Championships. Leadership. Awards. Longevity. Statistical records. Likeability. Talent development.
An NFL  head coach can be evaluated with many criteria. Generally, winning championships over a long period of time is the easiest (or not-so-easiest) way to the top of any ranking. Who does more with less? Who gets his team to the playoffs the most consistently? Who is the best motivator? Whose team is best prepared come crunch time? And who has the shiny hardware to back it up?
So as of July of 2012, Athlon Sports has magically given the reins of an NFL franchise to you the fans. And you have your pick of the 16 NFC head coaches. The question becomes:
Which NFC coach would you hire to lead your franchise?
Here is Athlon's take:
Note: Age is as of Sept. 5, 2012, the first game of the 2012 NFL season
1. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco (2011-present)
Age: 48, Overall Record: 13-3, Postseason Record: 0-1 (1 appearance)
Jim Harbaugh is inexperienced as an NFL head coach and has yet to win a Super Bowl, but this isn't your ordinary second-year head coach. His father, Jack, has been in coaching for more than four decades and his brother, John, has made a name for himself as the Baltimore Ravens head coach. He has a 14-year NFL career as a quarterback (26,288 yards, 129 TD) and has instantly been an dynamic addition at three head coaching stops. He never had a losing season at San Diego, including two Pioneer League championships, before taking over for a 1-11 Stanford. The Cardinal won 16 total games under the previous two coaches (five years) and Harbaugh quickly delivered the program's first-ever BCS bowl win in four seasons. He then took over a 49ers team that hadn't had a winning season since 2002 and promptly earned an NFC West crown and first-round bye. The "Quarterback Whisperer" also turned Alex Smith into a playoff quarterback, and if not for two special teams fumbles, who knows what his first year in the Bay would have looked like. Harbaugh's cult-of-personality leadership skills are virtually unmatched in the league and his instant impact on everything he touches is blatantly obvious. In one season, Harbaugh has one division title and an AP Coach of the Year award.
2. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay (2006-present)
Age: 48, Overall Record: 63-33, Postseason Record: 5-3 (4 appearances)
The blue collar Pittsburgh native has about as pristine a coaching resume one can have in six seasons. He has had one losing season (6-10, 2008), has made the playoffs four times, won two division championships, posted the best record in the NFL and returned the Lombardi Trophy to its rightful home in 2010 as a world champion. The offensive wizard has as much job security as a guy named Belichick and goes to battle each week with the best player in the league under center. The one big knock for McCarthy? Two of his three total loses in the postseason have come at the hands of Tom Coughlin and the NY Giants, both at home. What keeps McCarthy ahead of Coughlin? He is nearly two decades younger and has never once come close to the Hot Seat. His best years could still be ahead of him — a scary thought for the rest of the NFC.
3. Tom Coughlin, NY Giants (2004-present), Jacksonville (1995-2002)
Age: 66, Overall Record: 142-114, Postseason Record: 11-7 (9 appearances)
There is little left for the hard-nosed Coughlin to prove in this game. And at age 66, the only real question surrounding the Waterloo, N.Y., native is how much longer will he be on the sideline? He is entering his 17th season and has been to the top of the NFL mountain twice — and near the pink slip line on more than one occasion. After three straight losing seasons in Jacksonville, he was fired before landing back on hs feet in New York. His 68-60 record was excellent for an expansion team, taking the Jags to the playoffs four straight years. Coughlin has brought the Giants to the playoffs five times in eight years and he has a 7-3 mark in the postseason for the G-Men. He has been extremely close to the unemployment line on multiple times, which is likely more a function of working in the craziest city in the world, only to bring his team back from the brink. Now, after entering the rarified air of “two-time Super Bowl Champion,” one has to wonder what's left for him to prove?
4. Sean Payton, New Orleans (2006-present)
Age: 48, Overall Record: 62-34, Postseason Record: 5-3 (4 appearances)
In his six seasons at the helm of one of the NFL’s most inept franchises, Payton has been anything but. He has one losing season, three division titles, four playoff berths, one AP Coach of the Year award and one Super Bowl championship over Peyton Manning. He also is suspended for a full season after his involvement in the Saints' bounty scandal. He is still relatively young, has one of the brightest offensive minds in the game and will assuredly bounce back from this PR black eye. Yet, it is impossible to currently separate the champion from the suspension at this moment. Time will heal all wounds and Payton will be back winning games soon enough — just not in 2012.
5. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis (2012-present), Tennessee (1994-2010)
Age: 54, Overall Record: 142-120, Postseason Record: 5-6 (6 appearances)
Few have ever been as consistent over a longer period of time than Fisher. Especially, in the modern what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL world coaches currently operate within. Since his first full season in 1995 at age 36 (7-9), Fisher has posted only four losing seasons while moving a team from Houston to Nashville via Memphis, and is the franchise's winningest coach. He reached the playoffs six times, won four division titles and came up one famous yard short of a Super Bowl title following the 1999 season. He is a model of consistency and his hard-nosed attitude plays in any NFL city. His most impressive work might have been the reclamation project of the Titans from a paltry 9-23 in 2004 and 2005 to NFL prominence (23-9 from 2007-08) two years later.
6. Andy Reid, Philadelphia (1999-present)
Age: 54, Overall Record: 126-81-1, Postseason Record: 10-9 (9 appearances)
For a coach who is constantly on the Hot Seat while constantly defending his players, coaching staff and family, few have ever won as much as Reid. The Eagles have posted one losing season in 12 years since Reid’s first campaign, with only one 8-8 mark on the ledger (2007). He has made the playoffs nine times, has eight double-digit win seasons, went to four straight NFC title games, earned 2002 NFL Coach of the Year honors and nearly pulled-off a Super Bowl upset of the Patriots back in 2004. He has seen major roster and coaching overhaul (eight different coaches have left his staff to become NFL head coaches) and has made the playoffs through it all. While he has yet to win the big one and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008, Reid seems completely unjustly criticized for his performance as the Eagles' winningest coach.
7. Mike Smith, Atlanta (2008-present)
Age: 53, Overall Record: 43-21, Postseason Record: 0-3 (3 appearances)
A relative unknown from Daytona Beach, Fla., and Jack Del Rio’s staff in Jacksonville, Smith has done nothing but win since taking over the Falcons. He has never posted a losing record, has made the playoffs three times in four years and won the NFC South in 2010. He earned NFL AP Coach of the Year honors in his first year (2008) after taking over a 4-12 team and turning them into an 11-win playoff team. In fact, Atlanta had just two winning seasons in the nine years prior to Smith taking over. His next hurdle is winning when it counts as his 0-3 playoff record has left Falcons fans craving more. He entered his head coaching career later than many on this list (49), but still has plenty of good years left in the tank.
8. Jim Schwartz, Detroit (2009-present)
Age: 46, Overall Record: 18-30, Postseason Record: 0-1 (1 appearance)
An eight-year Fisher henchman at Tennessee, it hasn't taken Schwartz long to instill his former boss’ toughness in the Motor City. For a franchise that is three years removed from the only 0-16 mark in NFL history and hadn’t seen a playoff berth since 1999, Schwartz has the Lions poised for their second straight postseason trip in 2012. Five separate coaches have tried to return the Lions to success and only the Baltimore native has been able to do it. His offense shattered multiple offensive team records a year ago. He is the youngest coach in the NFC by one day over Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano.
9. Mike Shanahan, Washington (2010-present), Denver (1995-2008), LA Raiders (1988-1989)
Age: 60, Overall Record: 157-119, Postseason Record: 8-5 (7 appearances)
The aging 22-year NFL vet is quite the anomaly. He has seven postseason berths, four division titles, two Super Bowl championships and has clearly proven he has staying power. Yet, he has one playoff win since John Elway retired (1998) and hasn’t had a winning season since 2006. Additionally, his ability to post six winning seasons in the eight years following Elway’s departure is a testament to his ability. He may be past his prime, but the Redskins, and more specifically Robert Griffin III, have a chance to rejuvenate the 60-year-old head coach.
10. Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona (2007-present)
Age: 50, Overall Record: 40-40, Postseason Record: 4-2 (2 appearances)
This may come as a surprise to some, but the Cardinals have had one losing season since hiring the former Pittsburgh assistant. After winning a title with the Steelers, all Whisenhunt did was get Arizona to its first-ever Super Bowl in year number two in the desert. He has two division titles in five years and is two wins away from tying Don Coryell as the franchise’s all-time winningest coach. Since 1976, the Cardinals have made the playoffs four times, twice under the direction of Whisenhunt.
