Friday, January 4, 2019

Does playing in the NFL help a head coach? Not in the Playoffs.

Vince Lombardi never played in the NFL
NFL Playoff time is upon us.  While my Steelers won't be there there will be plenty of action.  How the coaches handle their personnel will go a long way to determine who wins.  Athlon sports produced a list of the top 25 NFL coaches of all time.  I notices that some of the top coaches on the list never, such as Vince Lombardi and Bill Belichik never played in the NFL while others such as Don Shula, Tom Landry, and Chuck Noll had.  I thought I would take a closer look at whether playing in the NFL was a predictor of their success.

EL Curly Lambeau played and coached the Packers at the same time
The Athlon list had 14 of the 25 coaches who had played in the NFL.  This includes Bill Parcells and John Madden who were drafted but never played a down for their teams.  Three of the early coaches, George Halas, Curly Lambeau, Steve Owen, and Guy Chamberlin, played for and coached their teams at the same time for at least part of their careers.  The coaches who played had a combined record (including playoffs) of 2,656 wins, 1,553 losses, and 110 ties with 34 championships for a winning percentage 62.8%.  The coaches who did not play had a combined record of 1,563 wins, 914 losses, and 30 ties with 24 championships for a winning percentage of 62.9%.

Coaching and playing for their teams was different in the early days than it is today. I looked at the wins and losses for coaches whose careers overlapped the Super Bowl era.  Championships won by Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown won before the Super Bowl Era are included.  This would be a really large list so it was limited to coaches from this era who were on the list or who had taken their teams to a Super Bowl.  This gives a list of 51 coaches, 28 who had not played and 23 who had.  The ones who had played have a combined record of 3,236 wins, 2291 losses, and 36 ties with 21 championships for a 58.5% winning percentage.  The ones who had not had a combined record of 3,512 wins, 2,419 losses and 41 ties with 41 championships for a 59.2% winning percentage.  

Coach Played in NFL
Y (N=23)
N (N=28)
Regular Season Winning %
Playoff Winning %
Overall Winning %
Championships per Coach

Breaking down these numbers by playoff and regular season games in the Super Bowl era, we see where not playing in the NFL makes a difference.  In the regular season, coaches who played had a winning percentage of 58.7% while those who did not had 58.8%, virtually no difference.  In the playoffs however coaches who played had a winning percentage of 54.5% while those who didn't had 58.3%.  This would explain the difference in championships won be these coaches with 41 won by those who did not play (1.42 championships per coach) versus those who did not (21 or 0.91 per coach).  

I can only speculate as to the reasons why elite coaches who did and did not play in the NFL differ on the playoffs on the playoff winning % and championships.  It could be that coaches who played can sympathize with what their players are going through come playoff time.  They might not push their players as hard in the playoffs.  The players have a lot of aches and pains in the playoffs.  

Another reason  could be that the adage "great players do not make great coaches" holds here.  Only a few of the player-coaches could be considered stars on their teams (like Mike Ditka) but they were good enough to make it to the NFL.  You can speculate as to other reasons (i.e. Concussions) for this difference.  You can see the full list of coaches in this post here.  


The NFL just fired 5 of it's 7 African American head coaches. The Steelers Mike Tomlin and the Chargers Mike Lynn are now the only two left in the league.  In the data set used here there were four African American Coaches (7.8% of the total of 51 for the super bowl era).  Three of them did not play in the NFL, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, and Lovie Smith and one did, Tony Dungy.  All four coaches have a combined winning percentage of 59.7% with 2 championships.  They have a winning % 60.4% in the regular season and 47.8% in the playoffs.  Tomlin and Dungy were listed in the Athlon all time coaches list (8% of the 25).  

According to Dave Zirin at The Nation magazine, the number of African head coaches has never been nigher than 30% of the total head coaches in one year when they are 70% pf the players.  Would a different pattern emerge if I looked at coaches with this experience in the NBA, MLB or NHL?

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