More Like “Coach (That Exceeded Low Expectations) Of The Year”

I have always found the Coach Of The Year awards in the NFL to be among the most useless.  You probably have a good idea why: it’s rarely awarded to the head coach that’s actually the most outstanding of that season. Instead, all too often it’s given to the head coach that turns a bad team into a good team.  This year, it’s almost certain that Coach Of The Year votes will largely go to Jason Garrett (taking the Cowboys from 4-12 to 13-3), with the runner up being Jack Del Rio (taking the Raiders from 7-9 to 12-4).  What’s something that those two teams have in common?  Yep, they were both one and done in the playoffs.  Furthermore, does anyone really think that either Garrett or Del Rio belongs in the top five among head coaches when considering the entire body of their work?

This article will further expose the problem with how this award is handed out–and also attempt to find a more reliable metric to include in future consideration.

The historical failure of the Coach Of The Year Award

When one looks at the list of Coach Of The Year winners from the Associated Press, the following observations can be made:

  • The following Hall of Fame coaches never won the award when they had a chance to do so: Paul Brown, Hank Stram, Chuck Noll(!), Marv Levy, John Madden, and Tony Dungy.
  • In addition, the following multiple Super Bowl winning coaches never won the award: Tom Flores, George Seifert, Mike Shanahan, and Tom Coughln.
  • Finally, some Hall of Fame coaches who won it only once did so only because they beat low expectations: Vince Lombardi in 1959 despite not making the playoffs; Tom Landry in 1966, the first of his many powerful Cowboys teams; Bud Grant in 1969, the first of his four Super Bowl losses; and Bill Walsh in 1981, who at least won the Super Bowl that year but had so much more success ahead of him.  Only Grant made the playoffs in the previous season.

Compared to the previous season

Let’s start off by demonstrating just how strong the “exceeds low expectations” trend is.  This table shows all the winners of the AP NFL Coach Of The Year Award, with their records of the current year compared to the prior year–as well as the end result of the season in which they won the award.

The average of the win differential is 4.6.  Let that sink in: a typical team with a Coach Of The Year turned about a third of its schedule from losses to wins.  If that metric was required to win the award, no coach that led a team to a record of 12-4 or better the prior year would be able to win the award.

To add insult to injury, sum up the end results of Coach Of The Year recipients.  Only 10 of them won the Super Bowl or league championship.  The AP’s strongest eras by far were 1957-1963, when 4 of seven winners also won it all, and 1981-1986, with four of 6 winning the Super Bowl.  However, in the past 30 seasons the Coach Of The Year/Super Bowl winner were the same only twice. On the other end, 28 out of 60 Coach of the Year recipients failed to win a single playoff game.

Compared to the following season

One might argue that perhaps the Coach Of The Year as currently awarded can help identify who could be legitimate coaches on the rise.  A intuitive read of the list will find plenty of contradictions with that hypothesis (hello Dick Jauron, Jim Haslett, Dom Capers, Ray Rhodes, etc….) But when compared to the season following their AP award, as this table demonstrates, the evidence gets more damning.

Only three Coach Of The Year recipients followed up in the subsequent season with a championship: Weeb Ewbank in 1958-59, Don Shula in 1972-73, and Bill Belichick in 2003-04.  Only ten other winners came up one game short of the big prize.

Meanwhile, 28 out of 60 Coach of the Year recipients failed to even make the playoffs the following season.  That’s right, the same number of award winners that failed to win a playoff game the year they won the award failed to make the playoffs the following season.  I sense a strong correlation of overrating teams that were previously underrated.

How can the Coach Of The Year award be improved?

I do believe that it’s prudent to conduct the voting on this award once the regular season concludes.  Otherwise, it will just likely become a “Coach That Won The Super Bowl” award.  Or, we could simply accept the human fallacy that takes place, and just change the name of the award to “Coach That Exceeded Low Expectations Of The Year”.

Or, as this article is attempting to do, we can challenge the preconceived notions and dissonance of the voters, and try to find better ways to vote on this award.

One metric that I’ve devised is what I will deem the “NFL Coach Of The Year By Meeting High Expectations” award.  In order to get this award, a head coach must achieve the following two steps: make the playoffs in the current season, and; among the playoff teams in the current season, had the best regular season record from the prior season.  The idea behind this metric is that a head coach should get more credit for sustaining great records from the past than merely improving on bad records from the past.

The resulting list can be found in this link. Observations that I take from this:

  • 14 out of 63 coaches awarded (22.2%) also won the Super Bowl or NFL Championship, a mild improvement from the actual results of 10 out of 60 (16.7%).
  • 18 out of 63 coaches awarded (28.6%) failed to win a playoff game, a strong improvement from the 28 out of 60 (46.7%) actually awarded.
  • But what really impresses here is the eye test.  Of all Hall of Fame coaches, only Stram fails to make the list, and he’s further disadvantaged by having most of his success in the AFL.  Multiple Super Bowl winners Shanahan and Seifert are also awarded, and obvious greatest coaches of all time like Lombardi, Landry, Grant and Walsh win this award more than once. (Though amazingly, Noll still only wins this once–competition was admittedly fierce in the 1970s, but I’m sure Steelers fans will just tell you talk to the rings.)
  • On the other end, a lot of the flash in the pan chaff is discarded, such as the aforementioned Jauron, Haslett, Capers and Rhodes.  On this list, the only real sore outlier is Norv Turner in 2007.  Perhaps Jim Caldwell going back to back in 2009-10 could also be, but since he’s still active we’ll give him a chance.  One other oddity is Barry Switzer showing up twice, and Jimmy Johnson none.  However, I hasten to add that in real life, Johnson won it only once–and that was for improving from 1-15 to 7-9.
  • Only three times does this award match the actual AP Coach Of The Year award: Buck Shaw in 1960, Don Shula in 1968, and Joe Gibbs in 1983.


Now, I certainly don’t advocate using the strict metric that I’ve devised as the be-all determination for the actual Coach of the Year.  Intuition is needed to properly cast a vote.  For example, in 2006 Sean Payton didn’t merely beat expectations: he took over a team decimated not only within their roster, but well outside it due to Hurricane Katrina.  However, I think it would do voters good if they’re forced to step out of the box a little bit and not just look for stark differences between win-loss records from the past year and the current year–even if that means that it results in the boring and annoying (but most likely accurate) situation of Belichick winning the award every other year or so.