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Pro Football Blog

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

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.

By Wyatt Taylor and Stephen Juza

In our last piece, we discussed the increasing tendency of NFL teams to make in-season coordinator changes; this tendency has been entirely driven by a recent trend of changing offensive coordinators in the middle of the season. Today we’ll look at the ultimate outcomes of making such a change: team performance.

Once again, we examined all in-season coordinator changes since the 2008 season. The distinct majority of such coordinator changes happen in the middle of season, between weeks 5-11. These changes often happen heading into the team’s bye-week, likely in order to give the new coordinator as much time to prepare as possible. The timings of these in-season changes seem fairly straightforward: the beginning of the season has not gone as planned, and teams make a change at coordinator to attempt to save the season.

Perhaps surprisingly, though we noted teams’ increasingly itchy trigger fingers when it comes to replacing coordinators mid-season, the teams that have made a coordinator change have performed at a consistent (and poor) level. Better performing teams have not consistently made mid-season coordinator changes.

Not only are bad teams becoming more likely to move on from poor performing coordinators mid-season, but those changes have been consistently correct. The team ends the season with a higher winning percentage than it had when it changed coordinators. 17 out of 25 teams which made such a change ended the season with a better win percentage, going from an average 30% winning percentage to 37%. This equates to an extra win over the course of a season.

In our last piece, we noted that teams had become especially apt to change offensive coordinators over the past four seasons. The majority of these midseason offensive coordinator changes over the past four seasons (10 out of 16 occurrences, 63% correct) have yielded positive results for the team making the change. Even at an increased rate relative to the previous seven seasons, these decisions have continued to yield positive results.

From our past two examinations into midseason coordinator changes, we can draw several conclusions.

  1. Poorly performing teams are less likely to wait until the end of the season to make a coordinator change, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
  2. These changes often lend positive results for the team making the coordinator change, yielding increased end-of-year winning percentages.

We began this miniseries into coordinator changes with the example of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who fired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and benched unpopular starting Quarterback Blake Bortles at the same time. Our findings suggest that perhaps other underperforming teams should take note of this decision. Rather than remaining loyal to the status quo in hopes of the team turning around on its own, a shakeup in decision making may lead to positive results.

By Wyatt Taylor and Stephen Juza

The Jacksonville Jaguars fired their offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett earlier this week, promoting quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich to Interim offensive coordinator in his place. This is a somewhat familiar trend for the Jaguars; now-former Coach Hackett started as the team’s quarterbacks coach in 2015 before being named interim offensive coordinator following the firing of Greg Olson during the 2016 season.

With the cycle of interim coordinators repeating in Jacksonville, we thought this a good time to examine the recent history of interim coordinators in the NFL. We find that the frequency of such in-season coordinator changes is increasing over time. This trend is especially true for offensive coordinators.

The number of in-season coordinator changes since the 2008 season. Such in-season changes are becoming more commonplace in recent years: 17 of the 26 coordinator changes from the last eleven seasons have occurred in the last four seasons. Also interesting is that these coordinator changes generally occur in groups. Seeing only one coordinator change (2008 & 2011 seasons) is less likely than seeing zero (2009, 2013, & 2014 seasons.)

This investigation becomes more striking when we break these overall numbers down into offensive and defensive categories.

Here we see a marked difference in how the league treats its defensive and offensive coordinators. There is a somewhat steady trend on defense, with roughly one coordinator change per season. Offensive coordinators, on the other hand, are suddenly much more replaceable in-season. Since the 2015 season, there have been 13 midseason offensive coordinator changes, half of all midseason coordinator changes since 2008.

The increasing instability of the offensive coordinator position comes at a time when the NFL sees an increased emphasis on offense overall. Offensive numbers, especially through the air, have been notably inflated over the past several years, leading multiple teams to attempt to find the latest and greatest young offensive mind at the coaching level.

This offensive explosion appears to make teams more impatient with their current offensive infrastructure. Such is the case in Jacksonville this week, where Nathaniel Hackett’s replacement occurred concurrently with the benching of embattled starting quarterback Blake Bortles.

In our next article examining in-season coordinator changes, we’ll look at the outcomes of such moves, and examine whether or not such an in-season replacement yields increased performance.

*Coordinator changes include both coordinator firings and when head coaches relent their play-calling duties.

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.