By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Coaching matters in the NFL. The head coach sets the tone for every team during training camp and the rest of his staff and his players take their cues from the big boss. A coach who is lax will get abused but a coach who is too tough and nasty will lose his grip on the team. It takes a certain balance to be a strong leader. Here’s a look at our Top 10 going into the 2012 season with the key attributes of each man.
1. Bill Belichick, New England – He’s not going to reveal much to the media, but there is little doubt that Belichick is way ahead of the crowd when it comes to the chess game that is played out each week. He knows his own personnel’s strengths and weaknesses and he also knows the opponent’s. He designs his gameplans with those factors in mind. While it’s clearly his show, Belichick listens to his players and coaches. God help any of them who come to a meeting unprepared. If you haven’t done your homework, Belichick will drop you to the bottom of the class. Terrific in-game strategist.
2.Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh – The steadiest organization in sports when it comes to leadership from the head coaching position. Tomlin fits right in with Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. He relates extremely well to his players and they always play hard for him. His best attribute is that he learns from his mistakes. He has made his share but he doesn’t make the same one twice. He owns up to his own errors and his players respect him for that.
3. Tom Coughlin, N.Y. Giants – Coughlin always understood strategy, personnel and the best ways to attack an opponent. That didn’t keep him from being a tyrant who had to have things done his way. Coughlin has throttled down over the years and that makes him a much easier boss to work with on an every-day basis. Coughlin also has the unique ability to get his team to play its best football during the postseason. Winning multiple Super Bowl titles makes him an elite coach.
4. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis – The Rams are likely to struggle this season but it won’t be the result of Fisher’s coaching. After taking a much-needed year off following his long run with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, Fisher will give the Rams stability, clear leadership and a definitive gameplan to follow. Fisher understands he has a team that has many weak spots, so he won’t make it overly difficult by giving them a complicated playbook. Fisher’s straight-forward approach usually sits well with his players.
5. Andy Reid, Philadelphia – When it comes to understanding offensive football and creating a gameplan, Reid doesn’t have to take a backseat to any coach on this list. However, last year’s team was supposed to cruise to the Super Bowl and the Eagles fell woefully short of expectations. Off-the-field family issues have had an impact on Reid –as they would with any human being – but he’s still smarter than the guy on the opposite sidelines in almost any coaching matchup. Look for a bounce back year from Reid and the Eagles in 2012.
6. Lovie Smith, Chicago – Smith has many flaws, including his inability to control the clock at the end of games. He’s also had some poor judgments when it comes to hiring and trusting assistant coaches. But you can’t deny that his players love him and that they play hard for him. The Bears will rarely mail in a game because Smith inspires consistency and effort on a week-in, week-out basis. Getting rid of Mike Martz will be a tremendous plus for Smith as Mike Tice’s straight-forward approach will be easier to work and understand.
7. John Fox, Denver – Somehow Fox found a way for the Denver Broncos to win the AFC West last season with a quarterback in Tim Tebow who could not throw the ball straight. They even won a playoff game against the Steelers. Fox’s strength is his ability to work with a defense and put that unit in a position to succeed. He also understands motivation and the human condition. Remember, he took the Panthers to the Super Bowl and now he’s got Peyton Manning on his side. It could be a year to remember in the Rockies.
8. Mike Smith, Atlanta – His players love him because of his non-phony and upbeat personality. He has helped skinny Matt Ryan develop into one of the better quarterbacks in the league. His teams regularly respond to poor efforts with good games. The ability to bounce back is one of his strengths, but he needs to show he can win playoff games.
9. John Harbaugh, Baltimore – He has emerged as a solid and dependable coach from a hard-bitten coaching family. He is definitely old-school when it comes to being a demanding, straight-forward coach, but he knows how much the game has changed and he will listen to his assistants and give their input careful consideration. While brother Jim Harbaugh may have had a more spectacular 2011 season in San Francisco, John seems to be the better long-term coach.
10. Mike Shanahan, Washington – This is largely based on what he did in his previous coaching tenure in Denver and that is now ancient history. Shanahan is very creative offensively, but he doesn’t adjust well when his players can’t execute the way he expects them to. There’s a much better chance the Redskins can be a surprise team this season thanks to rookie Robert Griffin III at quarterback. If Griffin performs up to expectations, Shanahan will give him the gameplan to reach his peak.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.