Position Power Rankings

Top 10 most aggressive head coaches in today's NFL

We're spending two weeks previewing a battle of coaches who aren't afraid to enter the danger zone.

No, we're not talking Kenny Loggins, and we're not about to attempt aerial stunts in fighter jets -- even if the two teams playing this weekend prefer to travel by air. We're talking about coaches who are willing to put their credibility on the line by going against the grain, by taking a risk.

Aggression is at the core of risk-taking, with the goal always being the same. Bruce Arians has popularized a phrase for this: No risk it, no biscuit.

Less than three weeks ago, Arians' Super Bowl LV adversary, Andy Reid, took his own risk to bring home a win in the Divisional Round. Facing fourth-and-inches at midfield with a five-point lead and less than two minutes left in regulation, Reid and his staff dialed up a quick out to lightning-fast receiver Tyreek Hill. A number of coaches would've either punted or lined up in a heavy set to attempt a quarterback sneak. Not Reid. He sent backup quarterback Chad Henne out in shotgun -- Patrick Mahomes had been knocked out of the game, only adding to the boldness of Reid's decision -- and had the journeyman roll out to successfully deliver the game-sealing completion. CBS analyst Tony Romo struggled to contain his composure as he marveled at the brashness of the call.

Those two coaches will meet in Tampa on Sunday, and they're both considered to be among the most prominent risk-takers in the NFL. That inspired us to consider: Which other head coaches are as aggressive as Reid and Arians?

We took six key statistical categories from the 2020 season -- fourth-down go rate, blitz rate, total passes downfield, two-point attempt rate, downfield pass percentage and air yards to sticks -- and dug in to find out where coaches ranked. We came away with a tightly packed top 10 and sorted them by adding up their league rankings in each of these six categories and dividing them to come away with a number we'll call their Average Aggressiveness Score.

An interesting aside: A ton of coaches who were either eliminated due to being fired (Doug Pederson) or didn't quite make it on this list but were in the running in several categories all came from similar coaching lineage. The tree began with Mike Holmgren, extended down to Andy Reid and branched out to include Pederson, Ron Rivera and John Harbaugh, among others. And the other main branch from the Holmgren tree, Jon Gruden, produced a couple of others: Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree -- and neither does the philosophy, it seems.

Here are your top 10 most aggressive coaches in the NFL today:

Rank
1
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Andy Reid
Kansas City Chiefs

Average Aggressiveness Score: 12

This one shouldn't surprise anyone. Reid's explosive offense loved to push the ball through the air in 2020, finishing fourth in air yards to sticks (+2.6), seventh in total passes attempted downfield, and 13th in downfield passing rate. The Chiefs tied for 21st in two-point attempt rate, while largely gaining fresh sets of downs before fourth, trying for a first on fourth down just 16 times (tied for 23rd in the NFL). And defensively, Reid's coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, loved to send heat, finishing fourth in blitz rate (38.95%). The Chiefs know they can rack up points and love to apply pressure, daring opponents to stop them on both sides of the ball.

Rank
2
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores watches his team during the second half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Chiefs defeated the Dolphins 33-27. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Brian Flores
Miami Dolphins

Average Aggressiveness Score: 13

Flores' aggressiveness score was built on the backs of those he trusted most in 2020: his defense, and his veteran quarterback. Flores' defense blitzed at the second-highest rate in the entire league, finishing at 40.78 percent. He placed just as much belief in Ryan Fitzpatrick (and later, to a lesser degree, Tua Tagovailoa), landing eighth in air yards to sticks (+2.3), while also finishing tied for fifth in two-point conversion attempt rate (14.3%). Flores' offensive staff also placed trust in Dolphins passers to a relative degree, finishing 16th in total downfield passes and downfield pass rate. The only area in which Flores played it safe was on fourth down, tying for 31st in frequency of attempting to gain a fresh set of downs on the all-or-nothing down. Flores instead preferred to put his faith in his defense to get the ball back before again trying to put points on the board with aggressive passing. If the Dolphins can elevate their passing game, they could become an aggressive monster rather quickly.

