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Coach of the Year is not necessarily an award given to the best strategist or most successful coach of a given season. It is, at its core, an exceeds-expectations award, as shown here. With that in mind, here’s what we should look for in a Coach of the Year candidate:

  • Every Coach of the Year winner’s team since 2010 won at least 11 games.
  • We want to bet on a team that can win their division.
  • We want to bet on a team that can exceed their win total by at least 3.5 games.
  • We want to bet on a team that can exceed their previous season’s win total by at least four victories.
  • Generally, we want to bet on a team that won eight or fewer games the previous season.
  • We can bet on first-year head coaches and we can freely bet on long shots.

Since team success plays a significant role in Coach of the Year analysis, it makes sense to do a deep dive into the schedule to determine which teams are best positioned to exceed expectations. Strength of schedule is a good baseline tool, but it’s very broad and lends little insight as to how many difficult games a team has on their schedule. That’s why I prefer to look at a team’s schedule through the lens of how many quality opponents they face and how many contenders are on the docket. A chart is included at the end of this article that shows every team’s strength of schedule, how many quality opponents they face, and how many elite opponents they have.

Lastly, we have to consider how the addition of a 17th game will impact previous patterns in all awards races. For Coach of the Year, it could mean that every team gets another game to further exceed their win total from the previous season. At least in the short term as everyone adjusts to the new reality. It’s also worth noting that last year’s winner, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, only beat Cleveland’s implied win total of 8.5 by 2.5 games in a very competitive Coach of the Year race. While that is the only time since 2010 that a Coach of the Year winner didn’t exceed their projected win total by at least 3.5 wins, it’s worth mentioning in a year most win totals look a little higher due to the 17th game.

 

Sportsbooks Used in this Column 

DK: DraftKings

Fox: Fox Bet

MGM: BetMGM

PB: PointsBet

 

The Favorites

Kyle Shanahan, 49ers (+1600 MGM vs +1500 PB vs +1300 DK vs +1200 Fox)

2020 Record: 6-10

2021 Win Total: 10.5

Shanahan is already considered to be one of the best offensive minds in football, which makes him one of the more talked about coaches that also happens to head a major NFL brand, in one of the country’s biggest markets. The primary concern in betting on Shanahan to win his first Coach of the Year award is that beating a 10.5 win total by 3.5 games is not going to be an easy task, especially if they intend to start two quarterbacks this season. If rookie quarterback Trey Lance is successful enough to lead an NFC West-winning 49ers team, I could see how San Francisco’s win total this year could play a more limited role vs the field in Shanahan’s candidacy. Regardless of that, the 49ers have the easiest schedule this season, which creates a realistic path to a talented 49ers team going over their win total.

 

Brian Flores, Dolphins (+1600 MGM vs +1500 PB +1400 DK vs +1300 Fox)

2020 Record: 10-6

2021 Win Total: 9

Flores has done a tremendous job through his first two seasons in Miami and the Dolphins have set themselves up well for long-term success. With that said, Miami is now expected to be a good football team, which means that voters would either have to break pattern or the Dolphins would have to put up 13, if not 14 wins for Flores to take down this award.

 

Brandon Staley, Chargers (+1600 MGM vs +1500 PB vs +1400 Fox vs +1300 DK)

2020 Record: 7-9

2021 Win Total: 9

The biggest obstacle for a Staley bet is that eight of the last 11 Coach of the Year winners won their division. The Chargers would have to leap the Chiefs to take down the AFC West. On top of that, the Chargers would need to win 13 games (12.5) to beat their 9-game win total by 3.5. Second-year quarterback Justin Herbert certainly impressed during his rookie campaign, but all of those scenarios would require an awful lot out of the Chargers’ young quarterback. With that said, Staley is a first-year head coach that is being treated as a favorite by sportsbooks for a reason. Staley’s odds remind me of last year’s winner Kevin Stefanski, which immediately struck me as bizarrely high just like Staley’s. The Chargers’ first six games (at WAS, vs DAL, at KC, vs LV, vs CLE, at BAL) represent their most difficult stretch by far.

 

Sean McVay, Rams (+1700 Fox vs +1600 MGM +1500 PB vs +1400 DK)

2020 Record: 10-6

2021 Win Total: 10.5

The Rams are one of several teams that have been consistently competitive for several years, which is why they have a lofty 10.5 win total. While the addition of Matthew Stafford definitely raises their ceiling, the Rams will likely need to win the NFC West behind at least 14 wins for McVay to be a true contender in this race.

