A little over two years ago, I wrote a piece called “Five Lessons on Hiring Head Coaches,” looking at trends and results from head coaching hires since 2000. With 13 of the league’s 32 teams making changes at the top since then, it seemed like a good time to see if the hiring practices and on-field results teach us any new lessons.
Successful New Hires
My “lesson #1” was that “most head coaching hires fail,” but plenty of new hires have had terrific results in recent seasons. A month after the piece dropped, Gary Kubiak helmed the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl in his first year with the team. A few months back, fellow 2016 hire Doug Pederson delivered a championship to the Philadelphia Eagles. Rookie head coaches Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams), Doug Marrone (first year in his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars, not first as head coach), and Sean McDermott (Buffalo Bills) led impressive turnarounds in 2017, with all three of their downtrodden franchises reaching the playoffs and McVay winning Coach of the Year. Seven of the 13 hires in 2016 and 2017 delivered at least one playoff appearance in their first two campaigns.
It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, however. The group as a whole tallied a 134-166 record, well below .500. Hue Jackson (1-31, Cleveland Browns) and Chip Kelly (2-14, San Francisco 49ers) are the major culprits. Teams will continue turning over coaches looking for the next Pederson or McVay, but things don’t always go that swimmingly. Three of seven hires from 2016 are already gone, and five of seven 2016 hires have been fired. A new hire is always a roll of the dice.
In the earlier piece, I noted the superior track record of retread relative to novice coaches, but inexperienced hires continue to dominate the selections. Of 20 hires since 2016, only six – Jackson, Kelly, Mike Mularkey (Tennessee Titans, 2016), Marrone, Jon Gruden (Oakland Raiders, 2018) and Pat Shurmur (New York Giants, 2018) had prior head coaching experience. And of this sextet, only Gruden (11 years) had more than three full years of experience with the top job.
Moreover, it seems that teams have less patience with veteran coaches. Mularkey and Kelly are already gone, Mularkey after a 2017 playoff appearance and Kelly after only one season. All seven experienced hires from 2013 and 2014 (Kubiak, who stepped down for medical reasons, Chicago Bears’ John Fox, Buffalo Bills’ Rex Ryan, Raiders’ Jack Del Rio, Detroit Lions’ Jim Caldwell, Titans’ Ken Whisenhunt, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Lovie Smith) are already gone; Del Rio and Caldwell were fired despite winning records. Fired coaches have a tough time getting new jobs, and a short leash when they do get one.
There may be “no magic formulas,” as I wrote for lesson #3 in the original piece, but NFL teams clearly didn’t get the memo. They have zeroed in on coordinators making the best hires. Of the 20 hires since 2016, 17 were hired straight from an offensive or defensive coordinator role. The only exceptions were Mularkey and Marrone, both of whom were elevated from interim head coach and had previous head coaching experience, and Gruden, who has a decade of head coaching experience. The last college hire was Bill O’Brien (Houston Texans) in 2014, and O’Brien had offensive coordinator experience. The people hiring head coaches have not been too creative. Which brings me to:
The Most Unusual Hires Since 2000
Gruden’s hire was undoubtedly the most interesting of this offseason, or frankly any of the past several. His credentials are impeccable: winning records in both Oakland and Tampa Bay, five playoff appearances, a Super Bowl victory in his first season with the Buccaneers. And at 54, he’s certainly still young enough to coach many more seasons. The question is: what impact will a decade away from coaching have on his success? Gruden has stayed plugged into the game between his QB camp and ESPN analysis, and undoubtedly he can pick the brain of his brother Jay, the Washington head coach, for some intel, but he’s in unusual territory. Numbers four and five on the list, however, spent even more time between head coaching stints.
