Beware Of the Coaching Hype Cycle
By Jason Wood
August 31st, 2011

In today's day and age, we love hyperbole. Whether you want to blame the internet and our "always on" news cycles, or some other phenomenon, the fact remains that we're obsessed with overstating things. Nothing can simply BE, it has to be the "BEST EVER" or the "WORST IN HISTORY." There's precious little gray area anymore.

Our penchant for overstating things extends into the world of football analysis. One of the things I think we do well at Footballguys is quantifying the middle ground. We certainly make bold proclamations of our own, but a lot of our hard work is spent qualifying the subtle differences between tiers of players, or outlining a tree of possible outcomes for a given situation rather than draw a line in the sand and pretend that anything in the NFL is 100% certain.

One arena of football analysis that has far too little critical thinking relates to coaching changes. The media loves to proclaim any incoming coach a "genius" or a "difference maker" while the outgoing coaches were "overmatched" or "bad hires." It's not that simple.

  • Before Sean Payton was a Super Bowl winning head coach and regarded as one of the better offensive play-callers in the league, he was an offensive coordinator in New York and Dallas that had his play-calling duties rescinded for a period in each stop

  • Marty Mornhinweg was a "can't miss" offensive coordinator cut from the 49ers West Coast coaching tree, only to flounder as the Lions head coach, only to then be resurrected as a "gifted offensive mind" now that he's overseeing the Eagles offense

  • Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm left Pittsburgh for the Arizona Cardinals and everyone assumed they would rebuild the team in a run-heavy, ball-control manner. Four years later and Arizona has finished dead last in attempts in three of four seasons, and no better than 28th in rushing yards
  • My point? We sometimes are too quick to assume that because a coach had success (or struggles) in a prior stop, that it immediately translates into a similar outcome in their new environment. There are so many variables that make such assumptions dangerous:

  • Role change - Is a coordinator becoming a head coach? Is a fired head coach taking a coordinator role? Will they be responsible for play-calling or will someone else on staff have those duties?

  • Coaching relationship dynamics - Many times coaches join new teams because of some connection to the existing coaching regime or general manager, but those dynamics are not always harmonious. Todd Haley and Charlie Weis had connections together, but there were reports that last year the relationship was tenuous in a "boss/subordinate" capacity

  • Scheme change - Sometimes a coordinator is less experienced in a scheme (e.g., a 4-3 defensive front versus a 3-4 front), but because of the head coach's preference, has to move out of his comfort zone

  • Personnel - The quality of the roster is an ENORMOUS factor. Let's look at the Colts system. Tom Moore is widely regarded as one of the great veteran offensive minds of the modern era, and Jim Caldwell is running the same system. But take Peyton Manning out of that equation and does the "system" remotely return the same results?
  • In spite of all the moving parts, I'm dismayed at how quickly many people are quick to grab onto the surface level conclusions when it comes to coaching moves. This year is no exception, as a number of higher profile coaching changes have been reduced to one line absolutes - when in fact the evidence may argue for a far less certain outcome.

    2011's Most Dangerous Coaching Assumptions

    1. Josh McDaniels will elevate the St. Louis Rams offense to new levels, and turn Sam Bradford into a top-tier fantasy QB
    2. Rob Ryan will fix the Cowboys defense and return Dallas to Super Bowl contention
    3. Todd Haley, not Charlie Weis, is the engine that drives the Chiefs resurgence

    Assumption #1 - Josh McDaniels will turbocharge the Rams pass offense

    The Rams surprised the world with a 7-9 finish last year, and rookie Sam Bradford was the toast of NFL punditry with what some called the best rookie season in a decade. Rather than explain why I disagree with the overwhelming platitudes hoisted upon Bradford, I'll turn your attention to a fantastic article by Chase Stuart, who examines Bradford's season in a historical context. But with success comes change, and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur left this offseason to take the head-coaching job in Cleveland. Josh McDaniels, the ousted Denver Broncos head coach, signed on to replace Shurmur.

    Conventional wisdom is that the addition of McDaniels and his "coaching genius" is going to vault Bradford into the next tier of quarterbacks. I've seen a TON of fantasy ‘experts' advocate drafting Bradford because of the "McDaniels Effect." Is that wise?