 

Sean McDermott, Bills (+1800 MGM and PB vs +1700 DK vs +1500 Fox) 

2020 Record: 13-3

2021 Win Total: 11

Buffalo would have to go undefeated to beat their 2020 record by four wins. If McDermott were to win this award, voters would have to collectively break pattern while effectively awarding McDermott for the outstanding job he’s done over the last several seasons.

 

Kevin Stefanski, Browns (+2000 Fox vs +1300 DK vs +1200 MGM and PB)

2020 Record: 11-5

2021 Win Total: 10.5 (Up from 9.5 pre-draft) 

The Browns are a legitimate Super Bowl contender that has a realistic chance to end the regular season as the AFC’s best team. That said, the Coach of the Year award has not seen a back-to-back winner since Washington’s Joe Gibbs won back in 1982 (a strike shortened season) and then again in 1983. Based on that alone, betting on Stefanski to repeat would be a bet on an extreme outlier outcome.

 

Bill Belichick, Patriots (+2000 MGM and PB vs +1800 DK vs +1600 Fox)

2020 Record: 7-9

2021 Win Total: 9

I’m a bit bullish on New England as we know they are well prepared, they improved in a number of areas, and most of all their current roster construction is going to make them an unorthodox opponent. With that said, the Patriots have the ninth-most difficult schedule and a Coach of the Year bet on Belichick would be a bet on New England winning 12 or more games in a season where they will likely play two quarterbacks. I’m not in any hurry to bet on that ambitious of an outcome.

 

Frank Reich, Colts (+2000 Fox vs +1800 MGM and PB vs +1600 DK) 

2020 Record: 11-5

2021 Win Total: 10

On the positive side, if Reich is able to help Carson Wentz return to his 2017 MVP-level form, Reich would have an interesting narrative and a pretty compelling Coach of the Year argument on his side. On the downside, the Colts are a good, but unspectacular roster that has five high-end opponents on their schedule. Ultimately a bet on Reich to win Coach of the Year is a bet on the Colts winning 14, maybe even 15 games or for voters to significantly deviate from how they’ve been selecting Coach of the Year winners.

 

Robert Saleh, Jets (+2200 Fox vs +2000 DK vs +1800 MGM and PB) 

2020 Record: 2-14

2021 Win Total: 6.5

The Jets are building around Zach Wilson much smarter than they ever built around Sam Darnold, which should be an encouraging sign for their fanbase. That said, from the Jets’ perspective, the AFC East is a pretty loaded division that the Jets have a minimal chance of winning this year as they start a new rebuild. While New York improved this offseason, I was surprised at how expensive of a Coach of the Year bet Saleh was compared to the other coaches on 6.5-win-total teams.

 

Secondary Contenders 

Andy Reid, Chiefs (+2500 Fox vs +2000 DK vs +1800 PB +1600 MGM)

2020 Record: 14-2

2021 Win Total: 12.5

Last year Reid was an interesting late-season candidate because of how muddy the Coach of the Year race became after the Steelers lost to the Bengals on Monday Night Football in Week 15. If the Chiefs didn’t sit all of their starters in Week 17 and finished 15-1, I’m curious how he would have finished in that race. This year the Chiefs can’t win enough games to beat last year’s record by four victories, while they would need 16 wins to beat this year’s win total of 12.5 by 3.5. The Chiefs are expected to be the best team in football, which puts them in a situation where an undefeated regular season is now the only way they could exceed expectations.

 

Sean Payton, Saints (+2500 MGM vs +2200 PB vs +2000 Fox +1800 DK)

2020 Record: 12-4

2021 Win Total: 9

Payton is in an unorthodox position as far as Coach of the Year goes. On the one hand, if New Orleans is a playoff team behind strong play from Jameis Winston and/or Taysom Hill, Payton would deserve to be in contention. On the other hand, the Saints have been a consistent contender for years and while their expectations are reduced some by the departure of Drew Brees, New Orleans still has a win total of 9.  Oddsmakers still expect the Saints to be good, which means it will take a lot for New Orleans to beat expectations. On top of that, they won 12 games last year which makes it nearly impossible for the Saints to improve upon that record at all, not to mention by the four games usually needed to win this award. All things considered, it’s probably wise to pass on Payton for Coach of the Year given the unorthodox situation.

 

Arthur Smith, Falcons (+2500 MGM vs +1800 DK and PB vs +1600 Fox)

2020 Record: 4-12

2021 Win Total: 7.5

The Falcons have been a talented, but inconsistent team for several years now. We know that Atlanta has the potential to have a high-performing offense. We also know that the Falcons have a suspect defense, which is among the reasons they are an attractive shootout partner. Ultimately, a Coach of the Year bet on Smith is a bet on Atlanta to reach at least 11 wins. It wouldn’t be a major surprise if Atlanta was more consistent on offense under Smith. Expecting the defense to significantly improve is much thinner.

