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Rookie head coaches

Posted by Chase Stuart on July 14, 2006

Seven teams this year have rookie head coaches. The Detroit Lions (Rod Marinelli, age 57), Houston Texans (Gary Kubiak, 45), Green Bay Packers (Mike McCarthy, 43), Minnesota Vikings (Brad Childress, 50), New Orleans Saints (Sean Payton, 43), New York Jets (Eric Mangini, 35) and the St. Louis Rams (Scott Linehan, 43). As a Jets fan, I've heard a lot of talk about how Mangini is too young to expect the Jets to succeed in 2006. And it's true, he's the youngest of the new coaches hired this year, and the youngest coach currently in the NFL. I'm going to put the age issue on the backburner for now, and look to see how rookie head coaches actually do.

This chart shows all guys who have ever coached a game in the NFL since 1950 and an incomplete list of coaches from before then. Any season in which a guy coached at least one game was considered his rookie season.

Year	Win%	#Coaches
1 0.417 259
2 0.451 216
3 0.499 177
4 0.544 141
5 0.541 117
6 0.527 102
7 0.525 86
8 0.522 71
9 0.551 63
10 0.568 49
11 0.507 42
12 0.533 34
13 0.600 27
14 0.583 25
15 0.525 20
16 0.575 17
17 0.441 16
18 0.545 14
19 0.621 11
20 0.514 11
21 0.656 9
22 0.626 8
23 0.563 7
24 0.685 4
25 0.604 4
26 0.527 4
27 0.473 4
28 0.464 4
29 0.375 4
30 0.600 3
31 0.500 3
32 0.550 3
33 0.525 3
34 0.571 1
35 0.643 1
36 0.857 1
37 0.357 1
38 0.643 1
39 0.429 1
40 0.536 1

To be sure we're clear on what this list means, 49 head coaches have coached at least 10 seasons in the NFL, and during that 10th season their aggregate winning percentage was 0.568. And in case you're wondering, yes, George Halas did coach for a really, really long time.

I think this list is a good starting point, but there are a few problems with it. Sure we don't know if Rod Marinelli is going to be the next Bill Callahan or the next Bill Belichick. So maybe that 0.417 winning percentage is a good starting point for our projections for the teams with rookie coaches.

But that's not really what I want to get at. I think Eric Mangini's going to be a pretty good coach, but I don't know if he's going to be good immediately. What I want to know is what's the learning curve look like for good coaches.

This is a tricky question, of course. I'll start by looking only at guys who coached at least five seasons as a predicate for "good", and see how they did for each season of their career. (Note: After year 5, the data will be the same as the above chart.)

Year	Win%	#Coaches
1 0.460 117
2 0.514 117
3 0.555 117
4 0.571 117
5 0.541 117

That's not looking very good for my "Mangini is going to be fine right away" theory. It's only a marginal improvement from the last table.

Let's look only at coaches who debuted after 1978. I'm also going to eliminate the seven coaches who started their careers in mid-season, since they just don't feel like good comparisons to the Manginis and Marinellis of the world. That leaves us with 49 coaches that have coached at least five seasons. So how did they do?

Year	Win%	#Coaches
1 0.464 49
2 0.528 49
3 0.559 49
4 0.571 49
5 0.532 49
6 0.519 44
7 0.505 36
8 0.504 28
9 0.508 25
10 0.559 18
11 0.511 15
12 0.479 12
13 0.653 9
14 0.586 8
15 0.453 4
16 0.542 3
17 0.396 3
18 0.719 2
19 0.313 1
20 0.250 1
21 0.438 1
22 0.594 1
23 0.231 1

That doesn't look any better. Now it's time to rig the data. I won't cheat, but I'll pick some arbitrary cutoffs to see what's the best way to make rookie coaches look good. And believe it or not, it's actually not that hard.

It seems as though rookie coaches are improving over the years. If we move the cutoff date from 1978 to 1991, we're left with 25 coaches. Those rookie coaches had an aggregate winning percentage of 0.511, which looks impressive. But it gets better: since 1997, ten rookie head coaches combined for a .559 winning percentage. And the last four rookie head coaches that have gone on to coach at least five seasons all had winning rookies in their first years.

Here's the breakdown for all coaches since 1991.

Year	Win%	#Coaches
1 0.511 25
2 0.553 25
3 0.546 25
4 0.534 25
5 0.508 25
6 0.459 21
7 0.489 15
8 0.495 12
9 0.541 10
10 0.650 7
11 0.544 5
12 0.438 3
13 0.750 2
14 0.750 2

The two guys who comprise the bottom two rows end met in the Super Bowl this year, and both began their coaching careers in 1992. Compared to the previous table, this one makes you scratch your head: the same coaches have better records as rookies than in their fifth year. Aggregate winnings percentages for years six through eight are all below .500, despite the feeling that those coaches should be some of the very best in the NFL.

