Pro Football Blog

By Stephen Juza

January 31st, 2021

Each offseason, struggling franchises replace their head coach in hopes of a fast turnaround. Teams can try to frame the reasons for optimism around new coaching hires from numerous different angles--they helped develop the best offense or defense, they have championship success so they know what it takes, they have prior head coaching experience, or they worked with the best head coaches in the league. However, all teams will measure success the same: wins, playoffs, and championships.

This last season, Kevin Stefanski helped turn around the Cleveland Browns and delivered their first winning season in more than a decade, and their first playoff win since 1994. Stefanski’s inaugural season brings a lot of promise into his second season for the Browns, but how does his successful turnaround stack up historically?

The largest single-season turnaround since the league went to 32 teams in 2002 is the Miami Dolphins’ hiring of Tony Sparano in 2008. Coming off a dreadful season where the team went 1-15, Sparano’s first season saw the team win ten more games, the best improvement of any new coach in NFL history.

Led by quarterback Chad Pennington, the comeback player of the year, and unleashing the Wildcat offense, the Dolphins surprised everyone around the league. Not only did the team win eleven games, they also won the AFC East for the first time since 2000. In fact, 2008 was the only season between 2003 and 2019 that a team other than the Patriots won the division.

Unfortunately for Dolphins’ fans, Sparano wasn’t able to maintain that level of success. In the next three years, Sparano was not able to replicate the magic of 2008. The team failed to post a winning record, and Sparano was fired with three games remaining in the 2011 season.

Sparano and the Dolphins are not alone with the flash-in-the-pan success following their rapid turnaround. Most recently, Doug Marrone led the Jacksonville Jaguars to a seven-win improvement in 2017, taking the team all the way to the AFC championship game. After winning ten games in 2017, the team won twelve games in his remaining three seasons, and he was replaced this offseason by new head coach, Urban Meyer.

One coach that was best able to sustain their quick success was Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. After he was fired by the Philadelphia Eagles, Reid was hired in 2013 to replace Romeo Crennel. In his first season, the Chiefs won nine more games than the prior season and secured a wild card spot in the playoffs. The Chiefs only continued to improve from that season.

In the eight seasons under Reid, the Chiefs have won five straight AFC West titles, hosted three consecutive conference championship games (first AFC team in history to accomplish this), and won a single Super Bowl. Reid hopes to make that a second Super Bowl next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

However, all signs point to a bright future in Cleveland. Of the 123 head coaching hires since the league grew to 32 teams in 2002, the average team improved about two wins over the prior season with their new head coach. Only seven of those new coaches won a playoff game after improving at least five wins in the regular season.

If Stefanski can maintain his first season’s success, he will have the Browns well positioned in the AFC North for years to come.

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By Stephen Juza

January 17th, 2021

On January 14th, the Jacksonville Jaguars announced Urban Meyer as their new head coach, turning the keys of the franchise over to a coach who has no NFL experience. Heading into the offseason, they have the first pick in the draft with a generational quarterback talent available in Trevor Lawrence, and they have the most cap space of any team. It could be a very quick turnaround for the franchise, with the ability to change much of the roster that finished 1-15 in 2020.

However, hiring a coach without NFL experience is usually a risky proposition in NFL history. Since 1980, Meyer will be the twelfth head coach to be hired without any NFL coaching experience. Three of the twelve coached in other professional leagues, either the CFL or the USFL, while the other nine had coached exclusively in college. Success is a mixed bag from this group, a trend that the Jaguars hope Meyer will break.

The gold standard of this group is either Jimmy Johnson or Barry Switzer. Both were hired by the Dallas Cowboys, and they are two of the three coaches who have won both a college national championship and a Super Bowl (Pete Carroll is the other). Between Johnson’s hiring in 1989 and Switzer resigning from the team in 1997, the team went 84-60, with three Super Bowl titles. In fact, from 1991 to 1996, the Cowboys went 70-26, good for a winning percentage of 73%. These coaching hires can clearly pay dividends for a team.

Meyer is the most accomplished coach from this group of twelve and his college success matches closely with Switzer and Johnson. He found success wherever he coached. He won three national championships, two with Florida and one with Ohio State, and had an undefeated season at Utah. In fact, he is only the second coach to win a national championship at multiple schools, preceded by current Alabama coach Nick Saban.

However, success is not a sure thing. Even removing Johnson and Switzer, there are accomplished names in the group. Steve Spurrier and Dennis Erickson both won college championships and Hugh Campbell won five Grey Cups in the CFL. But the remaining nine coaches have an average winning percentage of 37% and failed to win a single playoff game in their combined 34 seasons.

At a pivotal moment in their franchise, the Jaguars are putting all their eggs in the Urban Meyer basket. Meyer has already said that whoever the team drafts first in April will be one of the most important professional decisions in his career. With a successful draft in April, the Jaguars could be set up for success for years to come.

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By Stephen Juza

December 25th, 2020

With the end of each NFL season comes a range of decisions that general managers have to make regarding their head coach. For underperforming teams, these questions focus on retention. Should the team move on from their current coach, or does the general manager think the coach will improve with one more season? Looking through coaching data since 1978 (when the league adopted a 16-game season), very few coaches have a poor first season and eventually turn into a winning coach.

Not every coaching hire achieve success as quickly as Doug Pederson did with the Philadelphia Eagles--capping his second season as a head coach with a Super Bowl victory. There are many successful coaches who take longer to reach the pinnacle of their career. Andy Reid was a head coach twenty one years before finally winning a Super Bowl, despite having one of the most accomplished head coaching careers in the modern NFL.

When looking at a chart of all coaches’ winning percentage as their career progresses, unsuccessful coaches have their career end early, leaving an indistinguishable mark in the chart below. Few coaches make it multiple years with a sub-.500 winning percentage. As coaches drop out of the dataset, survivorship bias slowly pushes the average winning percentage to around 60% for those that coach more than 200 games.

What does a poor initial season tell us about his future prospects? There are 191 coaches who have coached an entire 16-game season since 1978. After their first season, the average win percentage of the bottom third is 23%--the equivalent of a 3.6 win season. By the end of their coaching careers--whenever that may be--their career winning percentage isn’t much better, rising to only 33% by their final game.

Is this enough to write off a coach’s future? Almost a third of teams do--only 45 coaches complete another season as head coach. However, this group does contain some coaches who were able to quickly rebound after a poor first season. Reid was able to overcome a 5-11 start to his career to improve the Eagles to 11-5 and a playoff appearance in his second season, en route to a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

For coaches that start even worse than Reid, the chance of rebounding to be a successful NFL head coach are slim. Coaches who win fewer than four wins their first season average less than six wins in their next season--if they survive through two full seasons at all. Over the course of their career, their collective win percentage is below 30%.

However, while success is rare from these coaches, it is possible for a great coach to emerge from such a bad start. While this group contains such coaches as Cam Cameron (1-15 with the Dolphins in 2007 and not retained), it also contains several Hall of Fame coaches: Bill Parcells (3-12-1 in 1983) and Jimmy Johnson (1-15 in 1989).

In recent seasons, NFL teams are typically very quick to fire coaches who are underperforming. A coach is only as good as their recent season, as Pederson is finding out. After four seasons with the Eagles, two division titles, and a Super Bowl, he has faced criticism and talk of replacements much of the 2020 season throughout the worst season of his career. If Parcells or Johnson had started their career in 2020 instead of the 1980s, they may not have been able to overcome their dreadful inaugural season to compile their lengthy career.

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By Stephen Juza

December 5th, 2020

As the season progresses, NFL teams need to prepare for the weather to play an increasing role in their game planning. Using forecast data from between 2009-2019, one in twenty NFL games in September and October are played in inclement weather, defined as freezing temperatures or precipitation during the game. In the later months, as many as one in five games will be played in these conditions during December.

Month Games in Inclement Weather
September 6%
October 6%
Novemeber 8%
December 20%
January 29%

While the weather is inescapable for some teams such as the Buffalo Bills or the Green Bay Packers, other teams such as the New Orleans Saints or the Los Angeles Chargers will only encounter harsh weather conditions on the road. Encountering these conditions may leave those franchises unprepared. Home field advantage plays a more significant role across the league, increasing the home team’s win percentage 11% during inclement weather.

While playing on the road already stacks the deck against the visitors, those franchises that infrequently play in the cold or rain have their road winning percentage drop from 46% to 28% during harsh conditions. For teams that more frequently play in these conditions, their winning percentage only drops to 40% on the road during the regular season.

This phenomenon becomes more pronounced during the playoffs, when games carry more importance. Winter weather evens the playing field for the road team, making upsets more likely. Home teams win 62% of playoff games, but only 54% when they are played in these inclement weather conditions. The ability to pull off these upsets depends greatly on how often franchises play in these conditions.

When a franchise that rarely plays in the cold or rain has to play in these conditions on the road for the playoffs, their win percentage drops from 33% to 11%. These teams rarely play in these conditions, and likely can’t practice in these conditions even if they wanted to, leaving it more difficult to prepare themselves as well as they possibly can.

However, for the top third of the league that already frequently plays in these conditions, upsets become far more likely. Their winning percentage on the road jumps from 39% to 71%. Besides the experience of playing in these games, they also may be able to practice in these conditions throughout the week since their own practice conditions likely mirror that of the road stadium.

How will this potentially impact the playoffs this season? As the standings currently sit, in the AFC, the three highest seeds (Steelers, Chiefs, and Bills) are among the teams with the most games in inclement weather. It could be difficult to upset them during the playoffs if winter weather sets in, making their path to the Super Bowl easier.

In the NFC, the opposite may happen. The onset of winter weather likely won’t influence their games come playoff time. Right now, the path to the Super Bowl travels through New Orleans, a domed stadium. However, sitting one game back from the Saints is the Packers. A road playoff game at Lambeau Field in January will prove a daunting task for many aspiring playoff teams.

With only a few weeks remaining in the season, there is still plenty of football to play. But the weather will play an increasingly large role in game-planning between now and the end of the season, and one that will increasingly tip the odds in the favor of the seasoned team.

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By Stephen Juza

October 17th, 2020

Throughout NFL history, coaching strategies can be traced by following a head coach’s coaching tree--assistants from their coaching staff that went on to become head coaches themselves. Previously, an article examined the difference in success between Andy Reid’s and Bill Belichick’s coaching trees. While Reid’s was clearly superior, it begs the question: how does it stack up among the best coaching trees in history?

Two head coaches stand out with the most successful coaching trees in NFL history, leading in NFL championships won while also maintaining their own level of personal success.

Jim Lee Howell--Highest Coaching Tree Win Percentage (59.6%), Tied for Most Championships Won(7)

Jim Lee Howell was the head coach of the New York Giants from 1954-1960 before moving into a front office role. During his seven season head coaching career, the Giants won a single NFL championship and played in two more. However, his coaching staff was packed with future talent that would influence the NFL for the next four decades.

Howell’s coaching tree does not have the breadth of other coaches, consisting of only four coaches. Between the four of them, they won 421 games and seven championships in their combined fifty one seasons leading their own team--the vast majority of that success coming from Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, two of the most successful coaches in league history.

Lombardi was the first coach from his tree to branch out and lead a team on his own. While Lombardi’s claim to fame comes from his tenure with the Green Bay Packers, he was an impressive offensive coordinator for years under Howell. Pioneering a zone blocking scheme, the Giants offense improved from last to sixth in a single season.

Under Lombardi’s leadership the Packers won five championships in seven years, a run of domination that has yet to be surpassed by any team in league history. During his career, he would also hold one of the highest winning percentages among coaches in NFL history.

After coaching the defense for six years under Howell, Landry became the first head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Leading the Cowboys for 29 years, Landry’s team won more than half of the coaching tree’s total victories (250).

Under Landry, the Cowboys grew into the dominating team in the NFL during the 1970s, winning two championships and playing three more. While the team remained competitive throughout the 1980s, Landry’s time with the Cowboys, and the NFL, came to an end in 1988 under new owner Jerry Jones.

Not only is Howell’s coaching tree dominant in the regular season, they are also tied with the most championship rings among coaching trees (seven) with Paul Brown’s tree.

Paul Brown--Tied for Most Championships Won (7)

Paul Brown began his NFL coaching career in 1946 for the eponymous Cleveland Browns, replacing the city’s team after the Rams left in 1945. Starting in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), the Browns dominated the new league to the point of dissolution.

In the four years of the AAFC’s existence, the Browns won all four championships while posting a regular season record of 47-4-3. After four seasons, the league dissolved and the Browns, along with two other teams, joined the NFL. However, this didn’t halt the Browns’ domination. The team played in the NFL championship seven of their first eight years, winning three.

During Brown’s 25-year career with both the Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, five of his assistants became head coaches themselves. The most successful of the five were Weeb Ewbank and Bill Walsh.

Ewbank was the first to get a head coaching position, first leading the Baltimore Colts and eventually the New York Jets. Ewbank led the Colts for nine seasons and two championships, working with the legendary QB Johnny Unitas. After his tenure with the Colts, Ewbank led the Jets for the newly established American Football League (AFL), eventually winning Super Bowl III. This helped lead to a merger between the AFL and the NFL.

Bill Walsh coached quarterbacks and wide receivers for Paul Brown during his tenure with the Bengals. Walsh left the Bengals after Brown stepped down and coached a year in San Diego before becoming head coach for Stanford for two years. In 1979, Walsh earned his opportunity as an NFL head coach for the San Francisco 49ers.

During Walsh’s ten years as a head coach, the 49ers won three Super Bowls and spawned an offensive revolution throughout the league. Walsh adapted the offense around quick, short passes built on precise timing. Not only did this lead to the dominant dynasty for the 49ers through the 80s, but also Walsh’s own successful coaching tree that soon saw the West Coast Offense take hold across the league.

Andy Reid--Successful and Still Growing

Reid’s tree has more branches (ten) than either Brown or Howell, and is still growing. Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs current offensive coordinator, has been considered a top head coaching candidate for a few years and will definitely receive consideration again this year January.

However, the tree has a long way to go to match the success of either Howell or Brown. Reid’s assistants have only won two championships so far and several have left a lot to be desired as a head coach. Steve Spagnuolo, for example, lost more games in his three seasons as a head coach for the St. Louis Rams than Andy Reid has lost since 2012.

However, several coaches are primed to carry the torch of Reid’s coaching tree for many years to come. John Harbaugh looks to have the Baltimore Ravens built to compete for many years behind reigning MVP Lamar Jackson while Sean McDermott has the Bills in the pole position to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995. Even if they can’t surpass either Brown or Howell’s trees, they can further cement their status as the most dominating coaching tree in several decades.

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Methodological Note: Only trees with at least four coaches were included. When looking at the success of coaching trees, I made the decision to remove Bill Belichick’s stats from the analysis. The success of the Patriots dynasty made any historical comparison irrelevant. His individual success was enough to raise his parent coaches to the top of virtually any comparison made, making the impact of the broader tree impossible. When removing Belichick’s impact, the affected trees fell far behind the success of Howell or Brown.

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