    The assumptions the go into buying into the "McDaniels Effect"

    1. He's from the Belichick Coaching Tree
    2. He oversaw the Pats offense during Brady's 50 TD season
    3. He turned Denver into a pass happy offense and made Kyle Orton a relevant fantasy player
    4. The 2010 Rams were a conservative offense

    My counterpoints:

    1. The Patriots offense was stellar before McDaniels, and remains stellar after he left:

      Year
      Team
      Offense
      Rushing Offense
      Passing Offense
      Pass
      %
      Rush
      %
      Yds
      Pts
      Att
      Yds
      TD
      Y/A
      FL
      Att
      Sks
      Yds
      TD
      INT
      Y/A
      2004
      NWE
      5722
      437
      524
      2134
      15
      4.1
      13
      485
      26
      3588
      19
      14
      7.0
      49%
      51%
      2005
      NWE
      5632
      379
      439
      1512
      16
      3.4
      9
      564
      28
      4120
      28
      15
      7.0
      57%
      43%
      2006
      NWE
      5369
      385
      499
      1969
      20
      3.9
      15
      527
      29
      3400
      25
      12
      6.1
      53%
      47%
      2007
      NWE
      6580
      589
      451
      1849
      17
      4.1
      6
      586
      21
      4731
      50
      9
      7.8
      57%
      43%
      2008
      NWE
      5847
      410
      513
      2278
      21
      4.4
      10
      534
      48
      3569
      21
      11
      6.1
      53%
      47%
      2009
      NWE
      6357
      427
      466
      1921
      19
      4.1
      9
      592
      18
      4436
      28
      13
      7.3
      57%
      43%
      2010
      NWE
      5820
      518
      454
      1973
      19
      4.3
      5
      507
      25
      3847
      37
      5
      7.2
      54%
      46%
      Avg 04-05
      5677
      408
      482
      1823
      16
      3.8
      11
      525
      27.0
      3854
      24
      15
      7.0
      53%
      47%
      Avg 06-08
      5932
      461
      488
      2032
      19
      4.2
      10
      549
      32.7
      3900
      32
      11
      6.7
      54%
      46%
      Avg 09-10
      6089
      473
      460
      1947
      19
      4.2
      7
      550
      21.5
      4142
      33
      9
      7.3
      55%
      45%

      How many coaches need to leave the Belichick tree with less success before we start to realize that it's Bill, his players and HIS system that matter? Yes, McDaniels played a key role as the OC from 2006-2008, which included Brady's record-breaking season as well as Matt Cassel's respectable fill-in season, but the Patriots offense was effectively the same before and after his time as OC.

    2. The Broncos did throw a lot with McDaniels, but weren't unusually productive:

      Year
      Team
      Offense
      Rushing Offense
      Passing Offense
      Pass
      %
      Rush
      %
      Yds
      Pts
      Att
      Yds
      TD
      Y/A
      FL
      Att
      Sks
      Yds
      TD
      INT
      Y/A
      2009
      DEN
      5463
      326
      440
      1836
      9
      4.2
      10
      558
      34
      3627
      21
      13
      6.1
      57%
      43%
      2010
      DEN
      5582
      344
      398
      1544
      13
      3.9
      15
      580
      40
      4038
      25
      12
      6.5
      61%
      39%

      The Broncos did throw a lot under McDaniels, but that was as much because of the woeful state of the running game and the even sorrier state of the defense. Even if you accept that McDaniels is "pass happy", let's remember that the Broncos weren't efficient:

    3. 2009 - 9th in attempts, 13th in yards, 16th in TDs, 15th in yards per attempt
    4. 2010 - 7th in attempts, 7th in yards, 15th in TDs, 9th in yards per attempt

    5. The Rams were a conservative offense in 2010

      The Rams were not a balanced, ball control offense last year.

    6. Pass % = 59.3%
    7. Rush % = 40.7%
    8. Pass Attempts = 590 (5th in NFL)
    9. Rush Attempts = 429 (14th in NFL)

    Take note. Sam Bradford threw the ball 590 times last year, which were more attempts than McDaniels' Broncos attempted in EITHER SEASON. How can anyone presume that McDaniels is going to throw the ball MORE in 2011? Imbalance creates predictability for opposing defenses, and you can be sure head coach Steve Spagnuolo (a defensive minded coach) has no interest in becoming further imbalanced.

