Since 2000, a total of 26 NFL head coaches have been fired during the season, including at least one in every season besides 2002, 2006, and 2012. And with several teams coming off disappointing starts to the season, a few organizations might consider becoming the 27th. For those franchises, I have a piece of advice: don’t.
One big problem with firing a coach is the quality of the interim, or replacement head coach. Because an outside coach can’t possibly come in during a season and be successful, teams assign either a coordinator or position coach to become the team’s temporary head coach. These staff members are typically not as experienced or well-qualified, meaning they usually aren’t successful in the step up to leading the whole team. Why fire a coach you had faith in at the beginning of the season just to have someone lesser take over?
Above is a list of the aforementioned 26 midseason firings and hirings, along with the record of each coach during the season. While coaches fired achieved a paltry 74-175 record, winning about 30% of their games, their replacements didn’t fare much better, coming out on top of 36% of contests. While the 6% may seem like a large improvement, I’m not convinced these numbers reflect better coaching but rather a regression to the mean of their team’s performance.
Even if these coaches are significantly better, they aren’t turning horrible teams into playoff contenders. None of the 26 new coaches led their team to the postseason, and at 5-3, Jason Garrett was the only coach to post a record of two games above .500. Unless a coach is an obvious cancer to the team, preventing them from achieving success in some way, making a midseason change is highly unlikely to produce success in the current season.
If this is true, then the natural explanation for firing a coach would be to transition a team’s mindset to the future and focus on developing a new system to work effectively in the future. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case either, as just nine of 26 interim coaches actually remained head coach for the start of the next season. This lack of continuity seems to suggest that owners are simply trying to getting rid of a coach who’s methods aren’t working rather than having an actual strategy for winning games down the road. And for the record, just two of the nine interim head coaches retained eventually led that team to the playoffs.
What is concerning about teams dumping their coaches just for the sake of getting them out of the organization is that it signifies a lack of confidence in the entire roster and coaching staff to salvage their season without a complete overhaul, which creates a focus on preparing for next year’s draft and the following season rather than the present.
An additional point that must be considered is just the distraction caused by a coaching change. The interim coach, even if he has the potential to be a good head coach, is essentially thrown to the wolves, forced to establish his own system and ideas during a busy weekly schedule of travel, practice, and preparation for each week’s opponent. Similarly, the players have to adjust to their new boss and any changes to the locker room atmosphere. These unnecessary distractions could potentially harm the team.
In the NFL, chemistry is incredibly important, and disruptions to a team can be fatal. Teams should stay away from firing their head coaches during the season, instead giving them the full 16 games to prove themselves before being evaluated in the offseason. Since the hypothetical interim coach is unlikely to achieve any real success or even remain coach for more than a few months, discounting extreme circumstances, head coaches should be allowed to do their job. Look at the 2015 Chiefs, who started 1-5 before rattling off 10 straight wins to make the playoffs- victories might be just around the corner.