2021 NFL head coach rankings: Andy Reid edges Bill Belichick as No. 1, Bruce Arians, Matt LaFleur crack top 10

Table of Contents 32. David Culley (Texans)31. Dan Campbell (Lions)30. Zac Taylor (Bengals)29. Robert Saleh

Winning NFL games goes way beyond good coaching. Take the 49ers, for example, who’ve gone from last-place finishers to Super Bowl contenders back to last-place finishers over the last three years. They’ve had Kyle Shanahan, the same well-regarded head coach, atop their staff the whole time, but other circumstances — quarterback play, big-name injuries — weighed in heavily. Still, one of the best tickets to consistent success is having a smart mind manning the headset on the sidelines. The 49ers are expected to rebound in a big way in 2021, partly because they’ll be healthier and improved at certain spots, but also because of the man in charge.

As we approach the new season, which teams are best suited at head coach? We’re glad you asked. We decided to rank all 32, from worst to first. This involved quite a bit of projection in some areas, considering nearly a quarter of the NFL will trot out a new head coach this fall. But some of the elite candidates were obvious.

A couple of notes and noteworthy figures before we get into the full rundown:

  • Coaches were ranked with past performance and future outlook in mind. So this isn’t a “legends list,” rewarding solely those who’ve won a ton — or won it all — before. But it’s also not ignorant of resumes; no matter how promising Arthur Smith may be in Atlanta, we just can’t quite take him over, say, Mike Zimmer at this juncture. This formula obviously makes the list especially subjective, but goodness, isn’t that what lists are for?
  • The best way to view this might be to consider it something of a coach’s draft. As in, if you could build a team and take any of these guys to run the show in 2021, who would you select? That requires separating coaches from their current setups, which in one sense muddies the whole evaluation (how do you judge Andy Reid separate from the Chiefs’ playmakers?) but simplifies the would-you-rather debates (ex. if you could put Reid on the Dolphins and Brian Flores on the Chiefs, who would fare better?).
  • Only five of the top 10 are coaches with obviously offensive backgrounds. We’d still argue that the most likely path to success is investing in that side of the ball, but some of the game’s most trustworthy leaders suggest you can win otherwise.
  • Seven of the top 15 (46%) and 10 of the top 20 (50%) have been head coaches for five or fewer seasons. So if your favorite team just made a new hire, that doesn’t mean you can’t be competitive sooner rather than later!

Without further ado, our head coach rankings entering 2021:

32. David Culley (Texans)

Season: 1st with Texans and as HC
Career record: N/A
Playoff record: N/A

He has a wealth of experience under some good coaches (Reid, Sean McDermott, John Harbaugh), but this is his first HC gig, and it’s coming at age 65. The Texans’ dysfunction doesn’t help, but even on his own, he didn’t exactly thrive as a QBs/passing coach in Buffalo or Baltimore after pivoting from decades of WR work. He may possess strong character, but he feels like a placeholder.

31. Dan Campbell (Lions)

Season: 1st with Lions and as HC
Career record: 5-7* (.417)
Playoff record: N/A

We have little doubt he’ll bring energy to Detroit, which sorely lacked fight under Matt Patricia. The Lions aren’t counting on big wins from him in 2021, either. But he’s never coordinated an offense despite years of TE work and a brief interim stint in Miami. The locker room may well cherish his NFL background and unpolished aggression, but he’s still got lots to prove.

* = as Dolphins interim head coach

30. Zac Taylor (Bengals)

Season: 3rd with Bengals and as HC
Career record: 6-25-1 (.203)
Playoff record: N/A

Zac Taylor
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You certainly can’t put all the blame for the Bengals’ struggles on Taylor, who lost No. 1 pick Joe Burrow to injury in 2020. But two years in, we’ve yet to see many reasons why Cincy should be drooling at the possibility of another Sean McVay emerging here. Whether or not it’s fair, Taylor is primed to be cut loose if the Bengals don’t hit at least eight or nine wins in 2021.