5. Art Shell, Oakland Raiders, 2006: Shell is an NFL legend and a Raider icon. A two-time All-Pro and member of the 1970’s All-Decade Team, Shell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. Later that year, he became head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, breaking the color barrier that had existed since 1924. He led the Raiders to a 54-38 record and three playoff appearances in six seasons, but that wasn’t good enough for owner Al Davis, who fired Shell after a 9-7 season. He coached offensive line for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons in the next six seasons, then stepped away from coaching to take a front office job with the NFL as senior vice president in charge of football operations. In 2006, after more than a half-decade away from coaching and 12 years after he fired him, Davis hired a 60-year-old Shell back as Raiders head coach. The reunion was short-lived; Shell’s Raiders went 2-14 and his coaching career ended for good.
4. Joe Gibbs, Washington, 2004: Like Shell, Gibbs is a legend, winning 124 games and three Super Bowls in his first stint in Washington, spanning 1981 to 1992. His coaching bona fides rank with the greatest coaches of all time, and he was deservedly named to the Hall of Fame in 1996. His record is superior to Shell’s or Gruden’s, but he spent his decade between stints at a much further remove than Gruden or Shell, mostly focusing on his outstanding NASCAR team. Despite this time away, he enjoyed some success in his second go-round, making two playoff appearances in four years before stepping away for the final time.
3. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles, 2013: As noted above, hiring from the college ranks has fallen out of favor generally, but Kelly is an extreme example. O’Brien and Doug Marrone (Buffalo Bills, 2013) are typical in having NFL coordinator experience; relative novices Greg Schiano (Buccaneers, 2012) and Jim Harbaugh (2011) had NFL position coach experience at least. Kelly is one of three hires since 2000 to have literally no NFL experience; one appears subsequently on this list, and the other is Steve Spurrier (Washingon, 2002), who spent a decade in the NFL as a player. Kelly had no NFL experience at all, and featured an extreme fast-break style rarely seen in the pro game. He had some success in Philadelphia, winning 20 games in his first two seasons, but his style soured with players and others in the organization and he was fired after starting the 2015 season 6-9. He lasted only one disastrous 2-14 stint with the 49ers and is now back in the college game, coaching UCLA.
2. Marc Trestman, Chicago Bears, 2013: From 1981 to 2006, Trestman had a pretty typical career for a future NFL head coach, spending time in various coaching positions in the NFL and NCAA, including eight seasons as offensive coordinator with four different franchises. To get his first head coaching gig, he had to make an unusual move: helming the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He won back-to-back Grey Cups in an impressive 59-31 tenure. That enticed the Bears to give him a job, but he was fired after going 13-19 in two seasons. After two disappointing seasons as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, he returned to Canada, leading the Toronto Argonauts to the 2017 Grey Cup.
1. Lane Kiffin, Oakland Raiders, 2007: Hiring an NFL coordinator with no head coaching experience makes sense. Hiring an NCAA head coach with little NFL experience makes sense. Hiring an NCAA coordinator with no head coaching or NFL experience? Only Al Davis. The son of legendary defensive coordinator Monte, Lane was an up-and-coming 31-year-old USC assistant when Davis gave him the gig. His tenure did not go well; he went 4-12 in his first season and was fired after a 1-3 start in 2008. He returned to the college ranks, and after disappointing tenures as the head coach of Tennessee and USC, and a stellar stint as offensive coordinator for Alabama, he currently coaches Florida Atlantic.
Thoughts on Unusual Hires
These unusual hires don’t have a great track record – but as previously noted, most coaching hires don’t. What stands out is how little rope these coaches got. Shell got one season, Kiffin barely more. Trestman got two seasons. Kelly was fired after one down year on the heels of two good seasons. Schiano got two seasons; Harbaugh was fired after going 8-8 despite boasting one of the best career winning percentages in the history of the NFL. If an unconventional coach struggles, even after some established success, he’s not going to get the benefit of the doubt.
That makes the hire of Gruden stand out. With a reported 10-year, $100 MM contract, he’s going to get a longer leash than these others. It shouldn’t be surprising that Marc Davis, Al’s son, is the one willing to make a bold and surprising hire. Should Gruden succeed, perhaps more teams will think outside the box when it comes to head coaching hires. If he fails, we’ll likely see the same conventional coordinator hires, with the same mixed results.