Sunday, January 3, 2016

Do New NFL Coaches Need 'Their QB'???

We're just a few hours away from Black Monday, when many NFL coaches and their staffs are typically fired from their jobs, for the grave sin of not winning a Super Bowl that mathematically can only go to 3% of the league (1/32).

Now, in the past, we've talked about how to predict which NFL coaches would get fired using logistic regression. That was a fun exercise (and while my version was very basic, you can see a more advanced version at the Harvard Sports Collective, who were nice enough to take my idea and advance it without so much as a citation or a thank you)

But regardless of what a model might suggest, many teams are moving on from their coaches this season. And as the Eagles begin another coaching search, a lot of Twitter discussion has centered around how attractive the Eagles might be to a top coaching candidate.

Now, I kind of think all this talk is putting too much complexity into what's kind of a simple process. Even if you're a highly respected coaching candidate, that doesn't mean you can be that choosy in where you go. There are only so many job openings (between 5-10 a year), and they all have different constraints. I think the candidate who turns down an NFL head coaching job, especially those who haven't coached before, are very few and far between.

However, one thing I have wondered about, is the role of the quarterback in those decisions.

There exists a narrative that new coaches will always want 'their guy' at quarterback for their new teams. A coach has a chance to mold his team towards his vision, and as quarterback is the most critical position, you'd think this would be a major point of emphasis for them. But there also might be circumstances where a coach joins a team that already has a pretty good quarterback. And then there are times when a coach identifies a quarterback in the draft and wants the chance to build his team around the new prospect.

I'm sick of narrative-based discussion. I like data. So I decided to look and try and answer a simple question.

Do new NFL coaches perform significantly better when they bring in their own quarterback? Their own 'guy'?

I pulled some quick data together to do some investigating, looking at all NFL coaching changes since 2000.

Since that season, there have been 117 coaching changes (averaging almost 8 a year, driven up by teams like the Raiders, Browns, and Redskins).

I took each coaching change and checked into a couple things:

- Did the new coach make a quarterback change at all?
- Did the new coach invest a high draft choice (top 3 rounds) in a new QB and install him as the new starter?
- Did the new coach change quarterbacks, but not replacing the incumbent with a top draft pick?

Then, we can look to see if any of these types of coaches perform significantly better or worse than the others. I looked at two dimensions of 'better'

- Whether the new coach made the playoffs
- How long was the new coaches ultimate tenure with the team

From that, we'll be able to see if as a new coach, you tend to be more or less successful if you keep an incumbent QB, draft one, or just make a change. That has implications for future coaching candidates. If for example coaches who keep incumbent quarterbacks have much longer tenure, it would imply that a candidate should prioritize teams that already have quarterbacks and maybe wait rather than taking a job with a crappy roster of signal-callers.

So what do we see?

First - not as many teams make quarterback changes as you might think.

Of the 117 coaching changes, 50 of the new coaches (over 40%) kept their incumbent quarterback. That surprised me, I would've guessed more teams would make switches, but a look through history shows us examples like John Fox joining the Bears and keeping Jay Cutler, Jim Caldwell keeping Matt Stafford, and even Bill Belichick keeping Drew Bledsoe way back in 2000.

So about 40% of new coaches stick with the incumbent. And another ~40% or so (51 new coaches in our sample), replaced the quarterback, but not with a new shiny draft pick. Some recent examples include so AFC East teams this year. As both the Bills and Jets replaced incumbent quarterbacks with guys they didn't take at the top of the draft (Tyrod Taylor for Rex Ryan, and Ryan Fitzpatrick for Todd Bowles).

The last group of new coaches, 16 of them (or 14%), replaced their old QB with a top draft pick. I suppose we focus on these situations the most, because highly drafted quarterbacks attract attention, but they don't represent a huge chunk. Keep in mind I included any quarterback drafted in the top 3 rounds as qualifiers (because if you picked them after the 3rd round, you likely aren't counting on them to be a savior in the near-term)

So over 15 years, we have a fair amount of coaching changes that may indicate some interesting patterns. What do we see in the data? Do any type of new coaches have more/less success?

When we look at these coaches and their actual results, there's not a massive difference in how they've performed. That holds for both of our performance measures, coaches' tenure is roughly similar, and their odds of making the playoffs aren't hugely different either. Typically, the new coach tenure is between 3-4 years, and they have 20-30% odds of making the playoffs in their first year.

But what I do find interesting is that across all three types, the type with the least success and the shortest tenures are the ones who invest a top pick in a QB in their first season. If you think about it, it makes intuitive sense. Newly drafted quarterbacks aren't exactly foolproof, and hitching your wagon to one at the outset of your coaching role means that if they fail, you're probably out of a job (and new QBs fail A LOT).

In fact, I went through all the coaching changes since 2000 and looked at their teams' draft picks, and in those fifteen years while there were lots of draft picks, I could only find TWO instances of a team investing multiple high draft picks on quarterbacks with the same coach.

- Romeo Crennel coached the Browns starting in 2005, and the Browns drafted both Charlie Frye and a couple years later, Brady Quinn (Romeo was out shortly after)
- Tony Sparano coached the Dolphins starting in 2008, and they took Chad Henne that first year and Pat White the following year (note: this barely counts, as White was taken more as an athletic skill player who eventually started our brief infatuation with the Wildcat)

So what can we take away from this?

New NFL coaches who keep their incumbent quarterback or replace them with an experienced veteran do seem to last a bit longer in their jobs than those who take a top prospect in the draft. That would seem to suggest that if you're looking for a head coaching job, you shouldn't bank on getting a new QB in your first draft and being all that secure. (Note: I'm well aware that coaches don't always have personnel approval, but I think it's safe to say that new coaches' certainly have a big say, especially when they start)

What it boils down to is this, if you're a new coach and you want to draft a QB -- you'd best not miss. Because it's pretty much guaranteed you won't get another shot.

Something to consider if the Eagles hire a new coach who wants to move on from Bradford. It may prove to be a severely career-limiting move.

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