“Football Freakonomics”: Does Firing Your Head Coach Fix Anything?

Former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley, who was fired earlier this month. (Photo:

The following is a cross-post from NFL.com, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics Project.

‘Tis the season – for the firing of head coaches, that is. In the space of two weeks, three teams – the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Dolphins – canned their top man.

Allow me to make two seemingly contradictory points:

  • An NFL head coach is probably the most influential, hands-on coach in the four major sports; but:
  • Firing the head coach of a bad team probably does a lot less to improve that team than most of us think.

Our latest “Football Freakonomics” segment (video below) asks whether firing a head coach really does much to improve a team’s chances – or if it’s simply the standard move for losing organizations, meant to appease critics in the media, the stands, and even the locker room.

First, let’s look at some numbers: between 2000 and 2010, there were 17 coaches fired during the season. Teams that went 47-105 (.309) before the firing went 43-77 (.358) with a new guy. That’s a pretty significant improvement, no? Indeed, the 4-9 Dolphins last week won their first game under interim coach Todd Bowles while the 5-8 Chiefs, under interim coach Romeo Crenell, beat previously undefeated Green Bay!

But: whoa. There are at least three reasons to think that coaching changes have significantly less impact than teams would like to think. 

  1. Regression to the mean: teams that have done very badly for a long time are more likely to win a bit more in the future, whether they get a new coach or not. Sadly, the opposite is also true for winning teams.
  2. As Sam Farmer of the L.A. Times points out in our video, most former NFL Coaches of the Year are eventually fired. Did they suddenly forget how to coach? Did their brilliant strategies evaporate? Or, more likely, was their former winning a consequence of a lot of factors that went well beyond coaching?
  3. It is hard in general to satisfactorily measure leadership – whether we’re talking about a football coach, a CEO, or the President of the United States – but a variety of empirical research shows that an institution’s top man or woman is seldom as influential as we think. It’s a natural inclination to pin a lot of blame (or, occasionally, glory) on the figurehead. But just as the President don’t actually have much control over the economy, a football coach has limited control over his team’s outcome.

That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of vital duties performed by a coach; of course there are. And some coaches are plainly much better than others. But a losing team that blindly fires its head coach without looking for the real reasons behind its stinky record is a bit like someone with a high fever tossing the thermometer in the trash.

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  1. fraac says:

    Do head coaches make a difference at all? In soccer it’s easy to find two or three good managers, a handful of bad ones, but the middle 90% appear to be totally interchangeable.

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  2. VBinNV says:

    I disagree with your assertion that “An NFL head coach is probably the most influential, hands-on coach in the four major sports”. In each of the sports there are varying degrees of influence, but often an NFL coach defers to an offensive and/or defensive coördinator. I would argue that more NBA head coaches determine their teams’ complete game plans than do NFL coaches.

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  3. Jason says:

    In the past, I would have agreed, coaching changes seemed silly when you just have a crappy team on your hands. But, consider the unusual effect this season’s lockout gave us. For example, the 49ers made a coaching change with Jim Harbaugh and, because of the lockout, they were able to change very few players. With essentially the same roster as last year, they’ve gone from 6-10 to (currently) the second seed in the NFC. Proof, at least in this mostly controlled case, that a coaching change can have a profound effect.

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  4. alex says:

    “2. As Sam Farmer of the L.A. Times points out in our video, most former NFL Coaches of the Year are eventually fired. Did they suddenly forget how to coach? Did their brilliant strategies evaporate? Or, more likely, was their former winning a consequence of a lot of factors that went well beyond coaching?”

    Umm, it is highly likely that brilliant strategies evaporated. The 46 Bear defense (ran by the 85 bears) was possibly the most dominant defensive scheme ever, until it was solved. It is rarely used now. The Bucs won a title running the “Tampa 2″, now nearly no teams run that scheme. Same with the “I Formation” or “Pro Set” those schemes have been slowly phased out of the game.

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  5. Nick says:

    Choosing whether to fire a coach is like that Freakonomics podcast dilemma of a soccer goalie choosing to blindly dive or not during a penalty kick. Even if the action might be statistically less likely to br helpful, there’s still the worst-case scenario of not succeeding and looking like you never tried. At least if the GM fires a coach and the next coach doesn’t do any better, he can still say that he tried to turn things around.

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  6. Daniel says:

    It really wouldn’t have been that hard to examine a control group of teams with the same record as the fired coach, who did not fire their coach, and see how they did the following year.

    My guess is that nfl.com wants the Freakonomics name, and some of the lighter stuff, but doesn’t think its audience would be interested in the actual analysis.

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  7. RGJ says:

    What number do you assign to an NFL coaches contribution to success? They all have playbooks and assistants who are very smart and they all work their players hard in training camp, etc. You don’t coast into an NFL head coach job and the scrutiny is tremendous.

    So what about luck? Injuries? Your key players showing poise and heart and guts when needed?

    Many NFL games are close — certainly most end up with span of two scores, I would guess. he W and L are decided by just a few plays, and the coach is on the field for nione of them.

    If you look at the franchises that have long runs of success, say 8-10 years, most are built arounbd somne extraordinary talents during that period — a Ray Lewis or Mike Singleatary on defense, a Stauback or Roethlisberger on offense. We can think of exceptions, but most coaches have to, in Parcells work, do the cooking while someone else does the shopping.

    A lot of luck involved.

    Merry Xmas!

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  8. AaronS says:

    It seems to stand to reason that this would also be true of COLLEGE football coaches. But then there’s Bobby Bowden. Fourteen seasons of a TOP FOUR finish. Did he just ride a wave?

    YES.

    But it was a wave of his own making. He came to a team in desperate need of confidence. He helped them obtain it. As their winning grew, so did their confidence, and vice versa. Eventually, top recruits wanted to play for FSU.

    But then the wave, after a couple of national championships–and playing for (or nearly for) several more–crested.

    What happened? Well, four-star recruits who had piled into FSU got tired of riding the bench behind even better players, when they could have been a starter for virtually any other college in America. And so the recruiting began to weaken as more and more great players, because they actually wanted to PLAY, began choosing other colleges (even though they may very well have wanted to be under Coach Bowden).

    Eventually, it came to a head. Fourteen starters graduated. It was all downhill from there. For some colleges, a .500 record (or slightly better) would be a triumph…but for FSU it was the apocalypse. For over a decade, they had never had less than a 10-win season…and now they were losing more in a single year than they sometimes had lost in two or three years at a time!

    Bowden, believing he could somehow return FSU to greatness–after all, he had done it before–wrestled on. But just as confidence had come when they were losers, now confidence was ebbing away with every loss.

    And so Bowden was “fired” (we’ll call it that, even though it was more like a pressurized resignation).

    The new guy, Jimbo Fisher? Great coach…but not exactly setting the world on fire? Why? Because it will take time to build a top-recruit team…work them through the system for a couple of years…then turn them on the field. Fisher is now up against what Bowden was up against in the 1970s: a team in need of having their confidence restored.

    And if he keeps it up long enough…he’ll join Bowden in being pushed to pasture.

    So, YES, coaches DO make a HUGE difference…but then, at some point, things begin to balance out. If you have the #1 NFL team over and over…you aren’t getting the best draft position year after year…while the other teams are doing better. It’s eventually going to show up on the field. And then, finally, you’ll be doing so poorly that you, too, can obtain top draft picks.

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