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Mike Tomlin heads top 5 candidates in Coach of the Year race; Sam Howell's viability as a franchise QB

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:

But first, a look at the leading contenders in one of the most intriguing award races ...

A few weeks back, in this space, I stated that Robert Saleh deserves recognition as the midseason Coach of the Year. I wanted to give the New York Jets' head man some love at that moment because I had serious questions about whether his offensively challenged team could continue to defy the odds and stack wins.

Well, Gang Green has lost its past two games to fall below .500, and this feels like a team that could fade into the background. Consequently, despite his admirable efforts to overcome the crushing loss of Aaron Rodgers, Saleh no longer appears poised to hoist the coaching hardware at season's end.

But as Saleh's star has faded a bit, several head coaches have surged forward in what could be one of the tighter award races. So, as we head down the back half of the 2023 regular season, what does the Coach of the Year hierarchy look like? Here are my top five candidates.

NOTE: The Coach of the Year odds were pulled from Caesars Sportsbook at 6 p.m. ET on Friday, November 17.

Mike Tomlin
Mike Tomlin
Pittsburgh Steelers | Odds: +1300

There is no better NFL coach when it comes to coaxing victories from a flawed roster. Tomlin has mastered winning games by utilizing various complementary football strategies to overcome his squad's deficiencies. 

This season, the Steelers have been outgained in all nine games, yet they are squarely in the playoff picture at 6-3. Their success can be attributed to a playmaking defense and opportunistic special teams, both of which have regularly created scoring opportunities with timely splash plays. Pittsburgh has generated 18 takeaways (tied for first) and holds a +10 advantage in the turnover margin (also tied for first). The defense has added a pair of touchdowns, with Alex Highsmith providing a pick-six and T.J. Watt executing a scoop-and-score. Given the enormous impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, the Steelers' takeaway prowess has helped them overcome a sputtering offense that has been unable to consistently move the ball or put points on the board this season.

While Tomlin's squad does not win with pizzazz, Pittsburgh has a knack for forcing opponents to play on their terms in ugly contests. The workmanlike approach required to beat the Steelers takes opposing players and coaches out of their comfort zones, resulting in more mistakes and miscues in key moments. Moreover, Tomlin's winning pedigree utilizing various styles has given his players the confidence that they can win in any circumstance.  

In his 17th season as head coach of the Steelers, Tomlin has never posted a losing record. Somehow, he's also never received Coach of the Year. That could change at NFL Honors this February.

DeMeco Ryans tn
DeMeco Ryans
Houston Texans | Odds: +330

Perhaps Ryans knew something the rest of the football world did not when he agreed to become the Texans' new head coach. Despite taking over what was widely perceived to be a complete rebuild, the former Pro Bowl linebacker has quickly transformed his old team into a playoff contender behind a young superstar quarterback. 

Though C.J. Stroud deserves a lot of the credit for Houston's surprising 5-4 record, the first-time head coach wisely brought the rookie along slowly over the summer to keep his confidence intact while he acclimated to the NFL game. Instead of handing the starting job to the newbie on draft night, Ryans made Stroud prove himself between the lines to earn the respect of his teammates. Now, the rookie is providing one of the most impressive debut seasons in memory, torching opponents as a pinpoint passer with superb leadership skills and intangibilities.

As a team builder and strategist, Ryans has knocked it out of the park by surrounding his star quarterback with a collection of blue-collar workers who play with relentless effort from snap to whistle. From the hard-nosed offensive line that excels at punching defenders in the mouth to the unheralded cast of pass catchers who make plays all over the field to a surprisingly stingy defense that is rounding into form for the stretch run, Houston suddenly has the components of a truly imposing team. Ryans has pushed all the right buttons to transform the Texans into must-see TV seemingly overnight.

dan forge
Dan Campbell
Detroit Lions | Odds: +140

If a team directly reflects its head coach, it is not surprising to see the Lions overwhelming opponents with their physicality, toughness and superior effort. Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes have constructed a roster of tough guys who embrace the "grind it out" approach of the coach himself and embody the spirit of Detroit.

The Lions (7-2) set the tone with a Kickoff Game road win over the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs, and they have largely continued to roll since that point, relying on an explosive offense and hard-hitting defense to blow past opponents at home and on the road. 

The Jared Goff-led offense, in particular, looks like an unstoppable force between the lines. With rising whiz Ben Johnson calling the plays, Goff has flourished by targeting Amon-Ra St. Brown, Sam LaPorta and Kalif Raymond, among others, on catch-and-run concepts at short and intermediate distances. This efficient passing attack has been complemented by a rugged ground game, with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs taking turns toting the rock. With the best offensive line in football consistently knocking defenders back at the point of attack in pass protection and on running plays, the Lions can rely on a blue-collar approach with explosive potential to overwhelm opponents in key moments. Campbell has frequently doubled down on his offense with fourth-down gambles that have put the onus on the unit's shoulders to close out games in the fourth quarter. 

With the long-suffering franchise's ascension to becoming a legit title contender that relies on its physicality, toughness and chameleon-like playing style, Campbell has put on a coaching clinic to guide a hungry group of underdogs.

Kevin O'Connell
Kevin O’Connell
Minnesota Vikings | Odds: +475

After stumbling out of the gate to a 1-4 start, the Vikings have found their stride, with O'Connell deftly rolling with the punches to reverse the team's fortunes. The second-year head coach reconfigured the game plan and call sheet to overcome the temporary loss of Justin Jefferson -- and permanent loss of Kirk Cousins -- to reel off five straight victories, the longest active winning streak in the NFL.

