Rating Every NFL Coach's Chances to Survive the 2021 Season

Our Coaching Survival Ratings are based on play-calling skills, coaching cachet, postseason success, intangibles and more.
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If you’re anything like me, your reality television tastes might skew more toward the primal and less toward the Kardashian (unless the Kardashians are being primal, in which case, shrug emoji). In that case, you might have seen an episode of Naked and Afraid.

For the uninitiated, the show is fairly simple: A man and a woman are dropped off in a desolate area and forced to survive without food, shelter, a known water source or—you guessed it—clothing. My favorite part of the show is a segment that takes place before the survivalists are dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Producers assign each contestant something called a Primitive Survival Rating (PSR) based on arbitrary facts about their life. Maybe someone was in the military (a bonus) a park ranger (less of a bonus) or an expert on edible plants in the South American rainforest (an extreme bonus). The PSR is then reevaluated at the end of the show.

After kicking around our head coaching rankings for a while, we thought this would be a wonderful way to categorize the league’s 32 coaches (a survival rating, not dropping them naked in the jungle). Coaching Survival Rating could combine what they’ve done in the past, their biggest strengths and their weaknesses, which is a better methodology than simply ranking them, no? A ranking could, with a few exceptions, be a descending list of last year’s standings. CSR factors in their ability to call plays in their area of strength, their cachet as a manager, their Super Bowl trips and wins, and how respected and needed they are within the context of their environment. For example, there may be two coaches with the exact same record last year but wildly different CSRs because one is newly hired, one was a big hire, one has a longer contract, one is closely tied in with ownership, etc.

Basically, what is their ability on a scale of one to 10 to survive a really bad season, and why?

One housekeeping note: We have omitted all of 2021’s new coaches, as they'll all be working from a theoretically clean slate except for David Culley in Houston, who has a Sisyphean journey ahead of him.

Let’s get into it…

Bill Belichick, Mike Vrabel and Andy Reid

TIER 1

Bill Belichick, Patriots

CSR: 10.0

  • Greatest head coach in modern NFL history
  • Defensive schematic genius with black ops military ties
  • Eight Super Bowl rings

If the Patriots went 0–16 next year, insisting on fielding a team of unpadded folk singers instead of football players, his motives would not (and should not) be questioned. Belichick is as untouchable in the NFL as untouchable gets.

Andy Reid, Chiefs

CSR: 9.8

  • Riding the wave of cutting-edge NFL offenses
  • Has the ear of the NFL’s most promising young talent
  • Affable, honest lover of meats in a great food city

It would be hard to imagine the NFL or the Chiefs without Reid. So many coaches eventually go stale, but the beautiful thing about Reid is his commitment to learning new ideas. That, and a front office that shares his desire to layer the offense with more playmakers than a defense can handle. Reid’s arrival in Kansas City signaled one of the most significant culture changes in modern NFL history. With consecutive Super Bowl appearances under his belt, he is as close to being an institution in his city as any coach not named Bill Belichick.

Sean Payton, Saints

CSR: 9.6

  • Fields consistently good-to-great teams
  • Super Bowl title
  • Expert troll

Payton’s choice to coach the Saints at a time when the city and fan base was reeling will never be forgotten. Like Reid, he is on the cutting edge of NFL offensive thinking and has the cachet to get the roster he wants year in and year out, salary cap be damned. Payton could come out and denounce gumbo, jazz music and drinking in public and still be a beloved figure in his adopted home city.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers

CSR: 9.6

  • Two Super Bowl appearances, one victory
  • Has never had a losing season in the NFL
  • Rolodex of great sayings

Tomlin will forever be underappreciated by Steeler Nation despite doing more than his fair share living up to Bill Cowher’s legacy. Tomlin’s worst year came in 2019 when the club went 8–8 with a combination of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at quarterback. Last year’s team ran out of steam at the tail end of the season, though with a quarterback pushing 40 and an offensive line coming to terms with its own age, there were few other scenarios more inevitable.

Pete Carroll, Seahawks

CSR: 9.1

  • Two Super Bowl appearances, one victory
  • Creator of generation-defining defensive scheme
  • Endless fount of positivity

Seattle’s power structure is unique, and Carroll’s standing reflects his status as a personnel lead. His recent combativeness with Russell Wilson is interesting in that both sides seem to be putting a bit of their legacy on the line to get what they want. Will Carroll and his desire for a more measured and conservative offense win out? Will Wilson’s incredible talent win out? Carroll also has a pair of championships at USC to boost his résumé.

John Harbaugh, Ravens

CSR: 9.0

  • Super Bowl title
  • Employs one of the most creative offenses and defenses in the NFL while also staffing one of the league’s most robust and powerful analytics outfits
  • Only current NFL head coach named John to spell his name with an ‘H’ in it

Harbaugh’s transformation during the Lamar Jackson era cemented his staying power in Baltimore, something the Ravens may have realized concretely back in late 2018, when it seemed like Harbaugh would take his talents elsewhere. The line of teams waiting at his doorstep was probably an indicator of how he’s thought of throughout the league.

