An NFL Coaching Youth Movement?

By Stephen Juza and Wyatt Taylor

After firing veteran head coach Jeff Fisher after the 2016 season, the Los Angeles Rams made 30-year-old Sean McVay the youngest head coach in NFL history. After a single season, McVay proved to be worth the risk, leading the Rams to the playoffs and was named the Pro Football Writers coach of the year. McVay is the most recent and most successful result of NFL teams searching for such a head coaching wunderkind.

While previous-such hirings infamously failed (e.g., Lane Kiffin’s time with the Las Vegas Raiders starting in 2007), the accepted narrative is that NFL head coaching hires have begun to trend younger and less experienced in recent years, away from the veteran coaches with experience in the top position. Is this simply narrative? We set out to understand the phenomenon.

Do NFL teams now prefer new Head Coaches to those with prior head coaching experience?

Yes. Between 1990 and 2004, 39% of head coaching hires had prior experience as a head coach in the NFL.

Between 2005 and the present, only 29% of the coaching hires had head coaching experience in the NFL. This decrease highlights a significant shift in hiring strategy by the NFL front offices. Having prior experience as an NFL head coach is less of a benefit to candidates than it was before.

Do NFL teams prefer Head Coaches with less overall coaching experience?

No. NFL teams have begun to prefer hiring coaches with more NFL coaching experience. Given our previous result, this is perhaps surprising.

Between 1990 and 2004, a head coaching hire had, on average, 12 seasons of NFL coaching experience. Since 2004, that number has increased to 14 seasons.

These two results lead us to an interesting conclusion: NFL teams appear to have begun to value coaching experience more, just not experience as a head coach.

The suggestion is here of a new type of preferred NFL head coach - that of an experienced assistant coach who has yet to been given a shot at the top spot. This sort of hire might represent a cautious step outside of the box. Perhaps teams are willing to hire untested candidates, as long as the candidate makes up for it with other experiences.

Experience, but not Head Coaching Experience

The data support this idea. There have been 124 first-time head coaches in the NFL since 1990 - 62 between 1990-2004 and 62 since then.

Between 1990 and 2004, first-time head coaches averaged 10 years of NFL coaching experience before landing the top spot. Since 2004, first-time head coaching hires have had an additional year of experience prior to their promotion. Our series of examining the NFL’s “Youth Movement” has provided an intriguing look at the criteria that NFL franchises use in making their coaching decisions.

The last 12 seasons have seen a strong movement in favor of inexperienced head coaches, a trend which has been noticed by the media. However, our examination here shows that NFL teams appear to remain hesitant to fully embrace the unknown, preferring to hire candidates with longer coaching tenures in the assistant ranks. This finding deserves further study, and we will continue our examination in later posts, examining such questions as:

Methods We used t-tests to confirm that each of the findings we discuss above to be statistically significant (p < .1).