If you could compile the dream NFL coaching staff from the league's current crop of coaches, who'd be chosen? From Bill Belichick to Wade Phillips to Bruce Arians, here's a look at our picks.
NFL players are named to Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams every year, but outside of Coach of the Year honors, the men who guide those players to greatness often don’t get enough recognition. To try and right that wrong, here is a dream coaching staff from a pool of current coaches around the league. Some of our choices for coordinators and position coaches are currently head coaches, like Bruce Arians and Dan Quinn. Slotting them into a different role here doesn't take away from the jobs they're currently doing in their leading roles—it's just that there's only one true choice for the top spot here. Without further ado, here are the men who make up our ultimate NFL coaching staff.
Spygate, sure. Deflategate, maybe. You can talk all you want about Belichick’s bending of NFL rules (both real and imagined), but history will remember him as a head coach/general manager on the level of Bill Walsh, Paul Brown, George Halas and anyone else you’d care to mention in NFL history.
Belichick has assembled a 187–69 regular-season record with the Patriots, and that .730 winning percentage puts him at fourth all time on the list of NFL coaches, behind Guy Chamberlin, John Madden and Vince Lombardi. Chamberlin coached in the 1920s, so we’ll set that aside. Neither Lombardi nor Madden built their teams; it was Jack Vainisi and Al Davis who did that for the Packers of the 1960s and the Raiders of the 1970s. Belichick has been the one constant throughout the Patriots’ era of tremendous success, in which he’s won four Super Bowls and had a grand total of two seasons under 10 wins since 2000, and none since 2002.
Yes, it helps to have Tom Brady. But let’s remember that the Pats went 11–5 in 2008 with Matt Cassel at quarterback. More importantly, Belichick has proven himself to be the most successful leader of the free agency era, when rosters turn over far more frequently than in the past. He’s maintained that success with several different base schemes: the run-heavy playbook of the early 2000s, the spread-style approach in 2007 and 2008, the two-tight end dominance from 2010 through 2012, and the hurry-up concepts of today. Throughout that time, he’s switched from 3–4 to 4–3 to hybrid base defenses with radically different personnel, and it’s always worked. He’s had stellar coaching staffs and front office personnel, but as his assistants have gone on to far less successful head coaching stints, Belichick has replaced them and welcomed them back at times, all with the same result: amazing, consistent success.
He’s seen by many as the NFL’s Darth Vader, but as a coach, a strategist, and a director of personnel, Belichick has no equal in the modern NFL. And when it’s all said and done, he may have no equal historically.
If you want a glimpse of the mentality Bruce Arians brought to the Cardinals when he became their head coach in 2013, look no further than his own words: “I’m not coaching for my next job; this is it. This is it, so I do whatever the hell I want to do.”
That’s the way he calls his plays and coaches his guys. Since our head coach spot is taken, we’ll give Arians the position of offensive coordinator, because there isn’t a play designer who has a better sense of alignment of scheme to personnel, and implementation of those schemes on the field.
Arians brings a tremendously diverse, advanced playbook to the game. He’s a quarterback-friendly coach because he provides his signal-callers with a multiple passing offense that’s tough to decipher, but very favorable to his quarterbacks when they get it. Arians also makes defenses uneasy because his offensive concepts are designed to stretch them to their limit. His primary passing philosophy revolves around vertical routes to the back side, angular routes to the front side, and slant and over routes over the middle. If things are working correctly, the quarterback has a relatively easy open read at all times. And now, with David Johnson as the primary running back, Arians has speed and power in his running game. It’s got echoes of Sid Gillman and Don Coryell, but Arians has taken the deep passing game to a different level. He’s also a great head coach, but for our purposes, he’s a fine choice to run the ideal NFL offense.
Phillips got a lot of defensive education from his father Bum, who coached the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints from 1975 through 1985. Bum was one of the first coaches to use a 3–4 base defense in the NFL, and Wade, as his assistant from 1976 through 1985, picked up a lot of what worked against the best offenses in the league. He took things a step further as a defensive coordinator for the Broncos, Bills, Chargers, Cowboys, Texans, and Broncos again.
The Denver defense that shut Cam Newton and the Panthers down in Super Bowl 50 was Wade’s baby, and it had a lot of the common principles you’ll see in all his defenses. He runs a base 5–2 front that has its roots in the old Bud Wilkinson Oklahoma defenses, and prefers ridiculously athletic pass-rushing outside linebackers, ends who can alternate between run-stopping and pass-rushing, and nose tackles who are more athletic than the norm. Versatile linebackers and aggressive defensive backs are a must.
Phillips has expanded his sub-package concepts over the years as the NFL has become more of a nickel-and-dime defensive league, and that’s where you’ll see multiple fronts out of a four-man base. Phillips's defenses aren’t terribly complex, but they have worked extremely well wherever he’s gone, and the Broncos’ most recent Lombardi Trophy proves estimably that the 68-year-old coach hasn’t lost a single bit of his genius.