 

Matt Rhule, Panthers (+2500 MGM vs +2000 Dk and PB vs +1800 Fox)

2020 Record: 5-11

2021 Win Total: 7.5

A bet on Rhule to win the Coach of the Year is a bet on Sam Darnold leading an 11-win team. If that happens, Rhule is going to have a very compelling Coach of the Year argument considering Darnold’s lack of success as a Jet. I lean towards the Panthers under despite Carolina having the 10th-easiest schedule.

 

Joe Judge, Giants (+2500 MGM, Fox and PB vs +2000 DK)

2020 Record: 6-10

2021 Win Total: 7

Every NFC East coach has a realistic path to winning the division and thus becoming a contender for the Coach of the Year award. In the case for Judge, the Giants were a scrappy six-win team last year that beat Seattle on the road while hanging with both the Steelers and eventual champion Buccaneers despite having an unwatchable offense. That brutal Giants offense has major reinforcements coming this year with the addition of a primary receiver in Kenny Golladay and the return of Saquon Barkley from his season-ending knee injury. The Giants also added former Titans cornerback Adoree Jackson, giving Big Blue a deep and talented secondary. While winning 10 games on the way to an NFC East crown is an ambitious ask for the Giants, the Giants did legitimately improve this offseason and their division is arguably the most wide open in the league.

 

Vic Fangio, Broncos (+2500 DK, MGM and PB vs +2200 Fox)

2020 Record: 5-11

2021 Win Total: 8.5 (7.5 before the Aaron Rodgers trade rumors)

As the Broncos are currently constructed, an 11-win season would put Fangio in an excellent position to win Coach of the Year. Denver has an intriguing group of young pass catchers, two quality edge rushers, and one of the best secondaries in the league. If Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater provide the Broncos with reasonably stable quarterback play, Denver has a good enough roster to be a playoff team. If Aaron Rodgers lands in Denver, Fangio’s path to winning the award would become more narrow as the Broncos would then be considered one of the primary title contenders. In that scenario, Denver might need the best defense in the league for Fangio to be a contender for this award.

 

John Harbaugh, Ravens (+2800 Fox vs +2200 DK and PB vs +2000 MGM) 

2020 Record: 11-5

2021 Win Total: 10.5

The Ravens are another team expected to be among the best in the league, giving them little margin to exceed expectations enough for Harbaugh to win this award.

 

Major Odds Disparities

Ron Rivera, Washington (+3000 MGM and PB vs +1800 Fox vs +1600 DK)

2020 Record: 7-9

2021 Win Total: 8

Rivera is a longshot Coach of the Year bet at MGM and PointsBet while being treated as a favorite at DraftKings and Fox Bet. On the positive side, Washington has arguably the best defensive line in the league, paired with an intriguing young skill group, and the addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick is genuinely an upgrade at quarterback. On the downside, Washington has the sixth-most difficult schedule and while Fitzpatrick is an upgrade that raises the ceiling of Washington’s offense on any given Sunday, Fitzmagic is not the most consistent performer. Ultimately, a bet on Rivera is a bet on Washington winning the NFC East behind 12, possibly 11 wins. That is doable for Washington, and Rivera beating cancer last year to lead a title contender this year would also be an excellent story.

 

Bruce Arians, Buccaneers (+3300 Fox vs +2200 DK and PB vs +2000 MGM)

2020 Record: 11-5

2021 Win Total: 11.5

Arians is in the same position as several coaches leading teams that are expected to be good: His Buccaneers have little room to exceed expectations. For Arians to win his third Coach of the Year award, the Buccaneers would have to be the best team in the NFC without any average or worse team from last year taking a significant leap this season.

 

Mike McCarthy, Cowboys (+3500 MGM vs +3000 PB vs +2500 DK vs +2000 Fox)

2020 Record: 6-10

2021 Win Total: 9.5

It pains me to say this, as I don’t enjoy it when mediocre strategists contend for this award, but McCarthy is an interesting Coach of the Year candidate at 35:1 odds. His path to contention is very similar to that of former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett’s run in 2016, as McCarthy is also coming off a bad year yet, just like Garrett, McCarthy’s Cowboys enter the next season with a 9.5 win total. We know that Dallas could march out one of the best offenses in football this year. Dallas also has some legitimately talented players on their defensive front, which at least makes it possible that their defense can go from bad to average this season. If you’re bullish on Dallas, or if you’ve bet on Dak Prescott to win the MVP at roughly 20:1 odds, McCarthy will be in the Coach of the Year hunt if Dak is a legitimate MVP contender. Further, McCarthy should be closer to the 25:1 range simply because Dallas has the third-easiest schedule while playing the fewest quality opponents (7) (note, they face Washington twice and Arizona once, who both miss the cut by half a game) and the fewest elite opponents (2).

