Do New Head Coaches Hire Experienced Assistants?

By Stephen Juza and Wyatt Taylor

Previously, we discussed the NFL’s trend toward rookie head coaches. The past 15 years have seen teams become more likely to hire a first-time head coach, but, on average, a head coach with more seasons at the assistant level. Today, we examine how this affects their assistant coaches.

A head coach’s main responsibility is setting the overall strategy for the team, but there are far too many decisions for him to make. That’s where his assistants come in. Head coaches place a lot of responsibility on their assistants to implement their vision for the team.

It’s intuitive that a head coach can place more responsibilities with experienced coaches, and coordinators average several more seasons in the NFL than other assistant coaches. At first thought, the value in having experienced coordinators would seem to be more for rookie head coaches who may need more guidance navigating the week-to-week demands of the NFL.

A young head coach who is able to trust his coordinators to recognize and react to routine situations can spend more time perfecting higher-level strategies and gaining familiarity with the head coach role.

In the past, we mentioned the Los Angeles Rams wunderkind Sean McVay, who hired Wade Phillips as his defensive coordinator. Phillips has been a defensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL longer than McVay has been alive. By trusting day-to-day control of the defense to Phillips, McVay could focus heavily on the development of the young Rams offense and quarterback Jared Goff. In one season with McVay, Goff went from a potential bust in 2017 to a potential superstar in 2018 as the Rams made the playoffs.

Do other coaches follow a similar hiring pattern? This leads us to our first hypthosis.

Do new head coaches bring in more experienced coordinators than experienced head coaching hires?

No, rookie head coaches do not hire more experienced coordinators than experienced head coaching hires. In fact, data suggests it may be the opposite. Rookie head coaches hire coordinators with an average of 13 seasons of NFL experience. This is slightly less than the 14 years of experience coordinators bring to an experienced head coach’s staff.

We both found this result surprising. New head coaches are not filling out their coaching staffs with coaches who are about as experienced as they are. This led us to our second hypothesis focused around the rest of the coaching staff.

Is average staff experience higher overall for first-time head coaching higher than for non first-time hires?

Again no, and again the opposite is true. Despite being new to the role of head coach, first time head coach staffs tend to be significantly less experienced than the staffs of non first-time head coaches. First time head coaches will tend to hire staffs with an average of eight years of NFL coaching experience, compared to an average of nine years of experience for their non first-time counterparts.

This adds even more intrigue to their hiring of coordinators. Our analyses here tell us that new head coaches will hire less experienced coaches than their non first-time counterparts. These same new head coaches tend to hire similarly experienced coordinators as non first-time hires.

If we consider coach inexperience to be a ‘risk,’ new head coaches tend to accept that risk with the majority of their staffs. However, they may not be willing to extend that same risk when hiring coordinators. While a new head coach may not seek out a coordinator with Wade Phillip’s experience, our findings today do suggest that he will be less risk-averse at the coordinator level than with the rest of his staff.

As we continue looking into recent trends with NFL coach hiring, there are still other questions to answer: