Belichick heads field of quality coach of the year contenders

Leading a team featuring such young contributors as Will Blackmon (left) and Ryan Grant (right), head coach Mike McCarthy has turned the Packers into a serious contender this season. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It wasn't that many years ago when sports aficionados wanting to witness a terrific coaching battle -- two great minds working the sidelines and playing the dual megalomaniacal roles of chess master and puppeteer -- would just tune in to an NBA game.

Colorful and clever coaches matched wits and strategies and designs, deftly manipulated personnel and tempo by micromanaging every move, and determined the outcome of most contests. In a tension-filled timeout, the coaches would doodle an end-game diagram as television cameras captured their minions nodding in agreement.

But times have changed, and so has the pro sports landscape, and the NBA increasingly has become more about the players than the coaches.

And in the era of the salary cap and free agency, with franchises annually in flux and economics mandating roster composition, it is the NFL that clearly has emerged as the coaches' league.

"It's hard to win in this league without a big-time quarterback," late Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh assessed five years ago in an ESPN.com interview about how the salary cap has altered the game. "But it's just about impossible to win without a great coach anymore."

That insight might be even more valid now than when Walsh originally offered it.

Because teams turn over approximately one-third of their roster every season, and with the talent level so high and the quality of quarterback play so maddeningly mediocre at times, having a coach with exceptional teaching and motivational skills is more critical than ever. Coaches can't afford to be well steeped in only X's and O's. They have to be able to push the right buttons for 53 players, compel guys to play hard and squeeze maximum results out of the talent on hand.

Fortunately for the league, even in a season that has seen the bedrock foundations of parity and competitive balance dented more than a little bit, 2007 has witnessed some excellent coaching efforts on all fronts.

So much so that choosing a coach of the year will be one of the more difficult tasks for those in the media who vote on such honors.

Good friend Don Banks, the excellent NFL columnist for SI.com, authored a provocative piece earlier this week in which he surveyed some prominent national writers and asked whether they would vote for New England's Bill Belichick for coach of the year in light of the videotaping incident. This effort isn't meant to be a referendum on Belichick's worthiness, although I will confess unabashedly that, in any of the polls in which I participate, he's got my vote.

Others can debate the merits of the coaching performances turned in this season. But on this point, there is no need for discussion: This season has enjoyed more than its share of outstanding coaching jobs.

In fact, even if the Patriots run the regular and postseason tables and go 19-0, Belichick might discover it was easier to claim a fourth Super Bowl championship in seven years than to be cited as the league's best head coach. Consider this: In an informal and confidential poll of nine general managers, personnel directors and pro scouts this week, with each of them asked to name three coaches who have turned in outstanding efforts in 2007, and in no particular order of preference, there were 10 coaches mentioned.

The list went so deep that even a coach from a franchise with a dismal record, rookie Lane Kiffin of Oakland, was identified by two front office executives who apparently agreed with the consensus that, despite a 4-10 mark, the former Southern California assistant has restored some order to the once-chaotic situation.

As one NFC personnel director noted in an e-mailed comment that accompanied his ballot: "One hell of a year for coaches. … Many great jobs being done out there!"

Indeed, there have been, as a lot of coaches have ramped up their games this season.

Coaches have gotten positive results in a lot of ways. Because there is no manual to follow, no template to heed, everyone does it his own way. But in the NFL this year, at the highest level of the game and under intense pressure to win, coaches have found their own right ways of doing things. Exceptional coaching performances hardly have been the exception.

With the injuries that we've had, losing Marvin [Harrison] and Dwight [Freeney] like we did, and having to adjust, it might be the best job he's ever done in the years I've been here. And I'm not sure that's being recognized.

-- Colts MLB Gary Brackett on his coach, Tony Dungy

And attempting to parse the merits of the performances turned in -- to determine whether the surprising 7-7 record fashioned by Dick Jauron with a Buffalo Bills franchise that has 15 players, including five defensive starters, on injured reserve, is superior to the Patriots' relentless pursuit of history -- is a daunting challenge.

How does one, for instance, overlook the work of Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, Cleveland's Romeo Crennel, Dallas' Wade Phillips, Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio, Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden, Seattle's Mike Holmgren, Indianapolis' Tony Dungy or Tennessee's Jeff Fisher? Assessing the work of all those coaches, and a few more as well, is a lesson in subjective standards, in a season when the standards of excellence have been elevated.

Like noses, everyone has an opinion, and there are plenty of players touting their own coaches for the work these leaders have done this season.

"I think people have probably taken Tony [Dungy] a little for granted this season," Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett said, "because we've continued to win and we're division champions again. But with the injuries that we've had, losing Marvin [Harrison] and Dwight [Freeney] like we did, and having to adjust, it might be the best job he's ever done in the years I've been here. And I'm not sure that's being recognized."

There are similar sentiments from other NFL precincts as well.

In only his second season with the Packers, McCarthy has garnered strong reviews from his players and the national media, and will be a viable contender for coach of the year honors. The Green Bay resurgence that began in the final month of the 2006 season, when the Packers won their final four games, has carried forward, and the momentum means that McCarthy's club has won 16 of its last 18 outings, and with the youngest roster in the league.

Working with essentially the same team Bill Parcells had in 2006, and with very few key offseason acquisitions, Phillips has gleaned better results. Crennel had one divisional victory in his first two seasons in Cleveland and went through a switch at starting quarterback a week into the season. But Crennel has the Browns on the cusp of a playoff spot and certainly has cemented his job status.

Del Rio went Crennel one better, changing his starting quarterback a week before the season began, and Jacksonville is on the kind of roll that could make the Jaguars a dangerous team in the playoffs. Picked to finish no better than third in the NFC South, the Bucs instead won a second title in three seasons, and no one is talking anymore about the grace period running out on Jon Gruden's victory in Super Bowl XXXVII, a memory that had begun to fade and had prompted speculation about his job security.

"The good coaches, and [Gruden] is one, they don't forget how to coach," said Tampa Bay weakside linebacker and future Hall of Fame member Derrick Brooks. "But you've got to be able to roll with the punches in this league, adapt to situations and to people, and make it work. You've got to be special to coach in the NFL."

And this season, it seems, a lot of head coaches have done special jobs.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.