Last year was truly a tale of two seasons for first-year head coach Brian Flores and the Miami Dolphins. Most predicted a rebuilding season, but after a brutal seven-game losing streak to start the year, there were those in the national media who wondered if the Dolphins were putting their own players at risk by “tanking for Tua.”
The second half of the season saw a scrappy group of unheralded players, particularly on the defensive side of the football, take on the personality of their hard-nosed leader en route to a 5-4 finish down the stretch.
The fear in Miami of yet another Bill Belichick protege failing to win away from New England seemed to be quashed in Week 17 when Flores and the Dolphins went into Foxboro and dealt the Patriots a crushing defeat.
With 24-1 odds on Brian Flores to win the NFL Coach of the Year in 2020, the question becomes just how good will the Dolphins need to be this year for that award to be a realistic expectation?
Miami will certainly need to improve in the win department, but by how many? Is it possible for Flores to win the award without the Dolphins making the postseason? Let’s take a glimpse at the history of the award and some extenuating circumstances that may potentially play a role in Flores’ candidacy.
Historical criteria of past Coach of the Year winners
In order to truly handicap the NFL Coach of the Year betting market, it is crucial to acknowledge that the award itself is essentially a “most improved team” award. Just looking over the past decade’s winners you see a specific trend come into focus immediately. The average win total improvement for teams whose coach eventually won the Coach of the Year award was six.
Bruce Arians’ 2014 season with the Cardinals was an outlier for the award in that Arizona only improved from 10 to 11 wins from their previous season. That 10 win team in 2013 failed to make the postseason, however, they finished third in the NFC West behind Seattle and San Francisco. The 2014 version of the Cardinals started 9-1 but lost Carson Palmer to injury which may have cost them a deep playoff run. However, that didn’t stop Arians from capturing the coaching award for the second time in three years.
Seven of the last 10 seasons, the coach who won the award took his team to the postseason after they missed the playoffs the previous year. Of the three returning playoff teams, one featured a Ron Rivera led Panthers team that won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record in 2014, before winning 15 games in their Super Bowl season in 2015. Regardless of whether or not the team missed the playoffs the previous season, qualifying for the postseason has been a must for coach of the year candidates over the past ten years.
Possible AFC candidates
Utilizing the NFL Coach of the Year criteria we discussed above, we can establish who the true competition is for Flores in either conference. Starting in the AFC we can realistically eliminate all the playoff teams, at least I think. John Harbaugh won the award this year and the Kansas City Chiefs would need to go undefeated for Andy Reid to get any consideration.
Prior to the Cam Newton signing, you might have been able to create an argument for two time award winner Bill Belichick having a shot at the award. The narrative of Belichick building up Jarrett Stidham and winning without Tom Brady might have gained some steam if the Patriots shot past their projected win total of nine games. With Cam in the mix though, New England has swung right back to being AFC East favorites according to Las Vegas odds and Belichick has little perceived value at 12-1 odds for the coaching award.
What about teams outside of the AFC East?
The one returning playoff team, whose coach could garner some attention is Mike Vrabel of the Tennessee Titans. While the Titans are coming off an AFC Championship game appearance, they were only 9-7 in the regular season, meaning a 12-4 year in 2020 might fit the mold of what the Associated Press voters are looking for. Vrabel is currently listed at 20-1 odds to win Coach of the Year.
Another coach at 20-1 odds worth a look would be Kevin Stefanski. Ben Rolfe wrote about Stefanski’s candidacy here back in May. Sean McVay and Matt Nagy won the award as first-year head coaches in consecutive seasons, so that alone shouldn’t be a hindrance for Stefanski. The bigger hurdle is likely having to compete with Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the tough AFC North. That’s why I believe Flores’ biggest AFC competition comes from two teams with 7-9 seasons in 2019.
The Denver Broncos had a similarly strong finish to the Dolphins last season, winning four of their last five games after an atrocious start of their own. Denver lost a staggering five one-score games in 2019. They added talent on both offense and defense in the off-season, making Vic Fangio a strong candidate if Drew Lock can get the Broncos back to the postseason. His 24-1 odds are the same price that Flores is currently listed at most books.
If I were going to suggest one coach for this award other than Brian Flores it would have to be Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts. Reich was given the unenviable task of having to replace All-Pro quarterback Andrew Luck just weeks before the season kicked off. The Colts were actually 5-2 last season before Jacoby Brissett was injured and are currently the favorites to win the AFC South. If this is truly a comeback award, there might not be a coach better suited than Reich at 14-1 to overcome the odds.
Continue for some possible NFC candidates for NFL’s Coach of the Year award.