeks, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur each have teams that missed the 2018 postseason pointed toward the playoffs.

Plenty of other NFL Coach of the Year contenders stand out across a crowded landscape of overachieving sideline generals. Frank Reich has the Colts battling for the AFC South crown despite losing his franchise quarterback to sudden retirement during the preseason. Sean McDermott has the Bills taking care of business and in line for a wild card bid. Mike Zimmer has turned Kirk Cousins into an MVP candidate which, holy crap. Jon Gruden, who tore down the Raiders in order to build a roster that looks so incredibly early-2000s it should be wearing Uggs, has made Oakland competitive.

There are several reasonable choices for this year’s top coach. So now that it’s slightly more appropriate to take a stab at 2019’s year-end awards, who are we rooting for?

Kyle Shanahan is the frontrunner, right?

Christian D’Andrea: I jumped on the Niners’ hype train this preseason, hoping that a full season of Jimmy Garoppolo and a defensive front loaded with approximately 15 different former first-round draft picks would spark the change that made San Francisco a contender again. I did not think the 49ers would be one of two undefeated teams remaining in the NFL and lead the NFC West’s shark tank by a healthy margin.

James Brady: Shanahan owes a lot of credit to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, but the ways his offense has been able to keep teams guessing is just as important as their league-best defense. Despite losing multiple running backs to injury, including presumed starter Jerick McKinnon, Shanahan has found a way to reliably run the ball while keeping the threat of the passing game there. He’s got motion on every play and, most importantly, his players seem to have a firm hold on the scheme.

When you get tricky and complicated, there’s always a chance of players screwing it up. That hasn’t happened yet, and the 49ers are undefeated as a result.

D’Andrea: The one argument against his early-season dominance is the Niners’ schedule. San Francisco’s rise to the top of the NFC hasn’t come against overwhelming competition — only two of its eight opponents have a winning record to date — but Shanahan’s squad has taken care of business by crushing foes by an average score of 29.4 to 12.8 in 2019. He boasts the league’s No. 2 scoring defense and its No. 3 scoring offense. And he’s done this all while Garoppolo throws for a mere 225.8 yards per game.

Adam Stites: Another argument against Shanahan — and I’m not sure it’s a good one — is that the 49ers’ success may not have a ton to do with him. He’s not the one who constructed a roster that has the most loaded defensive line in the NFL. Then again, it’s about maximizing talent and Shanahan’s doing that, even if it hasn’t been against a gauntlet of tough opponents.

Brady: It’s important to note that the 49ers still had some adversity to deal with, but came through anyway. They had plenty of injuries, and even held on for a tough win in the rainiest game of the season in Washington. At the very least, the 49ers are doing what good teams do: beat who is in front of them, regardless of the situation.

D’Andrea: The Niners are content to ram the ball down your throat on the ground even without McKinnon in the lineup, and that ground-heavy attack has created a vast gulf in time of possession that’s allowed a breakout defense to stay fresh and hungry. The San Francisco defense only has to take the field for an average 24:29 per game in 2019, and that’s helped standbys like Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner team up with newcomers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford to absolutely harangue opposing quarterbacks.

Coming into the season, the Niners had an array of young, talented players who needed to not only prove they could produce in the NFL but show they could join forces to be a great sum than all of their parts. That’s gone exactly as planned, and the credit belongs to Shanahan.

Matt LaFleur should be getting more credit than he is

Stites: It’s been eight years since the Packers won at least seven of their first eight games. Last year, the team didn’t even have a winning record through the first half of its schedule. What changed? Not a whole lot other than the coaching staff, which now has first-year head coach Matt LaFleur after the team fired Mike McCarthy during the 2018 season.

D’Andrea: There’s no doubt the Packers are back among the NFC contenders, but isn’t LaFleur’s biggest strategical win just ... letting his players do what they do best? The Week 8 win over the Chiefs was a product of the Green Bay sideline gently suggesting plays in the huddle, and then clapping and saying “great jorb!” when Aaron Rodgers would effectively run his own show at the line of scrimmage.

LaFleur inherited a Hall of Fame quarterback capable of elevating everyone from Pro Bowlers to undrafted free agents in his receiving corps. General manager Brian Gutekunst, the guy who brought Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Adrian Amos to town as pricy free agents and transformed the Green Bay defense into a formidable unit, may deserve more credit here.

Stites: The Packers invested on defense, but they finished last season 18th in yards allowed and are 22nd in 2019. The offense has technically taken a tiny step back too — from 12th in total yards last to 13th this season. The important thing is the Packers are giving up fewer points than they did last year and are scoring more too. That’s taking the same opportunities that were afforded to McCarthy and actually maximizing them.

LaFleur has the same tools to work with on offense, more or less, but he’s using those pieces in a way McCarthy didn’t. Running backs are being incorporated into the pass game in a major way, and Rodgers is thriving with a newfound freedom to work some audible magic. I guess that’s a case of stepping back and letting his players thrive, but that should be applauded. Also, it’s not like Rodgers had zero autonomy under McCarthy. At least some part of Green Bay’s offensive success is due to LaFleur’s influence.

Brady: It took an awful long time for the Packers to realize McCarthy just wasn’t doing it for them, and LeFleur is showing why they were right to move on. I don’t know how much of that is LeFleur being a good coach and how much of that is LeFleur not getting in Rodgers’ way. But if McCarthy struggled to get out of Rodgers’ way, that’s a point in LeFleur’s favor, no?

Stites: Other coaches in the NFL are finding success with rosters that were slowly built to destroy. LaFleur is essentially doing it with the same group of players who were stuck in neutral for years under McCarthy.

