NFL Picks: Top Factors for Coach of the Year Might Surprise You

Sterling Xie

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 12:55 PM GMT

Most NFL futures prop picks are player- or team-related, but Coach of the Year is an underrated category that doesn’t draw nearly enough attention from bettors. The individual odds are much longer than what you’ll see for other props like MVP or most passing yards, so placing a bet here could draw significant dividends.

Moreover, based on the preseason lines at 5Dimes, it doesn’t appear as though the public has a strong grasp on the types of coaches that tend to win this award.  That particular sportsbook currently lists Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Chuck Pagano and John Fox (+800) as favorites for the award in a four-way tie.  Mike McCarthy (+900) and Chip Kelly (+1000) aren’t far behind.

You’ll notice that, apart from Fox’s Chicago Bears, each of those coaches command teams that won double-digit games last season.  Belichick, Carroll and McCarthy are all Super Bowl champions, while Pagano and Kelly have yet to win fewer than 10 games in four combined seasons as head coach (excluding Pagano’s 2012 season, when he coached just four games while undergoing leukemia treatment).

But picking the coach entrenched on a surefire playoff team really isn’t the way to go with your NFL picks.  Looking at the past 10 Coach of the Year winners, an unmistakable trend emerges, illustrating what voters are really looking for in potential candidates:

Year

Winner

Team W-L

Previous W-L

Prev Playoffs?

Win Change

2014

Bruce Arians

11-5

10-6

No

+1

2013

Ron Rivera

12-4

7-9

No

+5

2012

Bruce Arians

11-5

2-14

No

+9

2011

Jim Harbaugh

13-3

6-10

No

+7

2010

Bill Belichick

14-2

10-6

Yes

+4

2009

Marvin Lewis

10-6

4-11-1

No

+6

2008

Mike Smith

11-5

4-12

No

+7

2007

Bill Belichick

16-0

12-4

Yes

+4

2006

Sean Payton

10-6

3-13

No

+7

2005

Lovie Smith

11-5

5-11

No

+6

Avg.

--

11.9-4.1

6.3-9.7

8 No, 2 Yes

+5.6

 

Almost universally, the Coach of the Year winner takes a woebegone franchise and improves its win total drastically, earning a surprise playoff appearance.  Sure, someone like Belichick could win if he elevates a team from good to transcendent, but you’re much more likely placing your faith on a coach whose team is on the verge of a huge wins leap that moves them into the postseason.  Four first-year head coaches have won in this 10-year stretch (again, including Arians’ interim stint in Indianapolis), so voters have implied that they’ll buy into the “revitalized culture” narrative that often prevails in these situations.  With so many inefficiencies for bettors to exploit in this race, these three coaches stand out as particularly favorable tickets:

 

Lovie Smith (+5000)
The 2005 winner of this award is the easy choice, and the one I would most strongly recommend.  It’s really astounding that only three coaches—Jim Tomsula, Ken Whisenhunt and Jay Gruden—hold longer odds than Smith at the moment.  It’s no secret that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are due for strong positive regression to the mean based on their horrendous luck in areas like one-score contests (1-9) and turnover margin (-8), stats which are notoriously fickle from year to year. 

Coupled with a potentially significant upgrade at quarterback depending on Jameis Winston’s rookie season, the Bucs could conceivably go from the worst record in the league to a division champion.  That’s the type of ultra-attractive narrative that draws voters in, as it would be easy to credit Smith as the experienced leader of an extremely green locker room.  It’s worth noting that this bet could be heavily contingent on a strong year from Winston—average statistical luck should get the Bucs to four or five wins, but that won’t draw any votes.  Thus, if you do take the plunge on Lovie, it might be wise to parlay this with a Rookie of the Year bet on Winston (+450 at 5Dimes).

 

Dan Quinn (+1400)
If Tampa doesn’t get the breaks it needs to take the NFC South, perhaps Smith’s divisional rivals in Atlanta will do so.  Of the seven new head coaches in 2015, Quinn is in the best situation to win this award.  He doesn’t necessarily face playoff expectations like Gary Kubiak or Rex Ryan, and he isn’t trapped with a declining talent base like Fox or Jim Tomsula.

Indeed, after accumulating just 10 wins over two wretched seasons, the Falcons might match that total this year alone.  Football Outsiders’ win projections peg Atlanta with a 49.2 percent chance of reaching the postseason, the sixth-highest preseason total of any team in the league.  With the former defensive coordinator Quinn in tow, the Falcons will see a huge overhaul to a defense that finished dead last in DVOA last season.  The Birds appear much deeper on their front seven this year, having added heavily in both in free agency (Adrian Clayborn, Justin Durant, Brooks Reed) and the draft (Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett).  The aging core that reached the postseason four times in five seasons from 2008-2012 is mostly gone, but Quinn is in a good situation with a team that has a franchise quarterback and plenty of young cost-controlled talent.

 

Joe Philbin (+2500)
I’ve already argued that the Miami Dolphins are the biggest boom-or-bust team of 2015, so why not take the chance that the Fins catch enough breaks to snap their six-year playoff drought?  Ryan Tannehill made demonstrable statistical leaps in his first season under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who implemented a system that resembles Chip Kelly’s quarterback-friendly system in Philadelphia.  If Tannehill takes another small step forward while shaky positions like guard, linebacker and safety tread water, Miami looms as a realistic playoff team.

Of course, unlike the previous two coaches on this list, Philbin isn’t starting from an especially low floor.  The Dolphins have won seven or eight games every season during Philbin’s three-year tenure, making them a perfectly average franchise rather than a destitute one in need of revival.  Ten wins would be nice, but dethroning the perpetually dominant Patriots in the AFC East might be the trump card Philbin needs to win Coach of the Year.  That does depend largely on Tom Brady’s availability, of course, and Miami’s tough closing schedule could allow the Pats to close quickly even if Brady does serve his four-game suspension.  Still, with 18 coaches holding shorter odds for the award, Philbin isn’t a bad intermediate level gamble.

 

Coach of the Year

Candidates
Bill Belichick +800 +600 +600
Chuck Pagano +800 +800 +800
John Fox +800 +1000 +1000
Pete Carroll +800 +800 +800
Mike McCarthy +900 +1000 +1000
Chip Kelly +1000 +1000 +1000
Mike Zimmer +1100 +1400 +1400
Gary Kubiak +1200 +1400 +1400
Jason Garrett +1200 +1600 +1600
Todd Bowles +1300 +2000 +2000
Bruce Arians +1400 +1000 +1000
Rex Ryan +1400 +2000 +2000
Dan Quinn +1400 +2000 +2000
Jim Caldwell +1800 +2500 +2500
Mike McCoy +1800 +2000 +2000
Gus Bradley +2000 +2000 +2000
John Harbaugh +2000 +1200 +1200
Bill O'Brien +2250 +1400 +1400
Jeff Fisher +2500 +2500 +2500
Joe Philbin +2500 +2500 +2500
Mike Tomlin +2500 +2500 +2500
Mike Pettine +3300 +4000 +4000
Tom Coughlin +3300 +3300 +3300
Sean Payton +3800 +1400 +1400
Andy Reid +4000 +2500 +2500
Marin Lewis +4000 +3300 +3300
Ron Rivera +4000 +3300 +3300
Jack Del Rio +4500 +4000 +4000
Lovie Smith +5000 +4000 +4000
Jim Tomsula +7500 +6600 +6600
Ken Whisenhunt +7500 +6600 +6600
Jay Gruden +10000 +6600 +6600