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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.

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:

By Wyatt Taylor and Stephen Juza

Since 2005, the NFL has continued to go through an offensive explosion across the league. In the last 13 seasons, we have seen the eight highest scoring seasons since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970. Beyond the high-scoring games, the passing game has flourished under relaxed rules.

During the 1970s, the average team passed for 156 yards per game. Between 2010 and 2017, this increased to 233 yards per game. This has come at the expense of the running game—the average rushing yards per game has decreased from 138 to 112 since the NFL merger. With the increase in offense, how has this altered the careers of head coaches on that side of the ball?

Overall, head coaching hires come from offensive backgrounds 53% of the time. This trend continued this latest offseason with four of the seven head coaching hires spending time as an offensive coordinator: Frank Reich, Jon Gruden, Matt Nagy, and Pat Shurmur.

Has the percent of offensive coaches increased over time?

Despite the increased offensive output, the percentage of offensive head coaches has stayed consistent between 1990 and 2017.

The percentage of offensive hires was virtually identical in our two time periods (1990-2004 and 2005-2017), showing no increasing preference in offensive coaches as the leader of the team. However, teams are willing to take a risk with less experienced coaches if they are offensive-minded.

Are offensive coaches hired quicker as head coaches?

Yes, offensive coaches have less coaching experience when they are hired. While the least tenured coaching hire was previously a defensive coordinator, offensive coaches typically are less tenured in the league.

Since 1990, offensive coaches average three fewer seasons of experience than other head coaching hires. Offensive head coaches are typically hired after 12 seasons of NFL coaching experience while other head coaches are just shy of 15 seasons.

Is an offensive head coach a quick route to victory?

No, new offensive head coaches see a similar increase in record in their first season at the helm when compared to other head coaches. Teams win a game and a half more in the first year of a head coach’s tenure than the previous year despite their background.

What does that mean for the latest round of new head coaches? The Titans are the only team with a new head coach that made the playoffs in 2017, finishing first in the AFC South with a record of 9-7. If the Titans win one more game in 2018 than the previous season, the Titans will be in a strong position to return to the playoffs.

On the other end of the spectrum, it could be a long season for the New York Giants under the guidance of Shurmur. Finishing 2017 with a 3-13 record, it may be a long climb back up to contention. Their best case scenario is replicating the 2008 Miami Dolphins, improving 10 wins and winning the AFE East after hiring Tony Sparano.

As we continue to investigate emerging trends with head coach hiring in the NFL, there are still many questions yet to answer:

Methods: We used t-tests to confirm that each of the findings we discuss above to be statistically significant (p < .1).

By Stephen Juza and Wyatt Taylor

After firing veteran head coach Jeff Fisher after the 2016 season, the Los Angeles Rams made 30-year-old Sean McVay the youngest head coach in NFL history. After a single season, McVay proved to be worth the risk, leading the Rams to the playoffs and was named the Pro Football Writers coach of the year. McVay is the most recent and most successful result of NFL teams searching for such a head coaching wunderkind.

While previous-such hirings infamously failed (e.g., Lane Kiffin’s time with the Oakland Raiders starting in 2007), the accepted narrative is that NFL head coaching hires have begun to trend younger and less experienced in recent years, away from the veteran coaches with experience in the top position. Is this simply narrative? We set out to understand the phenomenon.

Do NFL teams now prefer new Head Coaches to those with prior head coaching experience?

Yes. Between 1990 and 2004, 39% of head coaching hires had prior experience as a head coach in the NFL.

Between 2005 and the present, only 29% of the coaching hires had head coaching experience in the NFL. This decrease highlights a significant shift in hiring strategy by the NFL front offices. Having prior experience as an NFL head coach is less of a benefit to candidates than it was before.

Do NFL teams prefer Head Coaches with less overall coaching experience?

No. NFL teams have begun to prefer hiring coaches with more NFL coaching experience. Given our previous result, this is perhaps surprising.

Between 1990 and 2004, a head coaching hire had, on average, 12 seasons of NFL coaching experience. Since 2004, that number has increased to 14 seasons.

These two results lead us to an interesting conclusion: NFL teams appear to have begun to value coaching experience more, just not experience as a head coach.

The suggestion is here of a new type of preferred NFL head coach - that of an experienced assistant coach who has yet to been given a shot at the top spot. This sort of hire might represent a cautious step outside of the box. Perhaps teams are willing to hire untested candidates, as long as the candidate makes up for it with other experiences.

Experience, but not Head Coaching Experience

The data support this idea. There have been 124 first-time head coaches in the NFL since 1990 - 62 between 1990-2004 and 62 since then.

Between 1990 and 2004, first-time head coaches averaged 10 years of NFL coaching experience before landing the top spot. Since 2004, first-time head coaching hires have had an additional year of experience prior to their promotion. Our series of examining the NFL’s “Youth Movement” has provided an intriguing look at the criteria that NFL franchises use in making their coaching decisions.

The last 12 seasons have seen a strong movement in favor of inexperienced head coaches, a trend which has been noticed by the media. However, our examination here shows that NFL teams appear to remain hesitant to fully embrace the unknown, preferring to hire candidates with longer coaching tenures in the assistant ranks. This finding deserves further study, and we will continue our examination in later posts, examining such questions as:

Methods We used t-tests to confirm that each of the findings we discuss above to be statistically significant (p < .1).

Thank you for finding your way to our site. The site is still under construction, but we are constantly adding more information, so please come back to check out the updates. I started this project during the fall of 2011 in an attempt to fill some time during the semester and to answer one question: "Who has the most successful coaching tree?". While the answer proved to be much more time consuming than I ever imagined, it has been a fun project to work on. The coaching tree is the product of most of the work, and while we haven't answered that question , you can make that decision for yourself after looking through the site. Please look around the site and let us know what you think at