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NFL coach of the year should be ...

By Sam Farmer
Los Angeles Times

This season features an unusually high number of coach-of-the-year candidates, making this one of the more competitive races.

There’s no time to campaign for the honor, of course, with all the focus on a fluid playoff picture that won’t be fully decided until Sunday night. But several coaches could make a convincing case that the 2013 award belongs in their office.

The field of contenders includes Kansas City’s Andy Reid, who rescued the bottom-of-the-barrel Chiefs; Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly, whose team has a chance to go from worst to first in its division (something at least one NFL team has done every year for the last decade), and Arizona’s Bruce Arians, who last season became the first interim coach to win the honor.

The NFL’s top 10 coach-of-the-year candidates, from least to most deserving:

10. Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis: Pagano was an inspiration to the Colts last season when he battled cancer, but this year he proved he’s a good head coach. At one point, Seattle, San Francisco and Denver were a combined 17-1 against the rest of the league, and 0-3 against Indianapolis.

9. Sean Payton, New Orleans: With Payton suspended last season, the Saints went 7-9. He returned and the team won its first five games. His decision to hire Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator was key, and Payton’s play-calling, especially early in the season, was masterful.

8. John Fox, Denver: Just look at what the Broncos have done on offense. Peyton Manning has thrown an NFL-record 51 touchdown passes with one game to play, and a record five Denver players have scored at least 10 touchdowns. Fox is something of a sentimental favorite too, having missed part of the season for heart surgery.

7. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco: Another year, another great season for Harbaugh, whose team currently has a league-long winning streak of five games. They played most of the year without No. 1 receiver Michael Crabtree. In fact, Harbaugh had to deal with more adversity this fall than his first two seasons combined.

6. Pete Carroll, Seattle: Once again, the Seahawks have been almost unbeatable at home. Russell Wilson is 14-1 there. Seattle had a few signature wins, among them pounding San Francisco and New Orleans, and rebounding from a 21-point deficit to beat Tampa Bay in overtime, the largest comeback in franchise history. The Seahawks also had to deal with a major reshuffling of their offensive line because of injuries.

5. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia: Lots of successful college coaches have flopped in the pros. So far, Kelly isn’t one of them. His up-tempo pace and creative route combinations have transformed the Eagles into a scary offensive powerhouse, and Kelly made a seamless quarterback transition from Michael Vick to Nick Foles, who have vastly different styles.

4. Andy Reid, Kansas City: The Chiefs, who were 2-14 and utterly dysfunctional last season, won their first nine games this fall and were the last undefeated team standing. Reid has gotten the best out of Alex Smith, and has helped elevate Jamaal Charles from a good back to a great one.

3. Bruce Arians, Arizona: The Cardinals have won seven of eight in part because of the flexibility of Arians. He went against his throw-it-deep nature and has drawn up a more conservative game plan for Carson Palmer, who doesn’t have the offensive line to take his time in the pocket. Last Sunday, the Cardinals were the first team in two years to win at Seattle, after getting wiped out there last season, 58-0.

2. Bill Belichick, New England: This was one of Belichick’s top three coaching performances, along with the Patriots’ 16-0 season in 2007, and 11-win year without Tom Brady. Not only did the Patriots begin the season without their top five pass catchers from 2012 – among them Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and the incarcerated Aaron Hernandez – but they also went on to lose such standouts as defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Despite that, New England went on to win another AFC East title, and had several dramatic victories, including a 24-point comeback against Denver, and beating Cleveland after being down by 12 with two minutes left.

1. Ron Rivera, Carolina: Rivera, whose last two teams finished 6-10 and 7-9, was on the hot seat from the start this season, and when the Panthers started 1-3, it looked as if he might be the first coach fired. But his team has whipped a remarkable U-turn since, winning 10 of 11, including victories at San Francisco, and over New England and New Orleans. Cam Newton, who had a problem with pouting in his first two seasons, has matured into a team leader, in part because of Rivera’s guidance, and Carolina’s defensive front seven is as good as any in the game

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