Cash in on NFL rookie coaches

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Naturally, there are always a ton of great storylines to follow each NFL season, and bettors need to do their best to keep up with all the changes. For 2021, one of the biggest stories will revolve around the array of rookie head coaches that will be pacing the sidelines. There are six in all, and that doesn’t include Lions front man Dan Campbell, who has just 12 games under his belt, having served as an interim coach for the Dolphins in 2015. Six new coaches ties for the highest number in any year of the last decade. Here are those new coaches:

Arthur Smith, Atlanta Falcons

Smith inherits an Atlanta team that has long been stocked with offensive talent. The consensus is that this team has underachieved in recent years under Dan Quinn. There is therefore a lot to build on as the Falcons went 4-12 last season despite being outscored by only 1.1 points per game. Smith comes to Atlanta from the Tennessee Titans, where he served as offensive coordinator.

David Culley, Houston Texans

Culley has a bit of a mess on his hands as he starts his head coaching career in Houston as QB Deshaun Watson is facing sexual assault allegations. Culley comes from Baltimore, where he served as assistant head coach, wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. Clearly with that level of responsibility for the Ravens, he seems ready for the next step. How the Watson situation transpires figures to control his 2021 destiny, however.

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars made the biggest splash in the offseason coaching carousel by hiring Meyer. The highly successful former college coach has spent recent years in the broadcast arena for Fox. Meyer’s job is a sizable one, but his efforts will be bolstered immediately by the drafting of Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence with the first pick in the NFL Draft. Jacksonville won only one game last season, but several of the improvement studies I’ve done in recent weeks have pointed to an instant rebound in 2021. It will be an interesting situation to watch regardless of the outcome as Meyer’s presence commands attention.

Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers

Like Smith of Atlanta, Staley has a nice set of tools to work with in his first season, especially with rookie phenom QB Justin Herbert back for his second season. The Chargers were better than their 7-9 record indicated as they blew several leads. It is thought that a better coach could have turned those games the other way. If Staley’s name sounds familiar, he most recently served as the Rams’ defensive coordinator, and that unit allowed the fewest points in the league at 18.5 points per game.

Robert Saleh, New York Jets

The biggest to-do list for any coach has to belong to new Jets boss Robert Saleh, who comes over after a successful stint as the defensive coordinator of the 49ers. After allowing 28.6 points per game on defense last year, New York should see near-instant results under Saleh’s tutelage. However, the offense was perhaps even worse, producing just 15.2 points per game. The franchise will start anew at quarterback, having drafted BYU’s Zach Wilson with the No. 2 pick. This team doesn’t figure to get a whole lot better early, but it certainly won’t be due to the passion and fire its new coach figures to bring.

Nick Sirianni, Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia is another franchise that most experts feel has underachieved since its Super Bowl-winning season of 2017. That seems like both yesterday and eons ago at the same time for Eagles fans. Sirianni comes to Philly from the Colts, where he served as offensive coordinator. There are a lot of question marks at key positions on this roster, just as there seemed to be under former coach Doug Pederson, perhaps introduced by Pederson himself. This team could go up or down in 2021.

How do rookie coaches tend to fare? For bettors of both season win props and game-by-game opportunities, this is the big question. Unfortunately, there is no set formula for predicting the success level of rookie head coaches in the NFL. However, there are some things we can look for as potential hints of what to expect. I’ll go through some of those things in a bit. First, here is a chart showing all of the full-season rookie head coach results over the last 10 seasons. There have been 41 coaches that have started their careers over the last decade. For each coach, you’ll find his record that season, the next season and the franchise’s record in the season before that coach took over.

 

A few highlights from this chart:

-       For the most part, rookie head coaches have been successful in improving their team’s record in their first season. In fact, over the last 10 years, of the 41 first-time head coaches that spent a full season with their new teams, 26 have led their teams to improved won-lost marks, five have produced equal records and only 11 have seen their teams decline.

-       The average win improvement by rookie head coaches over the last decade has been 1.73 wins per season. The greatest one-season improvement has been seven wins, which five coaches have done, most recently Matt LaFleur of Green Bay in 2019.

-       LaFleur has been the most successful rookie coach over the last decade, not only winning 13 games in his rookie season but repeating that the next season. This will be his third season in Green Bay, and much of his continued good fortune figures to hinge on the resolution of the Aaron Rodgers drama.

-       The worst decline of a team after the hiring of a first-time coach was by Arizona in 2018, as the Cardinals went from 8-8 in 2017 to 3-13 under Steve Wilks. He was let go after that miserable campaign. Three other rookie coaches oversaw four-win drops.

-       Zac Taylor of the Bengals had the worst first-year mark of any rookie coach over the last decade, going 2-14 in 2019. He’ll be entering his third season in 2021 and surely has to be on the hot seat after posting a record of just 6-25-1 thus far.

-       Of the 36 rookie coaches to stick around for a second season with a team over the last decade, only 13 have built upon their rookie campaign with an improved win total the next season. Doug Pederson of Philadelphia is the shining star of this bunch, leading his Eagles to the Super Bowl title in the 2017 season after a 13-win regular season, a six-game improvement from the prior year.

