Rob Gordon — or Robin “Rob” Brooks, if you prefer a more current reference — is one of my kindred spirits from the world of fiction. Both Robs, based on the main character in Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, High Fidelity, love top five lists.
My natural predilection for ranking things, like the aforementioned Robs, dovetailed nicely with the NFL 100 All-Time Team that was part of the league’s recent centennial celebration. The position players who were, or were not, included in the NFL’s list became a hot topic of debate. A proper ranking was required.
Unlike the NFL, I did not select 10 head coaches, 10 quarterbacks, 10 wide receivers and 12 running backs for my team. In true High Fidelity style, I created the Top Five Series: A definitive ranking of the five best to ever play quarterback, running back and wide receiver, as well as the five best head coaches ever.
The Top Five Series returns for 2021, but instead of ranking the all-time greats, we will review the five best running backs, wide receivers and head coaches in the NFL before unveiling the annual quarterback power ranking at the end of August.
Let’s get started with the best coaches in the game today.
5. Pete Carroll
Team: Seattle Seahawks
112–63–1 record, 10–8 playoff record, Super Bowl XLVIII champion
Maybe Pete Carroll’s obnoxious gum-chewing is a by-product of knowing his Seahawks have had no business being a perennial contender for the last decade.
Teams with mediocre offensive lines don’t consistently win. It’s like building a house with a shaky foundation — no matter how good the rest of the build looks, it will fail. And yet, Carroll’s Seahawks keep winning. Seattle hasn’t finished below .500 since 2011. The 2017 Seahawks finished 9–7 and were the only team to fail to win 10 games or make the playoffs in that same time period.
Carroll led Seattle to a Super Bowl victory in 2013 and should have done it the following season against New England in Super Bowl XLIX. Seattle’s consistency under Carroll makes the Seahawks a consistent contender in the NFC’s toughest division and their coach one of the best in the business.
4. John Harbaugh
Team: Baltimore Ravens
129–79 record, 11–8 playoff record, Super Bowl XLVII champion
Winning a Super Bowl is a tall order as it is, but doing so with Joe Flacco at the helm is especially noteworthy. In doing so, John Harbaugh became the only coach on this list who won a title without a quarterback who is either a lock to enter the Hall of Fame or on pace to end up in Canton.
Once Harbaugh had the chance to work with a truly talented quarterback, he made a choice few coaches would: Harbaugh completely rebuilt his team. Instead of making Lamar Jackson fit an existing mold, Harbaugh made the team fit his new quarterback. To say it was a success is a wild understatement, as the Ravens now appear poised to battle the Chiefs and Bills for AFC supremacy through the 2020s.
The Ravens are built to last because of their elite front office while the team finds success on the field because of their elite head coach.
3. Sean Payton
Team: New Orleans Saints
143–81 record, 9–8 playoff record, Super Bowl XLIV champion
Many will credit New Orleans’ recent success to Drew Brees, but it is Sean Payton who quietly buoyed his aging quarterback while keeping the Saints among the NFL’s ruling class.
Father Time is undefeated and he began taking Brees’ arm strength a few years ago. Payton made sure nobody noticed by continuously retooling New Orleans’ offense over the past few years. New Orleans hasn’t missed a beat, winning 49 games over the past four seasons.
There is also something to be said about winning nearly 50 games in four years while your front office is regularly pushing all of its chips into the center of the table. New Orleans has made one win-now move after another, and yet, the Saints have remained a contender for four years and counting.
Sean Payton keeps the machine running. His biggest challenge lies ahead — for the first time in his head coaching career, Payton will not have Brees under center. His ability to coach up Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston may end up being Payton’s most impressive accomplishment to date.
2. Andy Reid
Team: Kansas City Chiefs
91–37 record, 7–6 playoff record, Super Bowl LIV champion
Andy Reid was not appropriately appreciated until his Chiefs came from behind to win Super Bowl LIV. The victory immediately snapped Reid’s Hall-of-Fame career into focus.
Reid is sixth in NFL history with 221 career coaching victories and will likely pass Curly Lambeau for fifth by mid-season. (Reid is actually fifth in combined regular-season and playoff victories and could pass Tom Landry for fourth in 2023.) But it isn’t just the past that makes Reid great. Kansas City’s head coach has built the perfect machine in the Chiefs’ nearly unstoppable offense, comfortably setting the team’s course to success for the near and intermediate futures.
The branches of Reid’s coaching tree extend throughout the NFL and have heavily influenced the league’s offensive revolution without Reid’s direct involvement. Former Chiefs offensive coordinators Matt Nagy and Doug Pederson have already earned head coaching jobs while Reid’s current lieutenant, Eric Bieniemy, is overdue for the same promotion. Sean McDermott, who led a successful rebuilding of the Bills, served as Reid’s defensive coordinator in Philadelphia. The aforementioned John Harbaugh was on Reid’s staff for nearly a decade before taking over in Baltimore.
Like another legend who reinvents himself after decades of experience, Reid continues to evolve after more than 20 years as an NFL head coach. Reid has built one of the best offenses in NFL history while stocking the league with new, bright, innovative coaches. And he’s not done yet.
Team: New England Patriots
244–92 record, 30–11 playoff record, six championships
He’s no. 1 until he retires, at which point he’ll still be no. 1.