Saturday, February 7, 2009

Building The Perfect Coach

With Kansas City hiring Todd Haley and Oakland removing the interim tag from Cable I thought it would be interesting to take a look to see if there is some way to filter coaching candidates to improve the probability of success.

I took a look at every coach hired since 2000. It is an arbitrary year, and in fact if I had added a year there would have been quite a few additional hires as post-1999 turned out to be a prolific year for coaching turnover. Even so, 2001 to present should give us a lot of information to dig through. In fact, so much that this will probably be a multi-article series.

As we work our way through this I believe there will be one recurring theme. Teams do not hire previous NFL head coaches nearly enough.

There are five teams who have no coaches in the study. Each hired their current coach prior to the 2000 season. Those teams are Denver, New England, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Tennessee. Obviously two of those teams will have new coaches beginning next season. Each one of those coaches has taken his team to a Super Bowl, although only three of the five this decade. Two of them have championships. Belichick, Shanahan and Holmgren each had prior head coaching experience in the NFL. Holmgren won a title with Green Bay.

Looking at other Super Bowl champions from this decade we have Dungy, Tomlin, Coughlin and Gruden. Three of those four also had prior NFL head coaching experience. The trend breaks down prior to this, but going back to 1997 nine out of twelve Lombardi winners were coached by men who had previously coached other teams.

Obviously there were also quite a few guys hired with previous head coaching experience who didn't work out quite as well. With varying degrees of success, this decade saw Green, Jauron, Parcells, Phillips, Mariucci, Capers, Vermeil, Edwards, Turner, Shell, Schottenheimer, Turner (again), Erickson, Schottenheimer (again), and Gibbs all get hired. Only Jauron, Phillips and Turner are currently employed and at least the first two are feeling some professional distress right now. But still, six of the eight world titles have gone to experienced head coaches. Discarding Belichick's multiple championships this gives us 4/19 chance to win a Super Bowl with an experienced coach. This compared to 2/32 of relatively inexperienced hires.

Let's take a look at other teams who reached, but lost, the Super Bowl. To make things simpler, here's a table:

St. Louis Martz
Oakland Callahan
Carolina Fox
Philadelphia Reid
Seattle Holmgren
Chicago Smith
New England Belichick
Arizona Whisenhunt

Reid is sort of the oddball here with only seven years NFL experience and no coordinator experience. Other than Holmgren and Belichick, who we discussed, each of the others was promoted from a coordinator position.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, only two head coaches were hired directly from college with no prior NFL coordinator experience, Bobby Petrino and Steve Spurrier. Both of them were clearly out of their depth and flamed out spectacularly. Additional college head coaches were Nick Saban, Cam Cameron, and Butch Davis although each had been NFL coordinators earlier in their careers. Only Davis had moderate success at the NFL level.

Position coaches without coordinator experience included Tony Sparano, Mike Tice, Herm Edwards, Mike Singletary, Rod Marinelli, Tom Cable and Jim Zorn. We really only have some perspective on Tice, Edwards and Marinelli, each of whom demonstrated fatal inadequecies at times. Prospects for Singletary, Sparano, Cable and Zorn are not bright. Singletary in particular which I will adress momentarily.

First though, the curious case of Lane Kiffin. I'm surprised this didn't come up more prominently when he was hired. He may be the single most inexperienced coach ever hired at the NFL level. He grew up around the game with his father, so I suppose that mitigates things a bit. He was a backup quarterback at Fresno State for a couple of years and then went directly in to college coaching. He did secure one year in the NFL as a quality assistant with Jacksonville prior to his six year stint at USC. He was coordinator for the Trojans for only two years prior to getting hired in Oakland. He entered the NFL with a total of ten years of coaching experience, two as a student assistant.

On that same vein, six head coaches were hired this decade with less than ten years coaching experience. Singletary (5.5), Del Rio (6), Gregg Williams, Mike Smith and Mularkey (9). It remains to be seen whether the relative lack of experience will ultimately doom Singletary or Smith.

So this article meanders quite a bit. To try to tie it together a little, the most successful coaches this decade have either been prior head coaches, or NFL coordinators with at least 15 years total coaching experience. While there are dozens of coaches with those credentials who wouldn't prove to be successful if hired, the failure to meet those minimums is a good path to another coaching change.


  1. Surprised you'd say that prospects for Sparano are not bright. I would have said that his prospects are bright. Esp if they find a long-term anwer at QB (maybe Chad Henne?).

  2. I'm only saying that based on his experience. Based on their performance I would surely agree that Sparano and Mike Smith have started well, despite their relative pedigrees.

  3. PS -
    Chad Henne is a joke.

  4. Harbaugh didn't have coordinator experience either, unless maybe he had some in college and you're counting that (are you?), though I don't remember that for sure.

    Or are you counting ST coordinator as such?

  5. I was counting ST coordinator. He is his own little category. I remember Frank Gansz was Special Teams Extraordinaire before getting overpromoted and tying together a couple of four-win seasons with the Chiefs and forever and ever proving that special teams guys were unequipped to run the show.

    Last I read his son is ST coordinator for Baltimore, still true?

    It's a good point, btw.

  6. No, Harbaugh hired Jerry Rosburg off the Falcons staff last year. This year, with Rex Ryan's departure, Harbaugh gave Rosburg the title of asst head coach.

    Frank Gansz forever proved that spec teams guys are unequipped to run the show? Harbaugh made the case the spec teams guys can be more equipped than coordinators from one side of the ball or the other, because they have to work with the whole roster and deal with questions of who's active and not, etc. Here's a partial list of head coaches with spec teams experience:

    Bill Cowher (ST coach Browns 1985-6)
    Marv Levy (ST coach Eagles, Rams, Redskins 1969-72)
    John Harbaguh (ST coach Pheagles 1998-2006)

    (Harbaugh was a ST coord and a recruiting coordinator in college, but not an OC or DC.)

  7. ummm ... yeah. Joke.

    That's what people were writing at the time.


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