29. Robert Saleh (Jets)

Season: 1st with Jets and as HC
Career record: N/A
Playoff record: N/A

These are the spots where it’s hard to separate the coach from the situation, because in Saleh’s case, landing in New York, with the Jets’ track record of hotshot QB prospects, doesn’t necessarily bode well. But everything else about his resume points upward. He’s had elite stops with some contenders in Seattle and San Francisco, and he’ll bring worlds more energy than Adam Gase.

28. Urban Meyer (Jaguars)

Season: 1st with Jaguars and as HC
Career record: N/A
Playoff record: N/A

Has he already created a minor circus on a team that had already struggled to uphold a solid reputation? His staffing and roster decisions say so. If wins don’t accumulate in two or three years, who’s to say he won’t dip out early? Still, this is a guy who went 187-32, with three national titles, in college. He can run a program if his head is in it, and he’s got Trevor Lawrence to help.

27. Nick Sirianni (Eagles)

Season: 1st with Eagles and as HC
Career record: N/A
Playoff record: N/A

Anyone who laughed at the puppy-dog nervousness of his early press conferences may say this is too high, but he was a prototypical hire for Jeffrey Lurie, whose track record of HC hires is strong. At 40, he brings youth and energy to an offense that got stale fast, plus three years of rock-solid OC work under Frank Reich. The bar is also relatively low despite the team just winning it all in 2017.

26. Joe Judge (Giants)

Season: 2nd with Giants and as HC
Career record: 6-10 (.375)
Playoff record: N/A

Sometimes his no-nonsense tough-guy act borders on silliness, like when he condemned the Eagles for refusing to get his own team into the playoffs. But the disciplinary spunk had the G-Men flashing surprise confidence throughout 2020. The question is whether he’s got what it takes to shepherd offensive growth, either with Daniel Jones at QB or someone else.

25. Vic Fangio (Broncos)

Season: 3rd with Broncos and as HC
Career record: 12-20 (.375)
Playoff record: N/A

Vic Fangio
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He’s still a top-notch defensive mind, and Denver has the pieces to be even better on that side of the ball this year. The problem is, he’s entering Year 3 with no clear resolution at QB, and while Teddy Bridgewater raises the floor and/or could reignite Drew Lock’s potential, Fangio’s also assembled a rather uninspiring offensive staff. It could be tough for him to last much longer in the AFC West.

24. Brandon Staley (Chargers)

Season: 1st with Chargers and as HC
Career record: N/A
Playoff record: N/A

The hype just may outweigh the resume, which is lacking any NFL coordinating experience. But at 38, much like Saleh, he’s racked up eye-opening stops with several elite units — notably as an OLBs coach in Chicago and Denver, then as McVay’s DC in Los Angeles. As long as he can successfully keep good coaching and pieces around QB Justin Herbert, he’s due to rise quickly.

23. Mike McCarthy (Cowboys)

Season: 2nd with Cowboys, 15th as HC
Career record: 131-87-2 (.600)
Playoff record: 10-8 (1-0 in Super Bowl)

One of the toughest to rank, McCarthy’s accomplishments are undeniable, even if most credit them to Aaron Rodgers. And yet he’s also 16-26 since 2017. Good for him allowing Kellen Moore to retain offensive oversight in 2020, and Dak Prescott’s injury obviously hurt his Dallas debut, but it’s tough to believe in McCarthy as an innovator in today’s NFL.

22. Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals)

Season: 3rd with Cardinals and as HC
Career record: 13-18-1 (.422)
Playoff record: N/A

Speaking of innovators, Kingsbury was supposed to bring fireworks to Arizona alongside Kyler Murray. That’s happened on occasion, but mostly because he’s just let Murray take off and chuck it up when and where he wants. The arrow is at least mildly pointing up thanks to 2020 improvement, but Kingsbury almost has to get his explosive playmakers to the postseason to justify a longer leash.

