What matters most in the NFL? Players or the coaches? I'm a firm believer that by the time the genetic lottery winners reach the field at the pinnacle of the sport, they are more vital to team success, or lack thereof than anyone roaming the sidelines.
And that's not throwing shade at NFL coaches. They matter too. I just happen to think less of them truly matter than we've been conditioned to believe. In my head, the coaching-quality scale is on a bell curve, with the three-to-five horrendous coaches who can drag down an entire team on one end and three-to-five unbelievable coaches who subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, elevate everyone between the lines.
And I've come to realize that some of the game's finest coaches today seemingly always have stars at the same positions year after year after year. Coincidence? Probably not. Here are my picks for the coaches who seem to produce success at specific spots on the field.
Andy Reid: Quarterback
Not to mention he coached Kevin Kolb to respectability and, at the time, a huge multiyear contract with the Cardinals. Reid has deep roots in the West Coast Offense, has tweaked his scheme to evolve with the advancement of the game, and even welcomed Texas Tech-like additions to the Chiefs attack when it shifted from the conservative ways of Smith to the gunslinger foundation of Mahomes' game. Reid teaches a masterclass in quarterback friendliness every season, and that is why his teams are perennial Super Bowl contenders.
Dating to his time as an assistant with the Packers, Reid has coached in six Super Bowls -- with three wins -- and a seismic 12 conference title games. Of course, Mahomes is legendarily talented. Let's not forget Smith's highest single-season passer rating (104.7, which led the league) came under Reid's watchful eye in 2017, the year before Mahomes took over. Sheesh. Quarterback is the game's most important position, right? Reid is currently the game's best quarterback teacher.
Bill Belichick: Secondary
The only post-college jobs Belichick has held have been in the NFL, and his career dates to 1975 with the Baltimore Colts. Plenty of players to choose from here. I'm zeroing in on the defensive backfield, where Belichick has designed masterful secondaries and perplexing schemes for decades.
Think about all the tremendous, ball-hawking, do-everything safeties he's coached, even just in New England -- Rodney Harrison, Devin McCourty -- a converted corner, by the way -- Duron Harmon, and now Kyle Dugger looks like next in line. And Belichick has long had a type at corner. He adores press, man coverage specialists. And my word he's had some spectacular ones. Ty Law, Stephon Gilmore, Darrelle Revis, plucked Malcolm Butler from obscurity, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones. It hasn't mattered when these corners were picked in the draft, or if they were even selected at all. Belichick gets the most out of them. Jack Jones made a major impact last season as a 24-year-old fourth-round pick.
What speaks to Belichick's brilliance is his willingness to mold his scheme to specific personnel strengths. Every coach says they do that. Belichick actually does. Asante Samuel Jr. was as instinctive of a zone corner as the modern-day game has seen. Belichick gave him freedom to pounce on underneath routes all game long, and Belichick's deviation from his normal man-heavy ways paid enormous dividends. In five seasons with the Patriots to begin his NFL career, Samuel had 22 interceptions, three pick-sixes, and 79 -- yes, 79 -- pass breakups. Belichick is the oracle of the secondary.
Sean McDermott: Linebacker
McDermott has coached the likes of Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds to date in his NFL coaching career -- quite the collection of rangy, super-athletic, legitimate three-down studs at the position.
Kuechly probably would've been a tremendous producer anywhere, in any scheme, but McDermott deserves some credit for the freedom his defense gave Kuechly at middle linebacker. Thompson had the unenviable task of following the freaky explosive defensive weapon that was Davis, and under McDermott's tutelage, Thompson met first-round expectations in Carolina.
McDermott clearly has a type at linebacker -- because Edmunds is another lab-creation at linebacker. However, he was famously 19 years old when drafted and called the defensive plays at that incredibly young age in Buffalo's defense in 2018. In five years operating in McDermott's scheme, Edmunds made the Pro Bowl twice and registered 35 pass breakups with five interceptions.
Then there's Milano, a mostly close-to-the-line, overhang linebacker at Boston College who was part of McDermott's first draft class in 2017. He's blossomed into one of the game's elite coverage and splash-play specialists as a classic off-ball 'backer in Buffalo. Milano earned All-Pro honors in 2022.
McDermott even managed to tap into the throwback game of veteran A.J. Klein in 2020. That season, Klein set career highs in tackles (75), sacks (five), and quarterback hits (nine).
Kyle Shanahan: Quarterback/running back
There've been some lean years for the 49ers in the Shanahan era. Those coincide with brutal injury luck. When reasonably healthy, the club is a proven championship contender, appearing in a Super Bowl and three NFC title games since Shanahan was hired in 2017.
Much of the team's perennial success, of course, is tied to efficient quarterback play, and Shanahan masterfully schemes efficient quarterback play better than any coach in football. Ready for some proof?
Shanahan coordinated Matt Schaub's breakout season in 2009, was the offensive coordinator for Robert Griffin III's historic rookie year in 2012, Matt Ryan's MVP campaign in 2015, got a 90.8 rating out of a relief audition from rookie Nick Mullens in 2018, and through a litany of injuries Jimmy Garoppolo finished his tenure in San Francisco with a 99.2 rating. Oh yeah then there's Brock Purdy's 107.3 rating last season. You throw passes for Shanahan, you're going to efficiently move the football.
And as for the running back position?
I'll be succinct. Shanahan's run games have finished in the Top 12 of Football Outsiders' run offense DVOA in each season since 2018 with the likes of Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, Jeff Wilson -- all undrafted free agents -- and Elijah Mitchell -- a seventh-rounder -- as the primary backs. Much like his dad, Shanahan brilliantly schemes up the ground game too.
Pete Carroll: Zone cornerback
Carroll is a Cover 3 sensei, and he and his scheme have been integral to the triumphs of a plethora of zone cornerbacks during his reign as Seahawks head coach. The Legion of Boom was headlined by potential future Hall of Famer Richard Sherman. Others thrived opposite him too, like Byron Maxwell and Brandon Browner. In 2013 and 2014 combined, Maxwell tallied six interceptions and a mammoth 24 pass breakups, which he parlayed into $25 million guaranteed on a multiyear deal with the Eagles.
Browner went undrafted in 2005 out of Oregon State, then was a CFL star before the Seahawks signed him prior to the 2011 campaign. In that first NFL season for Browner, he led football with 23 pass breakups and two pick-sixes. In three seasons in Seattle, Browner intercepted 10 passes and had 40 pass breakups.
With the Legion of Boom disbanded years ago, Carroll is still kickin' as a high-energy coach during his club's youth movement. Unsurprisingly, Carroll coached fifth-round pick Tariq Woolen, universally viewed as a tantalizing long-term project, to a league-leading six interceptions as a rookie. Woolen also defended 16 passes. Give Carroll a long specimen on the perimeter, and that corner is going to be a productive ball magnet in his system.