How Much Does Coaching Style Impact Success in the NFL?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 5, 2013

Everywhere in sports, there are good coaches and bad coaches. It's no coincidence that good ones win and bad ones lose. As a result, we often simply conclude that coaches are good because they win and bad because they lose. 

It's actually sort of amazing how rarely we look beyond that. But there's a lot more that goes into what makes a good coach, and that's especially the case in the nuanced game of football. 

We can place NFL head coaches into categories, but there is inevitably some overlap. There are "player's coaches," who typically lead democratically and peacefully and are often adored by their players; there are autocratic disciplinarian types who are all business; and there are mad geniuses who have mastered the X's and O's of the game. 

There have been 466 head coaches in NFL history, but we're going to look at a sample of 44—the league's 32 current head coaches minus the seven with no experience, the 11 winningest head coaches who have coached in the last decade but are not longer active, and the eight coaches in NFL history with multiple Super Bowl rings who weren't included on either of the first two lists—in order to uncover any relevant trends among coaches with different styles and backgrounds. 

All coaches are top-tier experts on one side of the ball or the other, which is why we'll attach one of those two labels to every coach in the sample below. But not all geniuses were created equal. So while we've determined that every coach is either an offensive genius or a defensive genius as well as either a player's coach or a disciplinarian, we're giving twice the weight to every coach's "first classification."

In other words, we've determined that Bill Belichick is a defensive genius first and a disciplinarian second, while Jim Harbaugh is a player's coach first and an offensive genius second. This gives us the ability to account for the fact that most coaches can't be placed into a single box. 

Once we have fully exhausted that analysis, we can then determine if you're better off hiring a "genius" (I.e. someone who is a genius in his first classification), a player's coach or a hard-ass disciplinarian. And it's also possible we'll determine that there really is no right or wrong approach to take, and that it instead boils down to unique preferences and what suits your personnel and/or system.  

It should be obvious by now that this isn't an exact science. Some coaches are geniuses who treat their players great but still are viewed as strict disciplinarians with a vast knowledge of both offensive and defensive game-planning. We had to use our best judgement to determine which two traits defined those versatile coaches most accurately, and then rank those two surviving attributes. 

We can't draw conclusions about the league's seven brand-new head coaches, but we can take a look at the 24 who retained their jobs this offseason, plus Andy Reid, who jumped from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Kansas City Chiefs. 

While the league becomes more offensively driven each year, there are still more coaches with defensive backgrounds than offensive backgrounds on the above chart. That'll actually shifted this season, with six of the league's seven new head coaches coming from offensive backgrounds.

Now, 17 of the NFL's 32 active head coaches are offensive-minded, but you wouldn't be crazy to put Baltimore's John Harbaugh in either category (we've labeled him with a second-degree offensive tag). 

The one thing that stands out, though, is that player's coaches are outnumbering classical disciplinarians by a wide margin.

That's a new trend, which is highlighted when we take a look at the 20 winningest coaches that have been active just within the last decade. 

Remember, the timeline for the sample has been expanded to include 11 head coaches who are no longer active (but recently were) while the total sample size has been reduced because all but nine current head coaches are now excluded. This gives us a better feel for what's been happening in the years leading up to present day, as well as for what has led to success in this era.

And as you can see, the pie chart changes quite a bit.

Offensive coaches might not be any more prominent than defensive coaches, but more of them are winning. And while disciplinarians were less prevalent than player's coaches on the original chart looking at active coaches, the opposite is the case here.

But what happens when we expand the case study to include the greatest coaches in NFL history? Let's pull in every coach who has won multiple Super Bowls. There are 13 of them in total, with five spilling over from the analysis of the decade's most successful coaches. 

Where'd the player's coaches go? The gap between those types and the disciplinarians grows significantly here, which indicates that the hard-asses are typically more successful when it comes to winning in January. 

Defensive-minded coaches also gain a slight advantage over those from the offensive side of the ball, but it's obvious at this point that the difference isn't significant enough to matter. I don't think there's a right or wrong avenue to take in that respect.

As we mentioned, you don't have to exclusively be a disciplinarian or a player's coach, but it speaks volumes that, when push came to shove, we concluded that 12 of the 13 coaches with multiple Super Bowl rings were better suited for the former classification. 

So why does it seem as though more player's coaches are being hired every year? That could be an aberration, but it's worth noting that while player's coaches haven't typically fared as well on big stages over the course of NFL history, they have managed to post higher regular-season winning percentages than disciplinarians, at least among active coaches and the most successful coaches who have been active in the last decade.

When it comes to player's coaches, it's quality, not quantity. It seems they're harder to find, but those who land NFL jobs become very successful...at least in the regular season. The chart above reveals that they still don't typically win Super Bowls at the rate disciplinarians do, and the chart below is the icing on that cake...

Now let's combine offensive and defensive geniuses and disregard second classifications. That'll give us a chance to view the case study more sharply in order to draw any final conclusions. 

First, we compare the regular-season winning percentages of 29 head coaches listed in our second and third samples, excluding the 23 active head coaches who have not done enough to qualify as top winners from the last decade or all time.

Again, player's coaches fare very well, and our first-rate "mad geniuses" really struggle. Among those groups, player's coaches and disciplinarians win about seven percent more often than X's and O's gurus. 

But everything changes when the focus is shifted to postseason success rates.

Of the 28 coaches we looked at for this, 15 were class-1 geniuses, seven were class-1 disciplinarians and six were class-1 player's coaches. Broken down like that, the disciplinarians had gone to 4.4 Super Bowls apiece, while the geniuses coached in 3.4 and the player's coaches took part in 2.2. 

And with the Super Bowl being the ultimate goal of every NFL team, that means that history isn't on the side of those hiring player-friendly coaches. That trend is taking place regardless, and it looks as though guys like Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh will have a chance to shift the above figures in coming seasons. 

Interestingly, when you combine the Super Bowl appearance averages of belonging to disciplinarians and player's coaches, you wind up at 3.4, which is the exact same average that belongs to the genius coaches. 

And so while you're more likely to find a scheming offensive or defensive mastermind than a guy who makes his name as a dictator-type or a softy who befriends his players, the reality is that you can win (or lose) regardless of the route you take. 

When in doubt, though, go with the cranky old guy.


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