The success of an NFL team is largely due to the talent on its roster, but the difference between good and great squads typically comes down to coaching. In a league full of astute tacticians and play callers, the best coaches come up with innovative schemes and adjustments that result in big plays in key moments. Thus, it is important for head coaches to not only display exceptional leadership qualities in front of their players, but they must exhibit a thorough understanding of the X's and O's to produce solutions for the problems that routinely pop up on game day.
Given some time to scour the All-22 Coaches Film and observe the chess match that ensues on the field of play, I thought I'd rank the five best in-game coaches in the NFL today. Here are my thoughts:
5) Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
There are a lot of coaches worthy of recognition on this list, but few head coaches can match Arians' resiliency and adaptability. The two-time NFL Coach of the Year managed to lead the Cardinals to the postseason despite playing with a number of backups and castoffs -- most notably at the quarterback positon, where Arizona only got six games from starter Carson Palmer, thanks to injuries. Without an accomplished quarterback to anchor the Cardinals' attack, Arians tweaked his offensive philosophy to help the team win by utilizing a "complementary football" approach. The veteran play caller not only scaled back on the risky offensive plays, but he made a conscious effort to win the field-position battle. These subtle adjustments routinely go unnoticed, but astute football minds appreciate Arians' ability to adjust on the fly.
4) Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
Defensive coaches around the NFL quickly cite Payton as one of the most difficult play callers to prepare for. He is not only a masterful play designer -- adept at attacking the vulnerable areas of coverage -- but he has a keen understanding of personnel and how to put his guys in favorable positions on the field. Payton will trot out a variety of exotic formations and unique personnel groupings throughout the course of a game to test the discipline and awareness of defenders, while also monitoring the opposing coach's reaction to his tactics. With a keen sense of timing and awareness, Payton will process that information and dial up a dagger when the moment is right.
3) Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers
A misplayed onside kick kept the Packers from making their second Super Bowl appearance under McCarthy's watch, but that hasn't stopped the 10th-year head man from earning rave reviews in league circles for his coaching tactics. Opponents laud his killer instinct as an offensive play caller and his ability to come up with effective counter punches in the middle of games. Although McCarthy is relinquishing his play-calling duties to allow him to better manage the total operation, there is little doubt that he will continue to leave his imprint on the Packers' offense through his in-game suggestions and observations. Given the importance of adaptability, versatility and tactical comprehension, McCarthy's decision to delegate play calling to offensive coordinator Tom Clements will give him more time to observe the opposition and could make him the NFL's most dangerous game manager.
2) Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
Despite a questionable late-game decision by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, Carroll deserves recognition as one of the best tacticians and game day managers in the NFL. The ultra-energetic leader has transformed the Seahawks into a juggernaut in the NFC through his competitive methods and "live in the moment" philosophy. Most importantly, Carroll has gotten his players to focus on mastering technique and assignment, allowing them to play fast and free in key moments. Not to mention, Carroll has installed simplistic schemes that enable players to spend most of the pregame preparation studying the opponent's tendencies and tactics. With Carroll also showcasing a gambler's mentality (high risk, high reward) when the game hangs in the balance, it is no coincidence the Seahawks rarely flinch when facing adversity.
1) Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Critics might take umbrage with some of the Patriots' tactics over the years, but there is no disputing their innovative schemes (see: the quirky formations against Baltimore in last season's playoffs) or sound fundamentals. New England is one of the few teams in the NFL capable of changing its identity on a week-to-week basis without straying too far from the strength of the personnel. This chameleon-like approach requires players to constantly grasp and execute new schemes, which places the onus on the coaching staff to effectively teach new material each week and implement it on game day. With few coaches willing to radically overhaul their tactical approach to get a W, Belichick deserves kudos for his adaptability and versatility as a coach. Considering the Patriots' dominance over the past 15 seasons (four Super Bowl wins in six appearances; 12 AFC East titles), Belichick is unquestionably the leader in the coaches' clubhouse.