The debate over the value of head coaching in the NFL intensifies every year come playoff time.
How much does do coaches really matter? What about the players on the field? Isn’t it about them making plays?
While the latter is certainly true, much of it depends on the experience level of the team. A veteran squad can often coach itself in many scenarios if it has an elite quarterback on offense or a playoff-tested linebacker or safety calling shots on defense.
Yet, coaches still put players in position to make those plays. And most teams aren’t equipped with Super Bowl winners behind center and de facto coaches patrolling the defensive side of the field.
A great coach elevates an ordinary player into an extraordinary one—at the very least turning a decent player into one with NFL viability. He has a way of catering to particular skill sets and maximizing those talents.
There’s also an inspirational and administrative value. Said coach maintains order, provides core-level stimulation and leads a team both on and off the field towards a productive, winning goal.
In the postseason, that goal is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. And coaches with past experience in January football tend to hold the advantage in that endeavor.
For our purposes, let’s take a brief look at the remaining head coaches in the 2012 divisional playoffs. We can then decide whether coaching or player personnel serves as a greater factor in each team’s winning prospects.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh is 6-4 in his playoff head-coaching career. That record includes an appearance in the 2011 AFC Championship and winning a postseason game in each of his first four seasons with the Ravens. Harbaugh’s staff schemed around multiple key losses on defense this year and righted the ship after a late-season slide. Quarterback Joe Flacco also owns a winning record in the postseason, but poor performances have been contributing factors in three different playoff losses.
Denver head coach John Fox also has a 6-4 postseason record, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2003. His four road victories in the playoffs rank No. 3 all time. That said, quarterback Peyton Manning is a four-time MVP and one-time Super Bowl MVP. He is an offensive coordinator on the field and is the primary reason why the Broncos won 13 games.
Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
Mike McCarthy is a Super Bowl-winning head coach with a 6-3 overall record in the playoffs. He has led Green Bay to the postseason for the past four years. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers developed and eventually became a Super Bowl winner himself under the tutelage of McCarthy. The HC has served as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator throughout his career. But, for as great as McCarthy and his offensive staff are, Rodgers is an elite QB who makes it happen on the field. He continually overcomes a lack of a running game and deficiencies by subpar Packers defenses.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has only held the position for two years at the NFL level. He went 1-1 last season after losing a close battle to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game. Although, it is without question that Harbaugh and his incredible staff elevated the 49ers to where they are today—a Super Bowl contender. Harbaugh galvanized a pre-existing personnel group that had constantly underachieved. He transformed two quarterbacks—Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick—into winning NFL players. It is Harbaugh who will lead the 49ers—a team predicated on tough, turnover-free football—through the playoffs.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
Seahawks’ head coach Pete Carroll boasts a 3-3 postseason record, including 2-1 with Seattle. He is 1-0 this season with a victory over the Redskins in the Wild Card round. Notably, Carroll showed last week how important he is to this team. He rallied his troops—rookie quarterback Russell Wilson included—and held them together after the Seahawks fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter. Like Jim Harbaugh, he is a players’ coach who maximizes talent and organizes a team with noticeable holes around its best assets.
Mike Smith is winning head coach in the regular season who does quite the opposite in the playoffs. Atlanta is 0-3 in under his watch. And for a defensive-minded head coach, giving up 110 points in three postseason games is highly disconcerting. The Falcons this year are an offensively dominant club led by quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. Ryan, however, is also 0-3 with four interceptions in the playoffs. Both the coach and team itself need to prove that they can lead a winning effort in January football.
Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
The Texans’ head field general Gary Kubiak is 2-1 in the playoffs, with a 1-0 mark in 2012. Houston defeated the Cincinnati Bengals last week. Kubiak proved last year that he can turn a third-string quarterback into a playoff-winning quarterback with his own prowess as a former starter in the NFL. The head coach will also be the deciding factor in current starter Matt Schaub’s continuing development into a postseason winner. As well, Kubiak’s defensive staff, led by coordinator Wade Phillips, pushed a thoroughly depleted defense above and beyond what it normally would have accomplished.
Bill Belichick is one of the greatest head coaches of this current generation, if not one of the best all time. He has captured three Lombardi Trophies and owns a career record of 17-7 in the postseason. The debate will forever rage whether he or quarterback Tom Brady deserves more credit for the Patriots’ remarkable success. On the one hand, Brady is undoubtedly the most important player on the field, seeing that he’s both a two-time regular season and Super Bowl MVP. Belichick, however, works magic with undermanned teams and is an absolute in-game mastermind.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16