WFNY Debate: Do NFL coaches even matter?

chudzinskiIn case it hasn’t been clear yet, the WFNY writers email each other a lot. And I mean a lot. So on top of our two email-based roundtables already this week (post-Kelly rumors and post-Chudzinski hire), we bring you inside the famed Gmail inbox for a look at a Friday debate: This time, we’re talking about the possible impact of pro coaches.

Jacob: Hey guys, I’m considering writing a numbers article about Rob Chudzinski. I’m intrigued by the stats about his TDs, points and plays of 20+ yards with Carolina. Then maybe look at the Browns in ’07-’08, the Chargers, Miami, etc. Compare to league averages. His success with RBs (DeAngelo Williams in Week 17). Here’s a quick snippet of the stats that I had in mind for such a post:

2011: plays of 20+ pass/rush (total) —- Carolina: 66/24 (90); Cleveland: 32/7 (39)
2011: third down conversion —- Carolina: 75/185 (40.5%); Cleveland: 92/238 (38.7%)
2012: plays of 20+ pass/rush (total) —- Carolina: 58/17 (75); Cleveland: 50/7 (57)
2012: third down conversion —- Carolina: 88/204 (43.1%); Cleveland: 67/218 (30.7%)

Jon: I don’t know enough about football, Jacob, but isn’t that like saying that Zach McAllister will strike out 12 guys per 9 because Terry Francona once coached Jonathan Papelbon? In other words, doesn’t Cam Newton’s non-Brandon-Weedeness count for most of those numbers?

Kirk: He will? Oh yeah! This year keeps getting better! #ZacMacCyYoung

Jacob: Certainly a valid point, Jon. Good baseball eye there. Does Chud deserve 100% of the credit for Cam’s success? No. Not at all. But he deserves some of it, undoubtedly. That also would be clear in looking at the Browns and Chargers #’s in his years with those teams too. They had some excellent offenses when Chud was around, whether or not that’s purely correlated or just random occurrences. My guess is it’s somewhere in the middle, obviously, but it’s still a fun point to make in looking at the numbers.

Andrew: I think the difference here is the difference between baseball managers and football coaches. I have no statistical evidence to back this up, so I’m really talking aimlessly here, but I believe football coaches impact on-field success and failure way more than baseball managers do. I still think this year’s Saints team is such an awesome example of what a difference a good coach makes.

Jon: I was listening to Craig and that radio caller on the podcast and I think one of them said that Belichick was five games below .500 for his career when Tom Brady wasn’t his starting QB? Something like that. Again, total outsider here. But chicken salad doesn’t often appear to come from chicken poop1. I just wonder how much coaching matters, I guess. But like Andrew points out, I come from a baseball perspective, where it pretty clearly doesn’t matter that much.

Jacob: Both great points, Jon and Drew, and both things I was actually plotting out in my head to make in such a debate (Belichick w/ and w/o Brady; difference of football/baseball coaches). It’s an unwinnable argument for both sides. No real clear answer. From the perspective of a possible article on the site, however, there’s no other stats I could share about Chudzinski other than what his offenses has done. Technically speaking, they could be doing all those great things DESPITE him, and maybe in actuality they truly are better without him. You can’t make concrete conclusions with coaches, ever. Love this debate.

Andrew: I wish there was some concrete way to measure a coach’s impact on individual player performance. I think winning and losing is often a bad indicator of a coach’s success, particularly in football when you have 22 starters playing and each one impacting the outcome of the game at the same time. But I would think good coaches get better performances out of players than bad coaches do. Just don’t know how to prove that, haha.

Jon: I’m sure this breaks no news to any of you, but to a casual NFL fan, I’m amazed at how much time gets spent talking about coaching, schemes, 3-4/4-3, in-game clock management, place kickers, strength of schedule, weather, dropped passes, play calling, and on and on.

Seven QBs (Rogers, Brady, The Brothers Manning, Roethlisberger, Brees and Warner) have accounted for 80% of Super Bowl appearances in the last 10 years (16 of the 20 starters). Quarterbacks matter. Everything else is a footnote2. (The MLB corollary would be that “Money Matters. Everything else is a fluke.”)

Andrew: Honestly, you’re probably right. Stupid confirmation bias…..”Oh hey, the Saints went from NFC Championship to missing the playoffs without Sean Payton. Coaching matters!”

Kirk: NBA version: #TankStrong, draft smart, repeat.

