I want to start this post off with a question: does making a change at head coach in the middle of a string of playoff appearances ever work out for teams that do it?
That is to say, if you’re a team like the Bills, and you’ve been knocking on the door for a while but can’t quite get over the hump–can’t get to the Super Bowl, can’t win the Super Bowl–is making a change at head coach really the answer?
I want to look at some teams that have done it recently:
- The Vikings fired Mike Zimmer and replaced him with Kevin O’Connell
- The Packers fired Mike McCarthy and replaced him with Matt LaFleur
- The Cowboys fired Jason Garrett and replaced him with Mike McCarthy
- The Texans fired Bill O’Brien and replaced him with… a string of placeholder coaches that were treated as disposable
- The Bucs are sort of a different situation. Bruce Arians had won a Super Bowl for them in 2020, but “moved to a front office role” after the 2021 season and Todd Bowles took over as head coach. Many believe this move was made to appease Tom Brady, who wanted greater control over the offense. It’s clearly been a failure, but it’s also only been one season, and for all we know the 45 year old Tom Brady may finally be washed up.
- The Eagles fired Doug Pederson after the 2020 season and replaced him with Nick Sirianni
I want to be clear on what I am NOT talking about:
- Sean McVay taking over for Jeff Fisher in 2017. This does not count. The Rams had never once made the playoffs under Jeff Fisher, who was head coach from 2012-2016. They were not in the middle of any sort of playoff run.
- George Siefert taking over as head coach of the 49ers for Bill Walsh in 1989. The 49ers had won 3 Super Bowls under Bill Walsh’s tenure, which lasted from 1979-1988 (they won Super Bowls in 1981, 1984 and 1988). Walsh retired after the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1988, and he was replaced by George Seifert, the 49ers defensive coordinator, who then coached the team until 1996 and won two additional Super Bowls. This type of situation doesn’t count because Walsh wasn’t fired, he stepped down voluntarily.
- Barry Switzer taking over the Cowboys after they parted ways with Jimmy Johnson following the 1993 Super Bowl. Jimmy Johnson led the Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl Championships in 1992 and 1993, but a rift between Johnson and Jerry Jones caused them to part ways. Though Switzer would win a Super Bowl with the Cowboys in 1995, the fact that Jimmy Johnson won two with the same team disqualifies this as an example for our little study here.
I’m talking about a team that feels they are *right there* when it comes to winning a Championship, but determines that their current head coach isn’t the right guy, and replaces him with a guy who the team feels is capable of getting them over the hump. I’m not talking about a rebuilding situation.
The Saints don’t count because Sean Payton wasn’t fired; he stepped down on his own. The Saints wanted him to continue coaching, but he was the one who made the decision to step away.
To start, I want to just go through past Super Bowl head coaches and denote when they started coaching that team:
- 2021, Rams: McVay hired in 2017
- 2020, Bucs: Bruce Arians hired in 2019
- 2019, Chiefs: Andy Reid hired in 2013
- Patriots in 2018, 2016, 2014, 2004, 2003, 2001: Bill Belichick hired in 2000. Patriots don’t count here.
- 2017, Eagles: Doug Pederson hired in 2016
- 2015, Broncos: Gary Kubiak hired before that season. Team had been on a great run under John Fox but failed to win a Super Bowl; won the Super Bowl in Kubiak’s first season
- 2013, Seahawks: Pete Carroll hired in 2010. You could theoretically cite them as an example, but I don’t think it qualifies. Mike Holmgren had been the Seahawks head coach from 1999-2008. He led the team to the 2005 Super Bowl but they lost 21-10 to the Steelers. They made the playoffs every year from 2003-2007, went 4-12 in 2008, and then Holmgren decided to retire. He was not fired. For the 2009 season, Jim Mora Jr. took over, the team went 5-11, and Mora was fired in favor of Pete Carroll. By the time Carroll won the Super Bowl in 2013, the roster had been rebuilt.
