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For years, Peyton Manning kept ruining Gary Kubiak’s life. From 2006 to 2010, both men were in the AFC South, and Kubiak never managed more than 9 wins or a division title. He finished his time in Houston with a 61-64 record, before joining the Broncos in 2015. That makes Kubiak just the 7th head coach who had a losing career record prior to the season in which his team won the Super Bowl.

The coach with the worst career record before winning it all? That would be Bill Walsh, who held an 8-24 record entering the 1981 season. [click to continue…]


Thoughts on Tony Dungy and the Hall of Fame

In the Hall of Very Good Mustaches

In the Hall of Very Good Mustaches

Tony Dungy was selected for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. Dungy is the 23rd head coach selected to the Hall of Fame: among that group, who ranks 12th in wins with 139, 9th in winning percentage at .668, and 7th in wins over .500. Those are all impressive numbers, given the sample; the “worst” mark on his resume would be the lone championship, which places him in the bottom six among Hall of Fame coaches (John Madden and Sid Gillman each won one; George Allen, Marv Levy, and Bud Grant won zero titles).

Dungy entered the league in 1996. Excluding Bill Belichick, who is clearly the best coach of this era, where does Dungy rank among the other Super Bowl-winning head coaches? Is he the best choice for the Hall of Fame among this group?

Statistically speaking…. yes. Dungy ranks 5th in wins among this group, but first in winning percentage (in fact, his winning percentage is even higher than Belichick’s!). Perhaps most importantly, he ranks first in wins over .500, which blends raw wins and winning percentage. Coughlin and Shanahan have two rings, but both have combined to win just 52 games more than they have lost; Dungy himself is at +70. [click to continue…]


Matt, a Patriots fan and friend of mine, sent me an email after the AFC Championship Game, asking me to analyze New England’s decision to go for it in the following situation:

At the Denver 16-yard line, 4th-and-1, 6:03 remaining in game, trailing by 8 points

Play: Tom Brady pass complete short left to Julian Edelman for -1 yards (tackle by Chris Harris and Aqib Talib)

In real time, I thought this was a no-brainer. You have to go for it. That’s because, in general, 4th-and-1 is a “go for it” down. But after some deep review, I’m not so sure. [click to continue…]


You may recall that two years ago — after the 2013 season — there were eight head coaching vacancies, and all eight were filled by white coaches.  One explanation given was that all but Gus Bradley (Jacksonville) were offensive coaches, and black head coaches were more prominent on the defensive side of the ball.

Last year, the pendulum swung: all but one of the seven vacancies were filled by defensive coaches. The lone offensive-minded hire was Gary Kubiak in Denver, which has worked out precisely because Denver has the best defense in the NFL (though Kubiak deserves full credit for hiring Wade Phillips). [click to continue…]


Chip Kelly, Fired After 3 Years and a 26-21 Record

Not NFL coaches

Good college coaches

The Eagles dropped a news bomb on Tuesday night, firing Chip Kelly after just three seasons.  Kelly went 10-6 in each of his first two seasons in Philadelphia, and he used that success to gain even more power in the front office.  Many of Kelly’s roster decisions this offseason backfired — adding DeMarco Murray, Ryan Matthews, and Sam Bradford, while letting Jeremy Maclin go unreplaced — and they look even worse now than they did at the time.  In a rare moment of prescient thought, here is how I ended a May article on how unusual the Eagles offensive turnover was:

But with all these aggressive and unusual changes to a very productive offense, Kelly has opened himself up to a lot of criticism if things don’t run smoothly in Philadelphia in 2015.

After a 6-9 season, it’s fair to say things didn’t run smoothly.  But how unusual is it to fire a head coach who has posted a winning record after just three years? Pretty unusual.

Kelly will be the 10th head coach since 1950 to be with a team for 3 seasons, produce a winning record, and not come back for year four.  Let’s look at the first 9, from best winning percentage to worst: [click to continue…]


The math has been clear for so long, and been presented by so many writers, that this topic is essentially beating a dead horse. Late in games, it has always made sense for a team, after scoring a touchdown to cut a lead from 14 to 8 points, should go for two. The trailing team gets two bites at the apple: if it converts, a touchdown now wins the game. If the team fails, they get a second chance to erase that mistake. Only if the odds of missing *both* attempts were higher than the odds of making the first attempt would this strategy fail to make sense.

Yet it never happens. In fact, Brian Billick with the 2001 Ravens was the last coach to go for 2 late in a game after scoring a touchdown to cut the lead to 8 points.

More astonishingly, just once since the 2-point conversion rule was introduced in 1994, has a team ever been trailing by 14 points, scored a touchdown, and then converted a 2-point attempt. Once! And it came by none other than Bill Belichick as coach of the 1994 Cleveland Browns.

Trailing 20-6 in the 4th quarter against the Denver Broncos, the Browns were in a tough spot. Starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde was out with a concussion, leaving Mark Rypien as the team’s hope for a comeback. After a Cleveland touchdown early in the fourth, Rypien hit Derrick Alexander to cut the lead to 20-14. [click to continue…]


New York Times, Post Week-10 (2015): Rob Ryan


Also at the New York Times today: newly-fired Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is not very good.

This is Ryan’s 12th season in the N.F.L., and he has consistently fielded below-average defenses. Among the 18 coaches who have been defensive coordinators for at least ten seasons since 1990, Ryan’s defenses have allowed more points per game and more yards per game to opponents than any other:

You can view the full table here.




Week Four (2015) Fourth Down Decisions In Review

Boldest Coach of the Week:

Mike Zimmer coached the Vikings in week 4 the way every underdog should: he gave his team the best chance to pull the upset.  Playing in Denver, Zimmer chose to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Vikings own 44-yard line on 4th and 1 in the first quarter.  Then, in the 4th quarter, Zimmer went for it on 4th down at the Denver 48-yard line.  Trailing by 10 with 10 minutes to go is a pretty obvious situation to go for it on 4th-and-1, but it’s one not all coaches recognize.  His aggressiveness was rewarded, as Adrian Peterson burst through the line for a 48-yard touchdown. [click to continue…]


Data Dump: Quarterback/Coach Pairs

Reading 538’s NFC East preview got me thinking about head coach and quarterback pairs. The Giants are currently enjoying a very long stretch of quarterback/coach consistency, but New York’s franchise history is filled with that sort of commitment. Washington, meanwhile, has not had one quarterback/coach combination reach five years together in 30 seasons!

