Should NFL Teams Hire Retread Head Coaches?

 In Blog, Coaching

Jerry Glanville once stated that NFL stands for “Not For Long” because if you’re not good, you won’t be around very long.

Well, as we approach the 2016 season we will have several NFL teams that will have a new head coach, because they fired last year’s coach. The Bucs, Titans, Giants, Eagles, Dolphins, Browns, and 49ers will all have new head coaches in 2016.

Each year, there’s always the new “hot” names that get floated as teams seek to fill their vacancies; typically coordinators that have never been head coaches. This year the hottest names were Adam Gase and Sean McDermott. Gase made a move, landing the top gig with the Dolphins, while McDermott stayed put as the Defensive Coordinator for the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers.

Each year, NFL teams hire first-time head coaches, but besides those guys, there’s the retreads. The usual suspects in recent years to frequently get mentioned or be courted by teams are Bill Cower, Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan, Jim Haslett, Brian Bellick, and Norv Turner. I guess you can also throw Josh McDaniels and Steve Spagnola into the mix too.

So, this begs the question: Which is the best route?

Is it better to hire a guy who has never coached or better to hire a retread coach.

This season, three teams chose to go with a retread coach:

Did these three team go fishing in the right pond? From which pond should NFL owners and GM’s be fishing for the next coach to lead their franchise?

Is it better to get a guy with experience as a head coach in NFL or is it better to get the guy who has never coached at all? My advice would be the latter. Hire a coach that has never been a head coach in the NFL.

Allow me to explain why.

If you hire a coach that has been elsewhere, you are likely hiring a coach that was fired (there are some exceptions, but that’s the norm). And history suggests that a fired coach will not win a Super Bowl with his new team.

Let’s examine.

I looked at every NFL/AFL coach since 1960 in their second stint with a team, after being fired by their first team?

(NOTE: I know that most studies like this one will typically use the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 as their starting point. I found several coaches in the AFL before the merger who’s coaching records seemed applicable to this study).

When I look at all fired coaches, we find that 356 different NFL/AFL head coaches have been fired at least once by a team since 1960 (that’s a lot).

  • Of those 356 coaches, only 16 of them have won even one playoff game after being fired
  • 16 out of 356… That’s less than 4.5%

But that’s not a totally fair stat, being that many of those fired coaches never even got a second chance to coach.

So the real question is: “How many re-hired coaches had playoff success?”

Of those 356 fired coaches, 139 of them were ever even rehired to be a head coach in the NFL/AFL.

(NOTE: This 139 number excludes any coaches previously fired but then named as interim head coaches; ie: Pat Shurmur would NOT be considered a “rehired” coached for being interim head coach for Eagles for Week 17 of 2015 season)

Of the 139 rehired head coaches, only 16 ever won a playoff game with a different team after being fired by their first team.

  • 16 of 139… that’s 11.5%

And more importantly…

  • Only 6 of the 139 ever won a championship… 6 out of 139… or 4.3%

 

IT IS HARD TO WIN IN THE NFL NO MATTER WHAT

Okay, so some people might look at my stats and say that all I have proven is that winning and being successful in the NFL is really hard and therefore my stats might not show a trend that is worth examining.

Yes, I agree with the premise there. Winning in pro football is very hard. Since 1960, there have been 93 different coaches have won at least one playoff game. That’s 93 out of 356 NFL/AFL ever hired…. That’s more than 26%.

However, when you examine the playoff record of coaches AFTER they have been fired, as I previously highlighted in this article, you see that only 11.5% of them have ever won at least one playoff game in their second stint.

When you hire a previously fired coach, the odds of ever winning even one playoff game go down by more than 55%.

More importantly, let’s examine championships.

Since 1960, only 39 different coaches out of the full 356 NFL/AFL coaches have ever won a championship. That’s less than 11%. The odds are certainly against all head coaches.

However, only 4.3% of head coaches in their second stint with a team ever win a championship.

