The Various Causes of Midseason Head Coach Firings

By Wyatt Taylor and Stephen Juza

The Green Bay Packers fired head coach Mike McCarthy after the team’s Week 12 home loss to the 3-9 Arizona Cardinals. In addition to a series of disappointing seasons for the Packers, McCarthy became the longest-tenured head coach to be removed midseason since at least 1990.

This will be the first of three articles about permanent head coach changes midseason. To begin with, we examine the head coaches and situations that led to such upheaval.

The average head coach fired midseason held his post for 3.5 seasons with an overall win percentage of 40% -- equivalent to going 6-10 every season. He is coming off a previous season record of 7-9, and is fired with a record of 3-7 in his last season.

This best example of such a coach is Jeff Fisher. The 2016 Los Angeles Rams fired Fisher after Week 14, when the team was 4-9. Across four previous full seasons as head coach, Fisher amassed a total record of 31-45-1, for a win percentage of 41%. The team was coming off a 2015 season in which they went 7-9.

However not all coaches and teams are exactly the same. Our research shows that it is better to examine such firings in distinct groups, depending on the circumstances that led to that head coach’s removal.

We have identified three profiles of a midseason coach firing. These profiles depend on head coach tenure and shows that midseason firing decisions are based on unique criteria the longer a head coach held his position. These profiles consist of:

  1. Short-Tenured Firings (One full season as head coach)
  2. Intermediate-TenuredFirings (Two or three full seasons as head coach)
  3. Long-Tenured Firings (Four or more full seasons as head coach)

Short-Tenured Firings:

There have been eight head coaches fired during his second full season at the helm. In five of these cases, there were public personality clashes between head coach and franchise- Lane Kiffin, Josh McDaniels, Mike Singletary, Rex Ryan, and Ben McAdoo. The average head coach in the Short-Term Firing group is fired after Week 10, with a record of 3-7. His team regressed from the previous season when it posted a record of 7-9.

Intermediate-Tenured Firings:

12 head coaches have been fired after 2 or 3 full seasons in control. These midseason firings tend to be predicated more on pure performance issues than the personality conflicts than those in the Quick Firing section. His team performed poorly the year before at 5-11, yet he still managed to regress this year. After several seasons, these coaches do not appear to be the long-term solution for the team and are fired with a record of 2-7.

An example coach in this category is Mike Nolan, who lost his job as San Francisco 49ers head coach after going 2-5 in 2008. The 49ers never gained much traction under Nolan. In his previous three seasons in San Francisco, his teams had never posted a winning record.

Long-Tenured Firings:

Finally we arrive at coaches more like McCarthy who held their position for at least 4 full seasons before being removed. These coaches generally did not clash with their front office like those quick firings, nor were their tenures marked by consistently poor performance like those short term firings.

Instead, the common cause for the midseason removal of a long-tenured coach tends to be a downturn in performance. Their poor season comes on the heels of a 9-7 season and an average 8-8 yearly record over the course of their tenure with the team. In several cases (e.g., Dennis Green, McCarthy), this downturn in performance accompanied a public spat with ownership or players, not unlike those cases that dominate the Short-Tenured group.

Another example coach in this category is Jack Del Rio who was fired from the Jacksonville Jaguars during the 2011 season after 8.5 seasons as head coach. Before the 2011 season, Del Rio had led to Jaguars to a 65-63 record, including two playoff appearances.

Del Rio navigated numerous challenges during his time in Jacksonville. His teams were AFC South contemporaries with the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts, who dominated the division during this time. He also turned down a 2010 offer to become head coach at USC, his alma mater. Despite his prior success, Del Rio was fired after a 3-8 start to the 2011 season.

What do these findings mean? Midseason firings are essentially driven by two key factors:

  1. Conflict with ownership/locker room
  2. An exceptionally poor start to the season

The importance of each of these factors differs based on the length of head coach’s tenure with his organization. Note that neither of these factors include such difficult to reach goals such as “Win the Super Bowl” or even “Win the division.” Our research here suggests that a head coach will be safe as long as he achieves quiet mediocrity. Extreme negative deviations away from that quiet mediocrity are a key factor towards a head coach being fired in the middle of a season.

We’ll continue examining the midseason head coach firing cycle throughout the week. Next, we’ll examine those coaches who are chosen to be interim head coach through the end of the season.

Part 2:Next Man Up

Analysis Note: 32 head coaches have been removed from their position midseason since 1990. 5 other head coaches - Bobby Ross, Butch Davis, Dave Wannstedt, Bobby Petrino, and Gary Kubiak - officially resigned from their position for varying reasons and were removed from the analysis.