Five Lessons On Hiring Head Coaches

Six NFL teams were seeking new coaches, and while some have yet to pick a general manager, others ‒ like the Miami Dolphins ‒ have already made their choice. As Dave Archibald explains, there are five lessons on hiring head coaches that NFL owners and GMs should learn.

Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano entered the 2016 season as a lame duck, having one year left on his contract. The Colts offered him a token one-year extension before the season, but the 55-year-old decided to gamble on himself, hoping for a long-term extension. On January 4th, that gamble paid off, and he signed up for another four years in Indianapolis.

This came as a shock after a disappointing 8-8 season and rumors he was all but gone. Perhaps the support of the players was key, or management recognized that injuries to quarterback Andrew Luck torpedoed the season. Or perhaps Colts owner Jim Irsay recognized what few teams and pundits seem to: that when it comes to coaching hires, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. The data provides several surprising lessons.

Lesson One: Most Head Coaching Hires Fail

As of January 11, six NFL teams are hiring or looking to hire new head coaches for the 2016 season. Since teams on the whole finish .500 ‒ every game results in one win and one loss or two ties ‒ we’d expect these six hires to finish with .500 records on average. The problem is that there are not the same number of coaches on both sides of average. The hiring pattern in the NFC North illustrates this:

NFC North Head Coaching Hires Since 2002 fixed

As a whole, the NFC North coaches hired since 2002 are almost exactly .500, at 386-392-2. The success is not evenly distributed, however. Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers has almost half of the division’s 17 playoff appearances with eight, including the only Super Bowl win. His success has allowed him to stay on for 10 years, running his record 49 games over .500. The second-longest tenure belongs to Lovie Smith, who helmed the Chicago Bears for eight seasons, racking up three playoff appearances (including one conference championship) and a record 18 games over .500.

The rest of the lot? Just six playoff appearances in 29+ seasons, no conference championships, and a record 73 games under .500. Obviously it’s too early to judge John Fox (Bears), Mike Zimmer (Minnesota Vikings), and Jim Caldwell (Detroit Lions), all of whom have been hired in the past two seasons, but the pattern is clear: if a team has success with a good coach, he coaches for a long time with continued success. If a team struggles, as Detroit has for most of the last decade, they will churn through losing coaches, rarely giving them more than two or three seasons.

This is the reality: most head coaching hires run up losing records and then are fired. League-wide, of the 110 non-interim hires since 2000, only 37 (34%) have winning records, with another six (5%) exactly at .500. Slightly more than half (56) never make the playoffs.

Lesson Two: Even Super Bowl Winners Sing the Playoff Blues

When Tony Dungy took over as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996, the Bucs were the laughingstock of the NFL. Their most recent playoff appearance had been a first-round loss in 1982 after eking into the playoffs with a 5-4 record in a strike-shortened season. Dungy changed that, reaching the postseason in four of his six seasons in Tampa Bay and posting a 54-42 overall record. That wasn’t good enough for Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer, who canned Dungy after his second-straight first-round playoff loss. Glazer hired Jon Gruden away from the Oakland Raiders, and his decision was vindicated when Tampa Bay raised the Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XXXVII the following February ‒ still the only championship in franchise history.

The kind of impatience Glazer displayed isn’t typically rewarded, however. Marty Schottenheimer inherited a San Diego Chargers team coming off six straight seasons missing the playoffs, and by year three had coaxed them to a 12-4 record and a postseason berth. But after the 2006 Chargers lost their first playoff game despite a 14-2 record, management let him go. His successor, Norv Turner, did make it the AFC championship game in his first season, but that was as far as he got, and San Diego missed the playoffs in the last three years of Norv’s tenure. Mike McCoy, Turner’s successor, led a 9-7 division winner in his first season, but the Chargers have stumbled since and posted just a 4-12 record in 2015.

Other examples illustrate that patience can be a virtue. Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, like Dungy and Schottenheimer, was often a bridesmaid but never a bride, making the playoffs nine times in his first 13 seasons with just one Super Bowl appearance and no championships. In year 14, however, the Steelers took home the Lombardi. It took Tom Coughlin 12 seasons and being fired from his first head coaching gig before Coughlin’s New York Giants knocked off the then-perfect New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. That was one year after Dungy himself rewarded owner Jim Irsay’s trust, leading Indianapolis to victory in his 11th year as head coach and fifth with the franchise. The list of Super-Bowl-Winning coaches in the last 20 years shows that few coaches win it all before their fifth year of experience:

It’s hard to win the Super Bowl. Mike Shanahan won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998 but his teams won just one playoff game in his final 14 years as head coach. Gruden never won another playoff game after Tampa Bay hoisted the Lombardi. Even Bill Belichick went a decade between Super Bowl victories. It is not unusual for even the most successful coaches to see a period of sustained playoff failure.