Rank
3
Kliff Kingsbury
Kliff Kingsbury
Arizona Cardinals

Average Aggressiveness Score: 13.33

Kingsbury's team liked to force its opponents into uncomfortable positions in 2020, finishing fifth in blitz rate (38.19%) while also landing fifth in air yards to sticks (+2.5). Kingsbury was unafraid of risking field position to maintain possession, going for it on fourth down 25 times, good for the 10th-most attempts in the NFL. Arizona played it a little more conservatively when it came to throwing downfield, ending up 18th in total downfield attempts and 22nd in downfield pass rate. And when the Cardinals did score, they too chose to play the traditional odds by only going for two 6.1 percent of the time. With a hungry, athletic defense and a dual-threat quarterback in Kyler Murray, Kingsbury's Cards weren't fearful of negative outcomes in key situations, trusting their offense and defense to get the job done in the most important situations while also keeping things under control with the ball in their hands.

Rank
4
Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy looks up from the field during an NFL football game against the Washington Football Team, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020 in Arlington, Tex. Washington won the game 41-16. (Paul Jasienski via AP)
Mike McCarthy
Dallas Cowboys

Average Aggressiveness Score: 13.33

This one was driven more by desperation than the rest of these coaches. With a porous defense forcing Dallas to push its offense in an ill-fated attempt to keep pace early in the season, the Cowboys ended up going for it on fourth down a whole lot. Dallas finished second in total fourth-down attempts at 31, converting 17 of them, and when the Cowboys managed to find the end zone, they frequently attempted to score two on the tries that followed touchdowns, tying for fifth in two-point attempt rate at 14.3 percent. Dallas pushed the ball down the field, finishing 12th in air yards to sticks, targeting pass catchers at an average of 2 yards beyond the first-down marker. Even though the Cowboys' downfield pass percentage ranked near the bottom of the league in frequency, they still finished 13th in total passes attempted downfield, supporting the notion that Dallas was frequently trying to throw its way back into games. It's important to note that a key defensive aggressiveness metric told us what we already knew: Dallas was well aware of its defensive liabilities and attempted to protect against them by avoiding the blitz. The Cowboys finished 22nd in blitz rate, opting to play coverage, which didn't work for much of the season. McCarthy tried his hardest to ride his offense to competitive football, but it just didn't quite work out.

Rank
5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians stands on the field during warm ups prior to an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. The Buccaneers won 44-27. (Perry Knotts via AP)
Bruce Arians
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Average Aggressiveness Score: 14

Arians' high downfield pass rate was the most predictable outcome in this exercise. The Bucs threw downfield on 35.1 percent of attempts (fifth-highest in NFL), trying to do so a total of 220 times (second-most in the NFL) as part of an offense that is almost always guaranteed to be described as vertical or aggressive. What was interesting, though, is how Tom Brady's participation -- which has long involved getting the ball out quickly and moving the chains -- affected Tampa Bay's air yards to sticks. While throwing downfield at a top-five rate, the Bucs landed near the middle of the league at 14th in AYTS, finishing at an average of +1.9. Compare that with the Chiefs' +2.6, and you see how the quarterback can affect a style of offense, despite the fact that Tampa Bay and Kansas City's goals are largely the same. The Bucs are aggressive defensively, too, finishing with the sixth-highest blitz rate at 38.1 percent. The only areas in which Arians isn't seeking biscuits: fourth down (tied for 30th in attempts) and two-point conversion attempt rate (27th at 3.4 percent).

Rank
6
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor
Zac Taylor
Cincinnati Bengals

Average Aggressiveness Score: 14.33

Sometimes, aggressiveness is born of desperation. And in other cases, it comes as a result of faith. The Bengals finished eighth in total passes attempted downfield and 10th in downfield pass percentage, and a large majority of those aggressive attempts came when rookie Joe Burrow was still available. Burrow suffered his season-ending knee injury in Week 11 -- of Cincinnati's 195 downfield attempts, 149 came in Weeks 1-11. Taylor was well aware of the special talent he had under center in Burrow and wasn't afraid to utilize it, finishing 15th in air yards to sticks (+1.7). He also didn't let Burrow's inexperience dissuade him from taking risks to keep the Bengals in games, finishing fifth in the league in total fourth-down conversion attempts (27). Interestingly, once Taylor's offense found the end zone, he became content with playing the game of 3s and 4s, refusing to go for two even once in 2020. But the rest of the statistics we examined showed us a coach who wasn't afraid to trust his players -- especially his franchise quarterback -- in potentially game-changing scenarios, providing us with a surprise from a mild-mannered man who sure doesn't coach like it.