- 2012, Ravens: John Harbaugh hired in 2008
- 2011, 2007 Giants: Tom Coughlin hired in 2004
- 2010, Packers: Mike McCarthy hired in 2006
- 2009, Saints: Sean Payton hired in 2006
- 2008, Steelers: Mike Tomlin hired in 2007. Doesn’t count because Bill Cowher voluntarily stepped down after 2006 season
- 2006, Colts: Tony Dungy hired in 2002
- 2005, Steelers: Bill Cowher hired in 1992
- 2002, Buccaneers: hired before the season
- 2000, Ravens: Brian Billick was hired in 1999 to replaced Ted Marchibroda, the franchise’s first coach, who was in that role from 1996-1998, but had three straight losing seasons.
So out of all the Super Bowl Champions since 2000, only four examples fit the description of a team that had been having some success, but switched out the head coach and wound up winning a Super Bowl with largely the same core that the previous coach had failed to win a Super Bowl with.
Maybe 5 if you want to include Brian Billick, but he didn’t take over a playoff contender. He took over a team that had won 4, 6 and 6 games in the previous three years.
The examples I’m really looking at here are Jon Gruden with the Bucs, Tony Dungy with the Colts, Gary Kubiak with the Broncos, and Doug Pederson with the Eagles. I also want to discuss the Ravens. Let’s go through them.
Tony Dungy was the Buccaneers head coach from 1996-2001. He had the team in the playoffs in 4 of his 6 seasons, including a close loss to the Rams in the 1999 NFC Championship game. The Bucs fired Dungy before the 2002 season and replaced him with Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. Tampa actually acquired Gruden in a trade, and I believe this is the most recent instance of an NFL head coach being traded. (Update: Actually, the Jets traded Herm Edwards to the Chiefs in 2006.)
The change at head coach was made, transparently, because the Buccaneers felt Gruden would be able to get them over the hump. And Gruden did, although he was fortunate enough to square off in the Super Bowl against his old team, the Raiders, and basically knew everything they were going to do on offense. Dungy is often credited with building the foundation of that 2002 Bucs Super Bowl team, and the Cover 2 defense still popular today, known as the “Tampa 2,” was Dungy’s defensive system.
So this example fits the bill of a successful head coaching swap in the middle of a playoff run that resulted in a Super Bowl Title, although it was a very unique situation because you had the incredible defense already in place, and then Gruden was fortunate enough to go up against his old team in the Super Bowl.
The next example is, funny enough, Tony Dungy with the Colts. After being fired by the Buccaneers, the Colts immediately swooped in to hire Dungy to be their head coach. Indy had fired Jim Mora Sr. after the 2001 season, in which the Colts went 6-10. Indy drafted Peyton Manning in 1998, and both he and the team improved over his first three seasons in the league. Mora had led the Colts to two consecutive playoff appearances in 1999 and 2000, going one and done each time. So the Colts were in the midst of a playoff run when Mora was replaced with Dungy, although they did miss the playoffs in 2001. Indy was regressing.
Under Tony Dungy, the Colts would make the playoffs every year, but Peyton Manning earned himself the choker label because the Colts still were unable to get over the hump and make it to the Super Bowl in any of Dungy’s first four seasons there. They made it to the playoffs every year, but never could win the AFC. The farthest they got was the AFC Championship in 2003, but they lost 24-14 to the Patriots.
Finally, in 2006, the Colts broke through and made it to the Super Bowl, where they beat the Chicago Bears 29-17. Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning each got the proverbial monkey off their backs.
So this was yet another example, probably a better example, of a team making a change at head coach and having it work out for them. Under Jim Mora, the Colts had some success, but were hamstrung by terrible defenses. Because Mora was unwilling to fire his defensive coordinator at the time (funny enough, it was Vic Fangio), the Colts fired him and replaced him with Dungy, a guy they thought would turn the defense around.
The Indianapolis example is cleaner than the Tampa example, although it took Dungy a lot longer to lead the Colts to a Super Bowl than it did for Gruden to do it with the Bucs.
The next example we might consider is the Ravens. The Ravens fired Brian Billick after the 2007 season and replaced him with John Harbaugh. Harbaugh would eventually lead Baltimore to a Championship in 2012, his 5th year with the team. The reason I hesitate to include this as an example is because Brian Billick had actually led the Ravens to a Super Bowl back in 2000. Brian Billick was fired not because he couldn’t deliver the goods, but because he couldn’t replicate his success from 2000. Billick only managed 3 playoff appearances in 7 years after winning the Super Bowl. Obviously the team kept him around for a while because winning a Super Bowl does tend to buy you some time (although not always, as we’ll soon see).