    KEY TAKEAWAY - Josh McDaniels may be a very good offensive coordinator. Certainly to ascend to the OC role at such a young age for a championship contender in New England speaks well of his abilities. And plenty of his former players, most recently WR Brandon Lloyd, credit McDaniels for their best seasons. But that does NOT mean you can simply assume the Rams will jump into the fantasy elite among NFL passing attacks. Last year the Rams threw the ball 590 times, 5th most in the league. Sam Bradford took every snap, which is a rarity among even robust NFL QBs. The idea that McDaniels is going to reshape this offense into something more is by no means a foregone conclusion. That doesn't make Bradford a bust, but it does beg you to question whether he's really such a no brainer as your target at QB2.

    Assumption #2 - Rob Ryan will fix what ails the Dallas defense

    The Cowboys were among the 2010 preseason darlings, but ended the season 6-10 and far out of the playoff hunt. The season was filled with low points, including the loss of QB Tony Romo as well as an uneven running game. But what derailed the Cowboys was the collapse of the defense:

  • 436 points allowed (31st in NFL)
  • 5,628 yards allowed (23rd in NFL)
  • 33 passing TDs allowed (31st in NFL)
  • 6.8 yards per passing attempt allowed (28th in NFL)
  • 1,734 rushing yards allowed (12th in NFL)
  • 11 rushing TDs allowed (12th in NFL)
  • As a result, Wade Phillips was fired unceremoniously midway through the season. Phillips was not only Dallas' head coach, but the defensive coordinator. With Jason Garrett promoted from OC to head coach, the Cowboys brought in Rob Ryan - Rex' twin brother - to run the defense. Ryan has been an NFL defensive coordinator for the last seven years, and there' s perception among NFL punditry that he's going to turn the Cowboys defense around in a hurry.

    The assumptions the go into buying into the "Ryan Effect"

    1. Ryan is an aggressive, attacking coach
    2. He's experienced
    3. Ryan has gotten more out of his personnel than others might
    4. He's a better coach than Wade Phillips

    My Counterpoints:

    1. Ryan has been far less willing to blitz than his twin brother - By his own admission, Rob doesn't share the philosophy of his brother or father in terms of bringing pressure incessantly. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the idea (which I've seen espoused repeatedly) that Ryan is going to ramp up the pressure as opposed to Wade Phillips bears little resemblance to the reality of what Ryan has done as a defensive play-caller

    2. Ryan's "experience" pales in comparison to Phillips - I have to laugh when I hear people talk of Rob Ryan's "experience" as though it's a feather in his cap. He's been a coordinator for 7 years - which is great, but couch that against Phillips' resume.

    3. Phillips has been a defensive coordinator or head coach for 7 different teams
    4. Phillips has been a DC/Head Coach for 29 consecutive NFL seasons!

    5. Ryan has gotten more out of personnel than others could - To dissect this point, let's first look at Ryan's 7 years as a DC:

      Year
      Tm
      Defense Ranks
      Rush D Ranks
      Pass D Ranks
      Yds
      Pts
      TkA
      Att
      Yds
      TD
      Y/A
      FR
      Att
      Yds
      TD
      INT
      Y/A
      2004
      OAK
      30
      31
      30
      31
      22
      30
      7
      25
      15
      30
      27
      29
      31
      2005
      OAK
      27
      25
      29
      30
      25
      25
      19
      8
      9
      18
      9
      32
      23
      2006
      OAK
      3
      18
      27
      32
      25
      23
      12
      31
      1
      1
      7
      10
      5
      2007
      OAK
      22
      26
      21
      28
      31
      32
      32
      27
      2
      8
      4
      10
      29
      2008
      OAK
      27
      24
      17
      32
      31
      28
      27
      20
      5
      10
      14
      10
      22
      2009
      CLE
      31
      21
      31
      28
      28
      19
      29
      26
      15
      29
      14
      29
      26
      2010
      CLE
      22
      13
      13
      29
      27
      4
      12
      20
      8
      18
      24
      8
      27
      OAK-AVG
      22
      25
      25
      31
      27
      28
      19
      22
      6
      13
      12
      18
      22
      CLE-AVG
      27
      17
      22
      29
      28
      12
      21
      23
      12
      24
      19
      19
      27

      The first thing that should jump out at you is that Ryan's defenses have ranked in the bottom third of yards allowed in all but one season (2006 Oakland), and have ranked in the top half in points allowed only once (2010 Cleveland). A quick scan also shows that he's never fielded an elite rush defense, but "made his reputation' with a series of strong pass defense rankings in Oakland. So how do we take these stats and extrapolate whether Ryan "did more with less?"

