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Captain of a Sinking Ship – Interim Coaches in the NFL

Every year, coaches are fired mid-season, and teams have to find a suitable replacement. These replacements are given the challenge of turning a struggling team around. While this comes with a certain level of security through the rest of the season, almost none of these interim coaches are rehired after their first season, despite consistently outperforming their predecessors. Interim coaches have a win percentage almost ten points higher than the original coach over the past ten years, and watching these teams, we can see their presence completely change on the field. Interim coaches even have a win percentage of 57% in their first games over the past ten years. Considering every interim head coach, with the exception of Rich Bisaccia with the Raiders in 2021, has inherited a team with a losing record, this seems like some type of outlier. There is a reason for this abnormality, however, as replacing a coach who has lost the respect of his locker room can completely change the motivation and confidence of an entire team.

If we look at the Raiders this season, we can see how Antonio Pierce has gotten the most out of his team despite a rough start and an unplanned starter at quarterback. Since taking over, Pierce and the Raiders are three and three with losses to the Chiefs and Dolphins and a Vikings team whose aggressive defense is a tough matchup for any rookie quarterback. Their wins have not come over any top-ten teams, however, they were able to completely control two of the games and beat a Jets team with a strong defense. Pierce and his coaching staff have motivated the players by allowing them to play in a way that shows the staff has faith in their players’ abilities.

You can tell by how the players talk about the new staff that the change has been embraced in the locker room. The Raiders players have talked about how simplifying the play calling has allowed players to think less and rely more on reaction. The players consistently praise the coaching staff for putting them in positions to succeed and allowing them to play instead of think. Just as the players credit the coaches, the coaches credit the players for their abilities, allowing them to simplify the game. We see teams consistently rally behind a coordinator promoted to interim head coach because of a mutual respect that is often missing between a team and their coach directly before the coach loses his job. 

22 out of 34 interim coaches since 2000 have been either defensive or special teams coaches. Many have previous experience playing in the NFL. An emphasis is placed on finding a coach who is respected by all players on the team, not just those brought in by the original coach. The results of this are visible on the field, as many teams look completely different after a change. These teams are not completely transforming, however, games that were blowouts before begin to turn into one-score wins or losses. This is the brand of football that can help resurrect a struggling roster, the only issue is that front offices do not see this as a sustainable formula for winning. On top of this, as the NFL transitions to a more pass-heavy league, it has become a smarter business decision for owners to bring in offensive-minded head coaches, as offense produces more money through sales than defense.

Many coaches who begin to feel pressure to start winning more begin to overthink, forcing players to second-guess their instincts and make mistakes. Interim coaches are able to simplify play calling and find creative ways to motivate their teams despite often being out of position to make any kind of playoff run. Despite improving their teams, many interim coaches are not given a chance to come back, as owners and general managers are worried that the wins do not come from sustainable sources. The style of play of interim coaches becomes too predictable, and the ability to motivate can only take a team so far before effective on-field coaching is required. This is not to say that interim head coaches cannot be effective coaches, but front offices see their results coming from being an effective locker room presence more than as a talented gameplanner.

Interim coaches also tend to perform better when taking over earlier in the season. This is because teams have not seen all of their formations and plays yet, but as the season goes on and teams have more film on one another, interim coaches tend to lose their spark. By simplifying the playbook, coaches allow their players to play quicker, but they also make it easier for opposing teams to game plan against them. Teams also begin to rely more on the run game and their defenses later in the season as the weather gets worse and offenses begin to slow down. This puts interim coaches at a disadvantage as they must either change their gameplan from their simple but effective style or risk being easy to read and counter. As the excitement of a reset begins to fade, players begin to lose motivation. Without motivated players, interim coaches cannot play the tough, “old-school” style of football they need.

Front offices are also looking for a widespread reset within the team and believe the best way to achieve this is to look outside the original staff, despite interim coaches displaying an improvement over the original coach. Interim coaches are selected based on who the front office believes can get the most out of their players in the short term, not which coach has the best skillset for building and maintaining a team. Because of this, most interim coaches who earn the respect of their teams and fan bases must still search for a new job when their year is up. This is not necessarily right or wrong, as the NFL is a business before anything else, however, it is unfortunate that so many of these coaches fall to the side after making the best of a bad situation.

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