I just don’t think we should include the Ravens example. The only player that was on the 2000 Super Bowl team and also the 2012 Super Bowl team was Ray Lewis; other than him, it was a completely different core of players. It wasn’t like they hired John Harbaugh to see if he could win with largely the same team that Brian Billick could not win with. Plus, they were 8 years removed from a Super Bowl Championship that Billick was the head coach for. I don’t think the Ravens example should count.
Moving on, our next example is the Broncos in 2015. To me, this is a pretty clear case. John Fox was the Broncos head coach from 2011-2014. He was the coach when Tebow was the QB and they beat the Steelers in the playoffs on that walk-off to Demariyus Thomas (RIP). And then Fox was the coach for the first three years of the Peyton Manning era. The Broncos were very good during those three years, and even had the best offense in NFL history in 2013. But they got blown out by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl that year, and in the other two years they went one-and-done, losing in the divisional round despite earning a first round bye each time.
John Elway, who was in charge of the Broncos at the time, decided to let Fox go after the 2014 season. Elway brought in Gary Kubiak to replace him. Kubiak led the Broncos to a Super Bowl in his first season with the team despite the fact that Peyton Manning was clearly on his last leg as an NFL player. The Broncos had one of the best defenses in league history that year in 2015. This is yet another pretty clear-cut example of a coach being brought in during the midst of a playoff run to take the team to the next level, and doing it. The Broncos got rid of Foxy because he didn’t get the job done. His replacement did.
Our last example is Doug Pederson with the Eagles. Pederson was hired before the 2016 season to take over for the recently fired Chip Kelly. Chip Kelly was the head coach of the Eagles for only three seasons, from 2013-2015, but he had led the team to the playoffs in his first two years. After starting out 6-9 in 2015, he was fired. It was about more than his record, though. Kelly was given roster control, and then promptly made some unpopular moves. The decisions to trade away LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso, and then trading away Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, really earned Kelly the ire of Eagles fans, and he really fell out of favor in Philadelphia. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie fired him after he refused to give up roster control.
Under Doug Pederson, the Eagles turned around quickly. They traded up to the #2 spot in the 2016 draft to select Carson Wentz as their QB of the future. The team went 7-9 in Pederson’s first year, 2016, but in 2017, both Pederson and Wentz’s second seasons, they went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl. Wentz was an MVP candidate that year until he went down with a torn ACL late in the season, but Nick Foles, who the Eagles had brought back after he was shipped off by Chip Kelly, was able to step in and lead the team to a Championship in one of the more improbable sports stories we’ve ever seen.
The question is, do we include this example as an instance of a team making a change at head coach in the midst of a playoff run and having it result in a Championship? I think so, because the Eagles had made the playoffs twice under Chip Kelly. Before Chip Kelly was Andy Reid, and although Reid had a ton of success in Philly, his last two years were duds.
But I don’t think Philly ever really went into a true rebuild prior to their Super Bowl Championship in 2017. They went 7-9 in 2015, it’s not like they were some horrible team that bottomed out. They had to trade up to get Wentz in the draft.
So I do think the Philly example counts. Philly got rid of Andy Reid because he couldn’t get the job done, then they got rid of Chip Kelly because Kelly just didn’t get along with the owner (along with the fact that Kelly wasn’t winning enough). They brought in Doug Pederson to get the job done with a lot of the same players, and he did it. It’s not quite as clean an example as some of the other ones I’ve highlighted, but I think it should count.
Why am I discussing this, though? Why did we have to go into this long history lesson about coaches being replaced?
Well, because I’m wondering if it would be smart of the Bills to pull the plug on the Sean McDermott era and bring in a new head coach to try and get this team over the hump.
I wanted to go back and look at examples of teams that have done this to see if it actually worked out for them.
And what we can see is that it has worked out a few times in the past. We have seen teams fire coaches who were successful, but not successful enough, and then go on to win Super Bowls under a new head coach.
But we’ve also seen it not work out.
