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Examining sustained success in NFL Coaching

Everyone is thinking about the immediate impact or coaching hires, but wouldn’t it be great to hire a coach who could make your team into a long-term contender?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a ton of excitement this week as eight teams searched for their new head coach and almost all of those searches have come to a conclusion. While everyone hopes for a quick turnaround to their franchise, the best case scenario is that a team finds its leader for the next 10 years. This article looks at the NFL head coaches who have been with their teams for that long, where they came from, and what they have in common.

Coming into this season there were six NFL head coaches with a decade or more tenure with their teams. They were Bill Belichick (19 years), Marvin Lewis (16 years), Mike McCarthy (13 years), Sean Payton (12 years), Mike Tomlin (12 years), and John Harbaugh (11 years).

Lewis and McCarthy have since been fired by the Bengals and the Green Bay Packers, respectively.

Each coach on this list has one a Super Bowl, with the noticeable exceptions of Bill Belichick, who has won five Super Bowls and Marvin Lewis, who has won none. In fact, since 2008 at least one of these coaches has appeared in nine of 11 Super Bowls.

One of the two Super Bowls they did not appear in featured the Carolina Panthers and 8-year veteran Ron Rivera and the other featured Pete Carroll who has been with the Seattle Seahawks for nine years. It should come as no surprise to anyone that teams keep around coaches who win the Super Bowl and a handful of coaches tend to be represented in the game.

Carroll won his Super Bowl with the Seahawks but Rivera lost in his only appearance. Given the fact that Lewis was the only head coach in the NFL with over a decade of head coaching experience with his team and no Super Bowl rings to show for it, the clock could be ticking for Rivera and eight-year Cowboys’ head coach Jason Garrett.

These coaches have appeared in the playoffs 54 times in 83 combined years as head coach with their current team.hat averages out to about 65%. When the outliers (Belichick with 16 playoff appearances in 19 years and Lewis with only seven in 13 years) are removed, the number is goes down ever so slightly to 64%.

Of the six coaches who coached the same team for a decade or more, only two came from an offensive background: ex-Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and Saints head coach Sean Payton. John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens is a bit of an outlier in this area. He was a defensive backs coach, but his real claim to fame was as a special teams coordinator.

About this group of six coaches with over a decade of tenure

  • More coaches with some kind of defensive background are able to survive longer in the NFL than coaches with an offensive background.
  • Belichick was the only coach with prior NFL head coaching experience (Pete Carroll at nine years with the Seahawks and a Super Bowl Championship also had previous experience as NFL head coach).
  • Although Belichick and McCarthy both had prior experiences with their respective franchises, all were external hires.
  • Four of the six had future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Harbaugh and Lewis being the exceptions.

What can we take from this?

In the least surprising finding uncovered in the history of archival research, it showed that having a Hall of Fame quarterback is positively correlated with keeping a head coaching job in the NFL.

There are not currently any internal hires in this category. Garrett is getting close, but history shows it will be hard for him to get there without a Super Bowl win.

Anytime someone talks about not wanting to hire a “retread” who has previously had a head coaching job in the NFL somebody has to point to Belichick who is the only retread in this group. It seems to be a rare occurrence. After Belichick (19 years) the next most experienced retread is Carroll (nine years). Since it happens about once a decade, the NFL is just about due for the next one (fingers crossed Buccaneers fans).

Although the current trend is to hire offensive minded coach, the firing of McCarthy in Green Bay means only one (Payton) of the now four head coaches with 10 years of tenure are former offensive coordinators. Belichick and Tomlin were defensive coaches. Harbaugh coached defense, but was truly a special teams coach.

Although the sample size is small, it shows that defensive-minded coaches may be able to sustain success longer than offensive-minded coaches despite the better recent initial results.

On the surface, this may not favor the upcoming Zac Taylor hiring for the Bengals, but it’s unlikely that Taylor’s time in Cincinnati will largely be defined by the play of his current quarterback Andy Dalton. If Taylor and the Bengals can hit on Dalton’s replacement, Taylor’s tenure could very well exceed the decade mark.