    6. Nnamdi Asomugha was the Raiders top corner - is anyone going to argue that his play suffered without Ryan?

    7. In 2009, without Ryan, the Raiders ranked 7th in passing yards allowed and 6th in TDs (better than Ryan's last season)

    8. In 2008, the year before Ryan, the Browns ranked 14th in passing yards allowed and 10th in TDs (much better than the Browns showing in 2009 with Ryan taking over)

    9. Ryan is a better coach than Wade Phillips - As I already mentioned, Phillips has been an NFL coordinator or head coach for 29 straight seasons. That's nearly three decades running an NFL team/defense with nary a season to "regroup." I know we all fancy ourselves as general managers in training, but does anyone really think that many owners and general managers could be wrong?

      Coach
      Defense Ranks
      Rush D Ranks
      Pass D Ranks
      Yds
      Pts
      TkA
      Att
      Yds
      TD
      Y/A
      FR
      Att
      Yds
      TD
      INT
      Y/A
      Phillips (29 seasons)
      14
      15
      15
      11
      12
      13
      14
      15
      17
      16
      15
      16
      14
      Ryan (7 seasons)
      23
      23
      24
      30
      27
      23
      20
      22
      8
      16
      14
      18
      23
      Differential
      10
      8
      9
      19
      15
      10
      6
      8
      -9
      0
      -1
      3
      9

      What you see above are the AVERAGE defensive rankings for Phillips' and Ryan's defenses over their NFL careers. You might suspect that Phillips has had a wider range of outcomes, given his considerably longer tenure, which is true. Yet Phillips has had enough elite seasons (versus Ryan's NONE), that a comparison of their averages is illustrative.

    10. On average, Phillips' defenses have ranked 14th in yards - almost 10 spots higher than Ryan's
    11. On average, Phillips' defenses have ranked 15th in points - 8 spots higher than Ryan's
    12. On average, Phillips' defenses have ranked 15th in takeaways - 9 spots higher than Ryan's

    If there's one thing you can credit Ryan, it's that his pass defenses have been comparable to Phillips. But his rushing defenses have been woefully inadequate. The problem Dallas fans should be thinking about is that PERSONNEL matters and the Cowboys still have major question marks in the secondary. Mike Jenkins is gimpy, Terence Newman is hurt, and the safeties are a work in progress.

    KEY TAKEAWAY - The Cowboys have plenty of talent on defense and the team underperformed in 2010. You could easily see the Cowboys defense "improve" this year for reasons that have nothing to do with the coaching, yet the improvement may ultimately be seen as a justification for firing Phillips and hiring Ryan. But Phillips' career as a defensive mind is exceedingly more impressive than Ryan's; and we have to remember that Phillips was in a difficult position of being the head coach AND the defensive coordinator. I personally think the Cowboys could struggle again in 2011 defensively, and I wouldn't touch them as anything more than a fantasy defense. The good news is that if Ryan struggles as I suspect he might, the Cowboys will need to maintain an aggressive, pass-heavy offense which bodes well for the likes of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten and company.

    Assumption #3 - Todd Haley, not Charlie Weis, was responsible for the Chiefs resurgence

    The Chiefs were one of the surprise teams of 2010. Projected as a cellar dweller by many, the Chiefs upended the prognosticators with a 10-6 season and an AFC West title. The ascension to the top of the standings brought with it a breakthrough season for QB Matt Cassel, a turnaround season from WR Dwayne Bowe, and an emergent season from RB Jamaal Charles. Fantasy owners benefited greatly from last year's Chiefs - as Charles was the #4 fantasy RB and Bowe was the #2 receiver. Cassel wasn't quite as good, but he finished as the #12 fantasy QB - a low end QB1.

    For those counting on a reprisal of last year's heroics, you're betting that head coach Todd Haley was the engine of resurgence, instead of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Weis, as most of you know, joined the Chiefs last year as OC after a stint coaching Notre Dame. Unfortunately, he was one-and-done choosing to return to the college ranks as the offensive coordinator at Florida.