Jon: Funny Kirk. I was thinking that if NFL coaching DOES matter, it would have interesting NBA parallels. The worst place to be would be with a good HC and a mediocre QB since your coach could get you to eight or nine wins but the QB isn’t good enough to give you a real shot. Then you miss out on the high draft picks and wallow in no-man’s land year after year. That’s kind of an NBA fan’s nightmare, isn’t it? Missing the lottery every year as an eight-seed?

Kirk: That is quite interesting, Jon, but I think in most cases, the effect in NFL is more complicated than the situation given. I will say this though. I think Shurmur’s WBR (wins below replacement, copyright 😀 ) this year would’ve been 2.5. An average coach gets this team between 7 and 8 wins. I think it does matter most in NFL, followed by NBA a distant second, and MLB a distant third.

Jacob: Here’s that Belichick/Brady stat again if you haven’t seen it before. … Belichick’s career record (incl. playoffs): 204-108 (.654); Belichick’s record w/o Brady: 52-53 (.495); Belichick’s record w/ Brady: 152-45 (.772).

Andrew: What’s Belichick’s New England record without Brady? Any way to calculate that?

Jacob: Yeah, of course. Brady’s never had another NFL coach. Belichick’s career record with Patriots (incl. playoffs): 167-63 (.726); Brady’s career record: 152-45 (.772); Belichick’s Patriots record w/o Brady: 15-18 (.455). Here is how that record is composed: 2000 season entirely with Drew Bledsoe: 5-11; 2001 season before Drew Bledsoe’s injury: 0-2; 2008 season with Matt Cassel: 10-5.

Also, another comparison: Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning. Dungy’s career record (incl. playoffs): 148-79 (.652); Dungy’s record w/o Peyton: 56-46 (.549); Dungy’s record w/ Peyton: 92-33 (.736).

Andrew: It’s hard to argue against that Super Bowl stat that Jon had. But isn’t it possible that you need a great QB to win a Super Bowl, but that coaches still can and do make a difference? I’m not sure this is an either/or proposition. Because you could also say names like Cowher, Belichick, Dungy, Payton, McCarthy, Tomlin, Coughlin, Holmgren, Reid, and Gruden have been the coaches of the Super Bowl. Not a shabby list in and of itself.

Andrew: The way to settle this is make Tom Brady play for Pat Shurmur for a season. See if his record is better or worse than Belichick’s record was with Matt Cassell.

Jon: Or to make me play for Belichick 🙂

Andrew: My argument for NBA is that bad coaches hurt a team WAY more than good coaches help a team. Again, nothing to base that on other than personal observation over the years. I’m probably wrong about this, too.

Jon:  (And I think I probably overstated the “coaches don’t matter” thing.  They certainly matter and can add multiple wins to a team’s record in any sport.  I just don’t think you can consistently compete for championships in the NFL without one of those star QB-types.  I think I probably forget how much happier people would be with 8-8.  To me, it wouldn’t mean anything: still a team that missed the playoffs.  But to those tortured and traumatized fans, it would mean so much.  I am, casually, dismissing that.)

Craig: There’s a Dan Marino lane on this freeway somewhere.

Andrew: How about the fact that Dan Marino plus Don Shula did not yield a Super Bowl win? What does that mean???

Jacob: NFL coaches do get a positive reputation though for being on Super Bowl winners, which usually means they have a great QB. It’s a vicious chicken-or-egg cycle. Another corollary: Tom Brady is 102-27 (.791) in the regular season since ’04. Peyton Manning is 100-28 (.781) in the regular season since ’04. Ben Roethlisberger is 87-39 (.691) in the regular season since ’04. Aaron Rodgers is 52-26 (.667) in the regular season since ’08.

Combined, these 4 QBs are 341-120 (.740) in the regular season since 2004. Displacing those wins from all the NFL teams in the last 9 regular seasons (obviously, 2304-2304) and every other team without one of those four QBs has been 1963-2184 (.473). So nearly by default, every other coach is pretty mediocre at best.

Jon: Re: Marino I would say that the NFL has changed quite a bit since he played.  It wasn’t always the case that you needed a star QB to win–especially in the 70s and even early 80s.  I think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, actually (he says, talking directly out of his butt3).  Also, I love Jacob’s last email, and that was really what I was hoping to point out: correlation <> causation.

Andrew: That more or less happened with Matt Cassell.

Photo: Lonnie Timmons III / The Plain Dealer

  1. Jacob edit: He didn’t actually say poop. Our email threads don’t necessarily carry our usual PG filter. []
  2. Jacob note: This was my favorite line in our email thread. Jon is masterful with numbers. I also tweeted out this stat right after Jon emailed it over. Also, I really wanted to have a footnote next to the word footnote. []
  3. Jacob edit: Obviously, another edit here. Jon, stop it with your potty mouth. []