Rhule's 1st impression could be impressive

June 9, 2020 11:49 PM
Matt Rhule

I’m here to help you win a future bar bet and, more importantly, some money betting on a popular NFL award.

The next time you’re tipping back a couple of drinks with friends, ask them how many times since 1990 a first-year hire has won the NFL Coach of the Year Award. My guess is their answers will be under the real number. 

Ten times is the correct answer. Well, it’s the correct answer if you don’t include Bruce Arians winning in 2012. For the sake of this breakdown, I’m not including 2012. The reason is simple: Chuck Pagano was the coach of the Indianapolis Colts to start that season. In fact, that was his first year with the team, but he started to undergo treatment for leukemia around Week 5. That’s when Arians took over as coach. The Colts finished 9-3 under Arians, who was named coach of the year. You would not have been able to bet Arians to win the award before the season, and that’s why 2012 is excluded from this list.

So there are 10 winners in the previous 29 years. Pretty strong. It’s easy to look back after a couple of years and say, “Well, the Bears traded for Khalil Mack, and Matt Nagy surprised everybody with his play-calling,” or “Look at how loaded the Rams were when Sean McVay took over! Of course they were going to win 11 games.”

I could go on and on. The Bears’ win total in 2018 was 6.5. Nobody pegged Chicago as a 12-win division champ before the season started. The Rams in 2017? Their win total was 5.5. Name one person who thought that team would win 11 games, take the NFC West by two games and lead the league in scoring. I’ll wait. 

Nagy and McVay are only the two most recent examples. 

The point is voters love giving this award to a guy who takes over a mess with low expectations and shows immediate, dramatic improvement. Otherwise, Bill Belichick would have won the award more than three times in his 20 years with the Patriots.

Following is the list of coaches who have received the award in their first year with that team. Remember, it’s not a first-time coach, it’s his first year. I have included the Las Vegas regular-season win total along with how many games the team eventually won in parentheses. 

1992: Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh Steelers (RSW 6.5, 11 wins)

1993: Dan Reeves, New York Giants (7, 11)

1995: Ray Rhodes, Philadelphia Eagles (8.5, 10)

1997: Jim Fassel, New York Giants (7, 10)

2000: Jim Haslett, New Orleans Saints (6.5, 10)

2006: Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints (7, 10)

2008: Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons (4.5, 11)

2011: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers (7.5, 13)

2017: Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams (5.5, 11)

2018: Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears (6.5, 12)

The average RSW total in those 10 years equals 6.65. The average wins produced by those coaches equals 10.9. That’s an average improvement of more than four games a season. If you include every coach who has won the award since 1990, the average RSW total was 7.13, with an average number of wins of 11.86. If you take out the 10 years and average only the other 19 RSW totals for non-first-year coaches, that number is 7.39. Only one time during this span has a coach won the award with a double-digit RSW total. That coach is Belichick, who won in 2007 when the Patriots finished the regular season at 16-0. Their RSW total was 10.5.

Small win totals, low expectations, dramatic improvement. That’s a common theme covering a sample size of three decades. 

Let’s fast-forward to 2020.

The NFL has five new coaches entering their first years with their current clubs. I have included their win totals with current COY odds from various sportsbooks (with the exception of Caesars, whose listed odds were their openers). As always, shop around.

Ron Rivera, Washington Redskins

RSW total: 5.5

Westgate: + 6000

Circa Sports: + 4000

Caesars: + 3000

William Hill: + 2500

PointsBet: + 3500

DraftKings: + 2800

Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers

RSW total: 5.5

Westgate: + 6000

Circa Sports: + 2000

Caesars: + 1800

William Hill: + 3000

PointsBet: + 3000

DraftKings: + 4000

Joe Judge, New York Giants

RSW total: 6.5

Westgate: + 5000

Circa Sports: + 2500

Caesars: + 3000

William Hill: + 3000

PointsBet: + 4000

DraftKings: + 4000

Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns

RSW total: 8.5

Westgate: + 2000

Circa Sports: + 1500

Caesars: + 1200

William Hill: + 1500

PointsBet: + 3000

DraftKings: + 2000

Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys

RSW total: 9.5/10

Westgate: + 1200

Circa Sports: + 1500

Caesars: + 900

William Hill: + 1400

PointsBet: + 1800

DraftKings: + 1400

Based on history, Rivera, Rhule and Judge make the most sense. Of course, you can also make a case for the other two. If the Browns win 11 games in the AFC North and make the playoffs, Stefanski’s name will certainly be in the mix. The same can be said with McCarthy. Dallas is perceived to be razor-thin with Philadelphia, and if the Cowboys take that division and go over their win total, a lot of credit will go to McCarthy. An easy narrative to predict in this scenario is that Jason Garrett truly was that bad, and he was holding the team back.

I’m taking the plunge with Rhule at 60-1 at the Westgate. The Panthers upgraded at quarterback with Teddy Bridgewater, whose teams are 22-12 SU when he starts (and 27-7 ATS, for what it’s worth). Carolina added Robby Anderson to go with D.J. Moore at wide receiver, and running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the best weapons in football. Rhule had a plan entering the draft, too, as each player selected was on the defensive side of the ball.

College football is obviously a totally different animal from the NFL, but Rhule quickly turned around Temple and Baylor in his previous stops. 

It’s difficult to envision the Giants winning 10 or 11 games, or the Redskins or Panthers winning nine or 10, but this kind of jump happens a lot with first-year coaches in the NFL. Enough for me to bet on it.

Other football futures I have in pocket:

NFL MVP: Kyler Murray (30/1)

Comeback player of the year: Baker Mayfield (33/1)

Panthers: Over 5.5 wins

Seahawks: + 345 to win the NFC West

Colts: + 110 to win the AFC South

Heisman Trophy: Alabama QB Mac Jones (25/1), Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan (125/1).

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