So today, a quick data dump. Below are all instances where one coach and one quarterback were together for at least five seasons for each franchise. A quarterback gets credit for a season if he led his team in passing yards that year. For each team, I’ve listed the number of years the coach/quarterback were together in parentheses. [click to continue…]


Bill Cowher And Coaches Retiring Early

It’s been nearly a decade since Bill Cowher stopped coaching, but that hasn’t done much to keep his name out of the rumor mill every December and January. After all, Cowher was both very successful and very young when he retired, and NFL folks believe those dots can be connected to mean he won’t stay retired forever.

That made me wonder: how much of an outlier is Cowher with respect to his age and how successful he was? In particular, Cowher was successful at the end of his stint, which differentiates him from someone like Jon Gruden. Defining “success” is challenging when it comes to coaches, but I want to just generate a set of comparable modern coaches and see how they fared at the ends of their careers and when they retired. I don’t need a particularly precise coaching formula, just something that gets the job done.

As it turns out, six years ago, I created a rudimentary formula to rank head coaching records. Let’s use Cowher’s last three years as an example. This formula gives credit for wins above losses, so Cowher gets a 0 for his work in 2006, his final year, when Pittsburgh went 8-8. The prior year, the Steelers went 11-5, so that’s +6, but I also gave a 12-point bonus for winning the Super Bowl, so he gets a +18 for that season. And in ’04, Pittsburgh went 15-1, so that’s +14. Add it up, and Cowher has a +32 score over his last 3 years. And he was just 49 years old during his final season. [click to continue…]


There are three head coaches who have won playoff games with five different quarterbacks. Can you name them?

Trivia hint 1 Show

Trivia hint 2 Show

Trivia hint 3 Show
[click to continue…]


Will Chip Kelly Win A Playoff Game With the Eagles?

What this post will not be about: answering the question of whether Chip Kelly will win a playoff game with the Eagles. But coming up with a more precise title for this post is tough, and well, let me give you the background to this post.

I was having lunch with the fine folks at Sports-Reference yesterday, and the conversation turned to Kelly. I asked them whether they thought Kelly would wind up being a bust in Philly, and they wisely asked for a more precise question. So I asked: did they think Kelly would win a playoff game with Philadelphia before his tenure ended?

We all thought that was a pretty interesting question — I’m not quite sure how Vegas would set the line on it, although I imagine it would be very close to even money. But it made me wonder: at any given point in time, how likely is coach X of Team Y to win a playoff game before his tenure ends? For example, let’s flip back the clock four years ago, to the start of the 2011 season. Let’s say we asked that question of each of the 32 head coaches: what would the results be?

For two of them, the answer would be TBD: Marvin Lewis, of course, has coached the Bengals for a record 12 seasons without winning a playoff game… or getting fired. And, over the last four years, Mike Tomlin hasn’t won a playoff game or been relieved of his duties, either.

Of the other 30 coaches, 12 of them would go on to win at least one playoff game with the team they were coaching at the start of the 2011 season. The other 18 were fired or otherwise had their tenure end without winning a (or, if they won a playoff game pre-2011, “another”) playoff game. Here’s the full table, showing how many playoff wins each 2011 coach had with that team through the 2014 season:

Remember that when looking at the above table, for someone like Rex Ryan, the question isn’t whether he won a playoff game with the Jets, but whether he would win a playoff game beginning with the start of the 2011 season. Ditto for Tomlin, which is why he’s in the TBD column.

But a sample size of one year doesn’t tell us much, so I looked at this question for each season since realignment in 2002. Here are the results.

coach playoffs

The 2002 season was the most “successful” of the bunch, with an even half of the league’s 32 coaches at that time going on to win at least one playoff game with their team (starting from 2002). As it turns out, the 2011 season was a slight outlier, but in general, we should expect that only about 13 of the 32 head coaches will win a playoff game from here on out before their tenure ends. On average, from 2002 to 2011, 17.9 coaches did not win a future playoff game, 13.1 did, and 1 (Lewis, naturally) is TBD.

This doesn’t necessarily do much to answer the Kelly question, but hey, that’s what the comments are for.


Chan Gailey, Quarterback Whisperer?

The Jets coaching staff underwent a significant overhaul this offseason, headlined by the hiring of head coach Todd Bowles. For any defensive-minded head coach, the most important hire is his offensive coordinator. Here, Bowles tapped veteran coach Chan Gailey as the man responsible for reviving the Jets offense and, perhaps, the career of Geno Smith.

Gailey has been lauded as a quarterback whisperer based on… well, let’s just take a look and see exactly what that is based on. Because when it comes to new Jets offensive coordinators, it’s best to actually study the numbers and not just listen to hype. [click to continue…]


In 2013, eight teams hired new head coaches.  Three teams tapped rising offensive coordinators – Mike McCoy, Bruce Arians,1 Rob Chudzinski – while four other hires were head coaches with offensive backgrounds (Andy Reid, Doug Marrone, Chip Kelly, and Marc Trestman).  That means just one head coaching hire came from a defensive background: Gus Bradley in Jacksonville.

Given the current era where the rules are slanted towards the offense, one can understand how teams might be inclined to look towards offensive coaches when selecting a head coach. Consider that scoring is about 60% of the game, which could make owners and general managers break ties in favor of offensive candidates. Then, remember that the pool of teams looking for a new head coach: teams that struggled the prior year. And since offense is so important, that usually means a team that had a bad offense. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s easy to imagine the average team looking for a head coach as one that just went 5-11 with a bad offense and is looking to turn things around with a new, sexy offensive hire.

