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Experience shows us the NFL's best coaches

In the last three years more than half a dozen men were hired by NFL teams as their head coaches despite having sketchy to no head coaching experience. It was as if there was a new motto in the league: "Lack of experience is the best teacher."

Two of the group, Scott Linehan of the Rams and Lane Kiffin of the Raiders, were fired after losing to the Bills in the last two weeks. A third member of the group, Ken Whisenhunt, will lead Arizona against Buffalo this afternoon but he doesn't seem to be in any danger.

Which brings up this question: Who coaches this game well enough to stay employed? This is one man's opinion of the best head coaches in the 32-team NFL and why.

1. Jeff Fisher, Tennessee. Bill Belichick without the paranoia. He's been head coach of the Titans since 1994, when they were the Houston Oilers. Fisher is never too far up or too far down. He gets along with his players, the media and team management. When owner Bud Adams decreed that Vince Young, the prolifically talented but erratic quarterback from Texas, be the team's No. 1 draftee three years ago, Fisher accepted it stoically.

2. Bill Belichick, New England. Yeah, he lucked into Tom Brady but he's still a genuinely great coach. He smudges his own reputation by being ethically challenged.

3. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants. Hard-nosed and demanding, he expects all his players to earn their paychecks with every-day performances. When Jacksonville hired him out of Boston College the year before the Jaguars went into business, he used the time to plan so well that the neophyte team was in the playoffs in its second season.

He's also wise. When the Giants were thinking about drafting Boston College guard Chris Snee five years ago, there was an extremely sticky development. Snee's girlfriend, Coughlin's daughter, was pregnant without benefit of a wedding ring. It was not a development that went over well in the Coughlin household. On draft day, General Manager Ernie Accorsi demurred in making the pick. "I'm not touching this with a 10-foot pole," he said, handing the phone to the coach. Coughlin, like any smart husband, called his wife, Judy, and let her handle it. She drafted Snee.

4. Tony Dungy, Indianapolis Colts. Fatherly, unflappable, easy to play and work for. Loyal to players, assistants and the organization so he gets loyalty in return.

5. Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears. He used to work with Dungy and comes from the same school of unflappable and loyal. Like Dungy, he has great faith in the Tampa Bay defensive system.

6. Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay. Excelled wherever he's been in the NFL, even Oakland. He'd probably win more games but he is by nature dissatisfied with just about any quarterback he uses.

7. John Fox, Carolina Panthers. Another tough guy out of the Bill Parcells school of coaching. He couldn't coach for Dallas owner Jerry Jones. Fox suspended his best player, Steve Smith, for the first two games of this season because he believes in discipline.

8. Andy Reid, Philadelphia. Solid in many ways but loses sight of his running game at critical times. He also needs to spend more time at home getting his priorities straight.

9. Dick Jauron, Buffalo. Most underrated coach in the NFL. Has as much patience as any of the above leaders.

10. Mike Shanahan, Denver. His ego should have lost some weight since the retirement of John Elway has tarnished his genius claim. Still, you have to admire a coach who will go for the critical two-point conversion with defeat looking him in the eye two weeks against San Diego.

Note: Make room on this list if Bill Cowher comes out of retirement in three months.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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