Redemption or Retread?

By Stephen Juza

October 9th, 2020

Each January, the coaching carousel turns in the NFL, leading several teams to give walking papers to their head coaches in hopes of future success. However, even with the utmost consideration, replacing a head coach can lead to dismal results for a team.

Should a team select an up-and-coming coordinator to be a rookie head coach? Should they hire someone from the college ranks? Or should they hire one of the many experienced head coaches waiting for a shot to redeem themselves?

Since the NFL merger in 1970, only 66 coaches have been hired for a second head coaching opportunity. These coaches fall into one of four groups:

  1. Unsuccessful in their first job and immediately hired for their second job (the “Adam”)
  2. Successful in their first job, but at least a year between their head coaching opportunities (the “Mike”)
  3. Unsuccessful in their first job, but at least a year between their head coaching opportunities (the “Bill”)
  4. Successful in their first job and immediately hired for their second role (the “Andy”)

For a general manager, there is no guarantee for success regardless of which coach they hire. There is also not a more consequential decision they will make in their job. Unfortunately, there’s far more chance of failure than success; the average coach in the NFL, throughout the league's history, has a sub-.500 winning percentage. For every Don Shula (with a win percentage of 68%), there are a dozen Hue Jacksons (with a win percentage of only 21%).

However, we may gain more insight into this conundrum by comparing examples of the four groups of redemption (or retread) coach:

The “Adam”:

In 2019, the Miami Dolphins fired Adam Gase after three seasons. After a promising rookie season, the Dolphins went 13-19 in his last two seasons, and Gase was subsequently fired. Despite the lack of success, the New York Jets swooped in and hired him less than two weeks later.

It seems crazy to expect different results, but what does NFL history tell us about a coach like Gase, who was sub .500 in their first job and immediately hired by a new team. This doesn’t happen very often, and for good reason. Barring a dramatic turnaround by Gase and the Jets the rest of the season, none of the six coaches would go on to have a winning record in their second job.

Ray Rhodes was close, posting a record of 8-8 in his sole season for the Green Bay Packers.

Teams tend to quickly recognize their error, and “Adam” typically only coaches 35 games for his second team; more than two seasons, but fewer games than the other coach groups. Historically, expecting a failed coach to immediately turn into a winning coach in a single offseason seems like a tall order, and one that GMs should shy away from in the future.

The “Mike”:

Mike McCarthy had an incredibly successful run with the Packers starting in 2006. After an 8-8 season that year, the Packers won at least 10 games in eight of the next ten seasons, including a Super Bowl victory after the 2010 season. However, the Packers couldn’t maintain that excellence forever, and McCarthy was fired during the 2018 season, going 12-16-1 in his final two years. Spending a year outside of the NFL, he re-emerged in 2020 as the new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys appear primed for success behind young stars Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, and after a decade of mediocrity under Jason Garrett, they are eager to prove themselves. Tenacity aside, here’s a word of caution for Cowboys fans: this coaching group rarely works out.

“Mikes” tie for the largest number of repeat coaching hires; twenty-three of the 66 rehired coaches fall under this group. After winning an average of 58% of their games in their first job, or at least for nine wins every year, their average win percentage drops down to 39% with their next team, translating to only six wins per season. Most of the coaches in this group had amazing success in their first job that failed to develop in their next job.

Vince Lombardi won five championships with the Packers, but he only went 7-5-2 and missed the playoffs in his sole season with the Washington Redskins. Jimmy Johnson won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys in the 90s. He only won two playoff games with the Dolphins in his four seasons as their head coach.

However, the largest drop-off in success belongs to George Seifert. After winning two Super Bowls and 75% of his games in San Francisco, he was tasked with leading the expansion team, Carolina Panthers. In three seasons, the Panthers won 16 games and endured a then-record 15 consecutive losses.

While bringing in a “Mike” to turn around the franchise seems like a sure thing, only 4 of the 23 coaches in this group won more games than they lost with their second team.