There was something else you may recall from 2013: the lack of minority hires. At the end of the 2012 season, there were 15 job openings for general managers and head coaches; none went to a minority candidate. The hiring process for GMs is much more opaque than it is for head coaches, but there was one main explanation given for the fact that all 8 head coaching hires were white: black coaches are disproportionately defensive coaches, and the league was shifting towards offense when it came to coaching hires because of the reasons stated above. [click to continue…]

  1. Who, of course, was also coming off an award-winning season as interim head coach of the Colts. []

John Fox went 13-3 in 2012, 13-3 in 2013, and then 12-4 in 2014 as head coach of the Denver Broncos. But with a 2-3 playoff record during that time, John Elway shockingly fired the head coach.

As Bill Barnwell noted, it’s very rare for a coach as successful as Fox to be fired. While Barnwell took a big picture view, I thought it would be interesting to look at coaches who were fired immediately after a successful season: in this case, winning 12 or more games. As it turns out, it’s happened just two times before in NFL history. Marty Schottenheimer was fired by San Diego after going 14-2 in 2006, but losing in the team’s first playoff game to New England. And Jimmy Johnson was allowed to move on despite going 12-4 and winning a second consecutive Super Bowl in 1993.

The table below shows all coaches who won at least 10 games (or had a winning percentage of at least 0.625) in a season from 1970 to 2013, but who were not patrolling the same sidelines a year later: [click to continue…]


Rex Ryan Fired

This article should have been written two years ago. At the latest, it should have been written last year. Technically, we’re still a few hours away from the title of this article being accurate and/or breaking news, but there’s no drama left in New York. Ryan is going to be fired as the Jets head coach.

The Jets went “all in” from 2009 to 2011 in the hopes of winning a Super Bowl. New York got very, very close, reaching consecutive AFC Championship Games in 2009 and 2010. After the 2008 season, the Jets had a talented roster but were in need of a new head coach and a new quarterback. Then general manager Mike Tannenbaum tabbed Rex Ryan as that man. Ryan retained offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and then New York traded up to acquire Mark Sanchez.

At that point, the fates of Tannenbaum, Ryan, Schottenheimer, and Sanchez were aligned. Other than the owner, the general manager, head coach, offensive coordinator1, and the quarterback may be the four most important men in any football organization. Together, the quartet began a new era of Jets football. And it was very successful… for two seasons.

The 2011 season was very disappointing, with a cherry on top being a disaster of a finale in Miami. The Jets then decided to move on from Schottenheimer, which made sense: things roll downhill in all walks of life, and the NFL is no different. Sure, Sanchez had turned into a bust, and maybe Ryan had lost control of the team, and perhaps Tannenbaum’s drafting had taken a turn for the worse, but maybe, just maybe, the team’s troubles were all the fault of the offensive coordinator! As a first step, keeping the nucleus intact but with a new coordinator made sense: it was the path of least change.

Unfortunately, Schottenheimer’s replacement turned out to be Tony Sparano, so you can imagine how that ended. After the 2012 season, the Jets fired Tannenbaum, and Sparano, and the majority of the defensive coaches moved on, too. ((DC Mike Pettine went to Buffalo,while Ass. HC/LB coach Bob Sutton, Ass. DB coach Jim O’Neil, OLB coach Mike Smith, and Ass. DL coach Anthony Weaver all left, too.) Sanchez was only retained because of his enormous cap figure, but he had also played his last regular season game for the Jets. At that point, firing Rex made a lot of sense. [click to continue…]

  1. Particularly when the head coach has a defensive background. []
Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

With just under five minutes left in last Sunday’s game against the Giants and his team trailing 27-20, Mike Smith went for it on 4th and 1 from his own 29 yard line. As was the case on repeated 4th down attempts the last time his team visited MetLife Stadium to face the Giants, the decision to be aggressive did not work out well. Matt Ryan was sacked for a nine-yard loss that effectively ended the game. If his previous behavior is any guide, Smith may learn the wrong lesson from that outcome and choose not to go for it again when the next similar opportunity arises. Smith illustrates better than any other coach the potential for fourth down failure to lead to future fourth down timidity.

Before those two failed Ryan fourth down sneaks against the Giants in that 2011 playoff game, Smith actually was one of the more enlightened coaches on fourth down strategy. From 2008-2011, Smith was the third-most aggressive coach of the last twenty years, at least according to Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index. Dating Smith’s turning point is a little tough. He got burned going for it in Week 10 of the 2011 regular season, when he tried a sneak on 4th and inches from his own 29 in overtime against the Saints. He punted in a couple of situations where he usually went for it late in the 2011 season, but then was aggressive closer in against the Giants. By the 2012 regular season, Smith hadn’t just abandoned his prior tendency for aggressive strategy. He entirely reversed it. In 2012, he was the least aggressive coach in football, only going for it once in 91 qualifying fourth-down tries. He was similarly passive in 2013. His fourth down decision last Sunday was surprising given that trend.

To see Smith’s evolution on fourth down strategy, consider his decisions on 4th and 3 or less when between the opponent’s 10- and 40-yard lines. To consider only situations where there was a real choice while keeping things as simple as possible, I look only at first-half decisions along with third-quarter decisions where the margin was ten points or less. [click to continue…]


Worst Coaching Regimes

With another ugly loss, Dennis Allen’s record as head coach of the Raiders has dropped to 8-28. But does this mean Allen’s tenure as Oakland head coach has been one of the worst 10 coaching regimes since the merger?

Not exactly. For starters, we should remember that Allen was dealt a terrible hand. The year before Allen’s arrival, 2011, Oakland didn’t have a first round pick. He inherited one of the worst rosters in the NFL, and didn’t have a first or a second round pick in his first year. In 2013, the Raiders spent only $67M on the players on their roster, courtesy of $50M of dead money on the team’s salary cap. So an 8-28 record, while perhaps not even good considering the circumstances, is hardly all Allen’s fault.

That said, I thought it would be fun to just compare Allen’s record to that of other regimes since the merger, regardless of circumstances. The most common way to do this would be to use straight winning percentage, but that would put Allen behind say, Cam Cameron, who went 1-15 as the Dolphins head coach.

Another method could be to use games under .500 — Cameron would therefore be 14 games below .500, while Allen would be 20 games below. But Jim Schwartz finished 22 games below .500 with the Lions, courtesy of a 29-51 record.  Your mileage may vary, but to me, an 8-28 record is worse than 1-15 and 29-51; the former could be disregarded as just one terrible year, while the latter was much better on a per-game basis. [click to continue…]


Fourth Down Conservatism Rules Week 3

The top-scorer on Harbaugh's fantasy team

The top-scorer on Harbaugh's fantasy team.

It’s become trendy in this space and many others for stats folks to rail against bad 4th down decisions. It’s even trendier to do it when those conservative decisions backfire, leading to losses. But analyzing any decision — and especially decisions about whether to go for it or kick on 4th down — should not be done with the benefit of hindsight. So today, I’m going to rail against John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, and Mike McCoy, who made some awfully timid 4th down decisions but won on Sunday. And while one could argue that they won because of those decisions, the better argument, I believe, is that they won in spite of them.

Trailing by 4 with 5:03 remaining, the Ravens kick a Field Goal on the 3-yard line

Harbaugh is no stranger to meek 4th down decision making; in fact, he’s no stranger to this particular brand of conservative coaching. Last year, he sent out the kicker when, trailing by 6 points with just over four minutes remaining in the game, the Ravens faced a 4th and 5 from the 6 yard line. Both Jason Lisk and I wrote about the silliness of this decision, which resulted in a Buffalo 23-20 victory.

Facing similar circumstances — a 4-point lead and an extra minute remaining makes it less objectionable to kick the field goal, but being on the 3-yard line makes it even worse — Harbaugh again sent out Justin Tucker to take the points.  That decision cost the Ravens 0.22 expected wins; according to Advanced Football Analytics, the decision to kick a field goal instead of going for it dropped Baltimore’s win probability from 54% to 32%.

As Mike Tanier facetiously wrote, this just set up the ultimate Ravens end game: one bomb from Joe Flacco and one kick by Tucker is all the team would need to win.  Sure enough, Flacco hit Steve Smith for a 32-yard catch, and Tucker kicked the chip shot for the win.  The Ravens wound up having two additional possessions: after Tucker made it a 1-point game, the Browns and Ravens traded 3-and-outs, and the Browns went 3-and-out again before giving Baltimore one final possession with 1:58 remaining.

At the time of the decision to send Tucker out for a field goal, Brian Hoyer was 19 of 22 for 290 yards and a touchdown. He wound up throwing incomplete on his last three passes of the day. But if not for two Cleveland three-and-outs — the only two of the day — Harbaugh’s decision to cost his team 22 points of win probability would be generating much more backlash today. [click to continue…]


Projecting Success for New Head Coaches

In 1995, Football Outsiders graded the Eagles special teams as the worst in the NFL. The next two years, Philadelphia ranked 20th and 26th, respectively. In 1998, after hiring a new special teams coordinator, the team still finished just 25th. But, over the next eight years, the Eagles’ special teams flipped dramatically, ranking as the second-best in football during that period. In fact, from 2000-2004, Philadelphia ranked in the top five in the Football Outsiders’ special teams ratings each season.

When the Ravens hired the coordinator of those special teams, John Harbaugh, as their head coach in 2008, Baltimore turned one of the more surprising coaching hires in recent history into one of the best. Based on where the team was when it hired him, Harbaugh’s first three years were about the best since 1990 of any coach not named Harbaugh, at least according to DVOA. The Ravens made the playoffs in Harbaugh’s first five seasons, winning the Super Bowl in the last of those. Harbaugh’s success even caused Chase to wonder whether it would change the way teams hired head coaches.

Since Harbaugh was so successful as a coordinator, does that mean he was a good bet to be a successful head coach? At first glance, you might think just about every coordinator who gets promoted or poached to become a head coach was very successful in his previous job. As it turns out, that’s not always the case. Once we correct for expectations, a little more than one in four hired head coaches actually underperformed in their previous jobs, at least according to DVOA.

Consider one man who performed particularly poorly as a coordinator: Eric Mangini. The 2005 New England defense had a DVOA that was 15.2 points lower than we would have predicted based on the Patriots’ performance in the preceding seasons. He was not so much of a (Man)genius to have a good defense in 2005, and that may have given some hint that he was not the greatest bet to succeed as a head coach, either.1

This leads to an obvious question: on average, have teams done better when they have hired head coaches who were actually good in their previous jobs (either as coordinators or head coaches)? Let’s take this to the data. [click to continue…]

  1. Always a bonus when painful Jets memories come up organically. There are always other coaching greats like Joe Walton for Jets fans to remember fondly, at least for epic nasal invasions. []

The Coryell Index

Yesterday, we looked at the Billick Index, a measure of coaches who managed teams that were good at preventing offensive touchdowns and bad at creating them. Today, the reverse, which is appropriately named after Don Coryell. Coryell’s teams were slanted towards the offense even when he was in St. Louis, but the situation exploded when he went to San Diego. Here’s a look at Coryell’s year-by-year grades in the Coryell Index: for example, in 1981, his Chargers scored 23.1 more offensive touchdowns than the average team, while opposing offenses against San Diego scored 10.1 more touchdowns than average. Add those two numbers together, and there were 33.3 more offensive touchdowns scored in San Diego games than in the average game in 1981 (this is the same information presented as yesterday, but now the “Grade” column reflects the number above average).


[click to continue…]


The Billick Index

Touchdowns were at a premium in Billick's games

Touchdowns were at a premium in Billick's games.

The 2004 Ravens were hardly Brian Billick’s most interesting team. But those Ravens serve as a shining example of what you envision when you think of Baltimore in the 2000s: terrible on offense and great on defense. The team went 9-7 despite the Kyle Boller-led offense producing just 24 touchdowns, tied for the second fewest in the league. But Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Chris McAlister, and even Deion Sanders were on a defense that allowed only 23 touchdowns, the second best mark in the NFL. So Baltimore was +1 in net offensive touchdowns, but that doesn’t really demonstrate the type of team the Ravens were.

Here’s a better way: the average team in 2004 produced 35.9 offensive touchdowns. This means the Baltimore offense fell 11.9 touchdowns shy of average, while the defense was 12.9 touchdowns above average. So if you don’t like watching offensive touchdowns, the 2004 Ravens were the team for you: 24.8 fewer offensive scores came in Ravens games than in the average game that season.

