First Time Head Coach's Influence on Wins

By Wyatt Taylor

Despite making the playoffs in the 2017 AFC South, the Tennessee Titans fired Mike Mularkey during the 2017-2018 offseason, replacing him with first-time Head Coach Mike Vrabel. Vrabel’s name should be familiar to most NFL fans. He served as a starting linebacker during the early parts of Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots dynasty, while displaying a surprising talent as an offensive red-zone weapon: Vrabel caught 12 passes during his playing career, ALL 12 of which went for touchdowns.

After retiring, Vrabel dropped to the college level, spending three years on the Ohio State defensive staff, before returning to the pro game under Bill O'Brien in Houston. Vrabel led the Texans’ Linebackers for three seasons until earning a promotion to Defensive Coordinator in 2017. The Texans defense improved massively in Vrabel’s one season as DC, finishing 13th in the league for yards given up, compared to dead last - 32nd - the year before.

The Vrabel hiring represents a 180 degree move away from Mike Mularkey. Titans fans were unimpressed by Mularkey from the start; the team removed the interim tag from his position after the 2015 season, during which the team had gone 2-7 under Mularkey after the midseason firing of Ken Whisenhunt. Despite two straight 9-7 seasons and one playoff loss to the 2017 Patriots, Mularkey was often criticized for an uninspired offense in which third-year Quarterback Marcus Mariota seemed to regress from a strong 2016. By bringing in Mike Vrabel, the Titans hope to bring in a young star player-turned coach who’d served under successful head coaches at every level (Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Urban Meyer, & Bill O’Brien).

Vrabel’s defensive background would hopefully allow the strong Titans defense to continue its upward trajectory, and by bringing in a younger offensive staff would allow Mariota to flourish into the star that he seemed to be in 2016. To this end Vrabel hired Matt LaFleur as Offensive Coordinator, following one year in Los Angeles where LaFleur seemingly re-invigorated the Rams offense, especially quarterback Jared Goff.

In short, the Tennessee Titans hope to capitalize on the untapped potential of a young and successful team. A top-tier defense should continue to come into its own with the introduction of a defensive minded Head Coach, while a young and innovative Offensive Coordinator should allow dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota to do what he’s comfortable with. The Titans hope that by replacing an aging coach staff, their upward trajectory should continue.

However, Titans fans will not like to hear it, but history does not support this hope. Since, 1990, 17 teams have replaced their Head Coach after a 9-win season. Those teams averaged roughly 8 wins the next season, by itself bad news for Titans fans. Like the Tennessee Titans, 10 of those 17 teams hired a first-time Head Coach, averaging only 6 wins the next season.

Not to intentionally bring down Titans fans even more, but a number of statistical analyses show that 9-wins is a significant record at which a first-time Head Coach has an effect on team success. Comparisons of Means shows that a first time HC only (ONLY) has a significant effect on team wins that next season. First-time head coaches cost their teams 4.5 wins that next season.

We ran a number of more robust regression models, accounting for some relevant details of the incoming coaching staff, and a first-time head coach was shown to only have an effect at certain levels. Both 1- and 2-win teams were shown to be negatively affected by hiring a first-time head coach, which seems reasonable. Perhaps such dire situations require experience in the NFL to right the ship. The only other significant result is for those 9-win teams that replace their head coach. In the most significant finding of our models, first time head coaches are shown to be absolutely catastrophic for 9-win teams who seem right on the edge, costing their teams an astounding 6.5 wins that next season (p< .001). While the Titans young core may give fans reasons to hope, the history of 9-win teams hiring first-time head coaches does not bode well.

*HC being an NFL player, HC being Minority, HC being Offensive-minded, HC number of years coaching in the NFL, Average NFL coaching experience of Coordinators, Average NFL coaching experience of position coaches.