Pro Football History.com Blog

By Stephen Juza

November 11th, 2022

Each offseason, a new batch of coaches gets elevated to the pinnacle of their profession: NFL Head Coach. Most coaches are hired into difficult positions – few successful teams replace a head coach – but which have fared the best from the 2021 first time head coaches?

In this blog post, we rank the five first time head coaching hires from last season and offer a historical perspective on their success, or lack of, leading up to the halfway point of their second season.

#1. Nick Sirianni – Philadelphia Eagles (68% Win Percentage)

Nick Sirianni has been the most successful hire from last season, leading the pack with a record of 17-8 for his career and a league leading 8-0 record for the current season. Sirianni has the Eagles leading an incredibly tough NFC East division this season after coming in second to the Dallas Cowboys in his inaugural year.

The Eagles have made a great decision hiring the former Colts offensive coordinator and handing him the reigns to the franchise. Sirianni’s work with quarterback Jalen Hurts has helped Hurts make major strides in his third season. Sirianni’s win percentage puts him toward the top of the pile among coaches starting out. Only six coaches have a higher winning percentage to start their career than Sirianni, and most of them have appear in numerous conference championships or Super Bowls. The future is bright in Philly.

Historical Comparison: Mike McCarthy (67% Win Percentage)

His early win percentage is right in line with Mike McCarthy's early tenure with the Green Bay Packers. Both coaches came from the offensive side of the ball, QB coaches before becoming offensive coordinators. Over the course of his almost thirteen seasons with the Packers, McCarthy won one Super Bowl and made nine playoff appearances.

After a middling first season, McCarthy opened his second season 8-1 to finish the season with a loss in the NFC Championship to the eventual Super Bowl champions.

#2. Brandon Staley – Los Angeles Chargers (56% Win Percentage)

Despite coming from a defensive background, the Chargers have not been winning games based on the strength of the defense. In Brandon Staley's time with the Chargers, the offensive unit has looked strong. Last season they were top-five in both yards and points. Quarterback Justin Herbert had the second most yards last year while running back Austin Ekeler tied for the most touchdowns in the league.

The AFC West looks to be a competitive division at the top for the foreseeable future, but Herbert’s continued development will help position them toward the top of the division year after year. If Staley can replicate the success of the Rams defense in his sole season as a defensive coordinator, the Chargers will be Super Bowl contenders for the next decade.

Historical Comparison: Dan Quinn (56% Win Percentage)

In 2015, Dan Quinn was hired after a brief stint as the Seahawks defensive coordinator to lead the Atlanta Falcons. He inherited a team that had missed the playoffs for two seasons. Taking over a team with a talented and experienced quarterback (Matt Ryan) in a tough division filled with top QB talent, he was able to carve out a moderately successful five-year stint at head coach.

While the offense was consistently in the top-ten in yards, the defense struggled to match the success. After five seasons, one Super Bowl appearance and one wild card berth, Quinn was fired five games into his sixth season at the helm.

#3. Arthur Smith – Atlanta Falcons (41% Win Percentage)

Arthur Smith was hired last season by the Atlanta Falcons after two seasons as the Titans offensive coordinator that saw the team make the playoffs both seasons. Smith has struggled so far in Atlanta as they replaced franchise quarterback Matt Ryan this offseason with former Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, the offense has sputtered with inconsistent quarterback play during Smith’s tenure. Ryan posted his worst season in a decade in his final season with the team before being traded to the Colts. Mariota has posted stats placing him toward the bottom of the QB rankings for the 2022 season.

Smith will have to figure out the Falcons quarterback situation to be able to stick with the team long-term. The NFC South is ripe for the taking, as every team is searching (or will be searching very soon) for their long-term solution at the position. The team that figures it out first will be able to dominate the division for several years to come.

Historical Comparison: Gary Kubiak (41% Win Percentage)

Gary Kubiak came to the Houston Texans after a lengthy career with the Denver Broncos, first as a backup quarterback to John Elway. After his retirement, he joined the coaching staff and rose through the ranks to their offensive coordinator. During his first two seasons with the Texans, Kubiak dealt with turnover at the quarterback position. Former first overall pick David Carr played his last year for the Texans in 2006, and the team settled the position after trading for Falcons quarterback Matt Shaub.

