There are often two types of teams that first-year head coaches take over. There are the complete tear-downs, like the Chicago Bears and every coach the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans hire. Then there are the teams that view the head coach as one of a limited number of “missing pieces” on the roster holding them back from contention. That’s the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins this year. That’s also the Minnesota Vikings.
While an argument could’ve been made for a complete roster overhaul, ownership and the new regime clearly believe they have the necessary pieces to win immediately. The return of Kirk Cousins and the restructuring of Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith’s contract show that. The free-agent signings show that. And to a lesser extent, the draft shows that.
Now in May, with offseason programs beginning and the Vikings having just over $7 million in effective cap space, the roster we see today will largely look exactly the same come September.
How much success have first-year head coaches in similar spots had? Let’s try to find the closest comparisons to the Vikings to see if we can get a glimpse of what 2022 may yield.
Overall record since 2008 of first-year head coaches (including repeat and rookie coaches): 634-822-3 (.435)
Overall record since 2008 of rookie first-year head coaches: 460-598-2 (.435)
There really has been no difference in the success of a veteran head coach or a rookie head coach in their first season. It should be noted that teams overwhelmingly hire rookie head coaches. Since 2008, 72 of the 99 head coaches that have been hired have been rookie head coaches.
How many have made the playoffs?
If you look at the 91 coaches that have coached one season (basically removing all the 2022 head coaching hires) only 25 made the playoffs in their first season (27.5%). However, unlike overall record, rookie head coaches have made the playoffs much more frequently – 18 of the 25 head coaches to make the playoffs in their first year were rookie head coaches (72%).
That’s normally where the success has stopped. Only seven of those rookie head coaches made it past the wild card round, five made it past the divisional round and just one has made it to the Super Bowl (Jim Caldwell).
In short, it’s difficult. There is a reason teams fire their head coach, and while it’s often under the guise of being “one piece away,” that’s frequently far from the truth. However, let’s look at some of the teams with rookie head coaches that did make the playoffs and see how the Vikings compare.
2021: Philadelphia Eagles - Nick Sirianni - Lost in the Wild Card round
2020: Cleveland Browns - Kevin Stefanski - Lost in the Divisional round
2019: Green Bay Packers - Matt LaFleur - Lost in the NFC Championship game
2018: Indianapolis Colts - Frank Reich - Lost in the Divisional round; Chicago Bears - Matt Nagy - Lost in the Wild Card round
2017: Buffalo Bills - Sean McDermott - Lost in the Wild Card round; Los Angeles Rams - Sean McVay - Lost in the Wild Card round
2016: New York Giants - Ben McAdoo - Lost in the Wild Card round; Miami Dolphins - Adam Gase - Lost in the Wild Card round
On average, the NFL sees about one of these rookie head coaches take their teams to the playoffs. And for every one of these success stories, there are five or six coaches who failed to make the playoffs. I won’t list those out for every year, but in the last three years, this is the group: Brian Flores, Zac Taylor, Vic Fangio, Freddie Kitchens, Kliff Kingsbury, Matt Rhule, Joe Judge, Arthur Smith, Dan Campbell, Brandon Staley, David Culley, Urban Meyer, Robert Salah.
But looking at the rookie head coaches that did make the list, there are two pretty clear factions: Teams with quarterbacks on rookie contracts and teams with a star quarterback.
The 2021 Eagles had inexpensive Jalen Hurts. The 2020 Browns had a cheap Baker Mayfield. The 2018 Bears had Mitch Trubisky in his second season. The 2017 Rams had Jared Goff in his second season. The 2016 Dolphins had Ryan Tannehill in the last year of his rookie deal. None of those quarterbacks have proved to be winning quarterbacks long-term, but their coaches (all offensive-minded) were able to get the most out of them while having enough cap space to supplement the other deficiencies on the roster.
Then there are the 2019 Packers and the 2018 Colts. Those teams were quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are two of the three teams since 2014 to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. These teams proved that a coaching move was actually one of the few missing pieces to their success.
Then, there are the outliers. The 2017 Bills paid Tyrod Taylor $15 million that season and snuck into the playoffs at 9-7. The 2016 Giants went 11-5 despite Eli Manning ranking 24th in PFF passing grade.
The Giants' appearance makes much more sense when you realize they were second in points allowed per game, 10th in yards allowed, and the best red-zone defense in the NFL.