 

Long Shots

Matt Lafleur, Packers (+3000 MGM and PB vs +2500 DK vs +2200 Fox)

2020 Record: 13-3

2021 Win Total: Off the board 

If Aaron Rodgers leaves and the Packers win the NFC North with Jordan Love, Lafleur could be an outlier Coach of the Year winner in that scenario. Green Bay’s success last season could potentially be ignored by voters if Love took over, and few would expect the Packers to be a winning team in that scenario. Absent of those conditions, a bet on Lafleur to win the Coach of the Year would be a bet on voters completely changing how they select winners for this award, as the Packers have gone to back-to-back NFC Championships and thus, are expected to be high performers.

 

Mike Vrabel, Titans (+3000 DK vs +2800 Fox vs +2500 MGM and PB)

2020 Record: 11-5

2021 Win Total: 9

Vrabel is in a similar situation as the Dolphins’ Brian Flores and the Bills’ Sean McDermott: They’ve all done such an excellent job that these three teams are all now expected to be good. The Titans would have to win 15 games to beat their 11 victories in 2020 by the standard four games discussed throughout this column.

 

Matt Nagy, Bears (+3000 DK and Fox vs +2500 MGM and PB) 

2020 Record: 8-8

2021 Win Total: 7.5

If Aaron Rodgers leaves Green Bay and rookie quarterback Justin Fields starts within the first few games of the season, the Bears winning the NFC North with a rookie quarterback is not an unreasonable stretch. In that scenario Nagy, who has already won the Coach of the Year before, would be a good bet at 30:1 odds. If Nagy rides Andy Dalton too long or if Rodgers suits up for the Packers again, the Bears having enough success for Nagy to win this award would become considerably less likely. There are a lot of what ifs in Nagy’s candidacy. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sold that Nagy will have Fields installed as the starter for Week 2’s home opener against the Bengals. If I was, I might bet on Nagy at these odds.

 

Pete Carroll, Seahawks (+3500 Fox vs +3000 MGM and PB vs +2500 DK)

2020 Record: 12-4

2021 Win Total: 9.5

Carroll wasn’t ever a true contender last year despite Russell Wilson leading the MVP race for most of the first half of the season while his Seahawks won the NFC West behind 12 victories. If Carroll didn’t contend last year, I’m not sure what conditions could make him a contender this year.

 

Mike Zimmer, Vikings (+3500 Fox vs +2800 DK vs +2500 MGM and PB)

2020 Record: 7-9

2021 Win Total: 9

If Aaron Rodgers doesn’t suit up for the Packers this season, Zimmer’s most realistic path to contending for the Coach of the Year award is going undefeated within their division while decisively winning the NFC North. Otherwise, Minnesota isn’t the sort of team I’d like to bet on blowing past a 9-game win total.

 

Mike Tomlin, Steelers (+3500 MGM vs +3300 PB vs +3000 DK vs +2200 Fox) 

2020 Record: 12-4

2021 Win Total: 8.5

The Steelers have the third-toughest schedule while facing the most quality opponents (12) and the most elite opponents (6). While their defense should still be a strong unit, their offensive line is questionable for the first time in many years and Ben Roethlisberger significantly regressed last year, particularly down the stretch. On top of that, the Steelers won 12 games last year, which means the Steelers would need to win 16 games or awards voters would have to break pattern for Tomlin to be a Coach of the Year contender this year.

 

Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals (+3500 MGM vs +3300 DK and PB vs +2800 Fox) 

2020 Record: 8-8

2021 Win Total: 8

My first reaction when I began researching Coach of the Year was that Kingsbury is too cheap. The Cardinals have a dynamic quarterback in Kyler Murray that has the capacity to elevate a team with an MVP-caliber type of season. Few teams can make that claim about their quarterback. The Cardinals hitting 12 wins with the fifth-most difficult schedule is a tall order. On top of that, there are no easy outs within the NFC West and Arizona is projected to finish last in football’s best division. With that said, Kingsbury should be much closer to the 25:1 range simply because of his talented young quarterback.