Bruce Arians, Buccaneers

CSR: 9.0

  • Most recent Super Bowl champion
  • Tom Brady confidant
  • Whiskey lover and overall life enthusiast

Arians has transitioned beautifully from life as the quarterback whisperer to life as the ultimate culture creator. His bright, young, diverse coaching staff is talented and something he can leave behind for another decade. His ability, as reported by our own Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bishop, to meld his offense and put his pride aside to accommodate Brady’s wishes brought forth a Super Bowl win that will stand forever.

The Weak-Side Podcast now has its own feed! Subscribe to listen to Conor Orr and Jenny Vrentas every week. 

TIER 2

Kyle Shanahan, 49ers

CSR: 8.8

  • Super Bowl appearance
  • Creator of the NFL’s most en vogue offense
  • Pioneer of meshed-back trucker hat renaissance

It feels like even if the 49ers miss the playoffs this year there won’t be a ton of pressure on Shanahan, who has shown how dominant of a coach he can be with a fully healthy roster at his disposal. Shanahan’s coaching staff has been routinely pillaged during his time in the NFL, a sign that he’s doing something right.

Sean McVay, Rams

CSR: 8.8

I feel fairly confident in saying that if the Rams were to shake anything up in the event of a down year in 2021, it would not be with the coaching staff. McVay rode his brilliant scheme to a Super Bowl appearance in 2018 and now gets a quarterback, in Matt Stafford, who can perhaps serve as a better avatar for his system. The future appears bright in L.A. Best of all, McVay’s identification of Brandon Staley shows he can identify coaching talent as well as on-field talent.

Matt LaFleur, Packers

• Ascending young offensive play-calling star
• Can handle being around Aaron Rodgers
• Former quarterback of a team called the Omaha Beef

CSR: 8.8

I view LaFleur on similar footing as Shanahan or McVay, given two straight 13-win seasons and two straight trips to the conference title game. The result in those games, outside of the interesting call to kick a field goal against the Buccaneers, was largely due to inefficiencies out of LaFleur’s control. The Packers struck gold with this hire and there’s little doubt he will be there after Rodgers moves on.

Sean McDermott, Bills

CSR: 8.7

  • Ignited the league’s wildest fan base
  • Changed a broken culture and made the Bills into consistent winners
  • Accomplished wrestler, potentially the most dangerous NFL coach in hand-to-hand combat

Buffalonians fall deeply in love with coaches who can bring even a modicum of energy to their city. Bring them within a whiff of the Super Bowl again and you can feel comfortable buying a house and hanging out for a while. McDermott has assembled one of the league’s best coaching staffs and has an ascending star quarterback still on a rookie deal.

Ron Rivera, Washington

CSR: 8.6

  • Super Bowl appearance (at a previous stop)
  • Defensive mastermind with a talented roster
  • Quietly intimidating

Rivera has brought a level of professionalism to Dan Snyder’s Washington Football Team that we haven’t seen since Mike Shanahan, which either means he can stay as long as he wants, or some absurd organizational discord will force his ouster after one just okay season. In all seriousness, there was a lot of mess to clean up, and Rivera brought a big shovel.

Mike Vrabel, Titans

CSR: 8.1

  • Consistently fields teams that play well above on-paper expectation
  • Fun dad
  • Great mustache

Vrabel has the eye and connections to field good offensive coordinators and the drawing power to bring in legendary defensive help when needed. He connects with players on a deeper level than perhaps any of the other current NFL head coaches and will always be a difficult coach to game plan against. He is the original kneecap biter.

Mike Zimmer, Vikings

CSR: 8.1

Zimmer has become the definition of Why get rid of him? He’s always good enough, his teams are always somewhat competitive, he drafts fairly well and has no major flaws as a head coach. He fits the vibe in Minnesota well and has squeezed some impressive runs out of some O.K. teams.

Kevin Stefanski, Browns

CSR: 8.0

  • Took the Browns to the playoffs for the first time since Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” was the No. 1 song in the country
  • Piloted a woebegone franchise through a pandemic
  • Expertly trimmed 5 p.m. shadow

Stefanski was the jewel of Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta’s eye for a while, and their first year of marriage alongside GM Andrew Berry proved why. This organization is on the same page and Stefanski’s offense is the perfect fit for Baker Mayfield, who looks more in control and comfortable than at any point in his NFL career. If he can routinely visit the playoffs and develop a long-term quarterback, he’ll have done more than approximately 87 other Browns head coaches have been able to do since 1999.

