Let’s be honest: The Coach of the Year Award should really be called the “Exceeded Expectations Award.” If that were not the primary criteria for identifying the top coach then Bill Belichick would win every year. But since the formula for the prize essentially boils down to actual wins minus expected wins, there are three top candidates in 2017: Sean McVay, Doug Pederson and Mike Zimmer.
I know what you are thinking. Yes you, the Vikings fan who Twitter yells “How did the Vikings have low expectations? We REAL fans knew they were skol to the bowl all along.” But this team was .500 last year and, aside from a revamped offensive line, they brought virtually the same roster this season. The prevailing prediction in August was in the range of seven wins to 10 if everything went according to plan.
And that was before they lost their stud running back and had to turn to their third quarterback option. The fact that this team now holds the top spot in the NFC is nothing short of astounding.
That being said, it seems the public has named Pederson and McVay the front-runners. It is tough to argue; the Eagles won seven games a year ago and the Rams won just four and they are currently second and third respectively in the NFC. McVay’s case is especially strong given that there was not a person on God’s green Earth who had the Rams competing for the division, let alone a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
What has really opened up eyes on those two coaches is their work with their second-year quarterbacks. Jared Goff was a bust as the top pick a year ago. There was nothing to point to and say “this Goff kid is going to be a stud.” Now, with McVay coaching him on pre-snap reads and play-calling to his strengths (West Coast schemes and downfield throws), Goff is likely headed to the Pro Bowl. Pederson’s work with Wentz is perhaps even more impressive, given Wentz is an MVP candidate after struggling down the stretch in year one.
The “quarterback whiperer” head coach is a sexy commodity these days. People see development of a young gunslinger and say “That is good coaching right there.” And it is; McVay and Pederson deserve a lot of credit for turning their teams into offensive powerhouses. But we need to make an apples-to-apples comparison when identifying Zimmer’s candidacy.
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Zimmer is a defensive coach and a darn good one. In fact, you could make the argument that he is the league’s best defensive schemer. His use of linebackers, safeties and nickel corners with A-Gap blitzes and exotic coverage schemes keeps offensive coordinators up at night. He has elite players at each level that play aggressively, yet disciplined. They are savvy, yet they fly from sideline to sideline. This is a direct result of the defensive culture that Zimmer has set.
For defensive-minded head coaches, the talk is most often about the culture they set as opposed to the play-calling. Do not kid yourself, the culture Zimmer has established is impeccable. But as far as being a schemer, Zimmer is every bit the coach that McVay is, just on the other side of the ball.
And speaking of culture, chew on this idea: Most teams that lose their starting quarterback and star running back for the season get down, lose faith, show the effects of those losses. The Vikings have not lost a step with Case Keenum under center and Latavius Murray taking over carries. They are one of only two teams in the league in the top-five on both offense and defense. Granted, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur deserves much of the praise for playing to Keenum’s strengths and developing an effective, balanced attack. But everything falls under Zimmer’s regime.
McVay and Pederson may have the quarterback development trump card. They both can tout their record a year ago against their record this year. Pederson’s Eagles squad is top-five on offense and defense themselves. But neither of them have the full resume of overcoming obstacles and expert scheming that Zimmer has. He is the 2017 Coach of the Year.
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