21. Arthur Smith (Falcons)

Season: 1st with Falcons and as HC
Career record: N/A
Playoff record: N/A

You could easily slide Smith down toward another first-year hire, like Saleh, and it’d be tough to argue, because he’s an unknown. He also might be in a worse situation than most realize, with QB Matt Ryan far more good than great in recent years. But he did wonders with the Titans offense after a steady rise up the ranks in Tennessee, and Matt LaFleur has proven that can be a good launching pad.

20. Jon Gruden (Raiders)

Season: 4th with Raiders (current stint), 15th as HC
Career record: 114-110 (.509)
Playoff record: 5-4 (1-0 in Super Bowl)

Jon Gruden
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We’re approaching the midway mark of Gruden’s 10-year contract, and Las Vegas might be closer to a total rebuild than a true playoff run. That’s more so because of Gruden’s personnel decisions, but it’s all part of the same package. Offensively, he’s still very capable of scheming up victories. In another city, with less roster control, he might be in the postseason. But that’s not reality.

19. Matt Nagy (Bears)

Season: 4th with Bears and as HC
Career record: 28-20 (.583)
Playoff record: 0-2

He’s clearly on the hot seat (and deserves to be) thanks to sputtering offense and two straight 8-8 finishes. On the flip side, he’s flashed the ability to get the most from his signal-callers, guiding Mitchell Trubisky to two playoff appearances. If/when Justin Fields debuts, maybe he finally strikes gold. But he’s gotta be smarter and more creative when it counts.

18. Matt Rhule (Panthers)

Season: 2nd with Panthers and as HC
Career record: 5-11 (.313)
Playoff record: N/A

This is based more on Rhule’s trajectory as a program builder, although betting on Sam Darnold at QB isn’t necessarily any more promising than rolling with Teddy Bridgewater. The results may or may not be there in 2021, but his wheels are always turning and figure to keep both the staff and personnel decisions fresh. Let’s see if he can actually make something of Darnold.

17. Ron Rivera (Washington)

Season: 2nd with Washington, 11th as HC
Career record: 83-72-1 (.535)
Playoff record: 3-5 (0-1 in Super Bowl)

Washington went 7-9 and won the NFC East in his first year at the helm, which was a remarkable and fitting feat for a coach who’s long fostered steady culture but never quite taken the next step. Rivera’s respected voice should keep the Football Team tough, especially on defense, and his Ryan Fitzpatrick gamble raises the ceiling for 2021. As always, though, a title feels a little too unlikely.

16. Brian Flores (Dolphins)

Season: 3rd with Dolphins and as HC
Career record: 15-17 (.469)
Playoff record: N/A

Miami was a feisty 5-11 in Flores’ first year, then leapt to 10-6 despite an unconventional series of QB swaps in Year 2. Now the pressure’s on to challenge Buffalo — and a potentially resurgent New England — in the AFC East. Flores has already outpaced many other Bill Belichick understudies as a HC, but we’ll see if he can take the next step, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

15. Mike Zimmer (Vikings)

Season: 8th with Vikings and as HC
Career record: 67-47-1 (.576)
Playoff record: 2-3

Mike Zimmer
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This is a perfect spot for Zimmer, whose Vikings have literally had an on-again, off-again relationship with the playoffs since he took over: Since 2014, they’ve been out, in, out, in, out, in, out. So they’re due for a return to the postseason, and that makes sense considering his “D” — almost always stingy — is set to rebound. Like his QB, however, he might always be good rather than elite.

14. Mike Vrabel (Titans)

Season: 4th with Titans and as HC
Career record: 29-19 (.604)
Playoff record: 2-2

It remains to be seen if Vrabel’s old-school approach — pound the ball on the ground, play physical through the air, and beat up opponents on “D” — can consistently contend with the best of the best. But he’s made the Ryan Tannehill-Derrick Henry contingent work over and over. It’d help if his specialty, defense, was special. But you can count on him keeping you in the playoff mix.

