We’re seeing plenty of parody in the NFL right now. Teams like the New York Giants, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons are winning. Even more startling, away underdogs are 30-21-1 (58.82%) against the spread (ATS). Last week, six different underdogs won straight up!
Sterling ATS performance is less about player performance and more often about how cohesive and how well-coached these NFL teams are. No one player can win a football game. Since that’s true, it's vital to analyze coaches and consider how dependable they are every week when making your bets. And since the NFL is more competitive than ever, measuring qualitative aspects of the game has never been more relevant.
Analyzing the effectiveness of head coaches has played a huge part in my success as an NFL handicapper. I use three observable measurements: motivational ability, Xs and Os and in-game decision-making. Let’s get to it!
Top Tier: The Best of the Best
Coaches: Bill Belichick, Sean McDermott, Andy Reid, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan
The top tier reveals five coaches without many weaknesses. Every one of them is exceptional at game planning, they trust and believe in their players and they routinely outsmart and out-adjust coaches on the opposing sideline. McVay and Shanahan are the most remarkable among the group since they're considerably younger than their colleagues.
This season, McVay is suffering through some underperformance from his veteran players and a jarring reduction of talent, particularly on offense. We trust that he'll work through it. Reid is trudging through the league's most difficult schedule. Shanahan is adjusting to Jimmy Garrappolo's style of quarterback again, and Belichick is configuring a new team identity. McDermott's team is humming on both sides of the ball.
No matter what these coaches are enduring, they're rarely the reason for your losses against the spread (ATS). These are the leaders who demand more from their men and give them all the tools and insight to succeed game-to-game. Does it mean they're perfect, and their teams never experience a letdown? No. Case in point: the 49ers last week at Atlanta or the Bills last season at Jacksonville. No coach is completely immune to the variance of the NFL, but these HCs are more consistent and more successful than the majority of their colleagues.
Second Tier: Motivators and Teachers
Coaches: Mike Tomlin, Pete Carroll, Mike Vrabel, Brian Daboll, John Harbaugh, Doug Pederson, Lovie Smith, Mike McCarthy
Although the top tier is exceptional, the second tier may have the highest week-to-week ceiling. Unphased by injuries or lack of talent, this group is highly skilled at maximizing the capability of their squads.
Players fight for them. They're experts in motivation, and they create strong, lasting cultures. Carrol, Smith and Vrabel are leading less capable teams, but they are still covering ATS. Daboll is somehow transforming a talent-poor New York Giants' roster, one that's perpetually outgained by their opponents, into a winning team.
The other three coaches are battling some adversity.
McCarthy is better than people think against the spread. He was 13-5 ATS last season, the best in the NFL, and he's 4-2 this season. What McCarthy lacks in Xs and Os and in-game decision-making, he makes up for in the way his players fight for him. Like it or not, McCarthy is one of the best coaches in the history of the NFL from a betting perspective. In 262 games as a head coach, McCarthy is 63% ATS. That's astounding.
From a betting perspective, tier two is arguably more valuable than the top tier. Why? Well, everyone knows that tier one is elite, including the oddsmakers. At this juncture, no one's denying the prowess of Belichick or Reid.
Contrarily, tier two HCs are often undervalued in the marketplace because they're usually coaching with significantly less talent. This season, these seven coaches are a combined 20-17-3 ATS. Many of those ATS losses belong to under-talented Steelers and Jaguars teams, but I expect that to regress. Last week, the Steelers not only covered ATS but won straight up against Tom Brady's Buccaneers. Similarly, I think the Jaguars are in a great spot to cover on Sunday against Daboll's Giants.
Tier two should be viewed as a frequent betting companion as you navigate your wagers week-to-week. Remember, sportsbooks don't account for intangibles like consistent effort and discipline, and that's what these coaches effectively instill.
Third Tier: Rapidly Improving Coaches
Coaches: Nick Sirianni, Robert Saleh, Zac Taylor, Arthur Smith
This group isn't necessarily dependable on a weekly basis, but their collective values are rising. The Falcons are 6-0 ATS. The Eagles are 6-0 straight up and 4-2 ATS. The Jets and Bengals are also 4-2 ATS. If you're an NFL bettor, this is the best tier (a whopping 18-6, 75% ATS) of active coaches.
It's impossible to know all of the reasons why these coaches are succeeding more, but one thing is for sure: they've gained their team's respect.
Sirianni is unabashedly himself. He's loud, emotional and aggressive. In other words, he's a perfect fit for the city and fans of Philadelphia. The Eagles are the only unbeaten team in the NFL, and Sirianni's team believes they can accomplish big things.