Lesson Three: There Are No Magic Formulas

Generally speaking, there are four types of head coaching hires: coordinators, positional coaches, NCAA head coaches, and NFL head coaches. Individually, it’s easy to find criticisms of all four. Collectively, it’s clear that none of them is a sure thing:

Head Coaching Hires by Previous Role fixed 3

These figures are based on the role the coach was most recently in ‒ for example, the Seattle Seahawks hiring Pete Carroll is counted as “College” here even though Carroll had previously worked as both a head coach and a defensive coordinator.

The data shows little difference between offensive and defensive coordinators, though the DCs seem to stick around for longer. College coaches tend to have shorter tenures, with some of the failures jumping back into the NCAA after very short tenures. Hires who were most recently head coaches have the best track record, though it’s hard to know how much survivor bias is present here ‒ do experienced coaches perform better because of the experienced, or do true disasters never get second chances, so teams have a chance to weed out the worst failures? Few positional coaches jump straight to head coaching gigs without time as a coordinator, but those who do tend to have worse records and less playoff success.

As suggested by Lesson 1, median results ‒ the middle performers, rather than true mean or average ‒ are almost uniformly worse than the averages, which are thrown off by outlier performers. For instance, take Carroll out of the “College” group and their average winning percentage drops from .494 to .462, and their average tenure falls to 2.2 from 2.6.

The QB Whisperers

Teams often hire offensive coordinators when they have a young quarterback who needs grooming but the most successful hires, unsurprisingly, are the ones who have great signal-callers. The biggest successes are a pair of coaches hired in 2006: McCarthy in Green Bay (104-55-1, 1 Super Bowl) and Sean Payton with the New Orleans Saints (87-57, 1 Super Bowl), who got to coach MVP quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, respectively. On the other end of the spectrum, Cam Cameron had just one season with the Miami Dolphins in 2007 and went 1-15. Marty Mornhinweg went 5-27 in 2001 and 2002 with the Detroit Lions. The tenures of both Cameron and Mornhinweg coincided with injuries and ineffectiveness at quarterback from the likes of Cleo Lemon, John Beck, Joey Harrington, Charlie Batch, and Mike McMahon.

The Hotshots

The most common hire since 2000 is the defensive coordinator, as teams look to invest their squads with physical toughness and some X’s and O’s magic. Belichick is the gold standard, racking up a 187-69 record and four Super Bowl victories since the Patriots hired him in 2000. Mike Tomlin also won a Super Bowl and has a 92-52 record since 2007 with the Steelers. Steve Spagnuolo bested Belichick’s perfect Pats in the Super Bowl as the Giants’ defensive coordinator, but his run as the St. Louis Rams’ head coach is best left forgotten, as he went 10-38 from 2009 to 2011.

Back to School

NFL teams sometimes dip into the college ranks but rarely hire coaches with zero NFL experience; since 2000 only Steve Spurrier, Lane Kiffin (who was only a college coordinator, not a head coach), and recently deposed Eagles head coach Chip Kelly never worked in the NFL prior to their head coaching gigs. The biggest success story is Seattle’s Carroll (60-36, 1 Super Bowl), who had worked as a defensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL before his storied run at USC. Dennis Erickson, the only other member of this group to have head coaching experience, has arguably the worst record, going 9-23 for the San Francisco 49ers from 2003-4. Bobby Petrino has the worst winning percentage, going 3-10 for the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 before ditching the team to go back to college with three games remaining.

The Retreads

Fans and media often scorn teams that hire head coaches that failed elsewhere, but the numbers suggest that these are the best hires. Three coaches hired in 2002 won rings: Gruden picked one up in his first season in Tampa Bay and posted a 57-55 record in seven seasons. Dungy has the best record, going 85-27 from 2002 to 2008 in Indianapolis, with one title. Coughlin has two rings and a 102-92 record in 12 seasons. The Buccaneers just fired Lovie Smith after he posted an 8-24 record in two seasons.