When you hire a previously fired coach, the odds go down by more than 60%.

 

WHO WERE THE OUTLIERS

In the spirit of being exhaustive, who were the only 6 to ever do it? Let’s examine them… They are…

  • Weeb Ewbank: Very successful coach in the NFL with Baltimore Colts in 1950’s and 1960’s with Johnny Unitas at QB. Won two NFL championships. Fired by the Colts and went on to the AFL to coach the NY Jets. Beat the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III with Joe Namath at QB (that must have been sweet for him).
  • Mike Shanahan: He was fired 4 games into his 2nd season with LA Raiders after having a major squabble with owner Al Davis (20 games is a small sample size, hard to extrapolate any applicable learning lessons). He eventually won the Super Bowl with Denver with John Elway at the helm. Several years later he was fired and eventually hired by the Redskins. He had limited success in Washington and eventually was fired.
  • Bill Belichick: Fired by Browns after 5 sub-par seasons. He only won one playoff game in 5 years. He was largely considered to be a great defensive innovator but just a mediocre coach overall. Assistant coaches who knew him from both Cleveland and New England have stated that he changed a lot for the better when he went to the Pats. And, oh by the way, he has this guy named Tom Brady. Ever heard of him?
  • Tony Dungy: He took over the Tampa Bay Bucs at a time when they were the laughing stock of the NFL. He had limited playoff success but there seemed to be a lot of evidence that Dungy was a very good coach, being that he took over the Bucs when they were terrible, and he turned them into a respectable team. He was fired after the 2002 season. He eventually won a Super Bowl in Indy with Peyton Manning at QB.
  • Tom Coughlin: Tremendous overall success in 8 years with Jacksonville. Took them to the AFC championship game twice. Fired and rehired with Giants. Won two Super Bowl titles with Eli Manning at QB. I think this resume speaks to Tom Coughlin being an even better coach than what most of us probably realize. In 2011, former Jags owner admitted it was a mistake to fire Coughlin from the Jags.
  • Pete Carroll: Fired by the Jets after one season. Rehired by Pats a few years later. Went 1-2 in playoffs with Patriots. Left NFL for USC and presided over one of the best college football programs in recent collegiate history (scandals aside). Proved to be a great motivator and good coach. Rehired by Seahawks in 2010 and we are all familiar with the great success he’s had with Russell Wilson.

 

THE MARV LEVY CAVEAT

One of the coaches in that 139 bunch is Marv Levy. In 1978, Levy was hired to be the head coach of the KC Chiefs. He was just mediocre. His team never qualified for the playoffs and he was fired after 5 seasons.

In 1986, after stints in the USFL and CFL, he was hired to be the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. In 12 seasons they saw tremendous success, but they could never win it all, including their infamous four straight Super Bowl losses (If only Scott Norwood makes that kick in Super Bowl XXV. Gosh, I feel bad for Bills fans).

Levy’s teams were led by Jim Kelly and multiple Hall of Fame players. Technically speaking, Levy upholds the trend that I have highlighted (fired and never won a title).

But Marv had tremendous overall success, so he doesn’t quite uphold the “spirit” of the trend that I am highlighting here in this article.

Officially, only 6 coaches that were ever fired eventually ever won a title, but Levy came pretty dang close, so it almost feels like it should have been 7 instead of 6. But even then, 7 coaches out of 139 is still very small.

I’m not sure why, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the Bills and for Levy. I respect him as a coach and admire what he was able to accomplish with the Bills. I felt like he deserved an “honorable mention” in this article.

CONCLUSION

My advice to owners and GM’s: If your team needs a head coach, don’t hire a guy that was fired by another team, unless there was some strong evidence that he could learn from whatever got him fired and turn into a great coach and leader… and more importantly, unless you’re going to find him a great QB.

Sure, if you ignore my advice, you could very well end up getting the next Bill Belichick, but history suggests that you’re more likely to get the next Wade Phillips.