-       In terms of statistical improvements, Sean McVay’s 2017 Rams team made the biggest jump in scoring under any first-year head coach of the last decade, improving by 15.9 points per game. Defensively, Ben McAdoo’s Giants of 2016 improved their points allowed total by 9.8 points per game under his leadership.

-       The worst offensive decline guided by any first-year head coach over the last decade was also by McAdoo’s Giants, who dropped by 6.9 points per game. Marc Trestman’s 2013 Bears fell the worst defensively, going from 17.3 points allowed per game in 2012 to 29.9 in 2013.

 

As far as the new head coaches for 2021, here are a few rookie coaching systems to keep an eye on:

-       Of the 34 rookie head coaches who inherited teams that finished under .500 the previous season, 26 led their teams to better records the next season. With all six of this year’s new hires taking over teams that were 7-9 or worse, that would mean that four or five of the teams figure to improve. If the number is four, my guesses would be Atlanta, Jacksonville, the New York Jets and Philadelphia.

-       Of the eight rookie head coaches over the last 10 seasons who inherited offenses that scored at least 23.5 points per game the previous season, only one saw his team produce a worse record the next season. The others improved by about 2.5 wins per season. The new coaches taking over competent 2020 offenses are Smith (Atlanta), Culley (Houston) and Staley (Los Angeles Chargers).

-       Obviously there has been a lot of room to grow when a new head coach takes over a team that scored less than 18 points per game the previous season. There have been immediate results for this lucky group of coaches, as nine of 10 teams that fit this bill over the last decade have improved, by an average of 4.9 wins per season. The coach looking to continue this trend is Saleh with the Jets. 

-       Point differential has also proved to be a good indicator of potential improvement as the last 10 rookie coaches to inherit teams that were outscored by 8.5 or more points per game have brought instant change to their clubs. All 10 improved their franchise’s win total that first season, by an average of 4.8 wins. For 2021, we have two candidates … Meyer (Jacksonville) and  Saleh (New York Jets).

 

As far as in-season game-by-game betting opportunities, it should be noted that rookie head coaches have produced a regular-season record of 302-353-1 SU and 322-313-21 ATS over the last decade. In other words, they lose more than they win on the scoreboard but win more than they lose at the betting window. Here are some other things to consider regarding betting on and against rookie head coaches throughout the NFL season:

-       Rookie head coaches have been far more proficient at covering point spreads on the road over the last decade. Here is the breakdown: Home games – 149-163-14 ATS (47.7%). Road games – 170-148-7 ATS (53.5%). It seems oddsmakers tend to shade lines against these rookie coaches on the road, wrongly assuming the pressure and difficulty of the road environments will affect the execution level.

-       Rookie head coaches have won as big favorites, but covering point spreads has been a different story. In fact, as favorites of 6 points or more since 2011, rookie head coaches are 61-19 SU, good for 76.3% outright, but have gone just 33-46-1 ATS, a covering rate of just 41.8%.

-       Rookie head coaches have also struggled in the large underdog role, going 34-143 SU (19.2%) and 84-88-5 ATS (48.8% when catching 6 points or more since 2011).

-       Ironically, it's in the games in which coaching figures to matter most (+ 5.5 to -5.5 lines) where rookie head coaches enjoy their best point-spread success rates. Their record in this line window over the last decade is 207-191-1 SU and 205-179-15 ATS (53.4%).

-       In a trend that seems to make sense as far as familiarity is concerned, the more familiar the opponent, the less successful rookie head coaches have been. Take a look at these ATS winning percentages by opponent type since 2011: divisional games 116-122-8 ATS (48.7%); conference games 122-118-6 ATS (87.1%); non-conference games 84-73-7 ATS (53.5%). These are not groundbreaking betting numbers by any means, but it could serve as a foundational concept.

-       Rookie head coaches have shown a tendency to start and finish their first season most successfully when it comes to covering point spreads. Since 2011, in games 1-4 of their first season, they’ve combined to go 85-71-8 ATS, good for 54.5%. In games 5-12, they’ve gone 153-164-11 ATS (48.3%). To close the season in games 13-16, the record has been 84-78-2 ATS (51.9%). Think of these trends when you see the schedules of the six rookie head coaches released on Wednesday.

-       One last rookie head coaching angle to consider. I showed earlier that the overall record in divisional games is worse than in other types of games. Well, in the second of two games versus a divisional opponent, if the rookie head coach’s team won the initial game, they are just 23-30-1 ATS in the second, accounting for just a 43.4% cover rate. This also lends to the familiarity line of thinking.

Hopefully a lot of what I’ve uncovered over the past month or so in Point Spread Weekly regarding the NFL offseason has helped prepare you for the season win total offerings available at most sportsbooks right now. Wednesday is the big day in the NFL, when the 2021 schedule gets released. For next week, I will wrap up my NFL prep work by updating my power ratings and running them against the schedule to produce win projections and schedule strengths. I will also offer my own best bets for the season win totals.

 

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