1. SCOTT O'BRIEN, assistant head coach-special teams coach, Panthers
Remember the three kicks that Carolina blocked in its 12-9 overtime win against the Bucs on Sept. 14? That was the payoff for the 46-year-old O'Brien, who exploited Tampa Bay's weak middle by lining up 315-pound defensive tackle Kris Jenkins across from center. Jenkins blocked a field goal and an extra point. A player has returned two punts for touchdowns in a game II times in NFL history, and three of those players were coached by O'Brien: Steve Smith (2002, Panthers), Jermaine Lewis (1997, Ravens) and Eric Metcalf (1993, Browns). This year Carolina has blocked five kicks and is in the top 10 in punt and kickoff returns.
2. JIM SCHWARTZ, defensive coordinator, Titans
The overhauled Tennessee run defense was second in the NFL last year (89.0 yards per game) and is first this fall (73.6), thanks to the youngest coordinator in the league. At 37 Schwartz looks everywhere for an edge, even scouring Money-ball, Michael Lewis's best-seller about Oakland As G.M. Billy Beane, for parallels in building baseball and football teams. "He's as smart as anybody I've ever been around," says Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had Schwartz on his Cleveland scouting staff a decade ago.
3. SCOTT LINEHAN, offensive coordinator, Vikings
Last year, in his first season as an NFL assistant, he watched his quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, have one of the sloppiest seasons in NFL history: 23 interceptions and 24 fumbles. So Linehan asked Culpepper, who lived in Florida, to spend more time in Minnesota in the off-season. Culpepper bought a home in the Twin Cities area and spent endless hours going over game tape with the 40-year-old Linehan. The result: The Vikings lead the league in passing, and Culpepper has thrown three interceptions in seven games. He has fumbled six times, which is still an area of concern, but Culpepper isn't being as careless with the ball as he had been.
4. ROMEO CRENNEL, defensive coordinator, Patriots
Just as Belichick had to toil for eight years under Bill Parcells before getting his shot as a head coach, so too has the 56-year-old Crennel had to work in the shadow of a boss who's known as a mastermind. But Belichick gets Crennel heavily involved in defensive game-planning and allows him to mix and match schemes. Look at the job Crennel has done this year: After New England cut ties with both safeties ( Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones) for salary-cap reasons, and injuries caused five prominent starters ( Richard Seymour, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, Ted Washington and Mike Vrabel) to miss a total of 20 games, the Patriots are sixth in the league in points allowed and 11th in total defense with Crennel turning rookies and bit players into important contributors.
5. LARRY MARMIE, defensive coordinator, Cardinals
Take away Arizona's best player in the secondary (corner Duane Starks) and best defensive lineman (end Kyle Vanden Bosch)—both of whom are out for the year with injuries—and most fans would be hard-pressed to name three Cardinals defenders. Yet this unit held the high-powered Packers and 49ers to 13 points each. "Those weren't flukes," says Rams coach Mike Martz. "They've got a heck of a defense." It's led by outside linebacker Ray Thompson, whom Marmie has developed into a pass-rush specialist. Who'd have thought that the 61-year-old Marmie, working on the same field as when he was coach at Arizona State from 1988 through '91, would have his no-name defense ranked ninth in the NFL?