What to expect from NFL's five rookie head coaches

September 3, 2022 09:57 AM
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An unlimited number of storylines can develop during each NFL offseason, and the media that covers the league does its best to embellish every one. As bettors, we need to do our best to keep up with all the changes, whether they’re related to free agency, off-field trouble, the draft, and for the purposes of this article, coaching changes. For 2022, perhaps the biggest story of all will revolve around the 10 new head coaches who will be pacing the sidelines. This is a huge number by league standards. However, half of them have been a head coach before, each coaching at least 28 games. The other half are rookies, and here I will be focusing on that group.

Here is a look at each of the NFL rookie coaches in 2022:

Matt Eberflus, Bears

Matt Eberflus takes over for Matt Nagy as the Bears go a different direction in their head coaching position after four declining years of Nagy’s offensive-minded approach. Eberflus was the defensive coordinator for the Colts the last four seasons, a unit not exactly ranked near the top of the league during that time. Eberflus also was linebackers coach for Dallas and Cleveland, and a college assistant since ’92 before that. This is his first head coaching gig at any level. Eberflus’ biggest hire so far was luring Luke Getsy from Green Bay, where he served as quarterbacks coach the last three years. The new offensive coordinator’s ability to develop quarterback Justin Fields and improve an offense that averaged just 18.3 points per game will be one of the keys to Eberflus’ success this season and down the road.

Nathaniel Hackett, Broncos

Another Packers offensive assistant plucked from Green Bay, Nathaniel Hackett takes over as the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Hackett was the Packers’ offensive coordinator the last three seasons, a role he previously served in Jacksonville, Buffalo and at the college level. He is another first-time head coach at any level, however. Hackett has as good of a chance at immediate success as any rookie head coach in recent memory, as the defensive unit he inherits allowed just 18.9 PPG and the offense figures to get an immediate and massive boost from the addition of quarterback Russell Wilson. Denver also added former Packers tight ends coach Jason Outten as offensive coordinator and Ejiro Evero of the defending champion Rams as defensive coordinator.

Mike McDaniel, Dolphins

The Dolphins’ firing of Brian Flores was one of the shocking stories of the offseason, as he led the team to a 19-14 record over the last two seasons. He is replaced by another coach who has worked his way up the NFL ranks but has never held a head coaching job at any level. Mike McDaniel comes from the Shanahan coaching tree and, like most of the rest of that lineage, boasts a bright offensive mind. He served in various offensive assistant roles throughout the league until last year, when he got his first coordinator shot, leading the 49ers offense to 24 PPG and one win shy of a Super Bowl berth. McDaniel has some good playmakers to work with in Miami, notably Jaylen Waddle and recently acquired Tyreek Hill from the Chiefs, and an otherwise decent roster to build on. In fact, he is the first rookie head coach since 2018 to inherit a team that was over .500 the previous season. That coach was Mike Vrabel of the Titans, and he obviously has done quite well in Tennessee. The Dolphins retained defensive coordinator Josh Boyer and brought in Chargers offensive assistant Frank Smith as the new offensive coordinator.

Kevin O’Connell, Vikings

The last rookie head coach to inherit a team that scored at least 25 PPG in a season was Matt Patricia of the Lions in 2018. That hire didn’t exactly work out for Detroit. Kevin O’Connell’s biggest job in Year 1 likely will be establishing a new culture after the surprising firing of Mike Zimmer, who had gone 72-56-1 in eight regular seasons. He also coached in five postseason games and was one of the better against-the-spread coaches during his tenure at 76-56-2 ATS (57.5%). O’Connell comes from the Super Bowl champion Rams, where he served as offensive coordinator the last two seasons. He also served in that same position in Washington before that. The Vikings offense will continue to rely on the talented trio of quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson. O’Connell brought Wes Phillips with him from Los Angeles to be the offensive coordinator, and hopes the hiring of longtime defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, most recently in Denver, can help improve things on that side of the ball. 

Brian Daboll, Giants

Over the last decade, three rookie head coaches have taken over teams that scored 15.2 PPG or less the prior season. All three led their teams to improve the next season. Sean McVay’s Rams improved by 15 PPG, Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals by 8.5 PPG and Robert Saleh’s Jets last year bumped up by 3.0 PPG. Like McVay and Kingsbury, Brian Daboll is an offensive-minded coach, having served as Bills offensive coordinator the last four seasons. Obviously if the Giants can replicate the offensive success of the Bills over the last four seasons, this will be a massive hire. There is a lot of work to do, though, and should the Giants not make a splashy pick in next week’s draft, the all-important quarterback job figures to be in the hands of Daniel Jones once again. The new offensive coordinator is Mike Kafka, the former Chiefs quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. The defensive coordinator is the well-known Wink Martindale, who served in that role for the Ravens the last four seasons. The coaching staff might have the edge over the roster in reasons to be excited about Giants football this season.

The important question for bettors as they get ready to handicap these new head coaches in 2022 is: How do these coaches tend to fare, both early and overall?

