In this era of the salary cap and free agency, teams often go from worst to first and vice versa in a single season.
This level of parity for organizations throughout the NFL could theoretically put a higher emphasis on coaching, designating this singular role as the critical variable capable of tilting the odds of success in their favor.
As a result, recently, it seems coaches in the NFL are being discarded faster than a set of NASCAR tires on a hot track.
Throughout this article, we'll take a look at the current state of the NFL and just how drastic these coaching changes are, and whether this trend is a recent phenomenon or an ongoing historical pattern. We'll also examine how much blame a coach really deserves and determine whether the current NFL model of hasty coaching terminations is really working.
Current State of Affairs
With the firing of Andy Reid on Monday, Bill Belichick has now become the longest-tenured head coach in the NFL. He was hired in 2000 and has since proven himself to be the gold standard of head coaches during the free-agent era.
Only seven head coaches have been with their current teams before 2008. This means that 25 of the 32 head coaches in 2013 will have been hired within the last five years. Twenty-three of those 32 head coaches will have been hired within the last four years, and astonishingly, 19 of that group of 32 will have been hired within the last three years alone.
Marvin Lewis is an anomaly in the NFL’s current model for coaching adherence as he’s been the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals since 2003 despite winning less than half of his regular-season games and failing to win a single playoff game in roughly 10 years.
These days, it's more commonplace that even the league’s most prolific coaches are handed their walking papers after a couple disappointing seasons.
Just look at the situations in Philadelphia and Chicago, where Andy Reid and Lovie Smith were unceremoniously fired despite years of high levels of success and invaluable contributions to two very proud franchises.
It seems nowadays that back-to-back losing seasons in the NFL is essentially the kiss of death for even the most acclaimed head coaches. Carolina’s Ron Rivera is the only current head coach to survive the “axe” so far despite producing consecutive losing seasons.
Recent Trend or Historical Status Quo?
Although the short life spans of NFL head coaches may seem like a more recent trend, the last 36 years of job retention have looked more or less just like today.
Looking at the graph below, we can see on the surface there seems to be a slightly longer retention rate for head coaches in the 18 years before free agency.
But in reality, that number has been skewed by the many coaches who are currently still serving under contracts whose duration is yet to be determined. These numbers are marked with the asterisk and basically mean that those teams with active head coaches would technically be leveling out the disparity if allowed to finish their tenures.
It appears the most significant takeaway from the data is that the perception that coaches are being fired more frequently as of late is incorrect. The reality is, NFL coaches both past and present have been subject to hasty termination.
Patience is indeed a virtue of the rarest kind at this sport’s elite level of competition. This rarity shines no more on its players than it does on its coaches. Herein lies the heart of the NFL’s competitive nature.
If one wishes to survive, one must continuously thrive amidst an ever-evolving and constantly revolving environment that virtually refreshes itself every four to six years, save the best of the best.
Generally speaking, failure in the NFL quickly results in failure to exist in the NFL, all the while; the cream truly rises to the top...right?
Is the Head Coach Taking too Much Credit/Blame for Team Success?
The reality is, there are far too many variables at play to accurately quantify reasonings for the success of an NFL season. Personnel changes and player maturation could all be a factor, as well as injuries, scheduling and even inspiring events, such as “Chuckstrong” with the Indianapolis Colts or Hurricane Katrina for the Saints.
And even in all factors mentioned, those are obstacles for which the team’s response is likely directly linked to the leadership and messages delivered by the coach himself. This generates an endless quandary of “chicken or egg” between variables.
If we really want to look towards an element that predicts team success more than any other singular factor, a head coach is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind.
Looking at a list that ranks the highest QBR rating via ESPN, one thing pops out immediately: The eight highest-rated quarterbacks in the league all helped guide their teams into the postseason this year, while the bottom 11 each failed to even produce a winning season for their clubs.
We could make the argument that a head coach has a strong influence on his quarterback’s performance, such as with Alex Smith and the 49ers. But more often than not it seems to be the other way around. Great quarterbacks are a coach’s best insurance policy for a long lasting tenure.
While on the flipside, we can only imagine how many talented coaches have met their demise at the hands of a terrible quarterback situation. Most recent and glaring example would be Ken Whisenhunt of the Cardinals, who admittedly did make the bed he was forced to lie in.
Just think about the success “Coach Whiz” had while Kurt Warner was around. He was able to guide the Cardinals to two divisional championships and a Super Bowl in his first three years as head coach. With Warner, Whisenhunt went 27-21; without Kurt, he sunk to 18-30 before losing his job on Monday.
Is Constant Coaching Change a Benefit or Detriment?
One of the perpetual casualties of this highly unstable profession is the impressive list of castaways who are actually very talented coaches.
Perhaps some of these men will eventually be given another opportunity to be a head coach again; perhaps some are making the most of those second and third chances as we speak, just as guys like Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll for example.
It should go without saying that the Browns had no business firing Bill Belichick so soon in his organizational makeover.
When the league’s coaching carousel finally shakes out, about two-thirds of the active head coaches will be first-timers at the position in the NFL. So although some coaches do get a second chance at glory, the odds are not in their favor.
When it comes to head coaches, owners and GMs seem to favor the prospects of the untested and the unknown as opposed to another team’s unwanted refuse.
So is it better to stay the course or abandon ship?
In truth, it all really depends on who is being fired and who is being brought in to replace them. Quite often, really talented and capable head coaches are let go each year. But the loss of a good coach could still be nullified if his successor is also very good.
It seems highly unlikely the Bears or the Cardinals will be able to improve upon their coaching situations this season. They may end up having to experience the terrible irony of being eliminated by the very coaches they once discarded.
One shining example of patience which has recently borne fruit is the Cincinnati Bengals and Head Coach Marvin Lewis. As mentioned earlier, patience on this level for a coach who had his fair share of struggles is almost unheard of.
Now Lewis is in a position to reward the patient Bengals’ organization by achieving back-to-back playoff appearances.
Ultimately, there really is no all-encompassing right or wrong answer to which philosophy is better. Each organization must answer that question for themselves and base that decision on the totality of their own unique set of variables.
A good sign of a failing coach might be the coach who has a top-tier quarterback yet fails to win games consistently...Norv Turner, anyone?