The aggregate data makes the case for experienced coaches. The chart below shows the track records of hires with head coaching experience, regardless of what role they were in immediately before being hired:

Head Coaching Hires - New vs Experienced fixedThe retreads have it over the fresh faces in virtually every category. It should be noted that of the 37 experienced hires, 27 have at least five years of experience. By-and-large teams are choosing guys who had some success in their earlier stops – even the most successful hires with less than five years experience, Carroll and Gruden, fit this mold. This suggests experienced head coaches succeed not because of their experience but because of survivor bias – teams rarely give failures a second chance.

Skipping Ahead

Most teams ask that their head coaching hires pay their dues as a head coach, coordinator, or college coach first, but on occasion teams will promote a positional coach directly to head coach. As a group, these hires have the worst track record. John Harbaugh is the biggest success, posting a 77-51 record and a Super Bowl title since the Baltimore Ravens hired him in 2008. Harbaugh had spent nine years as a special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles before becoming defensive backs coach, and the Ravens hired him after just one season in that role. Rod Marinelli was a defensive line coach in Tampa Bay before the Lions hired him in 2006; he went 10-38 in three seasons, capping things off with a winless 2008 season. His story is extreme but more typical than Harbaugh’s; of the 14 positional hires, only three have winning records.

The Oddballs

Three coaches didn’t fit neatly into these buckets. Two, Joe Gibbs and Art Shell, returned to their old franchises after extended absences. Gibbs had retired in 1992 after a storied career, including three Super Bowl Championships, to spend time with his family and focus on his NASCAR team. He re-joined Washington from 2004 to 2007, going 30-34 and making the playoffs twice before retiring for good. Shell went 54-38 with the Los Angeles Raiders from 1989-1994, but left coaching in 2000 to join the league office. The Oakland Raiders brought him back as their head coach for the 2006 season, when he went 2-14 before being fired. Marc Trestman had extensive NFL experience, rising as high as offensive coordinator, but at the time the Bears hired him in 2013, he was coaching the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. Chicago fired him after two seasons and a 13-19 record.

Lesson 4: Coaches Don’t Control Wins and Losses

This analysis has been heavy on wins and losses because they’re easy to find, easy to understand, and in the aggregate paint a picture of some of the patterns of head coach hiring and firing. Individually, wins and losses are a limited way to evaluate coaches, however. For instance, Belichick was just 41-55 in his first six seasons, five with the Browns. It stands to reason that he has been a better coach in New England than he was with Cleveland, but finding legendary quarterback Tom Brady in the 6th round of the draft obviously made a huge difference. Belichick’s below-average record was not an accurate gauge of his coaching ability. The same is true of Carroll, was was 47-49 in his first six seasons. He won 11 games in quarterback Russell Wilson’s rookie season and has posted double-digit wins each subsequent year, including a 2013 Super Bowl victory.

Every head coach with a significant career has had losing seasons when he had a sub-par group of players, particularly at quarterback. Wins and losses are one piece of evaluating coaches, but they shouldn’t be the whole puzzle.

Lesson 5: Firing Is Easier than Hiring

The Cincinnati Bengals suffered a brutal loss Saturday, losing a late fumble and then their cool with two personal foul penalties that essentially handed the Steelers the game-winning field goal. It was Marvin Lewis seventh playoff loss in seven tries, an unmatched record of futility. On Sunday morning, it was not difficult to find people suggesting that Lewis should lose his job.

The data cited here should give pause to folks espousing that line of thinking, as should Cincinnati’s own history. Before Lewis took over, the Bengals had endured a 13-season playoff drought; he ended that drought in his third season. The Bengals have now made five consecutive postseasons, winning 10 or more games four straight times. The 2015 season saw the team post a 12-4 record, tied for franchise best, and a +140 point differential that beat the franchise record set just two seasons earlier. The team’s young players, particularly quarterback Andy Dalton, are developing. Lewis has assembled an excellent staff, including two coordinators ‒ offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther ‒ who may soon find themselves landing head-coaching gigs. Cincinnati is on the best sustained run of success in franchise history.

Saturday was a tough loss, but ultimately losing by two points – with unseasoned backup quarterback A.J. McCarron, no less – shouldn’t derail what the Bengals are building. Perhaps firing Lewis would propel the team to new heights, but critics of Lewis must acknowledge there is real risk and downside to bringing in a new coach. Blaming the coach is always easy; finding a superior replacement is a much tougher challenge.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article stated that Dennis Erickson coached the Seattle Seahawks from 2003 to 2004. Erickson coached the San Francisco 49ers during those seasons; he had coached the Seahawks from 1995 to 1998.

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