The night before Super Bowl XLIX, the NFL will salute its best players and plays from the 2014 season with "NFL Honors." The star-studded football and entertainment event, hosted by Seth Meyers, kicks off Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on NBC (with red-carpet coverage preceding the event at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network). One of the awards that will be handed out Saturday evening is Coach of the Year. We asked our resident coach, Brian Billick, to fill out a ballot with his top five choices for the hardware.
1) Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
Arians led Arizona to an 11-win season despite the fact that his franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, was only available to start six games. It wasn't just the quarterback position that was decimated by injuries, either -- the Cardinals' roster of casualties included their defensive rock up front (Darnell Dockett, who missed the entire season with a knee injury), as well as the team's most explosive offensive weapon (Andre Ellington, who played through ailments for much of the season before landing on IR after Week 14). In fact, 15 different Cardinals who started 10-plus games in 2013 failed to start 10-plus in 2014, mostly due to injuries. That is a significant turnover in talent for any coach to overcome.
Despite the adversity, the Cardinals' victory total reached double digits for the second straight season, and the team earned its first playoff berth since 2009 (and just the third in the past 16 years). All this while playing in the NFC West -- the league's most competitive division. If Arians does win the award, he will join 10 other coaches who have nabbed Coach of the Year honors more than once.
2) Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
Under Garrett, the Cowboys earned their first playoff bid since 2009, avoiding the kind of December letdown that buried the franchise in each of the prior three seasons. The Cowboys lost Week 17 games in 2011, 2012 and 2013, all of which could have crowned them NFC East champions. This year, Garrett went a perfect 4-0 in December and won the division by two games. Garrett was also a perfect 8-0 on the road this season, making Dallas the only team with fewer than three road losses in the entire league.
Garrett flipped the Cowboys on their heads by improving their rushing offense from No. 24 in 2013 to No. 2 this season. And the defensive transformation might have been even more impressive: Dallas went from dead last in total defense in 2013 to No. 19, while also allowing 80 fewer points over the course of the season.
3) Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
This is less about team statistics and more about Carroll having complete faith in the way he is pushing the organization. He's made draft selections that raise the eyebrows of "draft gurus" and executed trades and free agency acquisitions that were unpopular at the time, but now he is set to defend his Super Bowl title in just his fifth season with Seattle. The previous two Super Bowl champions, the Giants in 2011 and the Ravens in 2012, both failed to even make the playoffs in the subsequent season.
Actually, it looked like the Seahawks were heading for a similar fate, sitting at 3-3 coming off a Week 7 loss to the Rams, but Carroll refocused his team and finished the season by winning nine of the last 10 regular-season games. He keeps this team hungry, keeps the players believing they are underdogs who need to prove they're still the team to beat. That can be one of the most difficult things to do as the head coach of a defending champion: keeping that chip on your shoulder and maintaining the us-against-the-world mentality. Carroll has done that beautifully, and the team is responding.
4) Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Belichick will go down as our generation's greatest coach, and rightly so. The Patriots have won the AFC East in 11 of the last 12 seasons. That alone is incredible. Then consider that they have earned either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the playoffs in each of the last five seasons, and it's clear this run is almost unbelievable. Belichick is currently preparing his team for a sixth Super Bowl in his 15th season with New England -- that's a 40 percent clip!
You can pretty much make Belichick a candidate for this award every year, which probably actually hurts him in the voting process. Immense success is expected of him and his teams, and therefore, the difficulty of remaining so consistent in the "Not For Long" league is often overlooked.
5) Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
The NFC South had the second-lowest combined winning percentage of any division in NFL history. Regardless, Rivera's Panthers became the first team to win the division in consecutive seasons since its formation in 2002. Also, Carolina earned back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history. Despite a winless streak of seven games in the middle of the season, Rivera righted the ship to finish out the year with four consecutive wins, and he carried that momentum into the playoffs. And while this is a "regular-season award," Rivera definitely deserves credit for notching his first playoff win.
I know voting for a coach who won just seven regular-season games is a hard sell, but Rivera did it with a team that didn't return a single receiver from the previous season and a defense that took a significant step backward after a stellar 2013 campaign.