Coach of the Year – Best Bets

Cleveland Browns' second year coach Kevin Stefanski enters the 2021 NFL season as the reigning NFL Coach of the Year after going 11-5 with the Browns last year and leading that franchise back to the playoffs for the first time in forever.

The success the Browns had last year has led to quite a bit of support in the marketplace this year, as the Browns are getting nods out there for division, conference and Super Bowl futures this year. As far as all that goes, I would like to point out a couple of things regarding past COY winners.

To start, I think that any bettor who is overly high on the Browns prospects in 2021 should maybe look to limit their Cleveland futures tickets to only win the division or possibly the AFC depending on one's appetite for risk.

That's because, since the start of the 2002-03 season, of the 18 reigning COY's that have taken the field the following year, nine of them (50%) went on to win their respective divisions that next season, but only one of them (5.5%) went on to win the Super Bowl the next season - Bill Belichick and New England repeating as Super Bowl champs in 2004 after Belichick's 2003 COY award.

Four others went on to make the Super Bowl the following year (Lovie Smith in 2005, Belichick in 2011, Jim Harbaugh in 2012 and most recently Sean McVay in 2018), making it 5 for 18 in terms of reigning COY's even making it to the Super Bowl the following year (27.7% success rate).

How all of that plays out for the Cleveland Browns in 2021 remains to be seen, as some of those past success rates bode well for them this year, while others suggest that success will have some sort of cap. Yet, what I do know is that if you don't like the fact that only one reigning COY has gone on to win the Super Bowl the following year since 2002, you won't want to bet Stefanski to repeat as COY this season.

You have to go all the way back to 1982 and 1983 to find the last time the same coach won this award in back-to-back seasons (Joe Gibbs/Washington). That virtually makes Stefanski at +2000 to win COY unbettable this season

Eliminating one out of 32 potential names is a start, but let's see if we can continue to look back at the past to narrow down the field even further.

Previous NFL Head Coaching experience for COY Winners

  • 2020 - Kevin Stefanski - Cleveland Browns (0 years)
  • 2019 - John Harbaugh - Baltimore Ravens (11 years)
  • 2018 - Matt Nagy - Chicago Bears (0 years)
  • 2017 - Sean McVay - Los Angeles Rams (0 years)

Seven of the last 19 COY winners were rookie NFL head coaches, as it's connected in three of the past four seasons as well. In fact, five of the last 10 COY winners previously didn't have any past head coaching experience in the league, although it would have been hard to back 2012 winner Bruce Arians when he was still technically an assistant filling in for Chuck Pagano during his health scare.

Still, a 7-for-19 run is a 36.8% success rate, and with seven new bench bosses floating around out there in 2021, rookie head coaches already account for nearly 25% of the 32-team COY field.

If backing any of the rookie coaches isn't particularly your thing (and in some cases it's going to be hard to do), then it's important to point out that of those previous 19 winners, only only four of them (21%) had previously been a head coach in the NFL for at least 10 seasons, and two of those occurrences were Belichick in 2007 and 2010.

Active with at least 10 years of head coaching experience

  • Bill Belichick - New England
  • Pete Carroll - Seattle
  • Jon Gruden - Las Vegas
  • John Harbaugh - Baltimore
  • Mike McCarthy - Dallas
  • Sean Payton - New Orleans
  • Andy Reid - Kansas City
  • Ron Rivera - Washington
  • Mike Tomlin - Pittsburgh

That's nine more names to weigh a little heavier on the “pass or ignore” list for potential COY futures bets, especially when you consider that the last three decade-long coaches to win this award all finished with at least 14 or more wins. Baltimore and Kansas City are arguably the only two teams in that list that bettors could see going 14-3 SU or better in 2021, but if that's somewhat of the bare minimum for these coaches to get the award, that's a big ask in itself too.

So where is the sweet spot for COY potential if rookie head coaches aren't the option for you?

Well, those previous 19 winners clocked in with 86 years of previous head coaching experience overall prior to winning the award, which works out to an average of 4.526 years experience as an NFL head coach already. There are only six coaches coming into 2021 with 3 or 4 years of previous experience and two of them (Nagy in Chicago, McVay in L.A.) have already won this award in their careers.

The other names a part of that list: Frank Reich in Indianapolis, Mike Vrabel in Tennessee, Sean McDermott in Buffalo, and Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco.

Who will Improve this Season?

Even with the added 17th game in 2021, it's impossible for Kansas City, Buffalo, and Green Bay to improve by 5+ wins this season, and Pittsburgh, Seattle, and New Orleans would have to run the table and go 17-0 to live up to that average after all finishing 12-4 in 2020.

Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Indianapolis, and Cleveland all finished at 11-5 last year so and increase of at least four wins this year would put them all in the 15-2 range, and even the 10-6 SU teams from a year ago (Miami, L.A. Rams) may end up out of the running even with a 13-4 or 14-3 SU record this season, although if the Dolphins were to get to that mark, Brian Flores would likely be one of the finalists.