One last one, looking at the 10 rookie coaches since 1997.

Year	Win%	#Coaches
1 0.559 10
2 0.613 10
3 0.569 10
4 0.569 10
5 0.563 10
6 0.484 9
7 0.325 5
8 0.531 2
9 0.364 1

Once again, the rookie coaches look very successful. The game has undoubtedly changed a lot with all the advances in technology and the ever-increasing size of coaching staffs. It's hard to say though, whether this small but recent sample is more applicable than a larger one. And of course, had I gone back to 1996 I would have included Vince Tobin's 7-9 season and Tony Dungy's 6-10 year. But here's the list of those ten recent coaches.

Coach		Year	Team	W	L	T
Jim Fassel 1997 nyg 10 5 1
Steve Mariucci 1997 sfo 13 3 0
John Gruden 1998 rai 8 8 0
Brian Billick 1999 rav 8 8 0
Dick Jauron 1999 chi 6 10 0
Andy Reid 1999 phi 5 11 0
Jim Haslet 2000 nor 10 6 0
Mike Martz 2000 ram 10 6 0
Mike Sherman 2000 gnb 9 7 0
Herm Edwards 2001 nyj 10 6 0

There's only two bad seasons on that list, and both those coaches spent first rounders on rookie QBs those years. Donovan McNabb panned out, and Andy Reid's been a success; Cade McNown didn't, and Dick Jauron was fired after the 2003 season.

The last list is promising of course, but remember that we cherry picked only the coaches that made it for five years. The last 50 coaches to enter the NFL at the beginning of a season (which takes us back to 1992), still had an aggregate winning percentage of only 0.467.

Random trivia

  • Amazing fact of the day: In 1986, Rod Dowhower coached the Colts' first 13 games, and he couldn't manage to win one of them. Ron Meyer replaced him for the last three games, and Indianapolis went 3-0. Rick Venturi couldn't return the favor though a few years later. Meyer was fired after going winless in his first five games for the Colts in 1991. Venturi went 1-7 to finish the year.
  • Everyone knows Don Shula went 14-0 in 1972. But other coaches have come close to matching that.
    • George Halas went 13-0 with the Bears in 1934 (but lost the championship game).
    • The 1961 Houston Oilers (the answer to another very good trivia question) went 1-3-1 with Lou Rymkus as head coach. But Wally Lemm took over and the Oilers won 10 straight games, including the AFL championship.
    • Curly Lambeau, after whom a certain football stadium is named after, went 12-0-1 in 1929.
  • On the other side of the spectrum, most of us remember that John McKay's Bucs went 0-14 in 1976, Tampa Bay's first year in the league. And while that's still a record for futility, he's not alone in having double digits losses and no wins. We saw Rod Dowhower already (0-13), so here are a few others:
    • Dick Nolan, whose son had a tough year on the sidelines in 2005, went 0-12 for the Saints in 1980. Interim coach Dick Stanfel went 1-3. Insert your own joke here.
    • You've got to feel for Phil Handler, who coached the Arizona Cardinals during World War II. He went 1-29 his first three seasons, including one year where the Cardinals and Steelers merged to form one team.
    • 1976 was a really, really bad year to be a coach in New York. Bills' interim coach Jim Ringo took over a 2-3 team and went 0-9. Giants HC Bill Arnsparger went 7 winless games to start the season before John McVay took over. And Lou Holtz -- yes, that Lou Holtz -- resigned after going 3-10 during his first year with the Jets.
  • In 1991, a couple of guys who would eventually coach the Jets entered the coaching ranks. One went 10-6, and one went 6-10. Things are looking a little different for Rich Kotite and Bill Belichick these days, though.
  • 1989 was an interesting year for rookie head coaches. There were only two, but both went on to win Super Bowls. They couldn't have had more different starts, however: George Seifert went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl. Jimmy Johnson went 1-15. As bad as that was, Johnson's worst decision in 1989 might have come a few months earlier. After drafting Troy Aikman first overall in the NFL draft, Johnson took Miami QB Steve Walsh (the two won an NCAA championship in 1987) in the first round of the supplemental draft. That cost the Cowboys their first round pick in 1990, which of course would have been the number one pick in the draft. It turns out it's better to be lucky than good, though. The first pick in the draft that year was Jeff George, and the Cowboys (already with Aikman) would have probably taken RB Blair Thomas, who went second overall. Instead Dallas traded up and took a different RB at the end of the first round.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 14th, 2006 at 1:18 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.