The Bills' appearance is harder to explain, they were a below-average offense and defense in points scored and allowed. In PFF grade they were a bottom-half offense and a bottom-10 defense. But somehow they made the playoffs. That might just show the prowess of Sean McDermott.
The interesting thing about all of these teams is that there is not a clean comparison for the Vikings. They do not have a quarterback on a rookie contract nor a Rodgers or Luck-level star quarterback. And they aren’t expected to have a top-five defense. Those have been the key cogs for all these successful teams.
The closest comparison is the 2020 Cleveland Browns. The Browns hired a young offensive-minded head coach in Kevin Stefanski, hoping he could help take Baker Mayfield to the next level. The team had underachieved the previous season with a coach (Freddie Kitchens) that clearly didn’t connect well with the team. Despite ranking 14th in points scored and 21st in points allowed, they managed to finish the season 11-5 and third in the AFC North. Heading into the season their over/under win total was 8.5 and they were +5000 to win the Super Bowl.
For those looking at this Vikings season through an optimistic lens, much of what Kevin Stefanski did is what they hope Kevin O’Connell will do. An 11-5 season is most fans’ and analysts’ best-case scenario.
O’Connell was hired to find a new level to Kirk Cousins that so many other coaches have tried, and failed, to coax out of him. Mike Zimmer is a far better coach than Freddie Kitchens was, but they undoubtedly struggled in the weeks leading up to their firing. And if you want to get weird, the Vikings' current over/under win total is 8.5 and their odds to win the Super Bowl are also +5000. Exactly the same as the Browns. The Browns also faced an easier-than-average schedule, similar to what the Vikings are expected to face.
Now, there are a few unsuccessful first-year head coaches that entered into similar situations as Kevin O’Connell.
The 2018 Lions (6-10), Matt Patricia - This would be a worst-case scenario for the Vikings and one that doesn’t seem very likely, but the situations that the new coaches walked into aren’t drastically different.
The Lions replaced a successful coach in Jim Caldwell looking to get over the hump with Matt Stafford, who was making $26 million. The year prior, they ranked 7th in offense and 21st on defense. Last season, the Vikings ranked 14th in offense and 24th on defense.
The Lions didn’t have quite as much talent as Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen but they had Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. Like the Vikings, they also had several solid pieces along the offensive line in TJ Lang, Taylor Decker, and Ricky Wagner.
What destroyed this iteration of the Lions was Matt Patricia. He clearly didn’t have the right personality to run an NFL franchise and appeared out of his depth. It doesn’t appear like O’Connell will have those issues, but it shows the cautionary tale of moving on from a stable head coach and swinging for the fences.
The 2017 Chargers (9-7), Anthony Lynn - Again this comparison needs to start with the quarterback, who in this case was 36-year-old Philip Rivers. Rivers is clearly the better all-time quarterback but at that point in his career, he’s pretty similar to this iteration of Kirk Cousins. Rivers’ cap hit ($18 million) was considerably less than Cousins’ is now, but again the rosters and the situations have several similarities. Rivers had a rising star in Keenan Allen to throw the ball to and the team needed to be rejuvenated after the Mike McCoy era as it still had a solid roster on hand. They also came off a year where they were a fringe top-10 offense and a bottom-of-the-league defense, just like the Vikings. They had several dominant pass rushers and held up OK in pass coverage.
And the result was largely what the Vikings are expected to do, hover around .500. The Chargers barely missed the playoffs after finishing with nine wins. But the positive here was that they went on to take an even bigger step in 2018 and win 13 games.
With this iteration of the Vikings, that is the hope. They’ve pushed money down the road again and have Cousins signed for the next two seasons. They are hoping to give it a run in the next two years. And if they go 13-4 in 2023, it will likely be because they laid the groundwork with a moderately successful first season as the Chargers did in 2017.
My biggest takeaway was that most first-year head coaches don’t immediately find success. Just over 25 percent of rookie head coaches make the playoffs. And if they have any aspirations of making it past the first round of the playoffs, they either need to have a star quarterback like Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck, or immediately need to show their coaching chops, like Kevin Stefanski.
But what’s intriguing is the Vikings don’t fit traditionally into what a team with a first-year head coach looks like. Most rookie head coaches are tasked with rebuilding, not retooling. And the retooling teams often have better quarterbacks. So where will the Vikings and Kevin O’Connell fall? The best part is we don’t know. For much of the Zimmer era, it was almost assured Minnesota would finish right around .500. That is no longer the case, for better or worse.