Commentary

The reality regarding coaching hires

Mailbag: As Texans' McNair outlined, failure rate is high for elevated coordinators

Originally Published: January 8, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

During the Bill O'Brien introductory news conference, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair explained why he was so adamant about hiring someone with head-coaching and NFL experience.

"The criteria was established based on the fact that the NFL is different than the collegiate scene," McNair said. "So that's why we wanted some NFL experience. In terms of being a head coach versus a coordinator, if you look at the record, the record is that coordinators have failed much more than they have succeeded. Like 40 percent or so have made it as opposed to those who have been head coaches. The statistics back up what we were doing but there was a reason for doing it and that is if you move from being a coordinator to a head coach, it's a different position."

McNair is right. Too many owners fire coaches after two or three years and reach out to find coordinators to turn around their franchises. The numbers don't work. The league has averaged seven firings a season since 1992. That's too many.

Basically, only two assistants-turned-head coaches a year succeed while the rest fail to a certain degree. The only issue is determining what you might label a failure. A coordinator might be able to get his team to the playoffs during his first three years and then get a short-term extension. Calling that a failure might be wrong, but owners are looking for the next Andy Reid, Sean Payton or Mike McCarthy.

That's where the failure rate goes up.

Go through the years and it's hard to find more than two coordinator hires to work out long term. The last great class of coordinator promotions was in 2006. The Saints hired Payton. The Packers hired McCarthy. The Texans had some success with Gary Kubiak. Brad Childress (Minnesota) and Eric Mangini (New York Jets) had some success, but Childress was let go before he completed five seasons and Mangini was gone after three.

Since then, the success rate has diminished. Ken Whisenhunt (Arizona) and Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) were success stories from 2007. Mike Smith (Atlanta) and John Harbaugh (Baltimore) were the winners from the 2008 class. Rex Ryan was an instant winner with the Jets from the 2009 hires. Ron Rivera (Carolina, 2011) and Chuck Pagano (Indianapolis, '12) are currently in the playoffs.

The rest fall into the cycle of signing four-year deals and being lucky to complete three.

"It's not just being a coach," McNair said. "All of the sudden, you're chief executive officer and you have to make tough decisions about who is going to be on your staff and who is going to be on your team. A lot of these decisions are very difficult and some coaches who have been players and then become coaches are still thinking as a player or as a coach rather than as the leader of the organization and they have trouble making some of those difficult decisions."

Go back to 2009. Ryan, Steve Spagnuolo, Jim Caldwell, Josh McDaniels, Todd Haley, Jim Schwartz and Raheem Morris advanced from coordinators to head coaches. Only Ryan and Schwartz lasted more than three years.

Five jobs remain open and it's possible four will go to coordinators. Recent history suggests only two owners will actually find their long-term answer.

From the inbox

Q: What do you think the Cowboys should do to fix their defense? Fire Monte Kiffin and elevate Rod Marinelli? Also, love to hear your thoughts on free agency.

Kirt in Clovis, Calif.

A: Jerry Jones already blew one great opportunity. By not letting Marinelli go to Tampa Bay, he lost the chance to hire Leslie Frazier, who might have been able to fix the mess. Marinelli can do the job but he won't. Marinelli is a loyal coach and friend. He's not going to take the job if Kiffin is fired. The longer Jones waits, the more he might have to stay with Kiffin. Forget about free agency. The Cowboys are too far over the cap to be a player. Clearly, their emphasis will have to be getting help along the defensive line along with maybe picking up a wide receiver if they cut Miles Austin.

Q: The NFL just fined Marshawn Lynch for his failure to talk with the press. What is the difference between Marshawn not talking and the horrendous one-word responses of Bill Belichick, Jim Harbaugh, Colin Kaepernick and others? I think, as a fan, I would prefer someone not to talk to the press than listen to Belichick, Harbaugh or Kaepernick.

Kris in Seattle

A: You may not like the way the three people you mention answer questions, but they are available for all the required interview sessions. Lynch has avoided all of his and that's why he got the $50,000 fine. There is a clause in every player's contract that mandates availability to the media. Violators can be cited in a complaint to the league and then fined. I am a former president of the Pro Football Writers Association. The organization has battled for years to get more cooperation from players and coaches. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been great in his support. Fans want information from the players. If coaches and players are allowed to hide from interviews, the information would be limited to the fans. It's better for bad interviews to be out there. If you don't like them, you don't have to listen. I applaud the league for this act.

Q: I hear all this talk about re-seeding, and I think I have the best compromise. If you guarantee the top three seeds to the top three division winners, and re-seed 4, 5, and 6 based on record (while guaranteeing the fourth division winner a playoff spot), you'll never have a road team with a better record than a home team in the first round. It still makes winning the division very meaningful, but gives a team like S.F. the opportunity to host a playoff game. This year, you would have had N.O. at S.F., and G.B. at Philly. Both home teams had a better record than the road team in those games.

Bill in Langhorne, Pa.

A: I still have a problem with that fourth division winner being cheated out of a deserved home game. Let's look at the AFC West next year. Three AFC West teams made the playoffs. Based on 2013 records, the four AFC West teams are ranked among the seven toughest schedules in 2014. The AFC West plays the AFC East and NFC West. Let's say the divisional race is so tough that no AFC West team does better than 3-3. If the division winner has a 7-3 record out of the division, it shouldn't lose out to a team that has an easy schedule.

Q: I wanted to propose a possible option for the Houston Texans. I am on the same page with you that you need a great QB in the NFL to be relevant and win games. I don't think Teddy Bridgewater is the answer for the Texans. There is a rare DE talent sitting at the top of the draft in Jadeveon Clowney, who could make the Texans' D one of the best. Why not trade a draft pick or two to New England for Ryan Mallett? The guy has been sitting behind Tom Brady for a few years now, and with the hiring of former Patriots assistant Bill O'Brien, Mallett would be familiar with the offense and coaching style.

Kenny in Orange, Calif.

A: I don't know if Mallett would be the right player, but you're thinking is pretty good. If the best quarterback in this draft isn't a surefire franchise guy, take Clowney. He could be Mario Williams if not better. But you are also right in thinking that the Texans can't ignore the quarterback position. They've got a talented defense. They need to get the offense back into the top 10. O'Brien is going to prefer a pocket-type passer instead of a running quarterback. Mallett might work. Kirk Cousins would work better. But the Texans need to do something.

Q: The fact that 55.8 percent of the teams that defer the opening kickoff win is my reason for always deferring. Make a statement by kicking off and stopping your opponent on the first drive. The game is 60 minutes long and not won on the opening drive.

Ken in Erin, Wis.

A: As it turns out, you are right. I didn't like the idea when teams started doing it. I thought it was too conservative a move. It now looks like the smart play. So much of football is determined in the final two minutes of a half. If a team can get a score before the half and knows it is getting the ball back after halftime, it garners momentum and confidence coming out of the locker room.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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