When should you move on from your coach?

By Stephen Juza

December 25th, 2020

With the end of each NFL season comes a range of decisions that general managers have to make regarding their head coach. For underperforming teams, these questions focus on retention. Should the team move on from their current coach, or does the general manager think the coach will improve with one more season? Looking through coaching data since 1978 (when the league adopted a 16-game season), very few coaches have a poor first season and eventually turn into a winning coach.

Not every coaching hire achieve success as quickly as Doug Pederson did with the Philadelphia Eagles--capping his second season as a head coach with a Super Bowl victory. There are many successful coaches who take longer to reach the pinnacle of their career. Andy Reid was a head coach twenty one years before finally winning a Super Bowl, despite having one of the most accomplished head coaching careers in the modern NFL.

When looking at a chart of all coaches’ winning percentage as their career progresses, unsuccessful coaches have their career end early, leaving an indistinguishable mark in the chart below. Few coaches make it multiple years with a sub-.500 winning percentage. As coaches drop out of the dataset, survivorship bias slowly pushes the average winning percentage to around 60% for those that coach more than 200 games.

What does a poor initial season tell us about his future prospects? There are 191 coaches who have coached an entire 16-game season since 1978. After their first season, the average win percentage of the bottom third is 23%--the equivalent of a 3.6 win season. By the end of their coaching careers--whenever that may be--their career winning percentage isn’t much better, rising to only 33% by their final game.

Is this enough to write off a coach’s future? Almost a third of teams do--only 45 coaches complete another season as head coach. However, this group does contain some coaches who were able to quickly rebound after a poor first season. Reid was able to overcome a 5-11 start to his career to improve the Eagles to 11-5 and a playoff appearance in his second season, en route to a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

For coaches that start even worse than Reid, the chance of rebounding to be a successful NFL head coach are slim. Coaches who win fewer than four wins their first season average less than six wins in their next season--if they survive through two full seasons at all. Over the course of their career, their collective win percentage is below 30%.

However, while success is rare from these coaches, it is possible for a great coach to emerge from such a bad start. While this group contains such coaches as Cam Cameron (1-15 with the Dolphins in 2007 and not retained), it also contains several Hall of Fame coaches: Bill Parcells (3-12-1 in 1983) and Jimmy Johnson (1-15 in 1989).

In recent seasons, NFL teams are typically very quick to fire coaches who are underperforming. A coach is only as good as their recent season, as Pederson is finding out. After four seasons with the Eagles, two division titles, and a Super Bowl, he has faced criticism and talk of replacements much of the 2020 season throughout the worst season of his career. If Parcells or Johnson had started their career in 2020 instead of the 1980s, they may not have been able to overcome their dreadful inaugural season to compile their lengthy career.

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