Does firing coaches work?
By Stephen J. Dubner
'Tis the season -- for the firing of head coaches, that is. In the space of two weeks, three teams -- the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Dolphins -- canned their top man.
Allow me to make two seemingly contradictory points:
» An NFL head coach is probably the most influential, hands-on coach in the major sports, but ...
» Firing the head coach of a bad team probably does a lot less to improve that team than most of us think.
Our latest "Football Freakonomics" segment asks whether firing a head coach really does much to improve a team's chances -- or if it's simply the standard move for losing organizations, meant to appease critics in the media, the stands, and even the locker room.
First, let's look at some numbers: Between 2000 and 2010, there have been 17 coaches fired during the season. Teams that went 47-105 (.309) before the firing went 43-77 (.358) with a new guy. That's a pretty significant improvement, no? Indeed, last week, the 4-9 Dolphins won their first game under interim coach Todd Bowles while the 5-8 Chiefs, under interim coach Romeo Crennel, beat previously undefeated Green Bay.
But: Whoa. There are at least three reasons to think that coaching changes have significantly less impact than teams would like to think.
1. Regression to the mean: Teams that have done very badly for a long time are more likely to win a bit more in the future, whether they get a new coach or not. Sadly, the opposite is also true for winning teams.
2. As Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times points out in our video, most former NFL Coaches of the Year are eventually fired. Did they suddenly forget how to coach? Did their brilliant strategies evaporate? Or, more likely, was their former winning a consequence of a lot of factors that went well beyond coaching?
3. It is hard in general to satisfactorily measure leadership -- whether we're talking about a football coach, a CEO, or the president of the United States -- but a variety of empirical research shows that an institution's top man or woman is seldom as influential as we think. It's a natural inclination to pin a lot of blame (or, occasionally, glory) on the figurehead. But just as the president doesn't actually have much control over the economy, a football coach has limited control over his team's outcome.
That's not to say there aren't a lot of vital duties performed by a coach; of course, there are. And some coaches are plainly much better than others. But a losing team that blindly fires its head coach without looking for the real reasons behind its stinky record is a bit like someone with a high fever tossing the thermometer in the trash.