That’s the 4th largest negative differential in NFL history, behind…

  • The 2002 Bucs (-25.1), who allowed 18.1 fewer touchdowns than average while scoring 7.1 fewer offensive touchdowns;
  • The 2005 Bears (-26.2), who allowed 14.6 fewer offensive touchdowns to opponents, and produced 11.6 fewer offensive touchdowns than average; and
  • The 1967 Oilers (-28.7), who allowed 17.3 fewer offensive touchdowns than average and scored 11.3 fewer offensive touchdowns than the rest of the AFL.

[click to continue…]

Belichick has an eye on the point spread.

Belichick has an eye on the point spread.

Last week at Five Thirty Eight, Nate Silver noted that San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has produced an excellent record against the spread. He also checked in football’s version of Pop, Bill Belichick, and came to the same conclusion: Belichick hasn’t just been great, but he’s been great against the spread, too.

My database on point spreads goes back to 1978, so I went ahead and calculated the Against-The-Spread record of each head coach over the last 36 seasons. According to my numbers, Belichick has “covered” or won 40 more games against the spread than he’s lost, the most over this period.1  The table below shows the 122 men who  have coached at least 50 games or who were active in 2013.

Here’s how to read Belichick’s line: He has been coaching since 1991 (coaches who began before 1978 are included, but only their post-1977 seasons are counted (and only if they coached 50+ games since 1978)) and was last coaching in 2013. Over that time, he has coached in 332 games, including the post-season. His record against the spread is 182-142-8, which gives him a 0.562 winning percentage (ignoring ties).2 His real record is 218-114-0, which gives him a 0.657 winning percentage (again, including the playoffs). The table is sorted by the last category, which represents the difference beteween his number of wins against the spread and his number of losses against the spread. [click to continue…]

  1. My numbers differ slightly from Silver’s, although that’s not surprising. There is always some variation in point spread data, which is, of course, not official. []
  2. When calculating regular winning percentage, we treat ties as half-wins and half-losses.  In his article, Silver excluded ties from calculating ATS winning percentages. I don’t know what’s customary, but Silver’s method makes sense: in the event of a “push” all money is simply returns. []

Head Coach Retention Rates

In the footnotes (always read the footnotes!) to one of Neil’s posts at 538, he included a fun chart displaying the likelihood that a baseball manager would be retained by his team X seasons from now. That made me wonder: what is the NFL head coach retention rate? And, as is often assumed by the football commentariat, are coaching seats hotter than ever in this “win now” era?

Just nine teams will have the same coach in 2014 as they did entering the 2009 season. Those nine men are Mike Smith, Marvin Lewis, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Rex Ryan, Mike Tomlin, and John Harbaugh.  A 28% five-year retention rate sounds pretty low, but is it? Does a 28% rate back up the claim that trigger fingers are itchier than ever, and owners are impatient and irrational Donald Trumps?

No. Let’s flash back to the start of the 1993 season. Don Shula was in Miami, of course, while Marv Levy had just taken the Bills to three straight Super Bowls. Levy had been the head coach in Buffalo since the middle of the 1986 season, which is the same year Jim Mora began as head coach in New Orleans. Mora was still with the Saints in ’93, and… well, that was it. Those three coaches were the only ones who had been with their teams for five straight years.

The same fact was true six years later: at the start of the 1999 season, only Dennis Green (Minnesota), Bill Cowher (Pittsburgh), and … Norv Turner (?!?) had been with their teams for five years. The graph below shows the percentage of head coaches who were still with the same team five years later for the period 1970 to 2009:

[click to continue…]


It stands to reason that when a team has a bottom five scoring offense, they’re going to make some changes. But today we’re going to quantify what we all know. By definition, there were 55 teams to rank in the bottom five in scoring from 2002 to 2012. What changes did those teams make?

  • 29 of the teams (53%) switched head coaches, 43 switched offensive coordinators (78%), and 32 teams (58%) had a different starting quarterback in week 1 of the following season. In 19 of the 55 cases (35%), the team got rid of the whole trio.
  • I don’t think it’s too surprising that the offensive coordinator is the most likely casualty.  In the 12 cases where the offensive coordinator was retained, the head coach was only fired in one of those seasons. That was in Cincinnati after the 2002 season, when Bob Bratkowski was kept after Dick LeBeau was replaced by Marvin Lewis. The Bengals drafted Carson Palmer with the first overall pick a few months later, but Jon Kitna kept the quarterback job for the 2003 season.
  • In only four of the other 11 cases where the offensive coordinator was fired did the team switch quarterbacks. In 2009, Steve Spagnuolo and Pat Shurmur struggled in St. Louis under Marc Bulger; the team landed the number one overall pick, drafted Sam Bradford, and played him immediately. Also that year, Eric Mangini and Brian Daboll could not get the Cleveland offense humming under Brady Quinn. The solution was to bring in Jake Delhomme in 2010. In 2008, the Bengals offense struggled when Palmer missed most of the year due to injury. Lewis and Bratkowski were retained, as Cincinnati pinned the blame on Ryan Fitzpatrick. Finally, in 2006, Tampa Bay ranked 31st in scoring despite the presence of coaching guru Jon Gruden and Bill Muir. A rookie Bruce Gradkowski (playing after Chris Simms) was replaced in 2007 with Jeff Garcia.

There were only 7 of 55 situations where a team had a bottom five offense but brought back the head coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterback. Below is the full information for the 55 teams; analysis to come after the jump. For the Year N QB, I’ve listed the quarterback with the most attempts. For the Year N+1 QB, I chose to list the quarterback that started in week one of that season. All team/player/coach cells are linked to the relevant PFR page. [click to continue…]


Where do teams find new head coaches?

Where did you say I could get some bond paper?

Where did you say I could get some bond paper?

Within twenty-four hours of the end of the regular season, Rob Chudzinski, Leslie FrazierGreg Schiano, Jim Schwartz, and Mike Shanahan were all fired. A couple of more head coaches may join them this week, but all these new openings lead to one question: who will replace them?

