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The NFL head coaching carousel

Did the Broncos get it “right” in hiring Nathaniel Hackett after getting it “wrong” with McDaniels, Joseph and Fangio?

Moscow decorated for winter holidays Photo by Gavriil Grigorov\TASS via Getty Images

There have already been 511 different men who have acted as the head coach for an NFL team for at least one game. If we restrict that to 14 games, we cut that number to 373 men. Using Vince Lombardi’s fist season as a start point (1959), we cut that number down to 275. Of those 275 only 93 have or had an overall winning record (some are still coaching). Of those 93, fifteen are in the Hall of Fame as coaches (and another four are in the Hall as players).

Head Coach Overall Win% Number of HC gigs
John Madden 76% 1
George Allen 71% 2
Don Shula 68% 2
Tony Dungy 67% 2
Bill Cowher 62% 1
Bud Grant 62% 1
Joe Gibbs 62% 2 (same team)
Bill Walsh 61% 1
Ton Landry 61% 1
Al Davis 59% 1
Bill Parcells 57% 4
Chuck Noll 57% 1
Marv Levy 56% 2
Mike Ditka* 56% 2
Joe Schmidt* 56% 1
Jimmy Johnson 56% 2
Raymond Berry* 55% 2
Tom Flores 53% 2
Art Shell* 52% 2 (same team)
*Asterisk denotes inducted as a player - not a coach

So it’s common, even among Hall of Fame coaches, to get more than one turn on the carousel (even if it is with the same team like Joe Gibbs and Art Shell).

From 2000-2021 there were 134 head coaching hires with 91 of those being “virgin” NFL head coaches (never been an NFL head coach before). In hiring Nathaniel Hackett as head coach, the Broncos have now hired four virgins since the firing of Mike Shanahan after the 2008 season (Josh McDaniels, Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and now Hackett). The “retread” head coaches, John Fox and Gary Kubiak, had much more success than the virgins.

So let’s look at the history of virgin NFL head coaches, since we have another one of those. How do teams hire the next Sean McVay, Sean Payton or Mike Tomlin and how often are they hiring the next Josh McDaniels, Urban Meyer or Adam Gase?

To answer this question we are going to focus on the outliers among the “virgin” head coaches in their first NFL head coaching gig (starting with 1959). We’ll begin with the losers.

The average winning percentage for all NFL head coaches starting in 1959 (meaning they began their head coaching career in the NFL in 1959) is 43.2 percent with a standard deviation of 15.2 percent. The best is Matt LaFleur at 79.6 percent and the worst is Bill Peterson at 5.3 percent.

The Losers

To be an outlier on the low side we are gong to use one standard deviation below the mean (average) which is a win percentage of 28.0 percent or worse. There are 44 NFL head coaches who fit that in this data set.

Coach Years From To Games Wins Losses Ties WIN%
Kay Stephenson 3 1983 1985 36 10 26 0 0.278
Tom Fears+ 4 1967 1970 49 13 34 2 0.277
Abe Gibron 3 1972 1974 42 11 30 1 0.274
Frank Gansz 2 1987 1988 31 8 22 1 0.274
Bob Waterfield+ 3 1960 1962 34 9 24 1 0.273
Kevin Gilbride 2 1997 1998 22 6 16 0 0.273
David Shula 5 1992 1996 71 19 52 0 0.268
Dick LeBeau+ 3 2000 2002 45 12 33 0 0.267
Hugh Campbell 2 1984 1985 30 8 22 0 0.267
Frank Filchock 2 1960 1961 28 7 20 1 0.259
Ed Biles 3 1981 1983 31 8 23 0 0.258
Dick MacPherson 2 1991 1992 32 8 24 0 0.250
Lane Kiffin 2 2007 2008 20 5 15 0 0.250
Rob Chudzinski 1 2013 2013 16 4 12 0 0.250
Richie Petitbon 1 1993 1993 16 4 12 0 0.250
Jerry Williams 3 1969 1971 31 7 22 2 0.241
Mac Speedie+ 3 1964 1966 26 6 19 1 0.240
Clive Rush 2 1969 1970 21 5 16 0 0.238
David Culley 1 2021 2021 17 4 13 0 0.235
Robert Saleh 1 2021 2021 17 4 13 0 0.235
Howard Schnellenberger 2 1973 1974 17 4 13 0 0.235
J.D. Roberts 3 1970 1972 35 7 25 3 0.227
Gus Bradley 4 2013 2016 62 14 48 0 0.226
Dennis Allen 3 2012 2014 36 8 28 0 0.222
Steve Spagnuolo 4 2009 2017 52 11 41 0 0.212
Richard Williamson 2 1990 1991 19 4 15 0 0.211
Rod Marinelli 3 2006 2008 48 10 38 0 0.208
Hue Jackson 4 2011 2018 56 11 44 1 0.205
Bill Arnsparger 3 1974 1976 35 7 28 0 0.200
Les Steckel 1 1984 1984 16 3 13 0 0.188
Steve Wilks 1 2018 2018 16 3 13 0 0.188
Hank Bullough 3 1978 1986 22 4 18 0 0.182
Rod Dowhower 2 1985 1986 29 5 24 0 0.172
Mike Nixon 3 1959 1965 38 6 30 2 0.167
Marty Mornhinweg 2 2001 2002 32 5 27 0 0.156
Chris Palmer 2 1999 2000 32 5 27 0 0.156
Norb Hecker 3 1966 1968 31 4 26 1 0.133
Jim Ringo+ 2 1976 1977 23 3 20 0 0.130
Marty Feldman 2 1961 1962 17 2 15 0 0.118
Rick Venturi 2 1991 1996 19 2 17 0 0.105
Harvey Johnson 2 1968 1971 26 2 23 1 0.080
Cam Cameron 1 2007 2007 16 1 15 0 0.063
Rod Rust 1 1990 1990 16 1 15 0 0.063
Bill Peterson 2 1972 1973 19 1 18 0 0.053

Five of the these 44 head coaches are in the Hall of Fame, but none as head coaches. Tom Fears, Bob Waterfield, Dick LeBeau, Jim Ringo and Mac Speedie were all inducted as players. Only five of these guys got more than three seasons: David Shula (26.8 percent), Gus Bradley (22.6), Hue Jackson (20.5), Steve Spagnuolo (21.2) and Tom Fears (27.7). Shula was the HC for the Bengals and he never led them to more than seven wins in a season. Bradley was only the HC for the Jaguars and they never won more than five games for him. Jackson was the head coach for the Raiders for one season, leading them to an 8-8 record before he was fired by the crypt-keeper, Al Davis. He then got a chance to lead the Browns. They went 3-36 with him as the HC before he was fired. Spagnuolo was the head coach for the Rams for three seasons. They were never better than 7-9 during his tenure. He also had a four game stint as the interim head coach for the Giants in 2017. Fears only had one stint as a head coach and it was with the Saints. They never won more than five games for him. So with the exception of Jackson, none of these guys got a second shot (so far) as an hired NFL head coach. They were ostensibly “bad enough” to be banned from the carousel.

Thankfully none of the three recently hired and fired virgin head coaches for the Broncos were bad enough to on the “bad list”. Yay? Josh McDaniels would have to go 1-16 next season with the Raiders to even get close to a 28 percent win rate. Were he to do that next year, he would most likely get fired (again). That doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be fun to watch.

The Winners

There are 36 head coaches who currently have a winning percentage better than one standard deviation above the mean. All of the “+” guys are in the Hall of Fame as coaches with the exception of Al Davis who is in the Hall as an owner.

Coach Years From To Games Wins Losses Ties WIN% # of HC gigs WIN% in first gig
Matt LaFleur 3 2019 2021 49 39 10 0 0.796 1
John Madden+ 10 1969 1978 142 103 32 7 0.759 1
Vince Lombardi+ 10 1959 1969 136 96 34 6 0.738 2 75%
George Allen+ 12 1966 1977 168 116 47 5 0.712 2 74%
Jim Harbaugh 4 2011 2014 64 44 19 1 0.695 1
Blanton Collier 8 1963 1970 112 76 34 2 0.691 1
Sean McVay 5 2017 2021 81 55 26 0 0.679 1
Don Shula+ 33 1963 1995 490 328 156 6 0.677 2 76%
Bill Belichick 27 1991 2021 433 290 143 0 0.670 2 45%
Tony Dungy+ 13 1996 2008 208 139 69 0 0.668 2 56%
George Seifert 11 1989 2001 176 114 62 0 0.648 2 77%
Red Miller 4 1977 1980 62 40 22 0 0.645 1
Mike Tomlin 15 2007 2021 241 154 85 2 0.643 1
Andy Reid 23 1999 2021 369 233 135 1 0.633 2 58%
Sean Payton 15 2006 2021 241 152 89 0 0.631 1
Mike Vrabel 4 2018 2021 65 41 24 0 0.631 1
Barry Switzer 4 1994 1997 64 40 24 0 0.625 1
Bruce Arians 8 2013 2021 129 80 48 1 0.624 2 62%
Mike Martz 6 2000 2005 85 53 32 0 0.624 1
Bill Cowher+ 15 1992 2006 240 149 90 1 0.623 1
Bud Grant+ 18 1967 1985 259 158 96 5 0.621 1
Joe Gibbs+ 16 1981 2007 248 154 94 0 0.621 2 62%
Don McCafferty 4 1970 1973 47 28 17 2 0.620 2 69%
Marty Schottenheimer 21 1984 2006 327 200 126 1 0.613 4 62%
Lou Rymkus 2 1960 1961 19 11 7 1 0.611 1
John Harbaugh 14 2008 2021 225 137 88 0 0.609 1
Bill Walsh+ 10 1979 1988 152 92 59 1 0.609 1
Mike McCarthy 15 2006 2021 237 143 92 2 0.608 2 62%
Tom Landry+ 29 1960 1988 418 250 162 6 0.607 1
Sean McDermott 5 2017 2021 81 49 32 0 0.605 1
Mike Sherman 6 2000 2005 96 57 39 0 0.594 1
Pete Carroll 16 1994 2021 257 152 104 1 0.593 3 38%
Mike Holmgren 17 1992 2008 272 161 111 0 0.592 2 67%
Al Davis+ 3 1963 1965 42 23 16 3 0.590 1
Mike Smith 7 2008 2014 112 66 46 0 0.589 1
John Rauch 5 1966 1970 70 40 28 2 0.588 2 81%

Twenty-one of the 36 good outliers had only one NFL head coaching gig (at least as of now). Of the fifteen who had more than one gig, only two had a losing record in their first gig - Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll. The other thirteen won 67.7 percent of their games in their first head coaching stint.

So let’s look more closely at the recent guys who have been wildly successful as “virgin” HC hires. There have been ten virgin head coaches hired this century who have won more than 58.0 percent of their games (that means in a 17 game season they average a record of 10-7). If we look at the last ten hiring seasons (2012-2021), we find five “winners”: Bruce Arians (61.9 percent in his first gig which started in 2013 officially), Sean McVay, Sean McDermott, Mike Vrabel and Matt LaFleur. With only five guys, we can look more deeply at the situation that each inherited when they took over their teams.

NFL: JAN 23 NFC Divisional Round - Rams at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bruce Arians

Arians was the interim head coach of the Colts in 2012, but the league has awarded the Colts wins and losses for that season to Chuck Pagano (who was fighting cancer). Arians was hired by Cardinals before the 2013 season. The 2012 Cardinals had been led by Ken Whisenhunt and had finished with a record of 5-11 by going 1-11 in their final twelve games after starting the season 4-0. The 2012 Cardinals had four different quarterbacks start a game for them and they, not surprisingly, finished second to last in points scored despite having a decent defense (17th in points allowed). The 2012 coaching staff had two future NFL head coaches on it - Freddie Kitchens and Frank Reich. The 2013 Cardinals would have veteran Carson Palmer starting at QB and throwing the ball to future hall-of-fame wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald. Led by a greatly improved offense (16th in scoring) and defense (7th in points allowed) they would finish the season 10-6, but miss the playoffs because of how tough the NFC West was that season (Seattle would finish 13-3 and San Francisco would finish 12-4).

The 2014 Cardinals would improve to 11-5 and make the playoffs - losing to the Panthers in the wildcard round - despite having Palmer for only six games. The 2015 Cardinals would finish 13-3 winning the NFC West with an elite offense (2nd in points) and an elite defense (7th in points allowed). The 2015 Cardinals would make it all the way to the NFCC where there would be stomped by the Panthers 49-15.

This would mark the pinnacle for Arians (and Palmer) in Arizona. Arians would remain the head coach for two more seasons but the Cardinals would finish 7-8-1 and 8-8 in those seasons and he would be fired after the 2017 season. Arians would get paid to do nothing for the 2018 season before he was hired by the Bucs prior to the 2019 season.

Arians five seasons in Arizona have to be counted as a success because of his record. Getting your team to the playoffs in two out of five seasons as a virgin head coach is pretty good (more on this later). You could argue that Arians really wasn’t a virgin because he spent an entire season as the interim head coach for the Colts, but the league doesn’t give those win to Arians so I am not going to.

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Sean McDermott

McDermott had been the defensive coordinator for the Eagles (two seasons) and the Panthers (six seasons) before he was hired by the Bills prior to the 2017 season. His defenses in Carolina were responsible for twice knocking the Arians’ Cardinals out of the playoffs. Rex Ryan had been the head coach in Buffalo for two seasons prior to his firing before the final game of the 2016 season. The 2016 Bills finished the year 7-9 despite finishing 10th in points scored and 16th in points allowed. The 2016 Bills had Tyrod Taylor as their starting QB. Their offensive coordinator was future NFL head coach Anthony Lynn.

McDermott would get the Bills to 9-7 in his first year as their HC. That would include a 26-16 win over the Broncos (which was not that close). This was done with Tyrod Taylor still at QB. The Bills were “overachievers” this year, making the playoffs with the 22nd ranked offense and the 18th ranked defense (both by points). Of course for the Bills simply making the playoffs was an accomplishment. This was their first in the playoffs this century. They would lose to the Jaguars in the wildcard round. The Jaguars offensive coordinator for that game was the current Bronco head coach.

McDermott has taken the Bills to the playoffs every year except 2018, which was Josh Allen’s first season as a starting QB in the NFL. Under McDermott the Bills offense has either been average (2017, 2018 and 2020) or elite (2019 and 2021) while the Bills defense has moved from being poor (2017-2019) to being elite in the past two season. The Bills were second and third in scoring over the last two seasons. McDermott has probably been as successful as our next head coach, Sean McVay, but because he has yet to get the Bills to the Super Bowl, he has not received anywhere near as much press.

Los Angeles Rams defeat the San Francisco 49ers 20-17 during a NFC championship football game at SoFi Stadium. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Sean McVay

The 2016 Rams were coached by Jeff Fisher to a 4-9 record which finally got him fired and then Jim Fassel took over as the interim head coach and guided them to three more losses. McVay was hired by the Rams as the head coach after three season as the offensive coordinator for the Washington team-not-yet-named. His record with them as the OC was somewhat dubious, having guided them to no better than a 10th place ranking in scoring.

McVay would be tasked with turning former #1 overall pick, Jared Goff, into an elite NFL QB. The Rams had traded up to get Goff and so McVay’s team did not have a first round pick in 2017. That being said, they obtained three major pieces of their team in the 2017 draft: WR Cooper Kupp, Safety Josh Johnson (now with the Browns) and OLB Samson Ebukam.

McVay would guide the Rams to an 11-5 finish in his first season as head coach. The seven game improvement in wins being one of the largest ever for a first time head coach. The 2017 Rams would make the playoffs but lose to Falcons in the wildcard round. This would be the Rams’ first playoff appearance since 2004 with Mike Martz as the head coach.

McVay would accomplish this by taking the Rams from worst to first in scoring and from 23rd to 12th in points allowed. Both of those are fairly big achievements. The Rams would make the playoffs in every season except 2019 with McVay as the HC and with the exception of 2020, where the finished 22nd in scoring, the offense would finish no worse than 11th in scoring.

McVay also has two Super Bowl appearances now on his resume. Two in five is pretty darn impressive. There aren’t that many head coaches with multiple Super Bowl appearances and to have two in your first five seasons is almost unprecedented. Joe Gibbs did it with Washington taking them to the Super Bowl in two of his first three seasons, but one of those was the strike season in 1972, so does it count? Jimmy Johnson is the only other head coach I could find with two Super Bowl appearances in his first five seasons. Johnson won both of his.

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Mike Vrabel

Vrabel was hired by the Titans after the Titans went 9-7 in 2017 under head coach Mike Mularkey. Mularkey had taken over for a fired Whisenhunt in 2015 and then he got the interim tag removed after the 2015 season. Despite leading the Titans to the back-to-back 9-7 seasons, Mularkey was fired after the Titans were embarrassed by the Patriots in the divisional round (35-14). Mularkey’s name has come up for the current vacant head coaching spots.

Mike Vrabel had a fairly short resume as a coach prior to his head coaching hire by the Titans. He was the defensive coordinator for Bill O’Brien and the Texans in 2017. Prior to that he had spent three seasons at linebacker coach for them. That was the total of his NFL coaching experience prior to getting the top job for the Titans for 2018.

The 2017 Titans had been average on both defense and offense. Vrabel guided them to a 9-7 finish in 2018 with an offense that regressed (27th in scoring) but a really strong defense (3rd in points allowed). The 2018 Titans would not make the playoffs.

Vrabel would then get the Titans to the playoffs in his next three seasons losing in the AFCC in 2019 and the divisional round in 2020 and 2021. Two of those three losses would be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl (2019 Chiefs, 2021 Bengals).

NFC Divisional Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Matt LaFleur

In 2018 Mike McCarthy (and interim Joe Philbin) led the Packers to their worst record in years, 6-9-1. This led to McCarthy’s firing after twelfth game. This was despite having Aaron Rodgers start all 16 games. It would be the worst that Packers had finished since Rodgers’ first season as their starting QB. That was enough to get McCarthy fired.

LaFleur got the head coaching job despite having only two seasons as an NFL OC under his belt, one with Rams in 2017 (under McVay in that worst to first season) and one with the Titans in 2018 (under Vrabel). LaFleur would seem to be riding a wave of luck having been tied to two very successful recently hired first time NFL head coaches. This was enough to get him the job in Green Bay. Prior to his two season as an OC, he had spent six seasons in the NFL as a QB coach and two as an offensive quality control coach.

Like McVay, LaFleur was able to improve the Packers’ record by seven wins in his first season leading them to a 13-3 record in 2019. He followed that up with 13 wins in 2020 and 2021. Having a future hall-of-famer playing QB really helped this. LaFleur’s offensive coordinator for all three seasons was Hackett. The Packers were 14th in scoring in 2018 in the final season under the McCarthy regime and have been 15th, 1st and 10th under LaFleur.

The Packers have made the playoffs every year under LaFleur, but lost in the NFCC in both 2019 and 2020 before losing in the divisional round two weeks ago.

Poll

Having seen the pedigree and situations surrounding the other recent successful first time NFL head coaches how do you feel about the Broncos hire of Nathaniel Hackett?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    much better
    (80 votes)
  • 21%
    a little better
    (71 votes)
  • 44%
    no change
    (148 votes)
  • 8%
    a little worse
    (29 votes)
  • 1%
    more worse
    (5 votes)
333 votes total Vote Now