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.
That leaves 45 general managers who inherited head coaches and let them stick around for a season. Two of those situations were Dave Gettleman keeping Ron Rivera in Carolina and Idzik giving Ryan another shot in New York.
Of the remaining 43, only 11 of them hired a new head coach in year two. The most recent example is in Chicago, where Phil Emery brought in Marc Trestman after a one-year Lovie Smith experiment.2 In other words, when new GMs gave their inherited coach a trial period, it usually lasted longer than one year. The table below identifies those eleven instances.
You might think that means retaining Ryan is par for the course and that “making the initial cut” is the harder battle to win. But in most of the cases where the head coach was retained, there’s a pretty obvious explanation. For example, Jerry Reese wasn’t going to hire a new head coach after Tom Coughlin won the Super Bowl in Reese’s first season as general manager. In fact, 22 of the 32 head coaches retained for year two of the new regime posted winning records in their “tryout” season.
That leaves 10 situations where a general manager inherited a head coach, the coach failed to post a winning record in their first season together, and the coach was retained for year two of the GM’s tenure. As it turns out, nearly all of those instances were essentially false positives. In six of the examples, the “new” GM was an executive with the team who was promoted to general manager, not an outside hire. Here were the ten situations in reverse chronological order:
- Ruston Webster served as the Titans Vice President of Player Personnel in 2010 and 2011, and he promoted Mike Munchak to head coach in 2010. After that season, Mike Reinfeldt was promoted from general manager to senior executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Webster was promoted to general manager. Webster “retained” Munchak after a 6-10 season, but in effect, Munchak was his guy.
- Jack Del Rio began coaching in Jacksonville in 2003, and took the team to the playoffs in 2005 and 2007. The team struggled in 2008, causing de facto GM James Harris to resign. Gene Smith, who began in the Jaguars organization as a scout in 1994, became the Director of College Scouting in 2000, and was promoted to GM after Harris resigned. Smith didn’t “inherit” Del Rio the way you would label the situation when an external general manager is hired.
- The third example is another in-house promotion. Russ Brandon began in the Bills organization in 1997, and became heavily involved in the football decisions beginning in 2006. Buffalo, then with Marv Levy as general manager, hired Dick Jauron as head coach. Levy stepped down after two years, and Brandon was promoted to general manager. He “retained” Jauron for a season, and kept him around for year two despite a 7-9 performance in 2008.
- Bruce Allen was hired as the Tampa Bay general manager in 2004, and while this was an external hire, it’s a poor fit to compare to any other situation. He “inherited” Jon Gruden, who was the most powerful many in Tampa Bay after winning a Super Bowl in 2002. In fact, disagreements between Gruden and Allen’s predecessor, Rich McKay, were the readers that led to Allen’s hire. Gruden knew Allen from their time together in Oakland, and Allen was never in a position to fire Gruden. The duo stuck together until both were fired after the 2008 season.
- The fifth example is another in-house tale. In San Diego, Marty Schottenheimerwas hired in 2002 by GM John Butler. After Butler died of cancer in April 2003, A.J. Smith was promoted to general manager, and “retained” Schottenheimer despite a 4-12 season that year.
- Rod Graves and Dave McGinnis in Arizona present another example of an in-hire promotion leading to a coach being retained. Graves joined the Cardinals in ’97, McGinnis served as the team’s interim coach in 2000, and stuck around until 2003. Graves officially received the GM title in 2002, but didn’t fire McGinnis until two seasons later.
- Example number seven is another one falling into the sui generis category. After winning Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998, Denver’s John Beake was promoted from general manager to Vice President of Administration. To fill the slot in the executive chain, Neal Dahlen, who had been the team’s Director of Player Personnel, was promoted to general manager. He “decided” to keep Mike Shanahan in Denver after the Broncos went 6-10 in 1999.