The Cowboys let go of Jason Garrett after a decade in favor of Mike McCarthy, but Garrett really wasn’t having a ton of success even though he was there for 10 years. He made the playoffs three times in 7 years before being let go in 2019. Now, the Cowboys definitely did not enter into a full-scale rebuild after Garrett was let go; the team Mike McCarthy is coaching now has a lot of the same players as the team Garrett was coaching. And Garrett did have 2 playoff appearances in his final 4 seasons.
McCarthy has only been in Dallas three years, and while he’s led them to the playoffs twice already, he still has not been able to lead the team past the Divisional round, just as Garrett was unable to do.
McCarthy himself was fired by the Green Bay Packers in 2018 after 13 seasons. McCarthy led the Packers to a Super Bowl in 2010, but was never able to get back. He missed the playoffs his final two seasons in Green Bay.
The Packers replaced him with Matt LaFleur, and are basically doing the same thing they did under McCarthy: failing in the playoffs. LaFleur had the Packers in the NFC Championship game his first two seasons in Green Bay, but they lost both times. And then last year, they were the top seed in the conference yet went one-and-done with a Divisional round loss to San Fran. This year, LaFleur’s fourth, they missed the playoffs altogether.
Another example that kind of flies under the radar is Bill O’Brien in Houston. O’Brien was there 7 seasons as head coach, taking Houston to the playoffs in four of them. But they never got past the divisional round. In 2019, they blew a 24-0 first half lead to the Chiefs and wound up losing 51-31. O’Brien started 2020 out 0-4 and got fired, with Romeo Crennel taking over for the remainder of the year.
Since firing O’Brien and choosing not to retain Crennel, Houston hired David Culley in 2021 and fired him after one season, and then did the same thing with Lovie Smith.
Importantly, O’Brien was fired before the whole situation with DeShaun Watson went sideways. Watson only demanded out of Houston following the 2020 season, and sat out all of 2021. Things were apparently fine when O’Brien was there, although I’m sure Watson couldn’t have been happy about O’Brien’s decision to trade DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson. That’s one of the worst trades in NFL history, and it’s probably a part of the reason the Texans fired O’Brien.
So Houston firing O’Brien was about more than just the fact that he started 0-4. The Hopkins trade had a lot to do with it, too. But there was definitely an element of ‘We think we can do better’ involved as well. O’Brien was the most successful Texans head coach in franchise history, without a doubt. But they cut him loose just four games after he had the team in the Divisional round the previous season. The Texans are generally an incompetent franchise; the GM position was vacant for a year before it was officially given to O’Brien; for them to fire O’Brien not even a year after giving him full roster control, that’s just comical.
At any rate, the Texans probably wish they could have a do-over on that whole situation.
Another example I can think of: Atlanta moving off of Mike Smith and on to Dan Quinn. Mike Smith was Falcons head coach from 2008-2014, had the team in the playoffs 4 of his first 5 seasons, but was just 1-4 in the playoffs. Atlanta missed the playoffs his final two seasons, and they got rid of him. Dan Quinn came in and had the team in the Super Bowl in his second year, where they infamously blew the 28-3 lead to the Patriots. Had the Falcons not blown that lead in the Super Bowl, Atlanta switching from Mike Smith to Dan Quinn would be a textbook example of why it can be very smart to make a change at head coach even when your current guy has been getting you to the playoffs consistently.
As for the other instances of decent head coaches being fired in the midst of successful runs, we’ve got a few that are currently too early to judge. You’ve got Kevin O’Connell up in Minnesota, who replaced Mike Zimmer this past offseason. Zimmer was moderately successful, making the playoffs three times in 7 years and compiling a regular season record of 72-56. He was 2-3 in the playoffs and even had the team in the NFC Championship in 2017 (they lost 38-7 to Philly). But, in part because Zimmer had missed the playoffs in both 2020 and 2021, the Vikings decided to cut ties with him and go in a different direction. O’Connell then went 13-4 this past year with largely the same roster Zimmer had, but they lost in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
It’s still too early to tell whether the O’Connell switch was the right move or the wrong move, but he definitely seems to have re-energized the team.
The next example is Nick Sirianni in Philly. He took over for Doug Pederson in 2021, who despite winning the Super Bowl in 2017 was fired after a 4-11-1 season in 2020. The Eagles got rid of Pederson not due to the one bad season, but also because of disagreements between Pederson and the front office (presumably GM Howie Roseman and owner Jeffrey Lurie). Pederson felt they were meddling too much and was sick of them.