Kubiak brought the Texans their first winning season in the franchise’s brief history, and their first two division championships in 2011 and 2012, while Shaub is still the winningest quarterback in Texans history with 46 wins.

#4. Robert Saleh – New York Jets (38% Win Percentage)

Robert Saleh was a hot coaching prospect after his time as the 49ers defensive coordinator, but a slow start in his first season led to concerns about his hiring. The Jets have consistently hired defensive-minded head coaches – he is the eighth defensive coach of the last nine head coaching hires for the team – during a time when the league has emphasized offensive hiring.

However, Saleh has the team in prime position for their first playoff appearance in a decade. While the offense has struggled with quarterback Zach Wilson, and the running game took a hit with Breece Hall’s torn ACL, the defense has looked incredible behind budding rookie star Sauce Gardner.

The Jets are 6-3 entering the second half of the season, positioned for their first playoff appearance since 2010.

Historical Comparison: Lovie Smith (48% Win Percentage)

Lovie Smith was another defensive coordinator that was hired by the Bears ahead of the 2004 season. After a disappointing 5-11 campaign in his first season, the Bears rebounded with their first of three division titles under Smith. They struggled with consistent quarterback play during his nine seasons in the Windy City, once having a different quarterback lead the team in passing for six consecutive seasons. His final record with the team was 81-63, with 3-3 in the playoffs.

#5. Dan Campbell – Detroit Lions (20% Win Percentage)

Dan Campbell has struggled to gain traction during his time in Detroit. After struggling in Year 1, the former defensive coordinator has yet to make any significant noise in the Motor City in his second year. While this is Campbell’s first ever head coaching role, he did serve as the interim coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 2015 after the team fired Joe Philbin after a 1-3 start. That season, Campbell led the Dolphins to more wins (5) than he has led Detroit to, a result that does not bode well for the team moving forward.

Campbell has a short leash remaining in 2022. Few coaches have won fewer games than him through their first season and a half and continued into Year 3.

Historical Comparison: Jim Schwartz, Zac Taylor (15% Win Percentage)

Campbell has been off to one of the worst career-starting stretches of the last twenty years. Only four coaches started with a worse winning percentage through the first twenty-five games. However, not all is lost. Two of those four saw dramatic improvement in Year 3 – should Campbell come back – that the Lions would be ecstatic for.

In Year 3, after only six wins through his first two seasons, Zac Taylor led the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl. In Year 3 as the Lions head coach, Jim Schwartz led the team to their first playoff appearance in more than a decade.

(Dis)Honorable Mention: Urban Meyer – Jacksonville Jaguars

While Urban Meyer was hired during the same offseason, he failed too last even a single season, becoming the second head coach since 1994 to not complete his first NFL season as a head coach, putting him in the esteemed company of Bobby Petrino. Scandal after scandal rocked the team under the former college coach’s tutelage, ranging from allegations about kicking players in practice, to staying in Cleveland after a team loss when the team flew home.

Not only did Meyer come up last in this list, but he may also go down as one of the worst head coaching hires in NFL history. Poor performance, constant scandals, and concerns about ruining generational prospect Trevor Lawrence with poor coaching make Meyer the textbook example of ‘boom-or-bust ’ college coaching hires.




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By Stephen Juza

July 4th, 2022

Each January and February, the coaching carousel rotates as several head coaches are fired, and new coaches hired to replace them. Coaching trees expand with these changes, adding new branches, or forming their own tree altogether. While coaching trees are often open to interpretation, let’s take a look at the current NFL coaching landscape.

Andy Reid:

The largest coaching tree for the 2022 season belongs to Andy Reid. Five different active head coaches spent time on Reid’s staff, led by Sean McDermott's 12 years as an assistant. A few things stand out about Reid’s tree beyond the breadth. Among them, it is also the only active tree in which a child coach has won a Super Bowl.

I’ve written about Reid’s coaching tree before ( Success of Modern Coaching Trees, Top Trees in History), and for another year it ranks as the top in the league. This offseason saw turnover from his former assistants: Matt Nagy was fired by the Chicago Bears (and he subsequently re-joined Reid in Kansas City), while former assistant Todd Bowles was promoted to the top job in Tampa following Bruce Arians’ retirement.

His coaching tree seems primed to continue its top ranking in the league with the emerging success of the Buffalo Bills, led by former assistant McDermott. In his five seasons as a head coach, the Bills have made the playoffs four times. You have to go back all the way to the early 1990s to find a stretch of three consecutive playoff berths for the team.

Orange coaches not active head coaches

Sean McVay:

Coming off his first Super Bowl victory, Sean McVay has a burgeoning coaching tree. Three of the last four offseasons have seen one of his top assistants hired away to head coaching positions. Through these coaches, his coaching tree has also had an early burst of success.

His opponent in the Super Bowl was led by his former quarterbacks coach, Zac Taylor. His former offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has led the Packers to three consecutive 13-win seasons. Kevin O'Connell and Brandon Staley hope they can bring that level of success, or more, to their own teams.

With the Rams primed for continued success, his coaching staff will continue to get looks at head coaching opportunities, but the continued turnover may put a pause on his tree expanding for a few years. Key offensive coaches are entering the 2022 with limited coaching experience, which will likely give teams pause before handing over the reins of their franchise.

Bill Belichick:

While Bill Belichick may be one of the best coaches in league history, his coaching tree continues to leave a lot to be desired. While this offseason saw two more coaches hired from his tree (Brian Daboll and Josh McDaniels), it will take a lot of individual success for them to balance out the disappointment from the other coaches.

Across the ten coaches in his entire coaching tree, they have combined for only two wins in the playoffs, or one fewer than Zac Taylor had individually by his third season as head coach. Not only that, but only one of the ten coaches lasted longer than four seasons with their first head coaching job.

Daboll could be the coach to break the trend. He’s spent almost as much time with Belichick in the NFL as without, coaching under several other head coaches. This is a significant break from other coaches in Belichick’s tree - few other coaches spent significant time away from New England. The additional perspectives could serve Daboll well as he hopes to rebuild the Giants into a consistent playoff contender.

Orange coaches not active head coaches

Kyle Shanahan/Frank Reich/Mike Vrabel:

These three coaches have two coaches each that have been tapped to lead their own team, although their relatively short tenures as a head coach in their own right have led these assistant coaches to spend most of their careers on other head coaching staffs. That said, both Kyle Shanahan and Frank Reich have lost a coordinator in each of the last two seasons, with Vrabel losing two coordinators in the two seasons prior to that.

However, if their individual success continues, there will be ample opportunity for these head coaches to continue and make a mark on the coaching ranks for years to come. Shannahan, Reich, and Vrabel have combined for nine winning seasons and three conference championship appearances over the last four seasons, giving assistants plenty of opportunity to coach in big games. While there is little relationship between a coach’s success and the success of their assistant coaches, teams generally hire coaches coming from successful teams.

Remaining Coaches:

Not every coach in the league can tie their assistant coaching career to a current head coach. In some instances, like Matt Rhule or Kliff Kingsbury, they have spent their years prior to their NFL head coaching role in the college ranks. As I wrote last year, college coaches have a far more boom-or-bust nature to their coaching careers compared to a head coach from the NFL ranks. While Rhule has struggled in his NFL career thus far, Kingsbury has managed to improve the Cardinals record each of his three seasons with the team.

Other coaches, such as Mike McCarthy and Mike Tomlin, have simply been coaches long enough that their parent coaches have long since retired from the NFL. Despite their long, successful careers, they have no active head coaches that have spent time on their coaching staffs.


Methodology:

Coaching trees are often open to interpretation, but throughout the website we automatically place any coach in the tree of a head coach up to their first head coaching opportunity. This allows coaches to be in multiple trees, without limiting them to only one coach that they spent the most time with.


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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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