By Stephen Juza
January 31st, 2021
Each offseason, struggling franchises replace their head coach in hopes of a fast turnaround. Teams can try to frame the reasons for optimism around new coaching hires from numerous different angles--they helped develop the best offense or defense, they have championship success so they know what it takes, they have prior head coaching experience, or they worked with the best head coaches in the league. However, all teams will measure success the same: wins, playoffs, and championships.
This last season, Kevin Stefanski helped turn around the Cleveland Browns and delivered their first winning season in more than a decade, and their first playoff win since 1994. Stefanski’s inaugural season brings a lot of promise into his second season for the Browns, but how does his successful turnaround stack up historically?
The largest single-season turnaround since the league went to 32 teams in 2002 is the Miami Dolphins’ hiring of Tony Sparano in 2008. Coming off a dreadful season where the team went 1-15, Sparano’s first season saw the team win ten more games, the best improvement of any new coach in NFL history.
Led by quarterback Chad Pennington, the comeback player of the year, and unleashing the Wildcat offense, the Dolphins surprised everyone around the league. Not only did the team win eleven games, they also won the AFC East for the first time since 2000. In fact, 2008 was the only season between 2003 and 2019 that a team other than the Patriots won the division.
Unfortunately for Dolphins’ fans, Sparano wasn’t able to maintain that level of success. In the next three years, Sparano was not able to replicate the magic of 2008. The team failed to post a winning record, and Sparano was fired with three games remaining in the 2011 season.
Sparano and the Dolphins are not alone with the flash-in-the-pan success following their rapid turnaround. Most recently, Doug Marrone led the Jacksonville Jaguars to a seven-win improvement in 2017, taking the team all the way to the AFC championship game. After winning ten games in 2017, the team won twelve games in his remaining three seasons, and he was replaced this offseason by new head coach, Urban Meyer.
One coach that was best able to sustain their quick success was Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. After he was fired by the Philadelphia Eagles, Reid was hired in 2013 to replace Romeo Crennel. In his first season, the Chiefs won nine more games than the prior season and secured a wild card spot in the playoffs. The Chiefs only continued to improve from that season.
In the eight seasons under Reid, the Chiefs have won five straight AFC West titles, hosted three consecutive conference championship games (first AFC team in history to accomplish this), and won a single Super Bowl. Reid hopes to make that a second Super Bowl next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
However, all signs point to a bright future in Cleveland. Of the 123 head coaching hires since the league grew to 32 teams in 2002, the average team improved about two wins over the prior season with their new head coach. Only seven of those new coaches won a playoff game after improving at least five wins in the regular season.
If Stefanski can maintain his first season’s success, he will have the Browns well positioned in the AFC North for years to come.
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