NFL Analysis


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6 2023 NFL Coach of the Year Contenders Worth Voting For

We are just a few weeks away from voters for the NFL’s major awards casting their ballots. So it's a good time to give the argument that could be made for each of the main Coach of the Year candidates.

As usual, there are plenty of worthy candidates. If I’ve learned anything during my 20-plus years around the NFL it is how you finish means a great deal. That’s another way of saying the last three games will ultimately be what sways the voters in one direction or another.

Let’s make the case for each right now.

6 Contenders for NFL Coach of the Year

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell
Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell hugs offensive tackle Taylor Decker before the Denver Broncos game at Ford Field in Detroit on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.

Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions

What started in the second half of last season has carried over into 2023. Saturday night’s beatdown of the Denver Broncos that got the Detroit Lions to 10 wins and the precipice of their first division title in 30 (thirty!) years confirmed what’s been obvious all year: these are not the Same Old Lions.  

A lot of the credit should go to general manager Brad Holmes. This year’s rookie class has gotten outstanding production from RB Jahmyr Gibbs, ILB Jack Campbell, safety Brian Branch and potential All-Pro TE Sam LaPorta.  

Still, Dan Campbell is the face of this team and has done what seemed impossible by changing the culture around Detroit.  His aggressive style with fake punts and going for it on fourth down doesn’t always work but it’s been successful enough that the added benefit of sending a message to his team about his approach to each game is more than worth it.

Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay
Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay watches from the sidelines in the second half against the Washington Commanders at SoFi Stadium on Dec. 17, 2023. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams

Quick, can you name five players on the Los Angeles Rams?  Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, rookie sensation Puka Nacua and maybe RB Kyren Williams, who has been terrific this season, right?  

My guess is even die-hard NFL fans would have trouble naming many, if any, other players on this squad. Yet, Sean McVay has his team in the playoffs if they started today. It’s likely not enough to be a serious candidate for the award, but it's impressive, nonetheless.

Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton
Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton watches the first quarter against the Cleveland Browns at Empower Field at Mile High on Nov. 26, 2023. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Sean Payton, Denver Broncos

Sean Payton is an interesting case because he has clearly done a great job this year after the Nathaniel Hackett disaster in 2022. However, it would be an upset if he won, especially in light of the Denver Broncos' blowout loss to the Lions on Saturday night.  

Still, Payton deserves at least an honorable mention for getting Russell Wilson to be a quality starting quarterback and sticking with defensive coordinator Vance Joseph so that he could turn around that side of the ball after an inauspicious — to be kind — beginning of the season. 

Ultimately, absent the Broncos winning out, it is hard to imagine Payton taking this instead of the other contenders.

Houston Texans coach DeMeco Ryans
Houston Texans coach DeMeco Ryans looks on from the sideline during the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium on Nov. 26, 2023. (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

DeMeco Ryans, Houston Texans

DeMeco Ryans fits the profile of most recent Coach of the Year award winners.  He’s a first-year guy taking over a team that had been down for years and turning it into a winner in Year 1.  

He has been excellent, already far exceeding even the most optimistic hopes for the Houston Texans.  Sure, he has been aided by the surefire Offensive Rookie of the Year in QB C.J. Stroud, but that shouldn’t be a reason to exclude Ryans from the mix for several reasons.  

For one, nobody thought Stroud would play this well this early, so Ryans and his staff deserve a lot of the credit for his stellar performance.  Secondly, Ryans has found a way to win several games, including Sunday’s comeback victory against the Titans, behind a defense that has made major strides.

The unit contributed mightily to yet another tight game in which the Texans came out on top, which is yet another feather in Ryans’ cap. 

Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski
Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski looks on during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns

Kevin Stefanski has a much different profile than Ryans and Shane Steichen because this is his fourth year at the helm for the Cleveland Browns, and he has already won the award in 2020, during his first season. Still, what he has accomplished so far this season is nothing short of remarkable. 

First, he made the decision to change defensive coordinators, and the return on the Jim Schwartz investment has been huge. The Browns went from having one of the worst defenses to having one of the best in one year. 

Even so, it is the work Stefanski has done on offense, overcoming injuries, that makes him a prime candidate to be a two-time winner of this award.  Among the players on injured reserve are franchise QB Deshaun Watson, star RB Nick Chubb and the team’s top three offensive tackles. 

Roughly 26 percent of their salary cap is on IR, yet Stefanski has the Browns at 9-5 and in great shape for a playoff berth. They’re also the first team to win games with four different starting quarterbacks since at least 1950. That’s nuts.

Indianapolis Colts coach Shane Steichen
Indianapolis Colts coach Shane Steichen reacts against the New England Patriots in the first half during an NFL International Series game at Deutsche Bank Park in Frankfurt, Germany. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Shane Steichen, Indianapolis Colts

Much of the above for Ryans relates to Shane Steichen as well in terms of taking the reins of a franchise in disarray and turning it into an immediate winner.  

What makes Steichen’s performance all the more impressive is he had a major wrench thrown into his plans when he lost first-round QB Anthony Richardson early in the season. 

Rather than wallow in the Indianapolis Colts’ misfortune, Steichen designed a game plan that worked for backup QB Gardner Minshew and has the Colts in the thick of the AFC South and playoff races a year after they were the laughingstock of the league. 

Honorable Mention

Other coaches who deserve at least a mention for their stellar work this season but fall short of being as strong of candidates as the men above include the Dolphins' Mike McDaniel, the 49ers' Kyle Shanahan, the Ravens' John Harbaugh and the Bengals' Zac Taylor.