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Why NFL Teams Should Reconsider Giving Coaches The Heave-Ho


Well, we know the two teams heading to the Super Bowl, and we'll be hearing plenty about them in the coming days - the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. In fact, we'll even hear about the balls they're using - how much air is in them. Let's get to that in a minute. First, to some teams who are out of the running and trying desperately to get back in the mix next year. The New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons all fired their head coaches after the season. Buffalo's walked away. The San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos mutually parted ways with their coaches - whatever that means. Not to mention Oakland, which canned its head coach just a few weeks into the season. Now, this might seem like a good way to get a fresh start, but there is some new research casting doubt on whether it's the smartest move. And I spoke to NPR's Shankar Vedantam, a fellow football fan, to find out more.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I think if your hope is to win next year, David, the answer seems to be you should not change your head coach. I spoke with Michael Roach. He is an economist at Middle Tennessee State University. He's also a football fan. He follows the Tennessee Titans. He recently analyzed all football teams between 1995 and 2012, and he measured the effect of a change in head coach. And he finds, on average, that teams do worse after changing their head coach.

MICHAEL ROACH: After I wrote this paper, the Titans actually fired their coach, hired a new coach this past off-season. And then this year, they went 2 and 14, so they hired a new coach and promptly went in the tank and were tied for the worst record in the NFL.

GREENE: OK, a couple things it sounds like we should note there. One is that we're talking about the very next season. Teams, on average, don't do as well as they did the year before.

VEDANTAM: Or the next couple of years.

GREENE: Or the next couple of years. OK, so it is a few years. And also, we're talking about averages. I mean, it doesn't mean that this is a bad move for every team.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. So the team that I follow, the Philadelphia Eagles, did fairly well after a head coaching change a couple of years ago. But this is the temptation, David. Every team believes it has the unique power to spot the head coach who can turn things around. But, you know, very often head coaching changes are really based on not liking the guy that you have rather than a rational decision about whether there's somebody better to come in and take his place. Here's Roach again.

ROACH: You just say, OK, this guy that we've got wasn't able to get us over the finish line. We need somebody else. But somebody else is this idealized, you know, Vince Lombardi that's going to come in there. When in reality, it's probably not going to be someone who's that good, and it's likely going to involve disruption. It's going to affect team performance negatively next year.

GREENE: So he thinks they're focusing on whoever's in the job, and it's like, we got to get rid of this person, and just sort of assuming that oh, the world's a nice place. We're going to get someone like Vince Lombardi who comes in, of course, as a legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, and it just doesn't always happen.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. In fact, regardless of whether you do well or poorly after firing a head coach, Roach's analysis finds you would probably have done even better if you had not changed coaches. Now, a lot of what's happening here, David, is known as reversion to the mean. All teams tend to get drawn toward the average. So if you are lousy one year, it's just statistically likely that you're going to be better the next year. This is something that fans often miss. When you change a head coach and you go from being a 2-14 team to an 8 and 8 team, what you don't know is if the same thing would have happened under the old coach as well.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you this - I mean, sometimes teams face enormous pressure from their fan base to make a change. And it might not be fair because, you know, a team might almost make the playoffs, some chance call at the end of the game keeps them out. That shapes the whole narrative. It's possible a coach could come back next year and get them right back in that position, but because the narrative is changed, you don't make playoffs, it's like there's this impulsive decision that happens.

VEDANTAM: Yes, and I know as a sports fan, David, I think that way as well, which is that something doesn't go well, your team loses, and you really have the desire to sort of throw the book at people and say, figure out some way to turn the ship around. And in many ways, this is the premise of fantasy football, you know, the idea that it's the people you have that's going to determine whether you win or lose. And the idea is that you have control over the process, that if you pick the right people, you're going to win.

GREENE: But Shankar, isn't there a moment where changing a coach might actually be the best idea? And it might not bring instant success. It's a long-term decision. You know, maybe it's a three or four-year building process, but for long-term success, it just makes sense.

VEDANTAM: I think that's right, David. So I mean, you can take Roach's argument to an extreme and say because changing head coaches is bad in the short term, you should never change a head coach. And of course that means that if you're stuck with a bad coach, you're going to have that bad coach indefinitely. I don't think that's what Roach is saying. He's saying something much closer to what you are saying, which is what owners need to tell their fans. This coaching change that I'm making is probably going to hurt in the short term, but it's the right decision for the long term. Now, I could be wrong, David, but that's not the kind of message that most sports fans want to hear.

GREENE: Here's a message I want to hear - Eagles-Steelers Super Bowl next year.

VEDANTAM: I'm with you, David.

GREENE: Yeah, let's do that. Shankar Vedantam, thanks a lot as always.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to talk about social science research. And you can follow him on Twitter, @hiddenbrain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent and the host of Hidden Brain. The focus of his reporting is on human behavior and the social sciences, and how research in those fields can get listeners to think about the news in unusual and interesting ways. Hidden Brain is among the most popular podcasts in the world, with over two million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is featured on some 250 public radio stations across the United States.
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