11. Lovie Smith, Chicago (2004-present)
Age: 54, Overall Record: 71-57, Postseason Record: 3-3 (3 appearances)
Like Shanahan, Smith has had an interesting career in Chicago. In his first job as a head man, he got the Bears back to the Super Bowl in only three seasons. Yet, He has had two winning campaigns since and only one playoff win. He has been to the postseason only three times in his eight-year Windy City career, but appears to have one of his best defenses to date returning in 2012. He has been to the brink of the Hot Seat and returns every time intact, and if not for key injuries last fall, likely would have collected his second-straight winning season. Chicago has five playoff appearances since Mike Ditka roamed the sidelines, and Smith claims three of those. This is a key year for the Gladewater, Texas native.
12. Jason Garrett, Dallas (2010-present)
Age: 46, Overall Record: 13-11, Postseason Record: N/A
A classic overachiever as a player, I believed that Garrett was the right man for the job when Jerry Jones made the switch mid-season two years ago. The young head coach went 5-3 in his first head coaching stint with Dallas after taking over for a 1-7 team. He delivered an 8-8 season last year but has loads of pressure to succeed entering his second full season at the helm of the most high-profile franchise in the league. Jones doesn’t settle for .500 records, and for a team with one playoff win since 1996, the onus falls squarely on one of two sets of shoulders — Garrett and Tony Romo. At 46, he is a just few months older than Schwartz, who is the youngest coach in the NFC.
13. Pete Carroll, Seattle (2010-present), New England (1997-1999), NY Jets (1994)
Age: 60, Overall Record: 47-49, Postseason Record: 2-3 (3 appearances)
There are only four current head coaches who have won a division title in both the AFC and NFC and Carroll is one of them. His college resume is pristine, with multiple national championships and seven conference titles. Many believe his NFL tenure has been a failure to this point, yet he has three playoff trips in six seasons and has won fewer than seven games only once, six in his first professional season. While his laidback shtick played extremely well at USC, it still remains to be seen if he can succeed at an elite level in the pro ranks. He has one season of 10 wins in his career and won the NFC West with a 7-9 mark two years ago.
14. Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay (2012-present)
Age: 46, Overall Record: N/A, Postseason Record: N/A
Generally, a long track record of success in the college ranks means very little to a head coach’s pro potential. Yes, Schiano took Rutgers to unprecedented heights, won the Big East and National Coach of the Year awards in 2006 with an 11-2 mark. But he never won a conference title and never took the Scarlet Knights to the all-important BCS bowl. That said, he is and has always been a pro-style coach. He runs pro-style schemes and has a pro-style coaching mentality. With a young team loaded with upside defenders and a solid running game, Schiano has a chance to succeed despite being a complete unknown in the NFL.
15. Ron Rivera, Carolina (2011-present)
Age: 50, Overall Record: 6-10, Postseason Record: N/A
Rivera is largely unproven as a head coach but has a solid track record as a defensive coordinator. His defenses in Chicago and San Diego were, at times, dominant. His Bears units finished second and fifth in the league in total defense (2005, 2006) and No. 1 and 3 in scoring, while his 2010 Chargers unit led the NFL in total defense. He has worked for three separate head coaches and is a veteran of the league. His Panthers showed little improvement from the 2010 defensive implosion last fall and his ability to win long-term is a virtual unknown.
16. Leslie Frazier, Minnesota (2010-present)
Age: 53, Overall Record: 6-16, Postseason Record: N/A
In his first full season at the helm, Frazier did little to prove that he is an elite NFL head coach. He was 3-3 back in 2010 after he took over for a Brad Childress-coached team that was 3-7 at the time. However, his aging defense got significantly worse last year — from eighth to 21st in total defense and from 18th to 31st in scoring defense last fall. The Vikings' defensive coordinator from 2008-10, the unit has gotten progressively worse since he's been in charge. On a team that is in complete rebuilding mode in arguably the toughest division in the NFC, it is hard to see Frazier lasting too long unless the Vikings show marked (and shocking) improvement in 2012.
- by Braden Gall
Follow @bradengall