13. Kevin Stefanski (Browns)

Season: 2nd with Browns and as HC
Career record: 11-5 (.688)
Playoff record: 1-1

The Browns just might be bordering on too much hype after their long-awaited playoff trip in 2020, but we’re big believers in Stefanski, who came up slowly but steadily in Minnesota. He got the best out of Baker Mayfield, produced one of the NFL’s most balanced offensive attacks and built an even better lineup for 2021. Cleveland feels like it’s in very calm, measured and creative hands.

12. Frank Reich (Colts)

Season: 4th with Colts and as HC
Career record: 28-20 (.583)
Playoff record: 1-2

Indianapolis has yet to explode into a deep playoff run a la the 49ers under Kyle Shanahan or Buccaneers under Bruce Arians, and Reich’s record by itself isn’t eye-popping. But consider he’s endured an abrupt Andrew Luck retirement, a less-abrupt Philip Rivers retirement, and it’s a wonder he’s kept the entire ship running so smoothly into postseason contention. If he can return Carson Wentz at least partly to form, his club should be a legitimate AFC challenger once more.

11. Kyle Shanahan (49ers)

Season: 5th with 49ers and as HC
Career record: 29-35 (.453)
Playoff record: 2-1 (0-1 in Super Bowl)

You might be shocked to see that record, but here’s how his 49ers tenure has gone thus far: 6-10, 4-12, 13-3, 6-10. Contrary to popular belief, he’s not invincible, and his scheme can’t cover every hole. But the 13-3 finish doesn’t feel like an anomaly because his offense, when thriving, is one of the cleanest in the game. Gambling on a promising long-term QB in Trey Lance is a 2021 bonus.

10. Mike Tomlin (Steelers)

Season: 15th with Steelers and as HC
Career record: 145-78-1 (.650)
Playoff record: 8-8 (1-1 in Super Bowl)

Mike Tomlin
Getty Images

Fourteen years and not a single losing season means Tomlin is an absolute master at keeping his players invested. His teams simply do not bottom out. His defensive touch and locker-room chemistry remain evident. But he’s not exactly thrived with in-game decisions, and Pittsburgh has tended to fizzle out down the stretch, going 3-6 in the playoffs since losing the Super Bowl in 2010.

9. Matt LaFleur (Packers)

Season: 3rd with Packers and as HC
Career record: 26-6 (.813)
Playoff record: 2-2

Does he benefit from having Aaron Rodgers as his QB? Of course. But let’s not pretend you go 13-3 and advance to an NFC Championship Game in two straight seasons just because of one player. LaFleur has successfully instituted emphasis on the ground game and defense in addition to getting MVP dominance from A-Rod in 2020. The question is, can he broker Rodgers’ return to Green Bay, and if so, can he get more aggressive in key spots to get over the hump?

8. Bruce Arians (Buccaneers)

Season: 3rd with Buccaneers, 8th as HC
Career record: 76-47-1 (.617)
Playoff record: 5-2 (1-0 in Super Bowl)

He came onto the scene late, and he doesn’t pretend to be the sharpest or toughest coach in the game, but boy does he get results. Adding Tom Brady in 2020 gave him an ageless QB and legendary locker-room presence, but he deserves credit for the acquisition as much as the way he slowly but successfully enabled Brady to take over his offense. A model staffer willing to delegate responsibility (see: Todd Bowles), his seemingly reckless but dedicated approach has Tampa Bay primed for a potential repeat.

7. Pete Carroll (Seahawks)

Season: 12th with Seahawks, 16th as HC
Career record: 112-63-1 (.639)
Playoff record: 11-10 (1-1 in Super Bowl)

He’s often the brunt of jokes about Seattle improperly using Russell Wilson or unwisely emphasizing the run or poorly building the offensive line. And yet the Seahawks are never not in the fight under his watch, winning at least 10 games in eight of their last nine seasons. Bad defense or quizzical personnel decisions don’t affect Carroll’s charisma, even if playoff results have been middling.