Unfortunately, there is no formula for predicting the success of rookie head coaches in the NFL. We all recall the Urban Meyer debacle in Jacksonville last year. That was as bad as things get as he was fired after 13 games. Because he didn’t complete a full season, he is not on our chart or in the analysis. On the flip side, there have been major success stories, most recently Matt LaFleur of the Packers, who has led his team to 13-win regular seasons in each of his first three years.

There are things we can look for as hints of what to expect. Here are a few nuggets I found:

— For the most part, rookie head coaches have been successful in improving their teams in their first seasons. In fact, over the last 10 years, of the 41 first-time head coaches who spent a full season with their new teams, 27 have led their teams to improved won-lost marks, five have produced equal records and only nine have seen their teams drop. In 2021, four of the rookies improved and one stayed the same. If you were to include Meyer, even his team improved by two wins from 2020 to 2021.

— The average improvement by rookie head coaches over the last decade has been 1.71 wins per season. The greatest improvement seasons have been seven wins by any team, and that has happened for five coaches, most recently Matt LaFleur of Green Bay in 2019.

— LaFleur has been the most successful rookie head coach over the last decade, not only winning 13 games in his rookie season but following that up with that same total the next season and 2021 as well. This will be his fourth season in Green Bay and he retains Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback although a few of his key assistant coaches have left.

— 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 season. 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. However, his career turned around quickly, so much so that he coached the team in the Super Bowl this past February.

— Of the 33 coaches to stick around for a second season with a team over the last decade, only 10 have built upon their rookie season with an improved win total the next season. Doug Pederson of Philadelphia is the shining star of that bunch, leading his Eagles to the Super Bowl title following the 2017 season after a 13-win regular season, a six-game improvement from the previous year. Interestingly, Pederson gets another shot at coaching and improving a team as he takes over in Jacksonville this season.

— 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 PPG. Defensively, Ben McAdoo’s Giants of 2016 improved their points allowed total by 9.8 PPG under his leadership.

— The worst offensive decline guided by any first-year head coach over the last decade came last season with David Culley in Houston, who dropped by 7.5 PPG. Marc Trestman’s 2013 Bears fell the worst defensively, going from 17.3 PPG allowed in 2012 to 29.9 PPG allowed in 2013.

As far as the new head coaches in 2022, here are a few rookie coaching systems to keep an eye on:

— Of the 35 rookie head coaches who inherited teams that finished under .500 the prior season, 27 led their teams to better records the next season. Of the five teams to hire a rookie head coach this year, only Miami finished above .500, so that would mean that three of the four other teams would figure to improve. If the number is three, my guesses would be the Broncos, Vikings and Giants.

— Of the 10 rookie head coaches over the last 10 seasons who inherited offenses that scored at least 23.5 PPG the prior season, only one saw his team produce a worse record the next season. The others improved by about 2.6 wins per season. The only coach taking over what was a competent offense last season is O’Connell in Minnesota.

— Obviously, there has been a lot of room to grow when a new head coach takes over a team that scored less than 18 PPG the prior season. There have been immediate results for this lucky group of coaches, as ALL nine teams that fit this bill over the last decade have improved, by an average of 4.7 wins per season. The coach looking to continue this trend is Daboll with the Giants.

— 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 PPG or more have brought instant change to their clubs. All 10 improved their franchise’s win total that first season, by an average of 4.0 wins. For 2022, we have one candidate: Daboll with the Giants.

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 295-365-1 SU and 316-326-19 ATS over the last decade. In other words, they lose more than they win, both on the scoreboard and at the betting window. Here are some other things to consider regarding betting on and against rookie head coaches:

— 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 — 144-171-13 ATS (45.7%). Road/neutral games — 172-155-6 ATS (52.6%). It seems as if 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 levels.

— 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 2012, rookie head coaches are 58-17 SU, good for 77.3% outright, but have gone just 29-44-2 ATS, a covering rate of just 39.7%.

— Rookie head coaches have also struggled in the large underdog role, going 38-153 SU (19.9%) and 88-98-4 ATS (47.3%) when catching 6 points or more since 2012.

— Ironically, in games in which coaching figures to matter most (+ 5.5 to -5.5 lines), rookie head coaches enjoy their best point spread success rates. Their record in this line window over the last decade is 199-196-1 SU and 199-184-13 ATS (52%).

— 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 113-124-9 ATS (47.7%), conference games 120-121-5 ATS (49.8%), nonconference games 83-81-5 ATS (50.6%). These are not groundbreaking betting numbers by any means, but they 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 seasons, they’ve combined to go 81-76-7 ATS, good for 51.5%. In Games 5-12, they’ve gone 148-171-9 ATS (46.4%). To close the season in Games 13-17, the record has been 87-79-3 ATS (52.4%). Think of these trends when you see the schedules of the six rookie head coaches in 2022 released shortly.

— Among the key challenges new head coaches face is keeping teams grounded after wins and keeping them together after losses. Rookie head coaches have been better at the latter. When coming off of losses, rookie head coaches own a record of 188-187-9 ATS (50.1%) since 2012. After wins, they’ve done a little worse, 127-139-10 ATS (47.7%).

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