    The assumptions the go into buying into the "Haley Effect"

    1. Haley helped turn the Cardinals into a Super Bowl contending offense - which is how he landed the Chiefs head coaching job

    2. Haley was the primary decision maker, as head coach

    3. Weis has never been given a shot at NFL head coaching

    My Counterpoints:

    1. Haley's role in Arizona - I can't deny that Haley's two years as offensive coordinator in Arizona were fruitful. In 2007 and 2008, the Cardinals ranked 5th and 2nd in passing yards, respectively, and ranked 4th and 3rd in TD passes. 2008 culminated in a Super Bowl appearance. It's that success which landed him the KC job in the first place. But how much of that was Haley?

    2. Kurt Warner was a 2-time NFL MVP before he set foot in the Arizona locker room
    3. Larry Fitzgerald is an all-world wide receiver
    4. Anquan Boldin isn't too far behind them
    5. All three of those players had success before, and after, Haley called the plays
    6. Ken Whisenhunt (Head Coach) and Russ Grimm (Assistant Head Coach) are also offensive-minded coaches

    7. Haley's first year in Kansas City was bleak - It's very hard for me to compare the 2009 Chiefs with the 2010 Chiefs and dismiss Weis as a factor. Let's compare the two seasons:

      Yr/Tm
      Offense
      Passing Offense
      Rushing Offense
      Pts
      Yds
      Ply
      Y/P
      1stD
      Cmp
      Att
      Yds
      TD
      INT
      Att
      Yds
      TD
      TO
      09 KC
      294
      4851
      1019
      4.8
      256
      296
      536
      2922
      18
      17
      438
      1929
      8
      27
      10 KC
      366
      5595
      1063
      5.3
      319
      274
      475
      2968
      27
      8
      556
      2627
      13
      14
      % Chg
      24%
      15%
      4%
      10%
      25%
      -7%
      -11%
      2%
      50%
      -53%
      27%
      36%
      63%
      -48%

      In 2010, the Chiefs improvement was dramatic:

    8. 24% improvement in points scored
    9. 15% improvement in yards
    10. 25% improvement in first downs
    11. All that with only a 4% improvement in total plays
    12. The passing attack produced more yards on far less attempts (efficiency!)
    13. Passing TDs grew 50% while interceptions were cut in half
    14. Rushing TDs more than doubled, while total turnovers were cut in half
    15. Rushing yards improved 36% in spite of just a 27% increase in carries

    16. Now if you don't think Weis' role was significant, ask yourself what else changed from 2009 to 2010?

    17. Haley was still at the helm
    18. Matt Cassel was the starting QB
    19. Jamaal Charles was on the roster
    20. Dwayne Bowe was on the roster

    21. The key pieces were all in place, yet 2009 was abysmal and 2010 was exceptional.

    22. Weis has never been given a shot at a head coaching job - I'm not even sure this "reason" is worth justifying, but it's been said many times over. Weis' tenure as an NFL play-caller is far better than Haley's. Haley may have overseen a Cardinals passing attack that made a Super Bowl, but Charlie Weis oversaw a Patriots offense that WON THREE SUPER BOWLS. On top of that, he took himself out of the running for NFL jobs in order to pursue his dream job at Notre Dame. To suggest Weis' pedigree is somehow more indicative of greatness than Weis' defies just about every one of my logic circuits.

    KEY TAKEAWAY - Haley deserves the opportunity to prove me wrong, and 2011 will go a long way toward that. But I have the utmost respect for Charlie Weis, and think he maximized a middling Chiefs unit last year when most coaches would've struggled to win games at all. Haley as the offensive honcho in 2009 took the same pieces and struggled. Weis stepped in and COMPLETELY reshaped the run/pass ratio (turning the Chiefs into the most run heavy team in the league) and made every facet of the offense more efficient. Whether Weis left because of rumored conflicts between he and Haley, or simply because he wanted to coach at Florida is inconsequential - we need to realize that he's no longer in Kansas City, and that's a problem. New OC Bill Muir was considered an mundane, uninspired play-caller in Tampa Bay, and so the onus will be on Haley to keep the train rolling. I have grave reservations. As a result, I view Cassel as someone not worth drafting in 12-team leagues, even as a backup, and I wouldn't consider Dwayne Bowe as anything more than a fantasy WR2. Jamaal Charles is a transcendent talent so I'm willing to draft him in the first round, although I would be lying if I said I'm not at least a little bit concerned that Haley will screw up Charles' fantasy potential, too.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wood@footballguys.com.

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