- You have to go back to 1999 for the most recent example where an external general manager was hired, that GM did not bring his own head coach, and the new GM retained his inherited head coach even after the team did not have a winning season. But as you might expect, there’s an asterisk there, too. After all the turmoil in the 49ers organization in the late ’90s, Bill Walsh stepped out of retirement and became the team’s general manager in 1999. Prior to Walsh’s arrival, Steve Mariucci won 25 games as the San Francisco head coach in 1997 and 1998, but the team collapsed in 1999 after Steve Young was lost for the season. Mariucci was retained because of the Young injury, and because, as my buddy and San Francisco fan Danny Tuccitto put it, “Walsh wasn’t some reactionary dumbass.”
- The ninth example involves another in-house promotion. When legendary Giants executive George Young retired after the 1997 season, Ernie Accorsi was promoted from assistant general manager to general manager. He retained Jim Fassel who went 8-8 in Accorsi’s first season as the top man.
- The final example is an interesting one. In 1993, Dave Wannstedt was hired as the Chicago Bears new coach and de facto general manager. In 1994, Rod Graves was promoted to director of player personnel, and he left for Arizona in 1997. Mark Hatley was then hired as the vice president of player personnel in May of 1997, although he was said to be on the same level as Wannstedt. After a 4-12 season that year, Wannstedt was retained, although part of that may have been because he still had three years left on his contract. After another 4-12 season in 1998, he was fired by team president Michael McCaskey. Hatley was never named GM, and he didn’t even realize he was tasked with finding Wannstedt’s successor until hours before McCaskey fired the coach.
There were 93 new general managers hired between 1995 and 2012. 50 of them came with a coaching change. Of the remaining 43 examples, the head coach had a winning record in 23 of those seasons, and was retained in 22 of them (with Smith being the sole outlier). That leaves 20 examples where a new GM was hired, retained the head coach for a year, and that coach did not have a winning record. This, of course, is the situation Idzik was in with Ryan.3 In 10 of those cases, the head coach was fired after the season. In eight or nine (depending on how you view the Bears example) of the other ten, the new GM was the result of an in-house promotion or did not have authority to fire the head coach (Gruden/Shanahan). The lone example (or examples, if you want to include Hatley/Wannstedt) would be Walsh/Mariucci, which has nothing in common with Idzik/Ryan unless you want to compare the loss of Mark Sanchez to the loss of Steve Young.
Speculating what this means about the Jets
Based on this analysis, I think it’s clear that retaining Ryan was a very unusual move. Idzik was an outside hire acquired to bring change to the organization, and the Walsh/Hatley situations were sufficiently different that we can state that no head coach in a similar situation has been retained since at least 1995. So what does that mean? Is Ryan a singularly great coach who is above the firing squad? Or is there something more to the story?
The scary thought for Jets fans is that the Hatley situation isn’t that different. The threshold question: did Idzik have the authority to fire Ryan, or did Woody Johnson make the call that Ryan must be retained? In what I would consider to be a very unusual method of announcement, it was the owner, and not the general manager, who informed the media that Ryan would be back. Johnson isn’t grouped with the Snyders and Joneses of the ownership world, but it’s fair to wonder if the owner decided that this was his call to make. There’s nothing wrong with that — he bought the team, he can do what he wants — but if that’s the case, that’s a bad indicator for how Idzik’s tenure will unfold.
Recall how the Jets GM search went down one year ago. The Jets interviewed at least ten different candidates, and it was reported that several of the Jets ideal choices did not want the job. David Caldwell was rumored to have turned down an offer, instead selecting to work in Jacksonville despite the reported offering of a special $1M housing allowance. Was it the mandate to keep Ryan that turned off GMs, or was it the unspoken message that the owner was not willing to give up full control? Idzik, presumably, would never admit that he was much less powerful than the typical general manager, so we are left having to make inferences. It’s up to each person to decide which is more likely: Idzik was left without a choice, or he was so impressed with Ryan that he voluntarily decided to keep him around for another season.
- 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. [↩]
- Smith won 10 games in 2012, making him an extreme outlier; the other 10 coaches fired after their “tryout” season won an average of 4.6 games, with none of them winning more than 8 games. [↩]
- While you might quibble with choosing “non-winning record” over losing record, considering the Jets were eliminated from playoff contention at 6-8, I don’t think winning two meaningless games at the end of the year merits being included in the list of successful coaches. [↩]