 

Urban Meyer, Jaguars (+3500 MGM vs +3300 PB vs +3000 Fox vs +2800 DK)

2020 Record: 1-15

2021 Win Total: 6.5

The AFC South lacks a true juggernaut, which makes it one of the more winnable divisions in the league. That also makes Meyer an interesting Coach of the Year longshot consideration. In order to pull that off the Jaguars would need to hit 10 wins behind the ninth-easiest schedule, while needing both the Colts and Titans to slightly fall short of expectations. Those are all big asks, but I’d rather bet on the Jags over the Jets or Bengals who each have 6.5 win totals.

 

Deep Longshots

Jon Gruden, Raiders (+5000 DK and Fox vs +4000 MGM and PB)

2020 Record: 8-8

2021 Win Total: 7

The Raiders have the most difficult schedule in the league coming off one of the most bizarre offseasons in recent memory. Before the draft, their decision to essentially dismantle their offensive line, the strength of the team, was mind blowing. After the draft it seems that they made the conscious decision to get cheaper on offense by moving quality veteran offensive linemen in order to infuse some talent into their bottom-tier defense. While I don’t agree with that move, I at least can see that they had a plan, where the signing of Kenyan Drake given the rest of their roster needs still baffles me. While Derek Carr is coming off his best season, the Raiders are in danger of being a team that is towards the back of the average pack in both phases if their revamped offensive line takes a major step back.

 

Dan Campbell, Lions (+6000 Fox vs +5000 MGM, DK and PB)

2020 Record: 5-11

2021 Win Total: 5

A Coach of the Year bet on Campbell is essentially a bet on the rebuilding Lions to win at least nine games while taking the NFC North crown. Betting on the Lions to exceed expectations after swapping Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff is not the sort of wager I’d be interested in getting involved in.

 

Nick Sirianni, Eagles (+6600 Fox vs +5000 MGM, DK and PB)

2020 Record: 4-11-1

2021 Win Total: 6.5

The Eagles have a significant schedule advantage over their division rivals, as they draw the Lions and the Jets as uncommon opponents. Additionally, they only face eight opponents with a projected win total of 8.5 or more, which is fewer than both Washington and the Giants. At the end of the day, if you have made a bet on the Eagles to win the NFC East, you should consider also betting on Sirianni to win the Coach of the Year award at 66:1 odds on Fox Bet. Sirianni is far and away my favorite deep long shot to win this award, to the point that his odds should be half of what they are.

 

Zac Taylor, Bengals (+6600 MGM and PB vs +5000 DK vs +4500 Fox) 

2020 Record: 4-11-1

2021 Win Total: 6.5

Bengals fans have reason to be optimistic going forward as Joe Burrow has already shown that he can play and Cincinnati has a loaded, young skill group. With that said the Bengals still have a questionable offensive line, a below-average defense, and they have the fourth-most difficult schedule in the league. A bet on the Bengals winning 10 or more games would be a bet on them overcoming a number of major negatives while playing in arguably the best division in the AFC.

 

David Culley, Texans (+8000 PB vs +7000 Fox vs +6600 MGM vs +5000 DK)

2020 Record: 4-12

2021 Win Total: 4.5

A bet on Culley to win the Coach of the Year award is a bet on the Texans winning at least eight games, while more realistically needing 11 wins and/or an AFC South crown. Even if Deshaun Watson returns to play the full 2021 season, which seems very unlikely for a variety of reasons, getting 11 wins or taking down the division with this team is very unlikely, especially when considering that the Texans have the second-most difficult schedule.

 

Team Total Strength Quality Elite
ARI 8 149 12 5
ATL 7.5 144.5 9 4
BAL 10.5 148 12 4
BUF 11 143.5 10 2
CAR 7.5 143.5 9 3
CHI 7.5 146 11 4
CIN 6.5 150 12 6
CLE 10.5 140 10 3
DAL 9.5 141 7 2
DEN 8.5 142 8 4
DET 5 148 11 4
GB 9.5 146 10 5
HOU 4.5 152 12 4
IND 10 143 10 5
JAX 6.5 143.5 11 3
KC 12.5 145.5 11 3
LV 7 153.5 12 4
LAC 9 145 10 4
LAR 10.5 145.5 10 4
MIA 9 143 9 4
MIN 9 144.5 10 4
NE 9 147.5 11 4
NO 9 147.5 9 3
NYG 7 147.5 9 3
NYJ 6.5 145 11 3
PHI 6.5 143.5 8 3
PIT 8.5 152 12 6
SF 10.5 137 8 2
SEA 9.5 144 10 4
TB 11.5 142.5 8 2
TEN 9 146 11 4
WAS 8 148.5 10 3
Total: The team’s win total on DraftKings
Strength: Strength of Schedule by summing opponents win totals
Quality: Quality Opponents with an 8.5 or greater win total
Elite: Elite Opponents with a win total of 10.5 or more