When the Cleveland Browns fired rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens after the 2019 season, he became the fourth one-and-done NFL skipper in the past five seasons. Kitchens’s departure led to that of general manager John Dorsey, who himself was brought in when the Browns’ tank-and-rebuild plan didn’t pay off after one full offseason.
It’s not just the Browns making rash decisions. After the 2017 season, the Arizona Cardinals hired a first-time head coach and drafted a rookie quarterback with a top-10 pick. One year later, the Cardinals fired that head coach, hired another first-time head coach to replace him and drafted another rookie quarterback, with another top-10 pick.
If it seems like NFL decision-makers1 are getting worse at this — or at least more impatient — they are.
Evaluating NFL head-coaching hires is difficult because every job situation is different. Marvin Lewis held on to the Cincinnati Bengals’ head-coaching job for 16 years by winning slightly more often than he lost.2 Meanwhile, John Fox was fired from the Denver Broncos after going 46-183 and making the playoffs all four years.
But we can draw some (arbitrary) lines in the sand. For starters, let’s say any coach that gets fired (or quits) before their third season with a team is a failed hire. Likewise — high standards for the Denver Broncos notwithstanding — any coach who makes it at least three seasons with more wins than losses (or at least two playoff appearances) was a successful hire.
In the 20 seasons since the New England Patriots hired Bill Belichick, who’s won more games than any coach not already in the Hall of Fame, the other NFL teams have made 138 permanent coaching hires. Of those, 47 currently qualify as “successful” hires. (Several recent high-performing hires haven’t been around long enough to qualify). Meanwhile, 40 of the 138 hires since Belichick have been “failures.”
But if we break down the successes and failures over time, a pattern emerges: Teams are hiring and firing more quickly, and the results are worse.
Over the past decade, NFL teams have made 68 hires, down slightly from the 70 made the decade before. Yet 21 of the 40 failed hires (52.5 percent) came in the 2010s, and only 18 of the 47 (38.3 percent) successes. Worse, it seems that failure begets failure: Teams that fired 14 of the coaching busts immediately hired another one, while only seven coaching failures were followed by successes.
Just look at the most recent hiring cycle. Carolina moved quickly to make 44-year-old college coach Matt Rhule the sixth-highest-paid coach in the NFL. The Wednesday after the regular season ended, Washington announced that it had hired the Panthers’ fired head coach, Ron Rivera. The New York Giants admitted that they rushed to hire little-known Patriots assistant Joe Judge because they worried Mississippi State might hire him first. The Dallas Cowboys’ measured-but-focused courtship of former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy worked out for both parties. And in a case of very awkward timing, the Cleveland Browns hired Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski immediately after his offense was shut down by the defense of another candidate the Browns had interviewed, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
At that point, the last empty head-coaching chair was filled — and Stefanski was the only candidate to come from a coaching staff that made it past this year’s wild-card round.
That’s right: None of the top assistants from the Super Bowl teams (Saleh, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and assistant head coach/special-teams coordinator Dave Toub) were hired. In fact, though Toub has long been considered a strong candidate for a team willing to hire a special-teams coordinator, the Giants went and hired a different special-teams coordinator. The architect of Ryan Tannehill’s revival in Tennessee, Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith? The Pro Football Writers of America’s assistant coach of the year, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman? No love.
The NFL’s strange rules about hiring assistants from playoff teams might be influencing this. An assistant coach whose squad makes the playoffs can’t interview for a vacant head-coaching gig until after the wild-card round. If their team advances, they get a short window before the divisional round to do an initial interview. This is how Saleh, Stefanski and Roman all interviewed for the Browns job — but since Stefanski finished second to Kitchens in last year’s Browns interviews, Stefanski had a leg up in the process.
He might have had another advantage, too: losing. If the Browns wanted to go through a second round of interviews, they would have had to wait until this week to talk to Saleh. Instead, Stefanski was free to focus on his new gig and assemble his staff as soon as the Vikings were bounced from the playoffs. It’s fair to wonder if he was already doing that before the Vikings’ loss. That’s exactly what the NFL’s complex interview rules are supposed to prevent: key assistants focusing on their potential new job instead of doing their current one.
But NFL teams won’t wait for the candidates doing the best on the field. In fact, they seem to be racing faster and faster to fill all the seats on the coaching carousel before the music stops. Not only is this resulting in teams making more terrible hires and fewer good ones, it’s also making the Rooney Rule ineffective, as FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine recently wrote. A team won’t consider a diverse slate of candidates if it’s already decided to go all-in on landing the owner’s initial favorite.
How can the NFL fix this? As usual, the league’s complicated rules would be better if they were simpler. In college, all teams can hire as soon as their regular season ends, which levels the playing field. Of course, it also results in bizarre situations where postseason games are coached by incoming or interim coaches; imagine the Vikings having to hire a new offensive coordinator before the playoffs.
The other solution sounds extreme, but it’s the only way to get all 32 teams — and more importantly, all the candidates — on a level playing field: Prevent teams from hiring head coaches at all until after the Super Bowl.
The long delays between the end of the regular season and the end of the playoffs might lead to more uncomfortable Josh McDaniels situations, where a handshake hiring agreement falls apart over a couple of weeks. But that’s better than what we’ve got right now: Teams making permanent hires in a state of panic, overlooking minority candidates and ruling out better-qualified ones to “win the press conference” as fast as possible.
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