Smith and Saleh are coming off disappointing first seasons as head coaches, but things are steadily improving in both of their programs. Both the Falcons and Jets are demonstrating a "you're not better than me" mentality, and it's showing on the field.
The Falcons are undefeated ATS this season, and they've beaten the spread by an average margin of 6.9 points per game. The Jets are 4-2 and near the top of the AFC. Both franchises are humbling their inflated opponents on a weekly basis.
Taylor's team surprised everyone by winning the AFC last season. Joe Burrow certainly helped, but it was Cincinnati's exceptional defensive effort and fighter mentality keeping them in games. That's a nod to coaching. People forget – the Bengals roared back in the second half and led through most of the third and fourth quarters of last year's Super Bowl. Taylor earned everyone's respect during that stretch.
Perhaps more than any other tier, these four coaches should be on your radar as HCs that should not be taken lightly. Their teams aren't going away anytime soon.
Fourth Tier: Regressing
Coaches: Matt LaFleur, Frank Reich, Todd Bowles, Dan Campbell, Ron Rivera, Kevin Stefanski
All of these coaches are performing under expectations. Previous versions of LaFleur, Rivera and Stefanski brought stability and trust to our wagers. Of course, the Green Bay Packers will rise to the occasion, right? Rivera will produce a highly-disciplined, high-performing team, right? Stefanski will maximize a super-talented Cleveland Browns roster and lead them to the top of the AFC North, right? Evidently, not so much.
All of these coaches also have above-average rosters. Yes, even the Detroit Lions (in our humble opinion). Coaches like Bowles and Campbell are loved by their players, and Reich has gone through difficult crusades before. Maybe all of these coaches eventually figure things out, but right now, they're hard to trust. These six HCs have a combined 14-21 ATS record.
Fifth Tier: Do Not Trust
Coaches: Brandon Staley, Nathaniel Hackett, Josh McDaniels
In case it's not apparent by what you've watched this season, this is by far the worst tier of NFL coaches for your betting needs. These four coaches own a combined 4-11 ATS record this season, which is not shocking. I'm not convinced things will improve either.
McDaniels deserves some time to figure things out, but early signs suggest he's not bringing anything new to the table. Derek Carr and the offense just aren't consistent. Things didn't end well in his first HC stint in Denver more than a decade ago, and I'm not convinced they'll end on good terms this time. For now, we're treating him like a bottom-tier coach.
Staley and Hackett legitimately seem like they don't know what they're doing at times. Early evidence of Hackett's poor game-time decisions forced him to hire veteran game manager Jerry Rosburg for assistance. That's not a great look. On top of that, the Denver Broncos are tremendously inefficient for such a talented offense. They're last place in points per game (15.2) and last place in touchdowns in the red zone (20%).
The Los Angeles Chargers were, again, the talk of the town heading into the season. Justin Herbert is holding up their offense, but Staley was hired for his defensive expertise. So far, opposing offenses are torching the Chargers for 25.3 ppg and 5.9 yards per play. The Chargers were 8-9 ATS in Staley's first year as HC. Not great.
In my professional opinion, don't count on these coaches to inspire or out-prepare enemy teams. They need rare, situational advantages to rally the troops.
Sixth Tier: The Jury is Still Out
Coaches: Mike McDaniel, Kevin O'Connell, Dennis Allen, Matt Eberflus, Steve Wilks, Kliff Kingsbury
Unfortunately, some coaches are tough to evaluate ATS. Five out of six in this tier are brand new to the position. Before we make any bold claims or predictions about their betting legitimacy, we need to wait and observe. For now, the theme of this group is: inconsistent.
Kingsbury is a great example. He's 29-25-2 ATS since becoming a head coach in 2019. That's a winning record, but he was hired for bigger things. And what has he done to "transform" the Cardinals? Last season, we saw some signs of what seemed like a team that was finally clicking. The Cardinals started 7-0. They finished the season 4-6, and they were immediately booted from the playoffs in the Wildcard round.
When betting on these teams and coaches, it's best to proceed with caution. For example, the Miami Dolphins have a prime spot at home this weekend, and Tua Tagovailoa is finally returning. That sets up a nice situation for the Dolphins' offense to get right. They've only scored 16 ppg in the last three weeks.
But at Dolphins -7, do we think McDaniel is already seasoned enough to beat the Steelers by more than a touchdown? That's a tough question to answer. In regards to tier six, just don't base your wager on one of these coaches and if you do, understand you're taking a greater implied risk.