Eleven NFL teams will employ different head coaches at the beginning of the 2009 season than they did at the beginning of the 2008 season. Two retired, but the other nine were fired for the simple reason that, at least in the eyes of the GM and/or owner, they failed. Accepting that failed tenure, teams must decide how to move, whom to hire. The three basic options are to give someone from the NFL's assistant-level pool their first chance to be a head coach, hire someone with previous head coaching experience in the NFL, or hire someone from the college coaching ranks.
Since the beginning of the 2000 season, eighty-four men have coached games. (For the purposes of this column, interim head coaches -- and their records -- who were not later hired as permanent replacements were not included.) Forty-six (55%) of them were first-time NFL head coaches who had previously held assistant coaching positions somewhere in the NFL (whom I'll refer to as 1T-FAs for the sake of brevity). Twenty-one (25%) were hired to their second NFL head coaching position (2Ts). In this category are three notable exceptions to clear delineation: Dennis Erickson, who was hired away from the University of Miami to coach the 49ers, but who prior to that had been the head coach in Seattle; Joe Gibbs, who was actually hired to coach the same team he had last coached twelve years earlier and left to pursue a career in NASCAR; and two men, Art Shell and Dom Capers, who had recently been working at the assistant level but were head coaches prior to that. Five (6%) were hired to their third head coaching position (3Ts), and two (2%) to their fourth (4Ts). The remaining ten (12 %) were hired from the ranks of college coaching (not all of them had been college head coaches) to their first NFL head coaching position (CCs).
1T-FAs were 1242-1240-3 in the regular season, 55-53 in the playoffs, and won two of those eight Super Bowls. 2Ts were 671-638-0 in the regular season, 35-30 in the playoffs, and won six of those eight Super Bowls. 3Ts and 4Ts were a combined 197-167-1 in the regular season, 4-9 in the playoffs, and won none of the eight Super Bowls. The worst performer were the CCs; they were only 161-217-0 in the regular season, 1-2 in the playoffs, and -- as you hopefully deduced -- won none of the eight Super Bowls.
These numbers do little to support one particular option over the others. 1T-FAs are just slightly better than .500 in both the regular season and the playoffs, which can partially be attributed to the sheer volume of games they've coached. What is significant about this group is that they've won only two Super Bowls, though it's worth noting that the next Super Bowl Champion coach will be from this group. Billick won in his second season, but it took Cowher fourteen. CCs have notoriously worked out badly, and the numbers bear that out. Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, two men who had high expectations based on their impressive college careers, were only 27-37 combined.
For the sake of argument, let's combine the remaining coaches into one large group of men hired to at least their second head coaching position. They were 868-805-1 in the regular season, which is much better than either of the other groups, and 39-39 in the playoffs. But most impressive is the fact that they won an incredible six of eight Super Bowls in that time span. Belichick, of course, is responsible for three of them, and for that reason these numbers are slightly suspect, but there must be something to the fact that four of the six Super Bowl winning coaches were not first-time coaches, right? I would argue that the answer is directly related to time: the immeasurable and invaluable bits of knowledge gained from trial and error and accumulated experiences in an ever-increasing collection of circumstances.
So why do so many teams hire assistants? I would argue that a certain amount of reflected glory is in play: most of the assistants are hired away from winning teams with offenses or defenses that have performed particularly well in recent years. I would also argue that teams are failure-averse: they are less inclined to hire coaches that other teams have fired for failing. As it turns out, most of these assistants turn out to be mediocre head coaches in their first opportunity, but are much more likely to succeed in their later opportunities, and might have succeeded in their first opportunity if only they had been given enough time in the position. One of the two 1T-FAs who did win a Super Bowl (Bill Cowher) took fourteen years to do so.
Of the nine teams (Oakland has yet to announce their 2009 coach) who have decided from among the three options, seven have hired NFL assistants while only two have hired men with previous head coaching experience in the league. As a Jets fan, I am particularly troubled with what's happened this off-season. Eric Mangini (a 1T-FA) was fired and replaced with another 1T-FA (Rex Ryan). Mangini was then hired by the Browns (who had fired another 1T-FA) just a few days later!
Sigh. This kind of thing only happens with the Jets.
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