Rank
7
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Sean McDermott
Buffalo Bills

Average Aggressiveness Score: 16.33

The rise of Josh Allen and his synergy with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll created an interesting combination of aggressive tendencies for McDermott's staff. The defensive-minded head coach oversaw a team with the ninth-highest blitz rate (35.02 percent), but also the sixth-highest AYTS (+2.4), 10th-most passes downfield and 12th-highest downfield pass percentage. In a season in which the Bills won 13 regular-season games, secured the No. 2 seed and finished one win from the Super Bowl, aggression was king. The most ironic part about these rates: Allen posted these passing numbers while cutting down on the downfield risk-taking in 2020, which contributed significantly to the leap he made in his third professional season. The results speak for themselves.

Rank
8
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches warm ups before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Mike Tomlin
Pittsburgh Steelers

Average Aggressiveness Score: 16.33

This mark is carried heavily by Pittsburgh's hyper-aggressive defense, which blitzed at the third-highest rate in the league at 39.59 percent and caused plenty of pressure, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt. The rest of these numbers are near the middle of the pack, save for Pittsburgh's two-point conversion attempt rate, which tied for 11th at 10 percent. Downfield passing and air yards to sticks were predictably low, especially if you managed to catch any of the Steelers' games from Week 11 on, and even their total passes downfield still landed outside the top 10. The Steelers' strength is on defense, and Tomlin knows where to flex his aggression.

Rank
9
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Matt Nagy
Chicago Bears

Average Aggressiveness Score: 17.5

The Reid tree shows its true colors at this point in the rankings, but personnel proved to be a bigger factor than background. While Reid's Chiefs avoided going for it on fourth down for the most part, Nagy's Bears pushed their chips into the center more often than most, finishing third in attempts with 28 (they converted 17 of them). Downfield passing was a goal of Nagy's, and although he didn't have the same firepower as Reid did in Kansas City (Nick Foles/Mitchell Trubisky vs. Patrick Mahomes), the Chicago coach still pushed his Bears to attempt the 12th-most downfield passes with 188 (Kansas City: 203). The biggest difference in quarterback showed in air yards to sticks, with the Bears finishing 23rd at (+0.9). Nagy was slightly more aggressive in two-point attempts out of necessity, but his defensive staff did not prefer blitzing much at all, ending with the 29th-highest rate at 21.3 percent. Desperation -- trying to jump-start a sleepwalking offense -- produced aggression in 2020.

Rank
10
Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich watches his team play during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Buffalo Bills Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Frank Reich
Indianapolis Colts

Average Aggressiveness Score: 17.5

Reich put his team's fortunes in the hands of his veteran signal-caller in 2020, trusting Philip Rivers to get the job done in a variety of aggressive categories. He turned to Rivers to convert on fourth down, going for it at the seventh-highest rate of the entire league and converting 17 of 26 attempts. He also put his faith in Rivers when going for two, tying for 11th in two-point conversion attempt rate at 10 percent, and landed 14th and 15th, respectively, in downfield pass percentage (32.2) and total downfield passes (178). This created an interesting balance between aggressive passing and taking the open man, as Indy finished with an air yards to sticks of +0.5, which ranked 27th in the NFL. When Reich could add in rookie Jonathan Taylor's second-half breakout, it made for a well-rounded offense that could afford to take risks. Defensively, it was more bend but don't break, with the Colts blitzing at a rate of just 19.1 percent (31st). The offensive-minded Reich put his daring ambitions on the shoulders of the group possessing the ball, and it got Indianapolis back to the playoffs.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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