What is the NFL head coach life span?
And I’m not talking about actual life span — because that number is skewed due to coaches’ old age, seeming lack of fitness standards, grueling hours, and, in the case of Andy Reid, unprecedented access to complementary cheeseburgers.
No, I’m referring to how much slack a head coach receives.
How much time, statistically, does a coach have to make his mark before the ownership and/or front office ships him off to bring in a new sense of hope and optimism?
Because from front office to fans, that is what everyone really wants: hope.
No one wants to see the long-tenured and accolade-deficient head coach try his hand at another season when there are new suitors available.
So, how long does a coach get before he’s replaced with the shiny new beacon of hope?
As you can imagine, I ran the numbers.
I analyzed every coach’s tenure in recent history to determine what the average lifespan of an NFL coach is with a franchise, to get a glimpse into how much slack a head coach is given to succeed.
Four Methods To The Madness:
1. I only counted coaches whose tenure started in 1990 or later
This, of course, means I left off a multitude of famous coaches who coached in the ’90s but started their tenures beforehand.
Names like: Marv Levy (started in ’78), Bill Parcells (’83), Joe Gibbs (’81), Chuck Noll (’69), and Don Shula (’63).
Because, for example, if I include Parcells I have to include all coaches going back to 1983, which means I need to include Don Shula and all coaches going back to 1963.
A stopping point needs to be established, and 1990 is a good year to get into the modern era of football.
2. I only counted coaches who were a head coach for 17 or more games
I only included coaches who coached a full season plus one game to eliminate interim head coaches who were never in consideration to take on a full-time position with the franchise.
This means, of course, I didn’t include one-year dumpster fire tenures (like Freddy Kitchens), but those are far and few between.
3. I did not include current coaches
Simply put: their stories haven’t been written yet.
Bill Belichick could retire after this year, or go on to win five more Super Bowls.
Mike Zimmer could get fired after this year, or stick with the Vikings for 10 more years.
We just don’t know yet.
4. I did not combine the tenures of the same coach with two or more teams
I treated different tenures as different data points.
For example, if Andy Reid retired after last year and was no longer an NFL head coach (thus not violating rule three above), I would treat Eagles Andy Reid and Chiefs Andy Reid as two separate data points.
The same coach, yes, but different organizations, different decision-makers, different tendencies.
Taking into account my four rules above, I came across 157 different coaches.
As you can see below, I separated the data into three different groups: All 157 coaches, coaches who didn’t have a Super Bowl win, and coaches who didn’t have a Super Bowl appearance.
|# OF COACHES||AVG. GAMES||AVG. SEASONS|
|COACHES w/o S.B. WIN||146||64.6||
|COACHES w/o S.B. APPEARANCE||130||58.48||
What we learn from this is probably the most obvious conclusion that anyone with half a brain could deduce: Coaches who don’t win Super Bowls don’t last as long.
The average coach since 1990 (which, of course, includes Super Bowl-winning coaches) lasts about 69 games, which equates to just over four seasons with the team.
Coaches who made the Super Bowl, but didn’t win, lasted about 64 games, and coaches who never made the Super Bowl in their tenure lasted just under 60 games.
“That’s all well and good,” you might be saying, “But there have been a lot of bad coaches since 1990.”
And you’re spot on.
That’s why I separated the good coaches for another set of data.
Coaches With Over .500 Winning %
Here we have the coaches without the incompetence.
You won’t find the Leslie Fraziers, the Rod Marinellis, and the Hue Jacksons here.
These are 55 of the best former coaches of the past 30 years: the Denny Greens, the Bill Cowhers, and the Tony Dungys.
|# of Coaches||Avg. Games||Avg. Seasons|
|Coaches w/o S. B. Appearance||32||79||
As we can see above, the average Super Bowl-winning coach lasts around 6 and a half seasons, while winning coaches without a Super Bowl appearance last just under five seasons.
What Does This Have To Do With Mike Zimmer?
For the few of you that haven’t caught on yet: Mike Zimmer is in this data set.
Starting his career with the Vikings in 2014, he has led the team to a career .574 winning percentage, going 2-3 in the playoffs with the furthest campaign being the 2017 NFC Championship Game (Which, oddly enough, seemed to have been canceled? I couldn’t find any information on it…. Weird).
In simpler terms: he does not have a Super Bowl appearance as a head coach after 96 career games (going into this season).
If we assume the 1-5 Vikings don’t get to the Super Bowl this year, and Zimmer finishes out the year as head coach, that would put him at 112 career games as a head coach without a Super Bowl appearance.
Going back to our data for coaches with a winning percentage above .500, that would put his head coaching tenure at 33 games, or just over two seasons, above the previous coaches in his skill and experience bracket.
In even simpler terms: Zimmer has stuck around much longer than the average above .500 coach without a Super Bowl appearance.
If his tenure followed the data, Zimmer would have been fired by now.
Am I grabbing my pitchfork, rounding the townspeople up to forcibly remove Zimmer from his post? Not necessarily, I believe there are legitimate pros and cons for retaining him as head coach versus firing him.
But at the end of the day it comes down to this:
If Zimmer’s coaching tenure with the Vikings was a dog, it would be 24 years old.
If Zimmer’s coaching tenure was a human, he or she would be 115.
Does the front office and ownership see him that way?
Only time will tell.