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Do NFL Teams Really Get A Bounce After Firing Their Coaches?

Matt Patricia didn’t beat the Chicago Bears once in five tries as Detroit Lions head coach. Not only did his Lions go 0-5 against their divisional rival over three seasons, they were outscored by an average of 6.8 points per game. But in the first game after Patricia was fired, the Lions beat the Bears 34-30.

This prompted a slew of local media reports about how laid-back offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had “changed the culture” in Detroit, less than a week after replacing Patricia on an interim basis. These echoed stories about Raheem Morris, the Atlanta Falcons’ interim head coach, who’s gone 4-3 since replacing Dan Quinn in October.


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In fact, the NFL’s three active interim head coaches — Bevell, Morris and the Houston Texans’ Romeo Crennel — are 9-7 on the season with a plus-63 scoring differential. The Lions, Falcons and Texans went 4-16 under their original coaches, and they were outscored by 161 points in the process.

The financial world has a macabre name for this kind of phenomenon: The “dead cat bounce.” First used in the mid-1980s to describe a temporary rally in oil prices during a long decline, the idea is that while the body of a dead cat might bounce if you drop it from a tall enough building, the bounce doesn’t mean the cat isn’t still dead. It’s since been used to describe similar patterns in all financial markets. But does it also apply to losing NFL teams?

In Detroit, Patricia’s abrasive style created “a toxic relationship with his locker room,” per Mlive.com’s Kyle Meinke, and the public celebrations of his firing by many recent former Lions made national headlines. It’s not hard to envision a celebratory locker-room mood leading to the culture change described by beat writers. But is this kind of addition-by-subtraction really something that happens consistently across the NFL?

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There have been 11 midseason coach firings over the past five NFL seasons. According to ESPN Stats & Information Group, the same teams performed better across the board after their coaches got their walking papers:

Teams have performed better after coach firings

Difference in key metrics between head NFL coaches who were fired and the interim coaches who replaced them, 2016-20 seasons

Margin/game Total margin
Coaches Win % Efficiency Points Yards Turnovers Time of Poss.
Fired 0.270 34.85 -5.37 -36.88 -20 -36:50
Interim 0.396 39.06 -4.36 -29.58 -11 -20:58
Difference +0.126 +4.21 +1.01 +7.30 +9 +15:52

Includes 111 games for the coaches who were fired and 53 games for interim coaches.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Winning percentage, average total efficiency, per-game scoring and yardage margins, and turnover and time-of-possession margins were all stronger under the interim coaches than the former skippers.

But a dead cat is still a dead cat, and “stronger” is relative. A .396 winning percentage is better than .270, but a team winning 6.3 games in a season won’t make most NFL fanbases much happier than winning 4.3.

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That seems to be reflected in offseason hiring cycles. Of the eight interim head coaches who took over in the 2016-19 seasons, only one was then hired for the permanent gig: Doug Marrone, who’s gone 22-38 (.367) in four seasons as full-time head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Marrone’s general manager was just fired, and as of Dec. 9, Marrone himself was the fourth-most-likely coach to be fired next, per BetOnline.ag.

The dead-coach bounce is real — but NFL management seems to know not to mistake that bounce for life.

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 13 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
Rk Team Starting QB QB Rk* Elo Rating Proj. Wins Make Playoffs Win Div. Win SB
1 Chiefs Mahomes 1 1763 14.0 100% >99% 29%
2 Steelers R’lisberger 6 1662 13.6 >99 95 10
3 Packers Rodgers 2 1649 12.0 >99 >99 9
4 Bills Allen 5 1633 11.5 96 91 5
5 Ravens Jackson 7 1611 10.0 59 0 2
6 Rams Goff 11 1604 10.7 99 60 3
7 Bucs Brady 10 1585 9.7 84 <1 2
8 Colts Rivers 15 1585 10.5 69 38 2
9 Titans Tannehill 9 1581 10.6 87 62 2
10 Browns Mayfield 20 1575 11.4 91 5 1
11 Seahawks Wilson 8 1568 10.5 97 39 2
12 Saints Hill 31 1561 12.9 100 >99 30
13 Patriots Newton 19 1546 8.1 13 2 <1
14 Vikings Cousins 14 1537 7.9 40 <1 <1
15 49ers Mullens 26 1518 7.3 26 <1 <1
16 Raiders Carr 12 1513 9.3 45 <1 <1
17 Dolphins Tagovailoa 25 1511 9.5 40 7 <1
18 Cardinals Murray 4 1485 8.0 37 2 <1
19 Wash. Smith 21 1482 7.0 43 40 <1
20 Texans Watson 3 1474 6.0 <1 <1 <1
21 Falcons Ryan 18 1473 5.4 <1 0 <1
22 Panthers Bridgewater 13 1459 5.4 <1 0 <1
23 Giants Jones 22 1456 6.8 54 53 <1
24 Broncos Lock 29 1453 5.7 <1 0 <1
25 Bears Trubisky† 23 1450 6.8 9 <1 <1
26 Eagles Hurts 28 1407 5.1 5 5 <1
27 Chargers Herbert 16 1384 4.3 0 0 0
28 Lions Stafford 17 1373 6.0 3 <1 <1
29 Cowboys Dalton 27 1342 4.6 2 2 <1
30 Jaguars Glennon 24 1288 1.8 0 0 0
31 Jets Darnold 30 1265 0.5 0 0 0
32 Bengals Allen 32 1254 3.4 0 0 0

*Ranking among Week 14 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

†Starter could be replaced for performance reasons.

Simulations as of Dec. 10, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: The best game of the upcoming week on paper probably involves the Bills and Steelers on Sunday night, a matchup of two top-five teams in our Elo rankings. However, while that game has seeding consequences, particularly for Pittsburgh — which has only a 40 percent chance for the AFC’s No. 1 seed, despite its 11-1 record — both teams are pretty firmly in the playoff field, with the Steelers all but clinching and the Bills sitting at 96 percent. The far more consequential game for the playoff picture pits the Colts (the AFC’s No. 7 seed) against the Raiders (No. 8) in a battle to snag the conference’s final postseason slot. Although Indy was embarrassed by Tennessee at home in Week 12, it bounced back with a solid-enough win at the Texans, with QB Philip Rivers playing well. At 8-4, the Colts have a one-game lead over both the Ravens and the Raiders, who maintained their own playoff hopes after a miracle win over the Jets. With a victory Sunday, Indianapolis would be strongly favored (88 percent) to make the playoffs, while Las Vegas’s odds would fall to just 23 percent — but if the Raiders win, they would leapfrog Indy in the playoff odds, 70 percent to 46 percent. (Baltimore’s odds would stay at 59 percent no matter who wins.) Despite being on the road here, the Colts are the better team in our model’s eyes, and it gives them a 55 percent shot at the crucial victory. Elo’s spread: Indianapolis -1½

Neil Paine contributed research.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

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