The NFC West has a rich tradition of great head coaches, from Jim Harbaugh, to Bruce Arians, to Mike Holmgren, to Mike Martz, to Dick Vermeil, to George Seifert, to Bill Walsh.
And that’s not even the full list.
Some or all of the current NFC West head coaches will deserve major recognition when they retire. The NFC West is a breeding ground for football geniuses -- always has been. This division currently has four of the best head coaches in the entire league: Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Kliff Kingsbury and Pete Carroll.
Let’s rank those four from worst to best. And remember, they’re all good.
4. Kliff Kingsbury
The NFL is a copycat league -- you’ve heard that before. It means the coaches all copy and steal from each other. If one guy comes up with a good idea, everyone imitates it.
Most NFL head coaches are smart, clever imitators.
Roughly five are genuine offensive innovators: Shanahan, Arians, Sean Payton, Andy Reid and Kingsbury. Yes, Kingsbury.
Every NFL head coach wants to incorporate college-style plays into their offense, because they work. Zone Reads and Run-Pass Options have helped NFL teams for the past decade, so the big-league coaches copy the college coaches. Remember when Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman traveled to the University of Nevada-Reno to learn the Pistol?
Kingsbury is a college coach. He coached at Texas Tech for six seasons. And when NFL coaches steal from college offenses, they generally stole from him. He perfected lots of the college-style, spread-offense concepts and plays NFL teams try to run these days.
Last season, no offensive coach gave 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh more problems than Kingsbury. And Kingsbury had one of the least-talented offenses in the league.
He attacked the 49ers’ Wide 9 with zone-read runs between the tackles, because the Wide 9 leaves giant gaps between the defensive linemen. And he tired out those linemen by forcing them to chase wide-receiver screens left and right, all game. He showed the league the 49ers’ defensive weaknesses, even though he never beat them.
That’s the thing with Kingsbury -- he doesn’t win that much. His record at Texas Tech was 35-40, and his record last season, his first in the NFL, was 5-10-1.
So sure, he’s creative, a great offensive coordinator. But is he a good head coach? Does he make mature decisions? Does he know the first thing about defense? Is he a leader?
We’ll find out soon.
3. Sean McVay
McVay is an extremely clever imitator.
McVay coached under Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington from 2010 to 2013. Then, when Washington fired the Shanahans, McVay became the offensive coordinator, and used their offensive scheme with a twist. Instead of using a two-back offense, McVay used a one-back offense with three wide receivers. That was the main twist.
McVay figured out that most NFL defensive coordinators build their base defenses to stop the run, and their nickel defenses to stop the pass. So McVay wanted to run against the nickel defense. Clever.
Until the league figured out McVay’s trick. Realized he wants to run the ball no matter how many wide receivers he puts on the field. So defensive coordinators started using their base defenses much more frequently against the Rams, and shut down McVay’s run game. And he still has not come up with a solution, because he’s an imitator.
But he seems to be an effective leader -- he was the youngest head coach to go to a Super Bowl. And he’s a clever game planner.
McVay faced the 49ers’ monster defense twice last season, and it crushed his offense the first time -- the Rams scored only seven points, and Jared Goff got sacked four times. The next game, McVay threw a curveball the 49ers didn’t expect. He made Goff roll out repeatedly, and the 49ers never sacked him. And the Rams scored 31 points.
The 49ers still won, of course. But McVay showed his worth.
Still, his stock has dropped significantly since he lost the Super Bowl. If he has another down season, Kingsbury could pass him on this list.
2. Kyle Shanahan
Shanahan might be the best play designer in the NFL.
Reid, Payton and Arians all are great as well. But they have Hall of Fame quarterbacks whom they feature.
In 2016, Shanahan featured Matt Ryan, who won the MVP that season. But in 2019, Shanahan featured a run-first attack. His quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, played well, but didn’t go to the Pro Bowl or throw for 4,000 yards. At times, Shanahan worked around Garoppolo.
You get the feeling Shanahan could plug almost any talented quarterback into the current roster and produce a top-five offense. All of his peers must admire his ingenuity and study his plays.
But Shanahan still has much to prove as a head coach. He’s only 40, so he has time, but he should have two Super Bowl rings right now. He threw them away when he made bad decision after bad decision in the fourth quarters of those games.
Shanahan most likely will mature and become the NFC West’s best head coach in the near future. He’s already nipping at the heels of my choice for No. 1.
1. Pete Carroll
Carroll blew a Super Bowl, too. But he also won one. He’s the only NFC West head coach with a championship ring.
Carroll is the total package: He’s a defensive innovator -- he created a defensive scheme lots of teams use, including the 49ers. And he’s the best leader in the NFL. Even better than Bill Belichick.
Belichick is a drill sergeant who makes football feel like boot camp. His style works for him, but hasn’t worked for any of his assistants who went on to become head coaches. Most of them have no people skills. They’re the professors who stare at the white board all day.
Carroll is the professor whose class you look forward to. The wacky genius who brings celebrity guests to class. Recently, he had Will Ferrell on a zoom conference call with his team. Ferrell pretended to be 35-year-old tight end Greg Olsen.
Carroll specializes in making football fun for young athletes. He perfected this ability at USC. That’s why he has been one of the most consistent winners of the past 20 years in both college and the NFL.
Carroll might not win another Super Bowl -- he’ll be 69 in December. And his offenses generally lack sophistication. He has limitations just like the rest of the coaches on this list.
One day soon, Shanahan will pass Carroll. And Carroll probably knows it.