The Eagles replaced Pederson with Nick Sirianni, who has led the team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, and now has them in the NFC Championship, where they are slight favorites to win the NFC and get back to the Super Bowl.
So this might be a situation you could point to and say that changing the coach in the middle of a successful run was a good call, but it’s also a very high bar to clear when the coach that got fired won a Super Bowl. Nick Sirianni is a good coach, in my opinion, but if he doesn’t also win a Super Bowl in Philly, then how can you say he was a better coach than Doug Pederson? You can’t.
But the situation in Buffalo is different. They’ve never won a Super Bowl. They haven’t been to one since 1993. So parting ways with Sean McDermott isn’t quite as difficult a decision as firing a guy like Pederson, or Mike McCarthy, or Jimmy Johnson.
There is a mixed bag of results for teams that tried to make a change at head coach to get over the hump. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.
The question Buffalo’s front office has to ask itself is whether they think Sean McDermott is holding them back. If they think he is, then they will part ways with him.
However, what I’ve observed is that it typically takes a bad season or two for teams to move on from a successful head coach. Take the Falcons example: Mike Smith was a big-time playoff choker, but Atlanta didn’t fire him for choking in the playoffs. They fired him because they went 4-12 and then 6-10 in his final two seasons.
The rift between Doug Pederson and the team management in Philly probably existed prior to the 2020 season, but it was manageable because the team was making the playoffs and winning consistently prior to 2020. When the team started losing a bunch of games in 2020, then the rift became a big problem.
So I don’t think McDermott will be fired unless the Bills have a horrible year in 2023. If the Bills go 5-12 this upcoming season, then we could definitely see them cut bait on McDermott.
I wouldn’t rule that out, either. If Sean McDermott has lost the team, then they could be horrible next year. Did Buffalo look like a team that was playing hard for Sean McDermott in that playoff game against Cincy? I didn’t think so. They didn’t even look like they wanted to be there, quite honestly. McDermott might have lost that locker room.
On top of that, they could be losing a lot of players:
And that’s on a roster that, in my view, doesn’t have a lot of high-end talent to begin with outside of Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs.
I mean, seriously, think about it. Outside of those two, and maybe Matt Milano, what elite players does Buffalo have?
Stefon Diggs and Matt Milano were their only two All Pro players this year.
Poyer is a decent player, Edmunds is as well.
But I think Cincy has better players on defense. Hubbard, Hendrickson and Reader on the defensive line are stud players. I don’t know if Buffalo has any D-linemen as good as those guys, other than Von Miller who was already done for the year.
How great is the Buffalo offensive line? It’s definitely not elite. Their tight end group is good-not-great. Their running backs are pretty average, although they hardly use them.
The Buffalo roster just isn’t all that great in my opinion. When you really take a look at it, Buffalo really doesn’t have the horses. Cincy is a better roster, Kansas City is a better roster, San Fran is a better roster, Philly is a better roster.
So if you couple a roster that isn’t as great as we previously thought it was, and the fact that a tough string of playoff losses like this can really take a toll on a locker room, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bills regress significantly next season.
And that’s when I think McDermott gets fired.
In my opinion, they should go in a different direction now before things have a chance to spiral out of control. For one thing, I think they need an offensive-minded head coach that can really tailor the whole gameplan to Josh Allen. They need that coach/QB mind-meld thing that so many successful teams have going. Kansas City with Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, those two are joined at the hip, for example. I also think of Sean Payton and Drew Brees. It’s got to be a marriage, really, between an offensive-minded head coach and a top-tier quarterback.
All four of the teams that are remaining have offensive-background head coaches. Sirianni, Shanahan, Zac Taylor, Andy Reid–they’re all guys who come from the offensive side of the ball originally.
The way the league is nowadays, it feels like it’s almost a necessity to have an offensive-minded head coach.
In this regard, I definitely think Sean McDermott is holding Buffalo back. Nothing against the guy, he seems like a great dude. But I think they need a coach who has an offensive background.
They probably won’t make the move for one this year, but if things go sideways next season, it’ll happen.