From 1990 to 2013, 159 new head coaches were hired. Twelve of them were given full-time coaching duties after a successful stint as interim head coach.1

For the other 147 coaches, I grouped them into seven buckets based on the title they held in the season immediately preceding the year they were named head coach:2: Retread (indicating that this was not the first NFL head coaching job for the newly hired head coach), Offensive Coordinator, Defensive Coordinator, College Head Coach, Quarterbacks coach, Offensive Line coach, and Other.

As you can see, the retread approach was the most popular, offensive and defensive coordinators were the next targets, while college coaches filled only 10% of the vacancies: [click to continue…]

  1. The list: Romeo Crennel (hired as head coach of the 2012 Chiefs), Jason Garrett (2011 Cowboys), Leslie Frazier (2011 Vikings), Tom Cable (2009 Raiders), Mike Singletary (2009 49ers), Mike Tice (2002 Vikings), Dick LeBeau (2001 Bengals), Dave McGinnis (2001 Cardinals), Bruce Coslet (1997 Bengals), Jeff Fisher (1995 Oilers), Richard Williamson (1991 Buccaneers), Art Shell (1990 Raiders). []
  2. With three exceptions. Steve Mariucci made his name as Brett Favre’s quarterbacks coach from 1992 to 1995, and then became the head coach at Cal in 1996. He was hired by San Francisco in 1997, but I’m labeling him as QB Coach hire and not a college coach hire. Similarly, John Harbaugh made his name as a special teams coach, but his final season with the Eagles was as a defensive backs coach. But I think it’s more accurate to label him special teams coaching hire. And Barry Switzer was actually retired when the Cowboys hired him, but it felt appropriate to label him a college coach. []

Woody Johnson, John Idzik, and Rex Ryan. Source: NY Daily News.

Moments after the Jets defeated the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, it was announced that Rex Ryan would return as New York’s head coach in 2014. That was a surprising development: just one week ago, it was reported that Ryan told the team he believed he would be fired at the end of the season. Most observers assumed that John Idzik, hired as the team’s general manager in January, would choose to bring in his own head coach in 2014. (You may recall that Woody Johnson mandated that Ryan be retained for the 2013 season, which already made it a slightly unusual situation.)

Which gets us to a the question I want to examine today: how often do new general managers stick with the coaches they inherit? A simple idea, but a difficult one to research. For some teams, identifying the man is charge is easy; for others, it’s about as easy as identifying the starting running back. I’ve done my best, but I expect some errors or disagreements with the labels I’ve used.1 Marching onward…..

Since 1995, excluding expansion teams, there have been 95 new general managers hired in the NFL. Slightly more than half of those GMs (50) hired new head coaches, served as joint general manager/head coach, or were brought in with a new coach together as part of a regime change. The table below shows the 50 new general managers, along with the coach prior to and immediately after the hiring of the executive.

TeamYearGMGM TitleOld CoachNew Coach
BUF2013Doug WhaleyGeneral ManagerChan GaileyDoug Marrone
CLE2013Michael LombardiGeneral ManagerPat ShurmurRob Chudzinski
ARI2013Steve KeimGeneral ManagerKen WhisenhuntBruce Arians
JAX2013David CaldwellGeneral ManagerMike MularkeyGus Bradley
KAN2013John DorseyGeneral ManagerRomeo CrennelAndy Reid
SDG2013Tom TelescoGeneral ManagerNorv TurnerMike McCoy
IND2012Ryan GrigsonGeneral ManagerJim CaldwellChuck Pagano
OAK2012Reggie McKenzieGeneral ManagerHue JacksonDennis Allen
STL2012Les SneadGeneral ManagerSteve SpagnuoloJeff Fisher
OAK2011Hue JacksonHead Coach/de facto General ManagerTom CableHue Jackson
SEA2010John SchneiderGeneral ManagerJim MoraPete Carroll
BUF2010Buddy NixExecutive VP/General ManagerDick JauronChan Gailey
WAS2010Bruce AllenExecutive VP/General ManagerJim ZornMike Shanahan
CLE2009George KokinisGeneral ManagerRomeo CrennelEric Mangini
DEN2009Brian XandersGeneral ManagerMike ShanahanJosh McDaniels
KAN2009Scott PioliGeneral ManagerHerman EdwardsTodd Haley
STL2009Billy DevaneyGeneral ManagerScott LinehanSteve Spagnuolo
TAM2009Mark DominikGeneral ManagerJon GrudenRaheem Morris
ATL2008Thomas DimitroffGeneral ManagerBobby PetrinoMike Smith
MIA2008Jeff IrelandGeneral ManagerCam CameronTony Sparano
BUF2006Marv LevyGeneral Manager/VP of Football OperationsMike MularkeyDick Jauron
HOU2006Rick SmithExecutive VP/General ManagerDom CapersGary Kubiak
MIN2006Rick SpielmanVP of Player Personnel/de facto General ManagerMike TiceBrad Childress
NYJ2006Mike TannenbaumGeneral ManagerHerman EdwardsEric Mangini
STL2006Jay ZygmuntPresident of Football Operations/General ManagerMike MartzScott Linehan
CLE2005Phil SavageGeneral ManagerButch DavisRomeo Crennel
MIA2005Randy MuellerGeneral ManagerDave WannstedtNick Saban
SFO2005Scot McCloughanVP of Player PersonnelDennis EricksonMike Nolan
ATL2004Rich McKayGeneral ManagerDan ReevesJim Mora
JAX2003James HarrisVP of Player PersonnelTom CoughlinJack Del Rio
CAR2002Marty HurneyGeneral ManagerGeorge SeifertJohn Fox
MIN2002Rob BrzezinskiVP of Football OperationsDennis GreenMike Tice
WAS2002Vinny CerratoDirector of Player PersonnelMarty SchottenheimerSteve Spurrier
BUF2001Tom DonahoePresident/General ManagerWade PhillipsGregg Williams
DET2001Matt MillenPresidentBobby RossMarty Mornhinweg
NYJ2001Terry BradwayGeneral ManagerAl GrohHerman Edwards
WAS2001Marty SchottenheimerHead Coach/de facto General ManagerNorv TurnerMarty Schottenheimer
NOR2000Randy MuellerGeneral ManagerMike DitkaJim Haslett
NWE2000Bill BelichickHead Coach/de facto General ManagerPete CarrollBill Belichick
STL2000Charley ArmeyGeneral ManagerDick VermeilMike Martz
CAR1999George SeifertHead Coach/de facto General ManagerDom CapersGeorge Seifert
SEA1999Mike HolmgrenHead Coach/Executive VP/General ManagerDennis EricksonMike Holmgren
ATL1997Dan ReevesHead Coach/de facto General ManagerJune JonesDan Reeves
NWE1997Bobby GrierDirector of Player PersonnelBill ParcellsPete Carroll
NYJ1997Bill ParcellsHead Coach/General ManagerRich KotiteBill Parcells
STL1997Dick VermeilHead Coach/General ManagerRich BrooksDick Vermeil
ARI1996Bob FergusonVP of Player PersonnelBuddy RyanVince Tobin
NYJ1995Rich KotiteHead Coach/de facto General ManagerPete CarrollRich Kotite
STL1995Steve OrtmayerGeneral ManagerChuck KnoxRich Brooks
SEA1995Randy MuellerVP of Football Operations/de facto General ManagerTom FloresDennis Erickson

