Talk of Fame Network
The Carolina Panthers became only the fourth team in NFL history to open a season 14-0 and wound up 15-1 for the best record in the NFL and the top seed in the NFC playoff bracket. That constituted an eight-victory improvement by the Panthers from their 2014 finish.
That makes Ron Rivera the front runner for NFL Coach of the Year. But he faces stiff competition from several quarters for that honor. There are candidates in Arizona, Houston, Kansas City, Minnesota and Washington D.C. who deserve to have their accomplishments scrutinized as well.
In this week’s Talk of Fame Network poll, we ask our listeners and readers to select the NFL Coach of the Year. So here are the six candidates:
(Photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)
Bruce Arians, Arizona
Arians has become an annual candidate — and seemingly an annual winner. He was voted Coach of the Year in 2012 when he was filling in for Chuck Pagano as interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and won again in 2014 as head coach of the Cardinals. Arians resurrected the Cardinals, inheriting a 5-11 team and coaching them to 10-6 and 11-5 finishes. But this season he re-established the Cardinals as a Super Bowl contender with a 13-3 record and a first-round bye as champion of the NFC West — the franchise’s first such title since 2009. The Cardinals won 10 consecutive games from Halloween through the new year to run away with the division. Arizona also was the most balanced team in the NFL this season, finishing first in the league in offense and fifth in defense.
(Photo courtesy of the Washington Redskins)
Jay Gruden, Washington
The Redskins were picked to finish last in the NFC East this season when Gruden made the gutsy call of installing Kirk Cousins as his starting quarterback over highly-touted and highly-paid Robert Griffin III. There was considerable heat on Gruden when the Redskins started off 2-4. But in a division that no one wanted to win, the Redskins got hot at the right time, winning six of their final eight games to finish 9-7 and capture the East by two games over the Eagles. And Gruden was right about Cousins. He wound up as the best quarterback in the division, finishing fifth in the NFL in passing with a 101.6 efficiency rating. He threw for 4,166 yards with 29 touchdowns.
(Photo courtesy of the Houston Texans)
Bill O’Brien, Houston
Quarterbacking was an issue in Houston as well. But a different kind of issue. Frankly,. Bill O’Brien was running out of them. Injuries forced O’Brien to start four different quarterbacks this season, and he won games with all four: Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden. Compounding his offensive problems was the fact that his Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster suffered his own set of injuries that limited him to just four games. Like the Redskins, the Texans also overcame an atrocious start (2-5) to capture the AFC South with a 9-7 record. Like the Redskins, the Texans won six of their final eight games to close the deal.
(Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs)
Andy Reid, Kansas City
The Chiefs were yet another team with a terrible start. Kansas City opened 1-5 and, to make matters worse, the Chiefs lost their best player — running back Jamaal Charles — in that sixth game with a season-ending knee injury. But Andy Reid marshaled the troops and somehow strung together 10 consecutive victories to close the season, finishing 11-5 for an AFC wild card spot. This with Alex Smith at quarterback — not Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. Despite the loss of Charles, the Chiefs stayed true to their identity and continued to run the ball, finishing sixth in the NFL in rushing. Undrafted Charcandrick West and street free-agent Spencer Ware both had 100-yard rushing games playing Andy-ball.
(Photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers)
Ron Rivera, Carolina
The Panthers started off on the wrong foot in training camp when they lost their best wide receiver (Kelvin Benjamin) with a season-ending knee injury on the practice field. That cost Carolina a 1,000-yard receiver and their leading-touchdown maker (nine) from 2014. But quarterback Cam Newton didn’t flinch and went on to have the best season of his career, willing the Panthers to victories with his arm and legs. He passed for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns and rushed for 636 yards and 10 more scores. Rivera kept the Panthers balanced as Carolina led the NFL with a whopping 39 takeaways on defense, six more than anyone else. The Panthers were also the only NFL team to go 8-0 at home.
(Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings)
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota
The Vikings followed the formula of the Chiefs in ending Green Bay’s four-year run at the top of the NFC North. Minnesota ran the ball with Adrian Peterson and played a tenacious, opportunistic defense that became Zimmer’s calling card in his long career as an NFL defensive coordinator. The Vikings made a bold statement in capturing their first division title since 2009, beating the Packers in Green Bay in the winner-take-all finale. Peterson returned from a year absence to win his third NFL rushing title with 1,485 yards. That allowed Minnesota to outlast Green Bay in the North despite only 14 TD passes by Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater this season.