By Steve Silverman
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There was a time when the NFL was a coach’s league.
Men like Bill Parcells, Tom Landry, Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson and Joe Gibbs would make decisions about how to use their personnel that would impact games every week, and perhaps more importantly, the attitude they projected within their own locker rooms resonated from start to finish every year.
Today, a coach’s influence is seemingly much subtler. The king is still running the show in New England, and the Patriots remain at or near the top every season. Bill Belichick is in his own category and ranks with the great Vince Lombardi on the all-time list of NFL head coaches.
But among the mere mortals, Mike Zimmer of the Vikings, Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, Jack Del Rio of the Raiders and Doug Pederson of the Eagles are not only having success; their strategies and demeanor are helping their teams get the most out of their abilities.
All four captains are steering their ships correctly and decisively.
Zimmer is a brilliant coach who may know more about defense than anyone in the league. The Vikings have a couple of star players in free safety Harrison Smith and middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, who are both capable of making game-changing plays at the most important moments.
Zimmer deploys his defense in a way in which the Vikings have their strongest players attack an opponent’s biggest weakness. That’s often the strategy throughout the league; Zimmer just does it more effectively than most.
However, his biggest success is the way he has gotten the entire locker room to buy into his tremendous self-confidence. Zimmer took over a team that was largely indifferent before the 2014 season, and the Vikings were content to play the role of the .500 team that would have one or two peak performances every season and also throw out the same number of stinkers against ordinary teams.
That’s no longer the case, as Zimmer has given the Vikings a sense of pride that may not have existed since the Bud Grant era.
The Vikings were a once-great team under that former coach, but it never paid off with a Super Bowl title. Zimmer appears to have the stuff that could help the team pay off a tremendous debt to its long-suffering fans.
Tomlin, meanwhile, is a coach who tasted glory earlier in his run as head coach of the Steelers, and he has proved himself a worthy leader to follow in the footsteps of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.
Tomlin has built an offensive juggernaut, and he has a trio of superstars in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wideout Antonio Brown.
In any given week, Roethlisberger can be the best quarterback in the league. In half the games, Bell will be the best running back in the league. In nearly every week, Brown is the best receiver in football.
Tomlin’s faith in all his players – not just that trio of superstars – is palpable, and they perform at a high level for him.
What they lack in consistency – see Pittsburgh’s Week 3 loss to the Eagles – they make up for with their ability to bounce back with a sensational game.
Tomlin has gotten his team to take every loss or mistake personally, and they often rebound from them with sensational efforts.
When the Steelers come up with a peak effort, they may be the most difficult team to beat in the league.
In Oakland, Del Rio has taken a team of sad-sack losers and transformed them into a confident and precise group of overachievers.
The Raiders were hoping to have their own group of triplets in quarterback Derek Carr, running back Latavius Murray and wideout Amari Cooper, but Murray has not fulfilled his enormous potential and the Raiders have been more dependent on the pass with Carr throwing to Cooper and the resurgent Michael Crabtree.
This shows Del Rio’s ability to make adjustments on the move.
His coaching style is one in which he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he has been able to change a team that used to go through the motions in at least half of its games to one that plays hard for 16 games.
Additionally, the once-undisciplined Raiders often find a way to play their best football in the fourth quarter, especially when the team is on the road.
The Raiders have taken multiple steps up the NFL ladder, and much of it is because of Del Rio’s excellent work.
Pederson is the rookie head coach with the rookie phenom quarterback in Carson Wentz.
In many ways, Pederson is the coach with the least pressure on him in the league. Management traded his would-be starting quarterback, Sam Bradford, days before the start of the season and mandated that he go with the rookie from Day 1.
Now, that decision would not have been made if Pederson had been dead-set against it, but nobody could have expected the Eagles to win their first three games and that Wentz would keep it clean on the interception side of the ledger.
But that’s just what has happened, and the Eagles have also played nasty and hard-hitting defense, showing the speed to shut down the most explosive team in the league, the Steelers.
Pederson spent many years working under Andy Reid, so there is little doubt that he knows how to play the chess game that is NFL football.
He has to prove that he can handle the ups and downs that every team must face in a season, and he will surely be tested.
However, he is playing with house money, and he has a chance to lead a surprise team to a very memorable season.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy