NFL Picks: 2020 AP Coach of the Year Award

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This is the first in a five-part series picking the winners of each AP season-long award. Check out the others:

Betting NFL futures is one of my favorite parts of each football season. Here at Broadway Sports, we’re going to start this season’s NFL Picks series with predictions for each of the Associated Press’s season-long awards, choosing Coach of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year, Defensive and Offensive Player of the Year, and of course, Most Valuable Player, starting today with Coach of the Year.

I like to look at what is the most likely thing to happen for each of these awards. That means reviewing the history of winners and looking for trends that can help us make smarter picks for the upcoming season. Specifically, I’ll be using the past decade’s winners to inform my decisions.

That doesn’t mean something crazy won’t happen… In fact, this is a likely year for something crazy to happen. With COVID-19 impacting the season, there’s a good chance of a low-probability outcome occurring, such as the time Bruce Arians became the first interim head coach to ever win the AP Coach of the Year award.

For each of these award picks, I’ll note the odds-on favorite, the “trendy pick,” my “best bet” pick, and my “best longshot” pick. My “best bet” is who I think is most likely to win, while “best longshot” is the higher-payout option that may be worth sprinkling a little additional Monopoly money on if you feel so inclined.

Without further ado, let’s get into it, starting today with my picks for the AP Coach of the Year Award.

AP Coach of the Year

*No Coach of the Year odds are available on William Hill US, so these odds come from Bovada.

Favorites: Bill Belichick / Bruce Arians (+1000)

Trendy Pick: Kliff Kingsbury (+1500)

Last Decade:

Some trends that stand out immediately:

  • 100% of winners won 11 or more games, with 70% of winners managing more than 12 wins in the season.
  • 90% of winners improved their team’s record by four games or more from the previous season; 60% improved by a whopping seven wins.
  • 8 of the last 10 winners of this award coached a division champion.
  • 40% of winners last decade were in their first year with the team, compared to 20% in their second decade with the team.

So we’re looking for a head coach on a team we think can win 11+ games, win their division, and improve on last year’s win total by at least 4 games. A coach in his first year with a team is an added bonus.

Are the Cardinals going to win the NFC West? Doubtful, meaning I’m not betting on Kliff Kingsbury. Are the Buccaneers and Bruce Arians going to knock off the Saints for the NFC South? I wouldn’t put money on it. Will Bill Belichick continue to dominate the AFC East without Tom Brady? It doesn’t seem likely.

Mike Tomlin is a potential candidate to check all the boxes with the Steelers, but if he wasn’t able to win this award last year with everything he navigated, I don’t see him winning in a season where Big Ben’s return will be viewed as the primary catalyst for the Steelers’ bounce back. I also don’t think the Steelers will unseat the Ravens for the AFC North crown, which in turn removes Kevin Stefanski (taking over the Browns) from the running, as well.

Media narratives always play a major part in these awards, and the Dallas Cowboys are set up perfectly to fall in line with these trends and be a media narrative darling.

The perception is that Jason Garrett largely held back a talented Cowboys roster. If the team manages to get a bit luckier this season (they were 1-6 in one-score games in 2019), with the 22nd-ranked strength of schedule as calculated by sportsbooks’ projected win totals, the Cowboys could be in line for a 12-win season.

Justis Mosqueda has done a lot of research into the subject of one-score game records. Here’s something important to note that Mosqueda wrote prior to last season:

“When teams lose five or more close games than they won (in theory, dropping their win total by 2.5+ games versus their talent), they have immediately improved their record in the next season in 21 of 21 instances since 2006. On average, these teams improved by 4.6 wins the following year.”

Based on this average, at 8-8 last year after losing 5 more one-score games than they won, the Cowboys should improve by “4.6” wins. That would put them at 12-13 wins on the season, checking off the four-game improvement box as well as the 11+ wins box. It would be shocking if they somehow lost a weak NFC East division with a 12-4 record, and McCarthy would get most of the credit for the team’s perceived turnaround.

Best Bet: Mike McCarthy (+1300)

Looking for longshots in this category is a bit tougher. Only so many teams can win 11+ games in any given season (remember, 100% of winners over the past decade coached 11+ win teams), and even fewer can do so while improving by 4+ wins over their 2019 output (like 9 of the last 10 winners).

Some names I wanted to consider fall short of the trends: Zac Taylor (+3000) will have a very hard time beating the Ravens and Steelers for the AFC North; Vic Fangio (+2500)—similar deal—the Broncos will have a tough time topping the Chiefs for the division.

Not to be too much of a homer, but I actually like Mike Vrabel as a longshot. To qualify for the trends, the Titans would have to win 13 games in 2020, but with the second-easiest schedule according to projected win totals, it’s not impossible to think they could make a leap to the upper echelon, especially if Jadeveon Clowney winds up in Nashville.

Narrative-wise, Vrabel would likely be credited for taking the Titans “over the hump” after four consecutive nine-win seasons, and the move to bring back both Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry would be seen as a great coaching decision—he would likely get credit for making the switch to Tannehill back in 2019 even for the 2020 award consideration. Further, moving forward with no official defensive coordinator is a bit of a gamble right now, but if it pays off in the win column, it’s another area where Vrabel would get all the credit.

Vrabel is well-liked in the national media, too, with former Patriots teammates like Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest well-placed at ESPN and NFL Network to pump up Vrabel’s COTY candidacy and help drive the narrative. He made headlines last season for his quote about his willingness to cut off a certain body part in exchange for a Super Bowl win, putting him on the national radar as a well-liked coach. That stance was furthered when he “trolled” Bill Belichick on the huge playoff stage and outcoached last year’s Coach of the Year winner John Harbaugh head-to-head in the AFC divisional round.

Vrabel isn’t my “best bet” to win, but if the Titans surprise people by improving on last season’s performance, look for Vrabel to be a darkhorse candidate for this award.

Best Longshot: Mike Vrabel (+2800)

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