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Buffalo’s Merry-Go-Round Of Head Coaches Spins Again

To the relief of most Buffalo Bills fans (including this one), the team fired head coach Rex Ryan earlier this week. The move came after the Bills lost in overtime to the Miami Dolphins last Saturday, guaranteeing Buffalo a 17th consecutive season without a postseason berth. Anthony Lynn, the offensive coordinator, was named interim head coach and will now lead the Bills against the New York Jets on Sunday in what may be the worst game of the season. (Or at least the worst game not featuring the Browns or Jaguars.)

Lynn is Buffalo’s fourth head coach in five years — and that’s actually a lot, considering the Bills’ record over that period. The Bills have won a total of 36 games since 2012. While only 10 of the league’s 32 teams have won fewer games over the same stretch, a team that won exactly half its games would have won 39.5 games. In other words, the Bills are a slightly below-average team.

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TEAM WINS SINCE 2012
New England 61
Denver 58
Seattle 55
Green Bay 50
Cincinnati 48
Indianapolis 48
Carolina 47
Pittsburgh 47
Arizona 45
Dallas 45
Kansas City 44
Atlanta 41
Houston 41
Baltimore 41
Minnesota 40
Miami 39
New Orleans 39
Detroit 38
N.Y. Giants 38
San Francisco 38
Philadelphia 37
Buffalo 36
San Diego 34
Washington 34
Chicago 32
N.Y. Jets 32
LA/STL Rams 31
Oakland 30
Tampa Bay 27
Tennessee 26
Cleveland 20
Jacksonville 17
Buffalo hasn’t won much in the past five years

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

In the past few seasons, the team has gone through stretches where it didn’t look terrible, only to blow it later on. (This year, the Bills started the season 4-2 but have gone 3-6 since.) You’d therefore expect some coaching turnover, but not as much as the Bills have had.

The Bills have now gone through as many coaches as any other team in the NFL since 2012. Only the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles can match them, having also churned through four. The average team has had two.

TEAM HEAD COACHES SINCE 2012
Buffalo 4
Cleveland 4
Philadelphia 4
Chicago 3
Houston 3
Jacksonville 3
Miami 3
Tennessee 3
Oakland 3
San Francisco 3
Tampa Bay 3
Atlanta 2
Arizona 2
Denver 2
Detroit 2
Kansas City 2
Minnesota 2
New Orleans 2
N.Y. Giants 2
N.Y. Jets 2
LA/STL Rams 2
San Diego 2
Washington 2
Carolina 1
Cincinnati 1
Indianapolis 1
Dallas 1
Green Bay 1
New England 1
Pittsburgh 1
Baltimore 1
Seattle 1
Buffalo’s had a lot of coaches in the past five years

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

As you might expect, there’s a fairly strong negative relationship between the number of wins a team had over the past five seasons and its number of head coaches (correlation coefficient = -0.69). The Bills, however, are tied with the Eagles as the biggest outlier. A simple linear regression suggests that an average squad like the Bills should have had only about two head coaches. As a point of comparison, the Browns, who have won just 20 games since 2012, are a good example of a team we’d expect to have had four coaches.

Now, it would be unfair to blame only management for the Bills’ coaching carousel. Early in 2015, head coach and punting aficionado Doug Marrone opted out of his contract1 after guiding the Bills to their lone winning season in the past decade. The Bills also gave Chan Gailey more than his fair share of chances when he coached the team from 2010 to 2012.

Still, the constant turnover for the Bills is probably not good for the team. Coaches can’t make the most of their time in charge when they don’t get a chance to work through their programs. And potentially more problematic is that players don’t have time to get used to a coach and his system. That can lead lead to confusion in schemes, as Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus described after Ryan was fired. In other words, it usually takes time to build a winner.

Perhaps recognizing this turnover problem, Buffalo’s management may prevent the Bills from becoming an even bigger outlier in terms of churning through more head coaches. Right now, it looks like Lynn will be retained as head coach after this season. That may not be what some fans want, but it makes sense — particularly given that the Bills haven’t really been so awful as to warrant a fifth head coach in six years.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. He became an assistant coach (and, now, interim head coach) with the even worse Jacksonville Jaguars.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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