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NFL: Jets, Falcons, Others Cannot Fall Victim to Immediate Coaching Success

Mario Mergola argues that NFL teams should look for long-term success and not get too excited about one promising season under a new NFL coach.

Marc Trestman

Video: The New York Jets fired Rex Ryan and GM John Idzik on Monday, while the Falcons let go of coach Mike Smith.The Bears cleaned house, firing coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery.

“Things are turning around.” “This is a new era of football.” “He’s a man-genius.”

The Black Monday coaching dominoes began to fall with the immediate firings of Rex Ryan, Mike Smith, Jim Harbaugh, and Marc Trestman, with more guaranteed to follow in the coming weeks. Immediately, vacancies offer the opportunity for turnover, and the coaching carousel promptly begins to rotate. Rex Ryan may be the perfect fit for a team with an established quarterback, but shredded defense — Atlanta anyone? — while San Francisco — never without a losing season under Jim Harbaugh — will likely find it impossible to match its production from the previous regime.

The questions that follow the release of a head coach are obvious, if not valid. Where does the team turn next? Who is the right fit? Perhaps, most importantly, what direction do we want to go?

As Neil Payne of FiveThirtyEight explains, the transition from one head coach to the next often results in an immediate spike in the win column, but more because of the extremely poor year that precedes the coaching change, followed by a return to the mean. Not only is this methodology aligned with the trends within any given year — or set of years — but it also speaks accurately to the turnover that the National Football League has created.

Diving further, three of the four teams with the first coaching vacancies this year already have a history of such patterns. The last three new head coaches for the 49ers — given a full season of work — each improved from their team’s previous win total; the Falcons have seen an increase in wins with a new head coach five of their last six changes; and the Jets have performed at least as well as the previous installment through each of their last five coaching changes.

To Payne’s point, of the three teams and their historic performances, it is essential to note that eleven of the fourteen coaches fired in this example had a losing season in their last year with the team. Naturally, a regression back towards a .500 record would immediately yield a better result.

Why, then, do we ignore this every time it happens?

Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York each had its first-year head coach take its team to the playoffs. More interestingly, each of the coaches — Smith, Harbaugh, and Ryan — were ‘rookies’ at the time, leading a National Football League team for the first time in their careers. Yet, these men are instantly crowned as kings.

It is largely overlooked that poor seasons lead to an opportunity to rebound, not because of an organizational shift, but by the design of the league. The Jets and Falcons will own high draft picks this season. New York will play the fourth-place team in every AFC division next year. Regardless of coach or personnel, the Jets, like all other teams coming off a horrible year, are given the tools with which to rebuild.

The key, therefore, is rebuilding properly.

Mike Smith, Jim Harbaugh, and Rex Ryan each returned to the playoffs at least one more time in their tenures with their respective teams. Their first year on the job was, indeed, not a fluke, proven by their relative longevity at the head coach position. But the evaluation of such success — or potential failure — cannot be done accurately during the first season. In reality, by the time it takes to gauge whether or not a coach is a product of the league’s parity, inheriting a roster with potential, or truly an asset to the team, it’s arguably too late.

An owner that fires a head coach often looks for a change in team philosophy. The Jets, previously led by defensive-minded Rex Ryan, will probably search for a coach more centered around offense with their next hire. The Falcons, an offensive ‘fantasy team’ on paper, will probably do the opposite. Again, approaching a new season from a completely different angle often provides new opportunities for success. But this must be sustained for an extended period of time before becoming a legitimate method worth repeating.

While it is an extremely tough sell, the best course of action for a team would be to prepare for a winning season the year following the first year with a new head coach. If a game plan for victory is put in place that includes the expectation of a more ‘average year’ in the first season, it would yield better long-term results. What will happen to the Detroit Lions, an 11-5 playoff team, if they miss the postseason for the next few years? If they don’t win the Super Bowl this year, was it worth it if they can’t get back to the dance for the next five?

The National Football League is intentionally fluid. It is extremely easy to see results and take them at face value, as we tend to do by misapplying the famous rule ‘correlation does not imply causation.’ We see quick bursts of success, and believe all questions have been answered.

Franchises fall victim to this all the time, and rely too heavily on what appears to have worked in the past. Ultimately, they ignore the changing tide of the league, and only recognize its strength when they get pulled under.

The key is to not get caught in the natural flow. Instead, build a boat that will survive all conditions.

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