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.
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?
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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
|Coaches||Win %||Efficiency||Points||Yards||Turnovers||Time of Poss.|
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|
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.
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