Next Man Up

By Wyatt Taylor and Stephen Juza

When the Green Bay Packers could no longer abide Mike McCarthy's underperformance during the 2018 NFL season, they finally fired their long-serving head coach with four games to go. They then turned to offensive coordinator 315 does not exist to finish the season as interim head coach. In this article we’ll explain how the Packers’ decision to turn to Philbin is related to the same two factors that led to Mike McCarthy’s firing: team performance and public conflict between head coach and front office or locker room.

Philbin has a history in Green Bay. He served as the team’s offensive coordinator from 2007-2011 after which he left to be the new head coach of the Miami Dolphins. After four seasons as Dolphins head coach and another two as an assistant with the Indianapolis Colts, Philbin returned to the Packers as the offensive coordinator before the 2018 season.

Firing a head coach in the middle of the season is an inherently different decision than firing a coordinator in the middle of the season. We have previously written that firing a coordinator is more of a short-term decision intended to salvage the current season. Firing a head coach is akin to firing the CEO of a company. The decision indicates a loss of faith in the head coach’s ability to right the ship and initiates a strategic re-evaluation of the entire organization.

In the short-term, teams must select an interim head coach while deciding on a permanent replacement at the same time. Our research suggests that the selection of such an interim coach is heavily influenced by the circumstances under which the previous coach was fired.

There have been 36 interim head coaches in the NFL since 1990. These interim head coaches may be best divided into two groups. The first group consists of coaches who have previous experience as an NFL head coach and tend to be hired only through the end of the season. We refer to these coaches as Caretaker Coaches. The second group is coaches without prior head coaching experience and therefore no track record of handling the additional responsibilities of the role. We refer to these coaches as Test Coaches.

There has been a fairly even split of such decisions between these two categories since 1990: 15 Caretaker coaches and 21 Test coaches. Our research suggests that the decision to hire one or the other is based on the level of adversity the team currently faces. There are two types of such adversity: long-term poor performance or extreme organizational upheaval. When faced with such a difficult situation, teams tend to turn to interim coaches who have experienced the unique requirements of being an NFL head coach, instead of throwing an inexperienced coach to the wolves.

Many of the decisions to hire a Caretaker coach followed weeks of highly publicized deliberation regarding the team’s prior head coach. In many cases, the public became aware of an internal conflict between head coach and management or players (e.g. Scott Linehan, Ben McAdoo), but other distracting events have also occurred. The 2003 Atlanta Falcons had spent the offseason expecting to improve on a playoff season behind up-and-coming superstar Michael Vick. The team stumbled when Vick suffered a devastating leg injury in the preseason and Dan Reeves asked to be let go after Week 14 instead of waiting to be fired in the offseason.

The decision to hire an interim head coach with prior experience is due more to long-term performance failures than poor performance in the current season. Caretaker coaches are hired by teams who performed significantly worse in the previous season. Teams that hired Caretaker coaches won 40% of their games the previous year, versus 49% for Test coaches - the difference between 6-10 and 8-8. They also have a lower winning percentage throughout the previous head coach’s entire tenure (37% winning percentage to 44%) than Test coaches. There is no statistical difference in current season winning percentage at time of hire, indicating that teams put more weight into long-term factors than short term factors.

Today’s look at interim head coaches revealed that NFL teams take the team’s situation into account when deciding who should replace a head coach fired in the middle of the season. When the team is facing an especially difficult situation, marked by organizational upheaval or consistent poor performance, teams turn to Caretakers - those who have previously been NFL head coaches and thus bring an experienced hand to a tough situation. When the team does not face such a difficult task, teams are more likely to hiring Test coaches without previous experience, perhaps using the remainder of the season as a sort of trial period.

Our next article will move beyond the interim hiring decision, and examine what happens when the season ends, and teams have to decide whether or not to remove the interim head coach tag or look elsewhere.

Part 1:The Various Causes of Midseason Head Coach Firings