6. Sean McVay (Rams)

Season: 5th with Rams and as HC
Career record: 43-21 (.672)
Playoff record: 3-3 (0-1 in Super Bowl)

If only his offense wouldn’t have laid an egg in Super Bowl LIII against the Patriots, we might be talking about him as a top three candidate. McVay isn’t nearly as aggressive as his whiz kid reputation suggests, and he’s got to prove he can pay off L.A.’s win-now roster-building, but this guy motivates and delivers far more often than not. At 35, the future remains bright.

5. Sean McDermott (Bills)

Season: 5th with Bills and as HC
Career record: 38-26 (.594)
Playoff record: 2-3

Sean McDermott
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Like Frank Reich, his record isn’t all that impressive yet, but he’s navigated enough cloudy waters — front-office change, QB uncertainty, etc. — to build the makings of a perennial contender. He’s smart without being brash, his specialty (defense) has been apparent, and he’s patiently overseen Josh Allen’s emergence as a potential top five signal-caller. The potential is high.

4. Sean Payton (Saints)

Season: 16th with Saints and as HC
Career record: 143-81 (.638)
Playoff record: 9-8 (1-0 in Super Bowl)

He’s got some similarities to Mike Tomlin in that his team is almost always in the hunt, and yet he’s quietly struggled to sniff another championship over the last decade. Still, as an organizational figurehead, offensive mind and forward-thinking innovator, you can’t do much better. What happens post-Drew Brees? We’ll see, but if anyone can turn Jameis Winston into a playoff QB, it might be him.

3. John Harbaugh (Ravens)

Season: 14th with Ravens and as HC
Career record: 129-79 (.620)
Playoff record: 11-8 (1-0 in Super Bowl)

Critics may compare him to his current star QB, Lamar Jackson: Undeniably good, but can he win it all? Let’s not forget Harbaugh already has. No, he hasn’t returned to an AFC title game since 2012, but his team has also gotten incrementally better since Jackson entered the picture. Few coaches are as reliable and so willing to adapt their approach. Another ring is certainly within reach.

2. Bill Belichick (Patriots)

Season: 22nd with Patriots, 27th as HC
Career record: 280-136 (.673)
Playoff record: 31-12 (6-3 in Super Bowl)

Let’s make one thing clear: Belichick is still the greatest NFL coach of all time; his 31 playoff wins are absurd, and his six titles are matched only by Curly Lambeau and George Halas. Even after a bad 2020, when Tom Brady got the last laugh as the post-Brady Pats slipped to mediocrity, Bill remains one of the NFL’s best schemers. You simply cannot count him out. Ever. His defense, in particular, seems poised for a return to form. He’s also the personnel chief, though, and until he proves he can fill or successfully work around Brady’s old position, he isn’t nearly as formidable an opponent in 2021 as …

1. Andy Reid (Chiefs)

Season: 9th with Chiefs, 23rd as HC
Career record: 221-130-1 (.629)
Playoff record: 17-15 (1-2 in Super Bowl)

Andy Reid
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It seems darn near impossible to think of Reid without Patrick Mahomes, the NFL’s model QB and arguably the most naturally gifted passer this side of Aaron Rodgers. But there’s evidence for Reid’s coaching ability well beyond No. 15: He went 14 strong years in Philadelphia, guiding a whopping five NFC title-game appearances, then instantly coaxed playoff results from Alex Smith in Kansas City, all before completely remaking his own offense to capitalize on Mahomes and his weapons’ backyard-ball athleticism. For years, he always approached the big game. Then he won it. Now, as the perfect player-friendly and always-creative overseer of some of the NFL’s best talent, he’s a perennial candidate to win it all again.