NFL Team Building: What Should Teams Be Looking For When Hiring a Head Coach?

They may not be on fantasy football rosters, but it is impossible to overstate the impact NFL head coaches have. After all, the players on said rosters can be talented, yet if they aren’t being put in a position to succeed, it may not matter at the end. We have seen plenty of talented teams underperform, compared to teams that appear to overachieve. That is the value of great coaching, which is the focus of today’s article.

Every offseason, anywhere from 5-8 teams change head coaches. If the front offices hit on their coaching hires, then they can help set up their organization for success in the future. If not, however, they’ll be back on “step one” in a couple of years. Thus, hiring the right coach to lead a franchise is critical for NFL executives. You have a limited amount of time to prove that you are capable of building a winning team, so making sure that you have a coach that can elevate the talent on the roster is key.

With that in mind, there are plenty of questions for us to answer. What effect does changing coaches have on an NFL team? What traits should front offices be looking for in their next coach? Let us attempt to find a solution to one of the greatest questions regarding NFL team construction!

What Effect Does a New Coach Have On a Team?

In our deep dive on hiring MLB managers, we concluded there is a small, but positive effect when hiring a new manager. In football, changing coaches can move the needle even more. Since 2015, which was desired cut-off date as the game has shifted in philosophy (more offense, more aggressiveness), having a new coach has yielded a median two extra wins and a 54-point boost in their point differential. That is quite the difference, and is logical considering NFL coaches have a much more hands-on impact on football than managers do in baseball.

For that reason, if you have any questions regarding your current head coach, you probably would be best off trying to replace him. The “upside” of obtaining an upgrade there is immense, and can legitimately boost a mediocre 8 win team into a playoff team. For perspective, the only other position that can yield a two-win improvement, based on positional value and wins above replacement, is quarterback. In other words, outside of the quarterback, a team’s head coach is the second-most important member of a team; no non-quarterback can move the needle like they can.

Is Age Important In Hiring Process?

Right now, most teams appear to focused on hiring the next “young genius”. Has that worked out for them?

Unlike with MLB managers, there isn’t a great correlation between elevating a team and age. However, similarly to baseball, younger head coaches have had slightly more success. That makes sense, considering that young coaches, such as Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Adam Gase (Dolphins), Matt LeFleur, Kliff Kingsbury, and Matt Nagy have instantly led their teams to improved performance in recent years. Ironically, though, Bruce Arians and Frank Reich have been among the oldest recent hires, and they have had a lot of success.

For long-term success, there is more benefit to hiring a young coach who can establish a culture that can be in place for a long time. However, when it comes to immediate results, older coaches have actually performed well, which combats what I would have anticipated coming into this study.

Is Prior Head Coaching Experience Needed?

When an NFL head coach is hired, the first thing that people focus on is their resume/previous jobs, which makes sense. After all, this is what companies look at when hiring people as well.

Where a misconception lies, however, is what type of experience is needed. There has generally been an idea that having previous head-coaching experience is a necessity, but in reality, it definitely is not:

  • Median win difference for coaches with no experience: 2
  • Median win difference for coaches with experience: 0.5
  • Median point differential difference for coaches with no experience: 55
  • Median point differential difference for coaches with experience: 20

Head coaches with previous experience have had some success, but so have those without experience. Generally, this is logical. Being a head coach in the past may make you a safer hire, yet the “unknown” for head coaching candidates without experience should be enticing, rather than frightening. You never know that when you could land the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan, and although there is risk in chasing those prototypes, the potential reward appears to outweigh it.

If you’re hiring a “retread”, you certainly need to understand why they’re available. In the case of Bruce Arians, for instance, he had stepped down, rather than being fired. For Adam Gase, however, there were alarming indications from his tenure in Miami that the players did not support him, and that certainly has carried over to the Jets. A head coach without experience, on the other hand, may simply just need the opportunity to shine; the phrase that “you’re available for a reason” probably holds some merit.

Is It Better To Hire an Offensive or Defensive Head Coach?

This is the $1 million dollar question that executives attempt to answer, so we’ll spend a lot of time diving in.

Since “offense is king” in today’s NFL, hiring an offensive head coach would appear to be logical. On the other hand, there are plenty of successful defensive head coaches out there, so perhaps they’re the better hire.

First, let us see the effect that offensive and defensive head coaches have on their specific units. If one spectrum is better at elevating their unit than the other, then this could perhaps help us answer our question.

When you exclude the three offensive coordinators that were promoted to head coach, the median yard/play and points/play rank increase for offensive head coaches was 2.5 and 5, respectively. For defensive head coaches, their units ranked five spots better in yards/play and two spots better in points/play. In other words, offensive head coaches and defensive head coaches appear to elevate their respective units the same amount.

Now, let us shift our attention to overall team performance. Do offensive or defensive head coaches have an edge when it comes their new teams improving?

  • Median win difference for offensive head coach: 3
  • Median win difference for defensive head coach: 0
  • Median point differential difference for offensive head coach: 80
  • Median point differential difference for defensive head coach: -35

There definitely seems to be an advantage towards hiring an offensive-minded head coach, which makes sense. After all, the small boost to one’s offense is worth far more than a similar boost to the defense. Additionally, offensive coaches have generally been more aggressive when it comes to fourth-down decision making, as they are obviously going to be able to have more trust in themselves to come up with a conversion play than a defensive coach relying on their offensive coordinator.

Also, with NFL front offices focusing on hiring offensive-minded head coaches, there simply are going to be less offensive coordinators available than defensive coordinators. Thus, it is far more beneficial to package a bright young offensive mind with a veteran defensive coordinator than vise versa. Younger offensive head coaches tended to perform better, while age was not a factor for defensive head coaches. With it slightly better to look for a young coach to build a sustainable culture, I believe that we may have discovered the perfect combination for organizational success.

Who Have Been The Most/Least Successful Hires?

Since 2015, the greatest improvements in point differential from one year to the next have come from these five head coaches:

  1. Sean McVay- Rams 2017
  2. Doug Marrone- Jaguars 2017
  3. Frank Reich- Colts 2018
  4. Matt Nagy- Bears 2018
  5. Adam Gase- Dolphins 2016

As for wins:

  1. Sean McVay- Rams 2017
  2. Doug Marrone- Jaguars 2017
  3. Matt Nagy- Bears 2018
  4. Matt LeFleur- Packers 2019
  5. Frank Reich- Colts 2018

Meanwhile, the largest decrease in point differential have come from these five head coaches:

  1. Steve Wilks- Cardinals 2018
  2. Vance Joseph- Broncos 2017
  3. Jim Tomsula- 49ers 2015
  4. Jon Gruden- Raiders 2018
  5. Sean McDermott- Bills 2017

And for wins:

  1. Steve Wilks- Cardinals 2018
  2. Vance Joseph- Broncos 2017
  3. Zac Taylor- Bengals 2019
  4. Matt Patricia- Lions 2018
  5. Chip Kelly- 49ers 2016

Overall, most of the “successful” hires came from young offensive head coaches; in fact, not one was a defensive coach. Meanwhile, Steve Wilks and Vance Joseph are examples of coaches who failed to hire adequate offensive coordinators, which doomed them from the start. As for Sean McDermott, his tenure in Buffalo has been a success, but a major reason why was his hiring of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. He has led strong defenses, but it has been the improvement of Buffalo’s offense that has vaulted them into one of the top teams in the NFL.

For a different perspective, let us look at the offensive head coaches that guided their new offenses to much better results:

  1. Sean McVay- Rams 2017
  2. Frank Reich- Colts 2018
  3. Pat Shurmur- Giants 2018
  4. Kliff Kingsbury- Cardinals 2019
  5. Doug Marrone- Jaguars 2017

As for the other side of the spectrum:

  1. Ben McAdoo- Giants 2016
  2. Zac Taylor- Bengals 2019
  3. Dirk Koetter- Bucs 2016
  4. Jon Gruden- Raiders 2018
  5. Gary Kubiak- Broncos 2015

Defensively, here were the greatest immediate success stories:

  1. Todd Bowles- Jets 2016
  2. Dan Quinn- Falcons 2015
  3. Jack Del Rio- Raiders 2015
  4. Mike Vrabel- Titans 2018
  5. Sean McDermott- Bills 2017

On the other hand, these defensive coaches did not elevate their new units:

  1. Rex Ryan- Bills 2015
  2. Vance Joseph- Broncos 2017
  3. Jim Tomsula- 49ers 2015
  4. Steve Wilks- Cardinals 2018
  5. Brian Flores- Dolphins 2019

Flores is very similar to McDermott in that he certainly is a major success story, and has helped himself tremendous from a strong culture and hiring a strong offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, most of the defensive successes were coaches that players have been known to rally behind, while the offensive successes were your traditional young coaches, but also capable offensive minds in Frank Reich and Pat Shurmur. This shows that although we’d like to identify key trends in who is going to be most successful, it ultimately comes down to coach themself.

With that said, judging by these results, perhaps teams should maybe be a little bit more hesitant to promote from within? Generally, you would like to bring in a new outside voice when hiring a new head coach; Koetter, McAdoo, and Freddie Kitchens certainly did not pan out.

Overview

There is no perfect strategy to hiring a head coach. In the end, it is about hiring the right coach, rather than stereotyping candidates into a certain group.

However, in this study, we have identified some noteworthy trends that can assist teams in the hiring process. Although offensive and defensive coaches have had similar success when it comes to elevating their respective units, the offensive boost is far more valuable. On average, offensive coaches improved their teams by three more wins than defensive coaches, while younger coaches were slightly more successful.

For that reason, I believe that teams should be looking for a young offensive head coach to pair with a more experienced defensive coordinator. Considering that age is actually a small benefit for defensive minds, this allows the young coach to have a support system to adjust to the NFL level. It worked tremendously with Sean McVay in Los Angeles with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, while the same can be said about Matt Nagy (Vic Fangio) and Matt LeFleur (Mike Pettine). Meanwhile, a young coach like Zac Taylor went with an inexperienced coaching staff, so his adjustment period to being a head coach has been stronger.

I cannot emphasize enough how important an NFL coach is to a team. Based on the extra wins they can provide, they have to be considered the second-most important person to a team, outside of the quarterback. Thus, picking the right head coach can be the difference for a executive between building a winning team and having to go back to “step one”. Hopefully, if they utilize the same thinking that we were able to discover to be optimal from this study, they can succeed in what is easily one of the most important decisions they have to make.

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