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It’s about that point in the season when the award races begin to heat up.
With nine weeks of the NFL season in the rear-view mirror, we can’t help but discuss which players are having an MVP season, which rookies are having an impact first year, and which coach is responsible for their team’s wild success.
The latter is what brings us here today. There are teams living right up to expectations, those that are exceeding them, and some that continue to defy logic. With that in mind, here are the six leading NFL Coach of the Year candidates as we near Week 10.
1. Bruce Arians
After missing out of the playoffs with a 10-6 record in 2013, we expected the Cardinals to again be in the hunt this year. However, with perennial titans such as the 49ers and defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks in the same division, it was supposed to be a long shot.
Despite the odds stacked against them, the Cardinals have ascended to a 7-1 record and are the current frontrunners to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Offensively, they’ve overcome a rash of offensive line injuries and managed to get by with Carson Palmer missing games earlier in the year. On defense, the unit has not missed a beat despite the losses of Karlos Dansby, Daryl Washington, or Darnell Dockett.
Arians is the leading Coach of the Year candidate while defensive coordinator Todd Bowles should be among the first handful of assistants in the mix for head coaching gigs this offseason.
2. Jim Caldwell
The Lions have long been the “yeah but” team in the NFC. Yeah, with the talented Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson they can score a ton of points, but they’re so defensively vulnerable and underachieving that it really doesn’t matter. After swapping Jim Schwartz for Jim Caldwell in the offseason, the Lions have pulled a complete 180, and not surprisingly are leading the NFC North.
Stafford has been much more careful with the football with seven interceptions through nine weeks. A lot of that has to do with Caldwell’s dedication to running the football. And most of the team’s offensive success has been without the likes of Johnson, who continues to battle an ankle injury.
Defensively, Caldwell is getting the most of out this talented defensive front, including first-round picks Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah. As a result, Detroit owns the NFL’s top-ranked defense, which nobody could have foreseen a year ago.
The Cowboys have been the NFL’s biggest surprise in the first half of the season, and Garrett — who was presumed to be on a very warm cushion entering the year — seems poised to salvage his job.
Garrett has been pulling the offensive strings in Dallas for quite some time. But after Jerry Jones assembled arguably the league’s best offensive line, Garrett has finally turned to a more balanced attack featuring DeMarco Murray, who has defied the odds to stay healthy through the first nine weeks. Much-maligned Tony Romo has been extremely careful with the football, largely because with a run game in his back pocket he’s forced into less stressful situations.
Defensively, the Cowboys have been thriving with a patchwork unit of castoffs. Gone is DeMarcus Ware. Benched is former first-rounder Morris Claibrone. And in their places are prove-it players like Henry Melton and twice-retired Rolando McClain. The crop of no-name defenders has made Dallas much more formidable, which is why they’re still in the mix in the NFC East.
4. Joe Philbin
Another coach who began the 2014 season very much on the head coaching hot seat, Philbin has helped the Dolphins overcome some early season quarterback woes to now become a very legitimate AFC Wild Card contender. If you look at the Dolphins’ season, they’ve beaten the Patriots and the Chargers, two teams that at one point in the season we’ve looked at as arguably the best in the conference.
There were some questions surrounding Ryan Tannehill and a possible benching before Miami flew out to London to face the Raiders, but since then the third-year quarterback has been setting new career benchmarks. Philbin’s decision to hire Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator has paid off, and the running game is thriving with a new cast of offensive linemen.
Defensively, the Dolphins rock one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake are the driving force of the attack, which has totaled 25.0 sacks on the year, good for fifth in the NFL. Overall, the defense ranks third in the NFL, and the takeaway-giveaway ratio is tied with Green Bay’s for third-best.
5. Doug Marrone
If the Bills got off to another slow start, then perhaps Marrone, too, would be on the chopping block. But the Bills’ second-year head coach made a major change early on this season, giving veteran Kyle Orton the starting quarterback gig over 2013 first-round selection EJ Manuel. And wow, has that decision paid off.
The Orton experiment has been a major success. He’s thrown nine touchdowns compared to three picks, completing a career-best 67.4 percent of his passes while, most importantly, leading Buffalo to a 3-1 mark as the starter. That includes a win over the aforementioned Lions, too.
Defensively, the loss of coordinator Mike Pettine and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd haven’t impacted the unit at all. Schwartz has taken over the defense and it has not missed a beat. The Bills’ talented defensive line has produced the second-most sacks in the NFL (28.0), while overall the unit ranks eighth.
6. Bill O’Brien
The Texans won’t make the playoffs in 2014, O’Brien’s first season at the helm, but no longer are they even remotely close to the 2-14 team that took the field a year ago.
O’Brien has barely begun to put his blueprint on the team, too, which is a positive going forward. Ryan Fitzpatrick was merely a stopgap quarterback for the team as it looks to either Ryan Mallett or rookie Tom Savage for the remainder of the season. That means next year, he’ll probably have his guy under center in an offense that has thrived on both the professional and collegiate levels.
On defense, No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is just starting to see the field, but even a strong second half cannot compare to what MVP candidate J.J. Watt has done already. O’Brien’s selection of Clowney alone should give Texans fans a lot of optimism heading into 2015.
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