NFL Championship Round Handicapping: The Coaches
Success in the NFL Playoffs is about coaching as many as any other factor - as Bill Belichick proves time and time again. And this year's collection of four remaining head coaches is an interesting group. One future hall of fame veteran who has won everything but the one game that matters, and three guys that are a generation younger and are just getting started with their careers. But while they are all in different places, the four guys all share one thing in common - they don't suck, which is saying something given some of the guys they let coach in this league. In our search for a handicapping edge heading into this weekend's two games, let's look at the four guys and what they bring to the table:
Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs: Reid is unquestionably the elder statesman of the group. His 220 career wins ranks sixth all time in the NFL. That's nothing to sneeze at. He has the unfortunate distinction, though, of having the most career wins without a title in league history. He knows how to get this far - this is his seventh appearance in a championship game. But he has lost five of those previous six showings and lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots the one time he did win this round. He's a great coach with nothing to prove, and getting his team back in it after their disastrous start last week shows he still has a trick or two up his sleeve. But he could cement his legacy with two more wins - and a loss before then would be a long way from ideal. The biggest knock against him is game management, and I don't put a lot of stock into that argument - those types of decisions are far more black and white on the couch than they are on the sidelines. And given that he had coached 26 playoff games before this year, and none of the other three coaches had coached any, he is a definite asset for his team at this stage in the tournament.
Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers: I am a big Shanahan guy, so I think he's a big asset for his team here. A big reason for that is what happened the last time he got here. He was the offensive coordinator of the Falcons in 2016 when they made the Super Bowl and opened up a big lead against the Pats. His play calling early on in that game was masterful. But he lacked subtlety and stayed aggressive later on when a more cautious, clock killing approach probably would have won them the game. He knows that better than anyone and will be driven by that memory in this playoff run. He was very much a coach hired for one side of the ball. But unlike so many guys like that in their first coaching job, he has done as good a job developing the defensive side as he has working on his strength. He has coached only one playoff game as a head coach in his career. It says here, though, that he will have many, many more to his credit before he's done. And he has a considerable experience edge as a head coach over his NFC opponent despite his own lack of postseason reps.
Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers: LaFleur is in his first season as a head coach, so everything is new to him. He has impressive ties to two of the other guys in this playoff battle, though. He and his opponent in this round, Kyle Shanahan, have basically been joined at the hip. He was an offensive assistant for the Texans when Shanahan was OC there in 2008 and 2009. When Shanahan went to Washington to work for his dad as OC, LaFleur came with him as QB coach where he stayed for three years. Then, after a year at Notre Dame, he went to Atlanta to again coach QBs for Shanahan. LaFleur was aboard for that Super Bowl debacle as well. He knows as much about how Shanahan coaches and thinks as anyone at this point, and that will help here. He also knows Mike Vrabel, because his last assistant job was as Vrabel's OC in Tennessee last year. I'm skeptical of a lot of things about this Packers team , but if I have complete faith in Shanahan - which I do - it would be hypocritical to completely write off his protege.
Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans: Vrabel has coached in, and won, as many playoff games as Shanahan and LaFleur combined, but only because he had a weaker regular season than those two this year. In a key way, though, he knows more about what is ahead than anyone - he is a three time Super Bowl champ as a player with the Patriots. Winning as a player is obviously entirely different than winning as a coach, but he still has an edge. If I have a knock against Vrabel as a coach, it's that he served under Bill O'Brien for four seasons. O'Brien is the worst coach in the league now that Marvin Lewis is gone, so that's not an ideal mentor. But he has certainly found a way to overcome that and communicate a winning message so far this year. Like the other two inexperienced coaches, Vrabel is not a liability in this spot. That's all you can ask, really.
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