Jackson is the most respected quarterback whisperer in the NFL. He worked with Carson Palmer at USC, Cincinnati and Oakland, Joe Flacco in Baltimore, Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, and now a patchwork group of signal-callers in Cleveland. If Jackson can make chicken salad out of the group in Cleveland, which includes Robert Griffin III, it will only bolster his resume, but Jackson doesn’t really need it. He’s been named a head coach for the second time in his career because he understands how to bring the best out of quarterbacks to a degree that is rare in this league, and that lands him a spot on our list.
Smith played for the Seahawks from 1976 through ’82, and became the team’s running backs coach in 2010 after a long history as a running backs coach and offensive coordinator. It’s been his job to not only handle Marshawn Lynch’s personality, but to bring along young players in Seattle’s backfield in Lynch’s stead. Perhaps the most impressive example of his grooming of potential stars—who will now try to be suitable replacements for Lynch—came last season, when he took an undrafted kid out of Central Michigan named Thomas Rawls and helped him become the epicenter of Seattle’s offense after Lynch was injured. Smith understands the fundamentals of the game, and can coach backs up in any system.
Drake works under colorful play-caller Bruce Arians, which means that he (like most of Arizona’s offensive assistants) doesn’t get the recognition he deserves from the public. But someone’s got to guide the team’s receivers though that exacting and precise offense, which often gives younger receivers a greatly expanded diet of route concepts and overall schematic understanding. In addition, it’s a must that every Cardinals receiver must block, and Drake is in charge of that, as well. He also developed multiple receivers with the Bears from 2004 through 2012, despite a passing game that could charitably be called limited most of the time, and before that, he spent over two decades in the college ranks, tutoring such future NFL receivers as Roy Williams and Hines Ward.
One of the longest-tenured assistants of any stripe in the NFL, Alexander has been the Bengals’ offensive line coach since 1994, and added the title of Assistant Head Coach in 2003. He’s served under four different head coaches for the Bengals, and his lines have blocked for four different running backs with 1,000-yard seasons. Cincinnati’s line under Alexander has ranked among the top 10 in fewest sacks allowed totals in four of the last five NFL seasons, and it set franchise records for low quarterback takedowns in two different seasons before that. Alexander has gotten the job done with his front five through multiple personnel shifts, injuries, coaching philosophies, and schematic shifts in the league. At this point, he should be talked about in the same breath as legendary line coaches like Howard Mudd and Alex Gibbs.
Quinn is one of the league’s most creative thinkers when it comes to the defensive line. He really got to stretch into that as Pete Carroll’s defensive line coach in Seattle in 2010, and as his defensive coordinator in 2013 and ‘14 after a two-year break coaching Florida’s defense. It was his idea to take defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and align him in the old “Stunt 4–3” position made famous by Pittsburgh’s Joe Greene in the 1970s. It was his idea to take tackle Red Bryant, who weighed anywhere from 330 to 360 pounds depending on who you believed, and make him the biggest 4–3 run-stopping end anyone’s ever seen. And it was Quinn who maximized the multi-gap talents of end/tackle Michael Bennett, who came to Seattle in 2013. His football smarts and dynamic personality got him the Falcons’ head coach position, but Quinn is our choice for D-line coach because he’s always going to maximize the talents of his personnel.
The job Sheridan has done over the last two years in Detroit in the face of major injuries to the Lions’ linebacker corps, makes him a coach worthy of more credit than he gets. Sheridan took over as the team’s linebacker coach after two seasons as the Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator in 2012 and ’13, splitting the Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano eras in Tampa Bay. That means Sheridan had already seen his share of turmoil. He came to Detroit in ’14 and first had to deal with Stephen Tulloch missing most of the season, but he helped Tahir Whitehead become a rising star in Tulloch’s stead. Then, last season, he coached the Lions past the season-ending injury to DeAndre Levy, helping Josh Bynes to a valued place on the roster. One wonders what he’d do with a full complement of talent at his disposal.
Richard played for Pete Carroll at USC, and then went on to a four-year NFL career as a marginal defensive back. Then he asked Carroll for any kind of coaching job on his staff, which led to various promotions within the Trojans’ system and eventually a move to Seattle in 2010 to serve as Carroll’s assistant cornerbacks coach. The assistant label was dropped a year later, making Richard the primary coach responsible for applying Carroll’s pass coverage philosophies on the field. Some may argue that it’s easy to do that when you have Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor on your roster, but Richard helped greatly with the development of those Legion of Boom mainstays and also groomed Seattle’s more lightly regarded defensive backs like Brandon Browner, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. He’s the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator now, and he’ll be a head coach sooner or later.
Baltimore’s success on special teams speaks a lot to the job general manager Ozzie Newsome has done assembling depth on his rosters over the years, but it also has a lot to do with Rosburg’s excellent coaching. He may be best-known as a bit player in the Deflategate mess, but more should be said about his football acumen. Rosburg was hired by the Ravens in 2008, and since then Baltimore has the league’s top kick return average and the second-most kick return touchdowns, ranking in the top three in Football Outsiders’ special teams metrics in each of the last four seasons. Rosburg also brought undrafted free agent kicker Justin Tucker to the team in 2012, and Tucker is currently the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history, with 130 of 148 field goals made over four seasons. Before his time in Baltimore, Rosburg also coached top-ranked special teams units in Atlanta and Cleveland.