Stay Put

An argument to keep even a losing coach
January 11, 2016

BLACK MONDAY has now become as much a part of the NFL calendar as the combine, the draft and the Thanksgiving tripleheader. The day after the regular season ends, team after team fires its coach. Duties are relieved. Ties are severed. This year the Eagles beat the rush and dismissed Chip Kelly before Week 17. But by the end of business on Monday, Jan. 4, Kelly had been joined in the unemployment line by Mike Pettine (Browns) and Jim Tomsula (49ers). Dan Campbell (Dolphins) was interviewing for his job and Tom Coughlin (Giants) had stepped down.

Most of these changes were predictable and, in fact, had been predicted. Teams talk about the need for "fresh energy" and "new leadership" and "a clean slate." Fans—on social media and talk radio—usually applaud any move. Data, though, say something else. Dirty secret: There's little to suggest that replacing an NFL coach improves the situation, that the new boss with the Bose headset will outperform the old one. In one study a Middle Tennessee State professor of sports economics determined that NFL teams that fired their coach reduced their expected win total the following season by more than 10%, and the franchises' odds of making the playoffs dropped by 12%. In other words, the struggles of first-year coaches Rex Ryan in Buffalo or Tomsula, who started in San Francisco in January 2015, are a more common scenario than, say, the Jets' improvement under Todd Bowles or the Broncos' 12--4 record under Gary Kubiak—the only first-year coach to lead his team into the playoffs this season.

So why do teams continue to turn over coaches? Lots of reasons, but the main one is action bias. In stressful situations people choose action over inaction. We sell stocks, drop college classes and fire CEOs sooner than we should. Retaining the coach doesn't quiet the fans, but for an NFL owner the best move is often no coaching move. Put it like this: Don't just do something, stand there.

PHOTOGREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES (PETTINE)Brown Out Pettine lasted two years in Cleveland, and data suggest a new coach will struggle to do better next year.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)