Brian Flores, Dolphins

CSR: 7.9

  • Has helped the Dolphins get taken seriously for the first time in more than a decade
  • One of the few Belichick assistants who embodies the best of Belichick
  • Refused an indirect order to tank and piloted a threadbare roster to five wins

Flores will be in Miami for a long time, especially if he can find himself an offensive coordinator. His coaching job in 2019 was one of the best efforts from a new head coach we’ve ever seen, single-handedly willing a punchless roster to five wins. If Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t work out, Flores would seem to have the staying power to survive into QB2.

Frank Reich, Colts

CSR: 7.0 

• Quarterback whisperer on the rise
• Two playoff appearances in his first three years
Beard/non-Beard versatility

This will be an interesting season to gauge the long-term future of Reich. Carson Wentz is now (again) his quarterback and the two have an engrained relationship. If the Wentz experiment works, Reich will become indispensable in Indianapolis. If the Colts as presently constructed can’t make the playoffs, thus squandering the team at its collective prime, his star takes a bit of a hit. To be clear, Reich is tracking to be one of the better head coaches in the NFL, but this season could begin to tip the sliding scales in one direction or another.

Matt Rhule, Panthers

CSR: 6.8

  • Highly sought-after collegiate coach with a history of program turnarounds
  • Employer of one of the NFL’s best young offensive coaches
  • Has the plucky demeanor of an amalgam of all Friday Night Lights characters

Rhule’s six-year contract signals staying power on its own, but he handled his first season under the hood pretty well, all things considered. The Panthers were a tough team to play despite having limited talent. His inability to land a big-time quarterback may rear its head at some point, but for now, he’s not going anywhere.

Joe Judge, Giants

CSR: 6.9

Having covered the Giants on the beat and having covered football in the New York area for a decade, I can tell you there is an immediate smell test that a coach has to pass. Ben McAdoo never passed that test. The same could be said for Pat Shurmur. Joe Judge, on the other hand, seems to have employed a combination of on-field fire, deadpan humor and fundamental knowhow into a comfortable place on the coaching hierarchy.

Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, left, and Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury

TIER 3

Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals

CSR: 6.3

Kingsbury is interesting in that the better Kyler Murray gets (partially because of his tutelage) the more pressure there will be on him to win. Arizona is pushing its chips to the center of the table this offseason, which means all eyes will be on a coach who went 5–10–1 and 8–8 in his first two years. Should he make the playoffs, all is well. Should Arizona falter, can he survive the closer Kyler Murray gets to a new contract?

Jon Gruden, Raiders

CSR: 6.2

I believe my former boss Peter King when he says the heat will get dialed up on Gruden if the Raiders don’t make the playoffs this year. Hiring Gruden in grand fashion was a great tribute to Al Davis from his son Mark. But keeping Gruden on a $100 million deal after four seasons and no playoff appearances would be a very un-Al thing to do.

Mike McCarthy, Cowboys

CSR: 6.0

  • Super Bowl champion (though at a previous stop)
  • Known quarterback whisperer
  • Expert job interviewer

I think anyone who’s coaching a quarterback Jerry Jones is paying $40 million per year better make the playoffs. To be clear, I have no doubt McCarthy will turn things around in Dallas, but I have a lot of doubts that Jones would be patient and let a tenured coach take a bunch of time finding his footing while the Cowboys’ core offensive players age out of their prime.

Matt Nagy, Bears

CSR: 5.7

  • Play design expert
  • Two-time playoff participant
  • Endearing Philly-Delco accent

I think Matt Nagy is a gifted painter trying to Bob Ross it in Chicago with a wooden club instead of some brushes. Perhaps Andy Dalton is the answer but, understandably, there isn’t a great deal of enthusiasm going into the season. If I were ownership, I would take solace in the fact that he could get some pretty bare offensive teams to the playoffs. Will ownership actually think that way?

Vic Fangio, Broncos

CSR: 5.5

  • Creator of the NFL’s most devilish (and frequently copied) defensive scheme
  • Experienced coach with strong relationships around the league
  • Beloved native of the greater Scranton area

There isn’t much bad to say about Fangio, but the reality of the situation is that he’s headed into year three of his coaching tenure with no winning seasons and a new general manager on board. This is always a tough situation for a coach, and unless the Broncos turn their fortunes around this year, it might be difficult for him to remain in Denver beyond 2021.

Zac Taylor, Bengals

CSR: 5.4

  • Highly recommended play-caller from the Sean McVay tree
  • Expressed a rare willingness and enthusiasm to live and work in Cincinnati
  • Fan of simple, resellable home design

I don’t know if the Bengals would get rid of Taylor after two years, but in general, life is fairly complicated for a head coach when he gets a quarterback at No. 1. The clock immediately starts ticking, and as good as Joe Burrow looked before his injury, would the Bengals start to worry that they aren’t getting enough out of their investment? Like the Gruden blurb, this is highly dependent on an owner we expect to be non-reactionary to actually be reactionary.

History tells us that a handful of the coaches on this list will be out of a job next winter. But at least they’ll all be well compensated enough to remain fully clothed.