[click to continue…]

  1. Here’s an examples of the difficulty of classification: In March 2008, the Broncos fired general manager Ted Sundquist. He was quasi-replaced by Jim Goodman, although in reality Mike Shanahan had most of the power before and after Goodman’s promotion. It was owner Pat Bowlen who made the call to fire Shanahan after 2008, and Goodman a couple of months after that. In between the Shanahan and Goodman firings, Josh McDaniels was hired as head coach. After the Goodman firing, Brian Xanders was promoted to GM. There’s no clean way to do it, but I labeled Goodman as “retaining” Shanahan but Xanders as hiring a hew head coach, since he worked with Goodman on the McDaniels hire. []

New York Times: Post-Week 16, 2013

Black Monday is just four days away. This week at the New York Times, I look at which coaches are likely to be coaching their last games with their current franchises on Sunday.

Last season, seven N.F.L. coaches were fired on the day after the regular season, also known as Black Monday, with Jacksonville dismissing Mike Mularkey a couple of weeks later. This season, Houston has already fired Gary Kubiak, and as many as 10 more coaches could be fired Monday.

Likely to be Fired

After an 0-8 start, it seemed inevitable that Greg Schiano would not coach the Buccaneers in 2014. Then Tampa Bay won four of its next five games, becoming just the third team since 1978 to start both 0-8 and 4-9. But with two straight losses, Tampa Bay has lost any late-season momentum, and with it, any seeming justification for retaining Schiano.

After trading for Darrelle Revis and signing Dashon Goldson, the Bucs were a popular pick to win 10 games and contend for the Super Bowl. But with the Panthers and the Saints on the rise, and the Falcons just a year removed from an N.F.C. championship game appearance, Tampa Bay has quickly become an afterthought in the division. Even though he has been there for just two years, expect Schiano to be one of the first victims on Black Monday. The Buccaneers have won just 5 of their last 21 games.

When the Lions hired Jim Schwartz, the team had just finished an 0-16 season. Expectations were low and patience was high. Schwartz won 2, then 6, then 10 games in his first three years in Detroit, but the team has fallen apart since a playoff appearance in 2011. Last season, the Lions finished 4-12, and Schwartz drew criticism for fielding one of the least-disciplined teams in the N.F.L.

Detroit has become known for late-game implosions. Over the last two seasons, it is a league-worst seven games below .500 (6-13) in games decided by 7 or fewer points. This year, after a 6-3 start and injuries to the N.F.C. North quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, the division seemed to be there for the taking for the Lions. Instead, a 1-5 stretch has eliminated them before the final week of the season.

Minnesota Coach Leslie Frazier is low on job security, too. Adrian Peterson’s 2,000-yard campaign helped lead the Vikings to 10 wins in 2012, but the rest of Frazier’s tenure has been underwhelming. In fact, those 10 wins represent half of Frazier’s win total in three and a half seasons in Minnesota. With double-digit losing seasons in two of the last three years, bringing back Frazier would be tough to take for increasingly frustrated Vikings fans.

Perhaps the most puzzling part of the Minnesota decline has been in the secondary. Frazier was a defensive backs coach in Philadelphia and Indianapolis and a defense coordinator in Cincinnati before coming to the Vikings as the defensive backs coach in 2007. But Minnesota ranks last in points allowed, passing yards allowed and passing touchdowns allowed. If Minnesota allows two passing touchdowns to the Lions on Sunday, that will bring the season total to 38 and set a post-merger N.F.L. record.

You can read the full article here.


Will the Jets Fire Rex Ryan?

On Sunday morning, Jay Glazer reported that the Jets head coach told the team that he believes he will be fired after the season. And a few hours ago, I noted that while the Jets have a 7-8 record, that’s not an accurate reflection of the team’s production this year. So one week from today, will new general manager John Idzik decide to go in a different direction on Black Monday?

After making the AFC Championship Game in both 2009 and 2010, Rex Ryan’s Jets have now failed to make the playoffs in each of the last three years. From 1988 to 2012, 62 head coaches went three straight years without making the playoffs while coaching the same team. As it turns out, the head coach returned in 33 of those cases for the following season, but in each of the last five instances, ownership has chose to fire the head coach. That’s the situation Ryan and Mike Munchak are in, and Jason Garrett would join them in that boat with a loss to Philadelphia next Sunday, too.

On average, the teams that fired the head coach won 4.8 games in Year N, and then won 7.4 games in Year N+1. That includes the three new head coaches in 2013 in Buffalo, Arizona, and San Diego.

