- Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
With the 256 regular-season games of the 2020 NFL season in the books, this seemed like a good day to file my awards ballot. I’ll pick my top three candidates for the seven most prominent awards The Associated Press hands out each year. While I’m not an official voter, that freedom can be a positive. I don’t think I’ll be making the same picks we see from the electorate. I’ll be noting in some cases where I think a different candidate might win. Unsurprisingly, I’ll be relying more on data than my gut intuition.
One of those awards where my thoughts aren’t in line is the first award I’ll hand out, for Coach of the Year. The voters typically award coaches who exceed expectations with previously struggling teams, which has led to coaches like Matt Nagy and Jason Garrett winning the award in recent years. With all due respect to the excellent work done by candidates such as Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski and Miami’s Brian Flores, I’m going in a different direction with my picks.
Coach of the Year
3. Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills
If this were a multiyear award and we were handing out credit for the best work over the past four seasons, McDermott would be the easy winner. If we were handing out Executive of the Year, general manager Brandon Beane might be the favorite. Coordinator of the Year probably would be Brian Daboll. Quarterback Josh Allen would be right alongside Broncos tackle Garett Bolles as the league’s most improved player. With this award focused on the head coach and strictly on 2020 performance, McDermott comes up just short.
It’s by only the tiniest of margins; heck, Andy Reid went 14-2 and isn’t even in the top three. McDermott has done incredible work, and it’s impossible to ignore how many players come to Buffalo and either outplay their draft position or perform better than they did in their prior NFL stop(s). The only small knock I have is that McDermott helps oversee the defense alongside Leslie Frazier, and while Buffalo’s D improved over the course of the season, it ranked 13th in DVOA heading into Week 17, down from where it ranked in 2018 and 2019. If this were a slightly different award, McDermott would win.
2. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
In terms of degree of difficulty, though, I really wanted to put Tomlin No. 1. The 48-year-old had to coax this team through a season in which it basically had no bye week and was stuck waiting for its opponents to come out of quarantine. I give the former defensive coach some credit for helping to mold the latest in a string of dominant Steelers defenses, one that lost starters like Javon Hargrave and Devin Bush and still managed to prop up a wildly inconsistent offense for most of the season.
Given that they lost four out of their last five games and played the league’s second-easiest schedule, Tomlin is just short for this award. By the way: If the league had gone to its current 14-team playoff format at the beginning of Tomlin’s career, this would be his 14th consecutive playoff appearance. Steelers fans aren’t always happy with Tomlin, but he’s an incredible coach.
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