By Steve Silverman
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There is no doubt about the importance of a head coach in the NFL.
If you needed proof, just look at the Chicago Bears. A year ago, they went 5-11 under in-over-his-head Marc Trestman, giving up 50-plus points in back-to-back games at New England and Green Bay.
This year, the Bears went up to Green Bay on Thanksgiving night and won. Head coach John Fox has gotten a productive and resurgent season out of quarterback Jay Cutler, who had been largely a disappointment prior to this year.
A deeper look indicates that offensive coordinator Adam Gase is more responsible for Cutler’s growth than Fox, but it was Fox who hired the right assistant.
Fox has done well with a team that was predicted to be among the two or three worst in the league, but he is not in the upper echelon of head coaches this season.
In this piece, we look at the five who are making the biggest impact in 2015. One of them is quite likely to be Coach of the Year.
Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals (10-2) are comfortably ahead in the NFC West, holding a three-game lead over Seattle as they hit the home stretch.
Arians is a unique personality who laughs with his players during lighter moments, but yet cracks the whip when he is angry.
The reason he can get away with that is because in this era of coach speak and formulaic answers, Arians is unabashedly honest and straightforward. Ask him the right question, and he is decidedly anti-Belichick. He will describe an opponent’s strength and weakness and how he plans to win.
Another part of his strength is his ability to strategize and pick out the proper game plan to defeat each opponent. He looks at film and discerns the right route.
Arians’ players are held to high standards, but they love their leader.
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers
Obviously, Rivera has turned the Panthers (12-0) into a juggernaut of sorts. One look at the teams remaining on their schedule (Falcons twice, Giants, Bucs) indicates they have a good chance of finishing the regular season undefeated.
Rivera doesn’t get a lot of national respect. He was on the chopping block a year ago, and there was a 50-50 chance that owner Jerry Richardson was going to fire him after the Panthers won the NFC South with an embarrassing 7-8-1 record (sounds a lot like this year’s NFC East).
Rivera has made sure that kind of scenario won’t happen this year, but most NFL observers are still taking a “prove it to me” outlook with the Panthers, as they want to see postseason success before his ability as a head coach gets full acknowledgement.
But there’s no doubt in the Carolina locker room, where the players love Rivera. He is not a yeller or a screamer, but he is clearly the boss.
He has gotten the most out of MVP candidate Cam Newton, and his team is on a roll.
Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
Reid has had one of his best seasons as an NFL head coach, and that’s after getting off to one of the worst starts of his career.
The Chiefs (7-5) have won six games in a row, and have risen to wild card status in the AFC (if the season ended today). This after a start that appeared to have them heading to the AFC West cellar.
Not only were they losing — they blew a Week 2 game to Denver and went into a tailspin — they lost All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles, they had no passing game to speak of and they couldn’t cover opposing receivers.
Instead of quitting on the season, the Chiefs have rallied under Reid’s quiet leadership. The pass defense improved and quarterback Alex Smith found a go-to wide receiver in Jeremy Maclin. Smith hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 3.
Few coaches could have saved this team, but Reid found the right formula to turn things around.
Gary Kubiak, Denver Broncos
The Broncos (10-2) had the best defense in football when Kubiak was hired to take over for Fox at the conclusion of last season.
Kubiak has taken advantage of that gift, and the Broncos’ defense has been the top-ranked unit in the sport all season.
Kubiak also had Peyton Manning at quarterback, but the future Hall of Famer has gone through the aging process. It has taken him weeks to get over aches and pains, which have left him susceptible to major injuries.
Manning has also lost his arm strength.
The Broncos were winning for most of the season in spite of Manning. Then came a Week 10 disaster that may end up proving to be the turning point of the season. Manning went 5-of-20 for 35 yards and four interceptions in a loss to Kansas City, and was pulled in favor of untested Brock Osweiler.
Osweiler has won the three games he has started since, but Kubiak has to balance out the battle between his head and heart. It’s easy from long distance, because outsiders don’t have to deal with the Manning legend factor, but it’s fair to say Kubiak made the right decision in going with Osweiler.
But we’ll see how Osweiler — and Kubiak — do down the stretch, and whether Manning’s possible return makes a mess of things.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
If you want to know what coaches in the 1960s and ‘70s were like, take a good look at Zimmer. He has more of the characteristics of the Lombardi-Landry era than nearly anyone in the game today.
He has challenged his players’ toughness, desire and focus. He has practiced tough love and his players have responded.
The Vikings (8-4) are smart, disciplined and appear to be on their way up. They are in prime position to earn a playoff spot, and possibly win the NFC North.
Zimmer is not one-dimensional, either. He has one of the finest defensive minds in the game, and he can put together as strong a game plan as anyone.
His ability to outthink his counterparts and prepare his players to play at a high level has made him a legitimate candidate for Coach of the Year.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy