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Does NFL coordinator experience matter when hiring a new head coach?

David Shaw has no NFL coordinator experience. DeMeco Ryans has two years as a DC. Sean Payton has more than a decade as an NFL HC. Does it matter?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos hired Vance Joseph after he had spent exactly one season as the defensive coordinator for the Dolphins (and their defense was not very good that year). When he failed as the head coach of the Broncos, the front office over-corrected and hired Vic Fangio who had spent 19 seasons in the NFL as a defensive coordinator (and had some very good defenses). When he failed, the Broncos decided to hire an offensive guy with eight years of coordinator experience in the NFL. In some ways, Hackett was the “goldielox” hire with eight seasons of OC experience.

Now that he failed spectacularly, the Broncos are back in the familiar position of figuring out who is going to be the next head coach. Nick wrote a nice piece talking about whether or not the Broncos should go for a head coach with NFL head coaching experience like Sean Payton or Jim Caldwell, or whether the team should hire another first time NFL head coach in DeMeco Ryans or David Shaw.

As I normally do, this sent me looking for data. The step below head coach is OC or DC (or AHC). So I sought answers to these two questions:

  • How much experience have relatively recent HC hires in the NFL had at one of those three positions in the NFL before they got their first HC job in the NFL?
  • Does coordinator experience in the NFL matter to success as an NFL head coach?

In the table below you can see the years of NFL HC/DC/AHC experience that every first time hired NFL head coach has had going back to the 2010 season. I added John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin since both have been successful and neither had much high, if any, level NFL experience prior to getting their HC jobs. Also note that Josh McDaniels was hired by the Broncos prior to the 2009 season. He had three years as the OC for the Patriots before he was hired by the Broncos. His win% in Denver was 39.3%. His win percentage in Loss VOakland is 35.3% so far.

NFL Head Coach Years as NFL OC/DC/AHC B4 1st HC Job W% as NFL HC
Kevin O'Connell 3 76.5%
Matt LaFleur 2 71.2%
Jim Harbaugh 0 69.5%
Nick Sirianni 3 67.6%
Sean McDermott 8 63.9%
Mike Tomlin 1 63.6%
Bruce Arians 9 62.4%
Sean McVay 3 61.2%
John Harbaugh 0 60.7%
Mike Vrabel 1 58.5%
Mike Zimmer 14 56.2%
Brian Daboll 8 55.9%
Jason Garrett 3 55.9%
Brandon Staley 1 55.9%
Chuck Pagano 1 55.2%
Frank Reich 4 54.7%
Kyle Shanahan 9 53.1%
Doug Pederson 3 53.1%
Mike McDaniel 1 52.9%
Matt Nagy 1 52.3%
Ron Rivera 6 52.1%
Bill O'Brien 1 52.0%
Kevin Stefanski 1 52.0%
Anthony Lynn 4 50.8%
Dan Quinn 2 50.6%
Brian Flores 0 49.0%
Joe Philbin 5 46.4%
Ben McAdoo 2 46.4%
Mike Munchak+ 0 45.8%
Chip Kelly 0 44.4%
Zac Taylor 0 43.8%
Kliff Kingsbury 0 43.2%
Mike McCoy 4 42.2%
Jay Gruden 3 41.8%
Arthur Smith 2 41.2%
Marc Trestman 8 40.6%
Todd Bowles 0 40.5%
Adam Gase 3 40.0%
Leslie Frazier 5 39.8%
Dirk Koetter 9 39.6%
Vic Fangio 19 38.8%
Doug Marrone 3 38.8%
Dan Campbell 5 38.0%
Freddie Kitchens 1 37.5%
Jim Tomsula 0 35.3%
Vance Joseph 1 34.4%
Greg Schiano 0 34.4%
Robert Saleh 4 32.4%
Steve Wilks 1 32.1%
Matt Patricia 6 31.4%
Mike Pettine 5 31.3%
Joe Judge 0 30.3%
Pat Shurmur 2 29.2%
Matt Rhule 0 28.9%
Dennis Allen 1 28.3%
Nathaniel Hackett 8 26.7%
Rob Chudzinski 5 25.0%
David Culley 6 23.5%
Gus Bradley 4 22.6%
Hue Jackson 3 20.5%
Matt Eberflus 4 17.6%
Urban Meyer 0 15.4%

Note that the win% is not solely for the head coach’s first HC gig, but for their entire time as an NFL head coach. I also left off interim head coaches since they technically did not get hired prior to the start of the season like the rest of the men on the list.

Some folks with little or no OC/DC/AHC experience in the NFL have been very good NFL head coaches like the Harbaughs, Mike Tomlin, Mike Vrabel and Brandon Staley. While others like Urban Meyer, Dennis Allen, Joe Judge and Steve Wilks have been disasters as NFL head coaches.

On the flip side there are folks with loads of coordinator (or AHC) experience who fail in their first (and sometimes only) stint as NFL head coaches. Vic Fangio, Nathaniel Hackett, Dirk Koetter and Marc Trestman are all examples while others flourish. Examples of that are Sean McDermott, Bruce Arians, Mike Zimmer, Brian DaBoll, and Kyle Shanahan.

Those who want to focus too much on past experience are falling into the trap that I think the Bronco front office fell into. Honestly I think it should be more about the perceived ability that the man has to lead an entire team. As Bronco fans have painfully learned over the last six seasons, success as an NFL offensive or defensive coordinator does not mean you will be a good (or even competent) NFL head coach.

As one of my followers on Twitter pointed out there is literally no correlation between NFL coordinator experience and head coaching success in the NFL.

Whoever ends up with the job I’d love to see both competence and proficiency.

Vance Joseph and Nathaniel Hackett were neither.

Vic Fangio was competent but not proficient.

Josh McDaniels was proficient but not competent.

Gray Kubiak and John Fox were both proficient and competent, but that does not mean that the Broncos should hire a “retread” head coach this time around. Please give me a head coach who knows what to do and both how and when to do it.

Is that too much to ask?