SDG2012Norv Turner7-9Mike McCoy7-7
BUF2012Chan Gailey6-10Doug Marrone6-9
ARI2012Ken Whisenhunt5-11Bruce Arians9-5
STL2011Steve Spagnuolo2-14Jeff Fisher7-8-1
TAM2011Raheem Morris4-12Greg Schiano7-9
DEN2008Mike Shanahan8-8Josh McDaniels8-8
DET2008Rod Marinelli0-16Jim Schwartz2-14
CLE2008Romeo Crennel4-12Eric Mangini5-11
ARI2006Dennis Green5-11Ken Whisenhunt8-8
NOR2005Jim Haslett3-13Sean Payton10-6
HOU2005Dom Capers2-14Gary Kubiak6-10
BUF2003Gregg Williams6-10Mike Mularkey9-7
ARI2003Dave McGinnis4-12Dennis Green6-10
JAX2002Tom Coughlin6-10Jack Del Rio5-11
DAL2002Dave Campo5-11Bill Parcells10-6
SDG2001Mike Riley5-11Marty Schottenheimer8-8
CAR2001George Seifert1-15John Fox7-9
NOR1999Mike Ditka3-13Jim Haslett10-6
SEA1998Dennis Erickson8-8Mike Holmgren9-7
CHI1998Dave Wannstedt4-12Dick Jauron6-10
BAL1998Ted Marchibroda6-10Brian Billick8-8
NYG1996Dan Reeves6-10Jim Fassel10-5-1
TAM1995Sam Wyche7-9Tony Dungy6-10
RAM1994Chuck Knox4-12Rich Brooks7-9
SEA1994Tom Flores6-10Dennis Erickson8-8
PHO1993Joe Bugel7-9Buddy Ryan8-8
SEA1991Chuck Knox7-9Tom Flores2-14
GNB1991Lindy Infante4-12Mike Holmgren9-7
SDG1991Dan Henning4-12Bobby Ross11-5

Of the 32 teams to retain the head coach, the average team won 6.9 games in Year N and then 7.3 in Year N+1. Those are full season results — the table below shows the number of wins by that specific coach in Year N+1.

TeamYearCoachRecordYear N+1
JAX2010Jack Del Rio8-83-8-0 (0-0)
HOU2010Gary Kubiak6-1010-6-0 (1-1)
HOU2009Gary Kubiak9-76-10-0 (0-0)
CHI2009Lovie Smith7-911-5-0 (1-1)
HOU2008Gary Kubiak8-89-7-0 (0-0)
BUF2008Dick Jauron7-93-6-0 (0-0)
CIN2008Marvin Lewis4-11-110-6-0 (0-1)
CLE2007Romeo Crennel10-64-12-0 (0-0)
SFO2007Mike Nolan5-112-5-0 (0-0)
TEN2006Jeff Fisher8-810-6-0 (0-1)
NOR2004Jim Haslett8-83-13-0 (0-0)
HOU2004Dom Capers7-92-14-0 (0-0)
NOR2003Jim Haslett8-88-8-0 (0-0)
SEA2002Mike Holmgren7-910-6-0 (0-1)
ATL2001Dan Reeves7-99-6-1 (1-1)
PIT2000Bill Cowher9-713-3-0 (1-1)
CIN1999Bruce Coslet4-120-3-0 (0-0)
TEN1998Jeff Fisher8-813-3-0 (3-1)
WAS1998Norv Turner6-1010-6-0 (1-1)
TEN1997Jeff Fisher8-88-8-0 (0-0)
SEA1997Dennis Erickson8-88-8-0 (0-0)
WAS1997Norv Turner8-7-16-10-0 (0-0)
CHI1997Dave Wannstedt4-124-12-0 (0-0)
WAS1996Norv Turner9-78-7-1 (0-0)
NOR1995Jim Mora7-92-6-0 (0-0)
CIN1995David Shula7-91-6-0 (0-0)
IND1994Ted Marchibroda8-89-7-0 (2-1)
CIN1994David Shula3-137-9-0 (0-0)
TAM1994Sam Wyche6-107-9-0 (0-0)
CLE1993Bill Belichick7-911-5-0 (1-1)
PHO1992Joe Bugel4-127-9-0 (0-0)
GNB1990Lindy Infante6-104-12-0 (0-0)
IND1990Ron Meyer7-90-5-0 (0-0)

I’m a bit surprised that so many head coaches were retained after failing to make the playoffs for three straight years, but I think the recent trend shows that the NFL is more of  a “win now” league than ever before.

More to the point for Ryan, 2013 marks the third straight season the Jets have failed to post a winning record. From 2000 to 2012, only 18 head coaches posted three straight years with a non-winning record for the same team. Eleven of them were fired after year three, and two more (Dick Jauron and Mike Nolan) were fired in midseason in year four. Four other coaches were in the AFC South during the Peyton Manning era, and as I’ve noted before, owners appeared to give those coaches long leashes for failing to push ahead of those Colts teams.

The other coach in this group was Marvin Lewis: keeping him may have been the wise decision, but was probably more a reflection of the Bengals ownership than anything else.

Woody Johnson, of course, is not content with mediocrity… or being out of the spotlight. After the Jets failed to make the playoffs in 2007, the team released Chad Pennington and acquired Brett Favre. After the Jets failed to make the playoffs in 2008, head coach Eric Mangini got the axe. After the Jets failed to make the playoffs in 2011, Brian Schottenheimer was the scape goat. After the Jets failed to make the playoffs in 2012, Woody went up the corporate ladder and canned Mike Tannenbaum. With a first-year quarterback, a first-year offensive coordinator and a first-year general manager, there’s only one move left for Johnson to make.


The Jets beat the Browns 24-13 today, bringing New York’s record up to 7-8. With Rex Ryan on the hot seat — more on this in a few hours — some have defended the controversial head coach by lauding his work this season. After all, if the Jets are one of the least talented teams in the NFL, isn’t it the product of great coaching that the Jets got to 7-8?

That would be true if the Jets were playing like a 7-8 team. But that’s not the case. The Jets have been outscored by 110 points this year, which makes them a bottom five team, a level of production more in line with the team’s talent. If Ryan is getting bottom five production out of a team that’s bottom five in talent, well, that’s not nearly as impressive.

But perhaps you want to argue that the Jets have overachieved in record (but not anywhere else) because of Ryan? Let’s investigate that claim. New York has just 4.45 Pythagorean wins, which means that they’ve won 2.55 more games than expected. The table below shows the 24 teams to exceed their Pythagorean record1 by at least two wins while posting a negative points differential. [click to continue…]

  1. Among teams in 16-game seasons []
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