Adam Schefter and coaches: doh!

Adam Schefter posted some thoughts on the NFL on Friday. He led off by arguing that today’s NFL teams tend to fire coaches too soon:

In a society that craves results now, in a world that demands excellence every day, head coaches rarely are allowed the time they need to grow into the job and master it. Reminders of it come every year at this time. Head coaches are fired, head coaches are hired and the coaching carousel spins without producing in the ways NFL owners had hoped.

. . .

In today’s world, everyone loves eating the turkey, but no one wants to wait around for it to cook. They’d rather microwave it. Unfortunately, it’s not as tasty or savory, much like the seasons some of these unstable NFL franchises continually experience.

This is a typical “back in the good old days” point of view. The usual logic is that increased media attention pressures teams into firing coaches that just need some more time.

Schefter lists the following teams as proof that keeping the same coach leads to more wins: the Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, Packers, Saints, Eagles, and Giants. Here are the coaches and their wins each season in chronological order:

* Made playoffs, ** Won Super Bowl

These guys didn’t win because they stuck around; they stuck around because they won (in large part thanks to strong quarterbacks). Belichick, Billick, and Tomlin won Super Bowls in their second season, and only Sean Payton missed the playoffs in both of his first two years. Stability was just a by product of winning for these coaches. In fact, the coaching changes from Billick to Harbaugh, Cowher to Tomlin, and Sherman to McCarthy were only one year removed from making the playoffs but led to immediate improvement for each team. If anything, these teams’ experiences suggest that changing coaches is a good plan.

Here are the win sequences for the coaches that were fired this year:

* Playoffs

I listed each coach’s record at the time of firing if he didn’t survive the 2011 season. All of these coaches showed promise at first, but declined dramatically in their final season. In the list above (the supposedly “stable” teams), Billick, Cowher (twice), McCarthy, and Reid all survived 6 win seasons, but Billick had already won a Super Bowl, Cowher and Reid had achieved 6 year playoff streaks, and McCarthy had Aaron Rodgers in his first year. No coach above survived a season with fewer than 6 wins. There’s not much evidence that Schefter’s  “stable” teams are any more stable than other teams.

Schefter also mentions some Hall of Fame coaches from the good old days that stayed with the same team, even though they didn’t win right away. However, he only mentions three guys. What about all the coaches that didn’t pan out in that era? The fact of the matter is, each additional poor season informs management about a coach’s true ability. Teams would be silly to ignore that information. There are 10 highly successful coaches in the list above that did not need a grace period to succeed. Why wait around on a guy who’s lost the team and who’s track record suggests he’s a goofball?

5 responses to “Adam Schefter and coaches: doh!

  1. Tomlin isn’t really a fair example – he inherited a great Pittsburgh team for Cowher. Similarly, there’s a lot of luck there and some of these guys have a lot of control over personnel decisions, meaning that it’s not just their coaching prowess, or lack thereof, that makes the difference. But yeah, you’re generally right, I think. I mean, how much more time does Norv Turner need?

    A more interesting question might look at major strategic shifts that accompany coaching changes and see if improvements take longer. For example, the shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 on defense (a popular move through the 2000s) requires an almost entirely different set of defensive lineman and outside linebackers, something most teams can’t acquire in a single off-season.

  2. I agree – luck is a big part of it. These guys have had McNabb, Brady, Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Vick, Favre, Rodgers, and Brees as their QBs (excluding Haslett and the Ravens coaches). The point is that inheriting a great team and/or winning all the time (including right when you arrive) invalidates the comparison between these coaches and the just fired coaches.

    I’ve been thinking about how to get at the true causal effect of coaching change/scheme change, because there’s generally selection bias to worry about (i.e., the teams that changed knew something about their initial coach/scheme that might have tipped them from maintaining stability, and vice versa for teams that didn’t change).

    In general, I think that personnel decisions are far more important than coaching, except in the tails with a guy like Belichick, who might be the smartest NFL coach, and Reid, who seems to be a great offensive schemer. My plan if I ran an NFL team would be to put lots of resources into identifying good players and hire a cheap-ish coach that can keep the locker room committed and run simple, tried and true systems.

  3. I tend to agree with that, but since coaches don’t count against the cap, and you’re making money on the enterprise no matter what (and making money isn’t likely the whole reason you own the thing), why not buy the “best” you can?

    Three more things as the game kicks off:

    1. Simple tried and true systems? I think you’re going to struggle to find a team that’s won without innovation on either offense or defense. The great fluke of 2007,GB last year, NO the year before, the Steelers, the Colts, Pats, Bucs, Rams, etc. all had at least one element of their offense that was schematically innovative or unique.

    2. Dungy and Gruden are the text book examples of the difficulty with measuring coaching contributions. Gruden was brought to TB to improve the offense, didn’t, and won a title with Dungy’s innovative defense and the maturing personnel. Dungy went to Indianapolis to improve the defense, and won with Tom Moore’s innovative offense. Any defensive improvement, outside of player acquisitions to fit the system, was due to the maturation of Freeney, Mathis, Sanders, etc. And I’m not convinced that Dungy’s speedy, undersized defense was really better than the next best alternative in building the team.

    3. Which also brings us to the role of the “genius” coordinator. Tom Moore in Inday, Dick LeBeau in Pit, Martz, etc. really do (well did) seem to have a tremendous impact on team performance. It’s hard to then try and determine coaching impact on top of that.

  4. Yes, good point about spending money on coaches, though I still think you should spend even more on player assessment/personnel decision making.

    On your other points:

    1. I’m going to need hard evidence of this. Especially because I’m not sure any team is following the model I propose (yes, I have an untestable hypothesis in that case).

    2. Agree

    3. Agree

  5. Pingback: The hack-a-Howard | Causal Sports Fan

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