The “Bill”:

Bill Belichick was a rising star as a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, a star pupil of Bill Parcells, and instrumental in their two Super Bowl wins. After the second Super Bowl victory for the Giants in 1990, he earned his first shot as an NFL head coach. However, the five seasons leading the Cleveland Browns were anything but the success the team envisioned. Winning only 45% of their games and one trip to the playoffs in that time led to Belichick’s firing as the team moved to Baltimore before the 1996 season.

Belichick returned to the assistant ranks for several seasons before rising back to the head coaching level for the New England Patriots in 2000. From there, the Patriots have reeled off one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports history.

While Belichick is a clear outlier—any team would love to hire arguably the greatest coach ever—the break in head coaching stints seems important when hiring a “Bill”. While “Mikes” seem to regress after their time off, “Bills” come back better.

Six of the 23 coaches in this category improved to have winning records. Belichick isn’t the only Super Bowl coach in the group: Gary Kubiak won the Super Bowl in 2015 with the Broncos and Marv Levy took the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls.

The time away from head coaching seems like it gives these coaches an opportunity to reflect on what they did wrong in their first job, and come up with ways to fix it for their next team. This leaves the last, and most successful group.

The “Andy”:

Andy Reid was incredibly successful with the Philadelphia Eagles, making numerous NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl during his fourteen years as their head coach. However, after a long run of success, his tenure ended on a sour note. The team finished 4-12 in 2012, only the third losing season of Reid’s tenure, and the Eagles fired him. Quickly, the Kansas City Chiefs hired Reid as their head coach in 2013, and his success followed him. Seven seasons, 82 wins (and counting), six playoff berths, and one Super Bowl win followed.

While it’s rare that a successful coach is fired, they are able to bring that success to their new team better than any other group. . Of the 14 “Andys”, six of them continued to have a winning record for their second team. Not only are they winning games, they are winning Super Bowls. Tony Dungy, Don Shula, and Jon Gruden won four Super Bowls between them with their second stints as a head coach, and George Allen and Mike Holmgren went to one each.

While “Mikes” tend to do worse after some time away from head coaching, “Andys” are more likely to pick up at their peak and continue winning. Occasionally, they elevate their already high bar of success to new levels.

This track record bodes well this season for Washington and new head coach Ron Rivera—the latest “Andy” to be hired. After nine seasons as the head coach of the Panthers in which he coached the team to the playoffs four times and one Super Bowl, Rivera was hired by Washington as their new head coach.

Importance of Experience:

While there is a lot to consider when hiring experienced NFL head coaches, there seems to be one more variable that could help GMs make this critical decision—years of experience. Regardless of their prior success or time off, making it at least five seasons with their former team is a critical indicator of future success for most redemption coaches.

Only three coaches (out of thirty) who failed to make it five years in their initial head coaching gig were able to turn it around and lead their second team to a winning record. Jon Gruden is one of those three coaches, who moved from a successful tenure with the Oakland Raiders to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and led them to a Super Bowl in his first season as their head coach (against his former team, no less).

While former tenure (or lack thereof) offers similar results for “Mikes”, it seems to be the biggest benchmark for a “Bill” to become successful. If they were good enough to coach five years in their first job, while it wasn’t ultimately successful, they have valuable experience to bring to their future job. Five of the seven “Bills” that made it five years ended up winning in their second job. This is also an important factor for “Andys” as well. Five of nine “Andys” were successful once again, compared to only one of five rehires that coached four years or less with their first team.

It offers a mark of future success for all coaches--except for “Adam”. No one should hire an “Adam”, as the Jets are currently finding out.

After this season, there will be inevitably several head coaching positions opening up. Who are some current NFL assistants primed for a second chance at head coaching jobs? There are two potential “Bills” with five years of experience: former head coaches Jim Schwartz and Jay Gruden. Both have at least five years of experience and coached a team to the playoffs.

There could be a few other enticing names, albeit falling short of the five years of experience, such as Josh McDaniels or Steve Spagnuolo. Both had disastrous results as a head coach in their first stint, but have had a decade pass since they were a head coach and, subsequently, may have learned a few new tricks.

Either way, teams should shy away from fired coaches who failed to win in their first job. Chances are, they will replicate the success, or lack thereof, and both the teams and the fans will find themselves disappointed.

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