The bigger connection here though is putting the two concepts together and looking at all the other teams that could improve by 4+ wins over last year's SU record AND not be a huge stretch to get to double digit wins this season. That's because for whatever reason, a 6-10 team that goes 10-6 or better is always going to be that feel good story in the league where the improvement is marked and substantial.

Obviously Jacksonville or the New York Jets going from 1-2 wins to double-digit wins would have their respective coaches likely a lock for the COY award, but again, it's rare for teams to make those types of substantial jumps from one season to the next.

In the 4-win category from a year ago we've got Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati checking in, all of whom would need an improvement of 6 wins to hit double-digits. The first three teams listed there all have rookie HC's at the helm in 2021 which historically isn't a bad thing for COY, and there are easy cases to be made for all four guys should their respective teams finish 2021 with 10+ wins.

Can you imagine if the Houston Texans and all they've gone through the past 8+ months finish with a 10-7 or better record? Highly unlikely but not impossible, and if that's how it plays out, rookie David Culley would have to win the award.

In the 5-win group from 2020 we get Detroit, Carolina, and Denver and there is a combined three years of NFL head coaching experience between those three teams. All three of them are looking up at perennial powerhouses in their respective divisions this season (Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Kansas City), so getting a 5-win jump when they've got two games against those division rivals is going to be tough.

The 6 and 7-win group from last year is where it really starts to get interesting though, as we've got the New York Giants, San Francisco, and Dallas all coming off 6-10 campaigns, while Minnesota, L.A. Chargers, Washington, and New England all finished 7-9 SU last season.

The only rookie coach in the bunch is Brandon Staley with the Chargers, and given that he's the priced as the overall favorite for the COY award at +1000, it appears the oddsmakers have done some homework on this as well.

Let's not forget that Belichick winning it for the fourth time in his career would make him the second man ever to do so after the Hall-of-Famer Don Shula, and with him priced right behind Staley at +1200, it's clear to me I'm not the only one who's ever looked into this.

Kyle Shanahan looks to guide the 49ers to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons. (AP)

COY Betting Selections

Clearly we can't take every name on the board, but using the past research outlined already in this piece you can get a clearer picture of which coaches fit in multiple categories.

We've got the solid success rate of rookie HC's (36%) winning this award, with coaches that have around 4 years experience in the league favorable selections as well. We also need a guy/team that can likely finish the season with at least 10 or more wins while improving the franchise's win/loss record by at least four wins (happened 17 of 19 times or 89.4%).

So who's the best fit for all those historical trends? Someone I can't believe I've got to wager on because I don't like their QB situation at all, but if all goes well with that QB situation, and goes somewhat expected for this team per their season win total of 10.5 wins (over +105), it leaves one clear choice:

Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers at +1400

Personally I'm not anywhere near as high on the 49ers this year as their win total suggests, or much of the market sentiment out there, but I've been wrong before in my life, and I'll be wrong many more times too. I can't ignore that everything seemingly lines up for Shanahan to win this award as the 49ers could be a markedly improved team from 2020-2021.

But Shanahan has four seasons of previous head coaching experience under his belt already, the 49ers are expected to hit (or at least threaten) 10+ wins based on their season win total this year, and an improvement of just four wins from one year to the next would give them a 10-7 SU record in 2021. Basically everything this piece has outlined to look for.

Now, given the higher expectations the 49ers seemingly have this year, going from 6-10 SU to 10-7 SU doesn't appear to be the “jump off the paper” level of improvement that voters may need to give him the award, but the ceiling for this 49ers team is likely much higher than just 10-7 SU, and any record above that mark in 2021 would bring that shock and awe factor that voters always look for with these awards. This team is still just a year removed from making the Super Bowl too, so the core talent is already somewhat established as well.

Me not being a big believer in San Francisco in general though does for me to add another selection or two to this futures prop, even if they don't/won't meet all the criteria already laid out.

I think Zac Taylor (Cincinnati) at +4000 is worth a flyer given that they've got a #1 overall draft pick at QB in Year 2 (off a gruesome injury no less), and a 6-win improvement to 10-7 or better playing in the AFC North division with the high expectations in Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh already there, the shock and awe factor Taylor and the Bengals would have if they finish with double digit wins in 2021 would be huge. Don't see how any of the voters could ignore Taylor for this award should the Bengals season play out like that.

Coincidentally enough, when former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis won the award in 2009, the Bengals finished 10-6 SU that season, winning the AFC North after going 4-11-1 SU in 2008. The 2020 Cincinnati Bengals finished 4-11-1 SU.

The other two names I think that are worth consideration both come from the NFC East, which could very well be another crap shoot of a division in 2021. They are Joe Judge (N.Y. Giants) at +2200 and Nick Sirianni (Philadelphia) at +3500.

Both teams would fit the 4+ win improvement angle without a massive leap forward to get to 10+ wins this season, and with a combined one year of past NFL coaching experience between them, the “new blood” angle with rookies (Sirianni) or less experienced coaches (Judge) fits for them as well. If either of these teams ends up as the NFC East champ I think their coach is going to have to be a finalist for this award, they've just got to get there first.

COY Best Bets

  • Kyle Shanahan +1400
  • Joe Judge +2200
  • Nick Sirianni +3500
  • Zac Taylor +4000

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