Bill Belichick, as is tradition, shouldn’t be overlooked

D’Andrea: The Patriots are doing their job in an 8-0 start that features seven opponents with losing records. Belichick must be giddy about that. Or, at least as giddy as he can get:

Belichick’s biggest argument for COTY honors is the leap his defense has made without any major acquisitions last offseason. His faith in Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty have paid off, but his secondary doesn’t run like a hot rod engine without unheralded contributors like J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones. His defensive front is so deep and effective that it allowed him to trade away Michael Bennett for a conditional seventh-round pick. The Patriots are fielding the league’s best defense, and most of their strength is coming from guys who’ve never earned a Pro Bowl invite.

Sarah Hardy: The Patriots are off to a historic start on defense. Opponents have scored a total of 61 points against New England, but only 43 of those points have been given up by the defense — or 5.4 points per game. In the Super Bowl era, that’s the least amount of points a defense has surrendered eight weeks into the season.

And while no one seems to want to say it, who do you think is in charge of the defense’s playcalls? It’s Belichick — and not Steve.

D’Andrea: Of course, Belichick isn’t the flashy choice. He’s built a flashy record atop a graveyard of bad teams and benefitted greatly from some solid injury luck along that record-setting defense (the offensive line, not as much). If you’re basing your vote on growth, it’s pretty tough for the man behind the reigning champions to suggest he’s done more than a coach who has taken his team from the bottom of his division to the top.

Hardy: The defense may be healthy, but the offense sure isn’t. First-round receiver N’Keal Harry, fullback James Develin, left tackle Isaiah Wynn, and center David Andrews all went on injured reserve. So did longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Tom Brady’s targets are Julian Edelman and a carousel of changing faces.

Does it matter? Nope, the Patriots keep winning anyway. We can take it for granted, but it’s hard to be that consistently good for as long as Belichick’s Patriots have been, and each year, there’s more pressure to stay at the top — which is right where they are again. Belichick may be a boring choice, but it’s supposed to be the Coach of the Year, not the Coach Who Most Exceeded Expectations of the Year. That’s way too long of a name for an award, anyway.

Stites: Exceeding expectations really is the path to the award, though. That’s why Belichick has been to the AFC Championship in each of the last eight seasons and earned Coach of the Year honors in exactly zero of those years.

If you ask most people who the best coach in the NFL is, they’d probably say Belichick. But the Patriots are going to have to keep absolutely torching opponents for him to overcome voters’ urges to pick someone who hasn’t won before.

Frank Reich has been a safe port in a storm

D’Andrea: There are few coaches who could have done what Reich’s done in Indianapolis. The Colts lost the franchise quarterback they’d counted on weeks before opening day, yet are 5-2 and standing atop the AFC South. He’ll get votes just on the strength of what he’s done with Jacoby Brissett, who has surged with a significantly upgraded roster compared to the one he’d played with in 2017. The Colts’ offensive line has cut his sack rate in half, and the emerging QB has responded with a 14:3 TD:INT ratio while looking like a legitimate franchise cornerstone.

Hardy: The Colts could’ve easily felt sorry for themselves after Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement, but they didn’t dwell on it. They got right to work with Brissett. And they keep on winning, just like they were supposed to with Luck.

It’s not just about the sudden switch from Luck to Brissett, though. The Colts have also had a multitude of injuries to key players. Darius Leonard, Malik Hooker, T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Devin Funchess, and Kemoko Turay have all missed time. Adam Vinatieri got the yips and almost retired. Reich deserves a lot of credit for keeping that locker room focused. Plus, he learned his lesson from last year: all hail the quarterback sneak.

Stites: My only question is how did the Colts lose to the Chargers? And why did they get run over by the Raiders? Indianapolis has a couple impressive wins over the Chiefs and the Texans, but a couple of inexplicable losses to lesser competition too.

The AFC South is a jumbled mess and if the Colts come out on top, Reich should be praised for helping Brissett get to that point. But the three candidates ahead of him in this discussion would all need to slip up after nearly perfect starts.

Brady: It would have been so easy for the Colts to collapse when Luck retired, but there wasn’t ever talk of the Colts being a mess behind the scenes. No reports about a divided or uncertain locker room. No scrambling to figure out what to do. That speaks to Reich’s leadership. His offense is still an evolving product, but one that has found a ton of success with Brissett, and if this continues, he’ll have a strong case just on the back of Indianapolis’ circumstances.

Three others who deserves consideration

D’Andrea: Mike Zimmer. He’s turned Kirk Cousins into an MVP candidate and put the Vikings back on track for the postseason despite a lackluster start. The first part of that sentence alone suggests he may be a wizard.

Hardy: Sean Payton. The infamous blown no-call could’ve easily hung over the Saints like a dark cloud, but they have been nothing but resilient this season, especially when Drew Brees was out for five weeks. Payton has his team winning in a different way each week, whether it’s with Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, special teams, or the suddenly shutdown defense. Now the Saint are right back on the path to the playoffs. Maybe without the soul-crushing ending this time!

Stites: John Harbaugh. Lamar Jackson is still just 22, so it’s damn impressive that the coaching staff has already developed him as much as they have. The Ravens tailored an entire offense around their young quarterback’s strengths and now they have the No. 2 offense in the NFL and the No. 1 rushing attack. It’ll probably take some big wins to get Harbaugh in the conversation — perhaps upsetting the Patriots in Week 9 would do the trick? — but the Ravens are 5-2 and coaching is a big reason why.