First, with his WR1 sidelined by a hamstring injury, O'Connell elevated Jordan Addison into the top role with a menu of plays designed to unlock the rookie on the perimeter. The first-rounder has flourished in his new role, and his emergence should make the Vikings' offense scary when Jefferson returns to the lineup. With tight end T.J. Hockenson also shining as a designated playmaker between the hashes, the second-year head coach deserves credit for adapting his scheme to accentuate the talents of his top available threats. 

Speaking of adaptation, the Vikings' immediate success with recent trade acquisition Josh Dobbs at quarterback is another example of O'Connell's impressive work. Just days after Dobbs' arrival in Minnesota, the offensive wizard cleverly utilized tempo and the communication device to talk the journeyman through his passing progressions and concepts, allowing Minnesota (6-4) to notch an unlikely road win. As Dobbs, who also guided the Vikings to victory this past week, continues to notch wins without the luxury of time to master the scheme, the offensive play-caller continues to look like a miracle worker.

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski answers a question during a news conference following NFL football practice, Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Kevin Stefanski
Cleveland Browns | Odds: +3500

Cleveland lost one of the game's best running backs, Nick Chubb, to a season-ending injury in Week 2. The team's $230 million quarterback, Deshaun Watson, missed multiple games due to injury before being shut down for the season this week. And yet, here the Browns are at 6-3, currently holding the AFC's second wild card slot.

While the revolving door at the offense's marquee positions has impacted Cleveland's ability to score, Stefanski has changed his approach to complement a defense that suffocates opponents at every turn. The Browns have remained patient and disciplined with their running game while mixing in a handful of shots (vertical passes) to keep opponents honest in key moments. In addition, Stefanski has utilized trick plays and gadgets to generate explosives against defenses that decide to stack the line of scrimmage in order to snuff out the running game and force an inexperienced or limited quarterback to win the game as a passer. 

Considering Stefanski has found a way to keep games close by utilizing "smoke and mirrors" tactics to move the ball down the field, the Browns' head coach deserves credit for building winning game plans around an injury-ravaged roster that is forced to rely on a stingy defense to win in an ultra-competitive AFC.

Is Sam Howell a legit franchise QB?

The Washington Commanders raised plenty of eyebrows entering this season with Sam Howell installed as QB1. Admittedly, I was among the doubters.

During this past offseason, I explored nine quarterbacks entering a make-or-break campaign, providing confidence rankings as part of the exercise. And yes, I had the least confidence in Howell.

As a former Tar Heel, I should have known better than to dismiss Howell's chances as a franchise quarterback. The second-year pro currently leads the NFL in passing yards (2,783), averaging 344.7 over the past three weeks while recording an 8:2 TD-to-INT ratio and sparkling 103.0 passer rating during that span. While sacks were a huge problem for the quarterback early in the season, he has taken just seven over the past three weeks combined, showing improved awareness and diagnostic skills within the pocket.

Given his production and performance through 11 career starts, including last season's Week 18 debut win over Dallas, Howell should have silenced the critics who questioned his talent and potential as a long-term starter. Moreover, the quarterback has made a compelling case to deter the Commanders from exploring the 2024 quarterback class in the upcoming draft.

While it initially seems a little crazy to suggest a team with a potential top-10 pick should bypass a chance to grab a blue-chip quarterback prospect in a draft that looks like it'll be pretty talent-rich at the position, Howell's emergence as a viable starter should make Washington's brass pause before adding another signal-caller to the mix.

The second-year pro has exceeded expectations as a former fifth-round pick, blossoming into a prolific passer in Eric Bieniemy's system. Though the 23-year-old is far from a "system" quarterback, his talents have been accentuated in the quick-rhythm scheme installed by the Commanders' first-year coordinator. The mix of "catch, rock and throw" passes and short-to-intermediate concepts on three- and five-step drops perfectly match Howell's skills as a pinpoint passer with a quick release. To take advantage of Howell's limitless range as a deep thrower, the Commanders have routinely featured various vertical routes that enable the young passer to push the ball down the field. With a collection of speedsters on the perimeter (SEE: Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Dyami Brown), a calculated deep throw can produce an explosive play that flips the field or lights up the scoreboard.

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As a talented dual-threat with quick feet and stellar passing skills on the move, Howell's presence has encouraged the Commanders to incorporate some RPOs and movement passes into the game plan. The combination of zone-read runs with bubble screens or isolation routes (slants, quick outs and hitches) opens up the running game while creating easy pitch-and-catch chances for the quarterback. 

In addition, Howell's improvisational skills have led to a series of spectacular plays on off-schedule throws. With the Commanders' young QB1 displaying a repertoire of skills that could evolve into superpowers, the No. 144 overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft looks like a keeper at the position.

All that said, Howell must continue to refine his game to avoid the negative plays that ground an offense. That includes reducing giveaways (11 total turnovers through 10 games) due to poor decisions or "hero" throws and displaying better situational awareness to eliminate some of the sacks due to user error. As a young player, Howell will make his share of miscues while acclimating to the pro game as a starter, but his turnover issues and high sack totals look fixable when you study the tape. The gunslinger's refusal to give up on bad plays leads to most of his negative actions. Lately, the Commanders have seemingly encouraged him to throw the ball away before attempting a tight-window pass.

The Commanders have also tweaked their call sheet to feature more concepts with the running backs available as "hot" options or receivers positioned underneath to provide Howell with a quick outlet. As a result, the green QB has drastically reduced his sack numbers while becoming more efficient from the pocket.

Considering Howell's significant growth over his 10 starts this season, it is easy to envision him playing like a top-10 quarterback when surrounded by premier playmaking talent on the perimeter within a system that showcases his skills as a rhythm passer. As the Commanders (4-6) evaluate and contemplate how to build a winner in 2024 and beyond, keeping Howell in place as QB1 should be the first step of the process.

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