Playoffs or Improvements – What’s an NFL head coach to do?

After reaching out to fans via Twitpolls.com and asking, “What was a reasonable period of time for an NFL head coach to get his team into the Playoffs?”, most fans answered with 3 seasons as their personal ceiling.  The Football Educator wanted to look at past historical perspective and found that “3 and out” seemed to be the unofficial launching point for most head coaches that couldn’t make the postseason.

Playoffs or improvements?

The Football Educator then followed up with a poll asking, “What fans were looking for from their head coaches; playoff appearances, W-L record, improvement?”  The majority of those that answered split between playoffs and improvement.  But is that how NFL owners measure the performance of their head coaches?  How do you mix the components of a 3 year threshold, team improvement, and making the playoffs?

One might assume that improvement on both offense and defense would lead your club to an eventual playoff appearance.  But what if you come up short?  Can improvement alone hold off the “Turk” from your head coach’s front door, even if he’s hit the ceiling?  Is three years a fair determination and time frame to improve a club from “dud” to “stud”?

A General Manager’s perspective

From a General Manager’s perspective, you have to look at both the present and past to determine your club’s future.  By examining the past history of NFL teams and their head coach records, we can cross reference offensive/defensive points/yards ranks (as one way to measure improvement) and hitting a 3 year playoff drought.  Will one overrule the other in the mind of an NFL owner?

The coaching statistics

Since 1992 there have been about 161 Head Coaches in the National Football League (not including interim).  Fifty-seven fell in the category of failing to ever make the playoffs (most 3 years or less) and being released as a result.   Six head coaches were able to buy one extra year from perhaps displaying “improvement” in offense/defense.  Nine head coaches showed the same and still didn’t make it past 3 seasons.

Butch Davis actually regressed and earned a 4th year, while Norv Turner (who doesn’t fit in this category) bought and extra season from years 3 to 4, fell back years 4 to 5, and then finally made the playoffs in year 6.  As head coach of the Washington Redskins, his was one of the most unusual and unique routes over the past twenty years.

For a select few (Joe Bugel ARZ, Dick Jauron BUF, David Shula CIN, Romeo Crennel CLV, Dom Capers HOU, Dennis Erickson SEA) displaying some sort of progress helped elongate their stay.  But one might also argue that their owners/organizations have shown adversity to change of any sort.  Recall Butch Davis was also with Cleveland.

It’s the playoffs

It’s probably safe to surmise that improvement and records must eventually equal a trip to the postseason play by a head coach’s third season.  There’s just too much riding in the high dollar, overexposed, ultra competitive NFL.  Gone are the days of turning a $30,000 investment (AFL 1960) into a $1 billion payoff.  Today’s NFL owners are paying mega bucks to gain control of their clubs and frequently having to invest in new stadium initiatives as well.  They demand immediate results.

Personal experience

My own NFL career started in 1992 and over those 16 years I never experienced a 3 year drought from playoff participation.  The CBA and resulting Salary Cap leveled the playing field for those that used their resources wisely.  We were a club focused and committed to pursuing a Super Bowl title each and every season.  Free Agency, the Draft, claims off the Waiver Wire, raiding Practice Squads, and NFL Europe all gave us avenues to acquire and develop talent well within a three year period.

Key is having a “good to great” quarterback, and we certainly had that in John Elway for quite some time.  We squandered opportunity with Jake Plummer over 3 successive playoffs, and mishandled the ascendancy of Jay Cutler.  But the talent was there to grow and thrive in the AFC West.  I left Denver two years removed from a trip to the AFC Championship, the next season the head coach followed (ironically after his first and only 3 year drought).

So as you look at the list of potential “hot seat” victims for 2012 and try to prognosticate who stays and who goes (Gailey, Garrett, Frazier, Shanahan), you might take a  look at improvement but you’ll be better served perusing the playoff pairings at the end of the season.  About 1 out of 3 NFL head coaches can tell you that from experience.