Measuring the Hot Seats for NFL Coaches Entering 2016

By Harrison Chase and Kurt Bullard

Football season is back, baby! Well, almost. Along with stories about kicker competitions and quarterback battles, we also start to hear early rumors about which coaches might be on the hot seat before the season even starts. Just as the only degree that matters in journalism is the temperature of your takes, the only degree that matters in the coaching business is the temperature of your seat.

Analyzing the NFL coaching carousel is right up our alley, as prior to last season we wrote an article using our coach firing model to predict which coaches were on the hot seat entering the 2015 season. We decided to do basically the same exact thing for the upcoming year, as well as check in on how our predictions actually did. Because so much of this post is similar to last year’s post, we will leave out most of the nitty-gritty details, which you can find in last year’s version. However, we will summarize the key details.

Looking back at last year, we think the model on a whole did a pretty good job of predicting which coaches would be fired. To recap, last year we used two separate measures of team strength: a mean-regressed simple ranking system (SRS) from the prior season and ESPN “Power Rankings,” which we converted to SRS. Below are the top ten coaches predicted to be fired by each model. The ones highlighted in red are the ones who ended up getting fired.

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As you can see, the method that used ESPN’s subjective “Power Rankings” seemed to do slightly better. This doesn’t come as much surprise – we figured that it probably would, but wanted to include the mean reversion probabilities as a baseline. Since the method using “Power Rankings” was better, we’ll go forward only using that ranking method. However, ESPN has yet to release its preseason rankings, so we are pivoting to NFL.com Power Rankings.

The only other slight thing to mention before diving into the results is that our model has once again changed slightly. As detailed in an article in the August edition of Significance magazine, we have changed several of the predictor variables. The variables that remain the same are as follows:

  1. Win percentage in the given year (which we use the aforementioned power rankings to estimate)

  2. Win percentage in the previous season

  3. Three separate dummy variables for the first three years of a coach’s tenure

  4. How often the coach has made the divisional round

  5. Strength of schedule (also estimated by the power rankings)

  6. Super Bowls won per year

We then added a linear term for the number of years a coach has been with the team, a dummy variable for whether the team had a winning percentage above 38%, and the interaction between those two terms. We removed the dummy variable for whether the team’s GM had changed during the coach’s tenure.

To get our estimated probabilities, we simulated the upcoming season 1,000 times using the NFL.com Power Rankings. After each simulation, we used the model to estimate the coach’s probability of getting fired. Lastly, we aggregated these 1,000 probabilities and found the mean for each coach. The results are below:

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It looks like Mike McCoy’s seat is the hottest entering this season, and for good reason. The Chargers are the clear last place choice in the AFC West. McCoy will no longer have the protection of being in the three-year period, and has never finished better than 3rd in his division, even with Philip Rivers at the helm. Last season was by far the worst, with San Diego only chalking up four wins for the season. There’s not a lot of optimism that the Chargers can make a serious push, so McCoy might be getting seriously worried about his future with the Bolts.

Jim Caldwell is also a candidate to have his position vacated. He was very much on the edge of his seat last year after season’s close, with a lot of reports surfacing that new GM Bob Quinn might want to take a different direction. But alas, Caldwell is still with the team. With the Vikings and Packers in the division, the Lions aren’t poised to make noise this year. We’ll also have to wait and see how big of an impact Megatron’s absence is for this offense that has traditionally struggled to run the ball.

Despite the fact that Jeff Fisher’s seat should be hot, there were talks of a contract extension for the perpetually mediocre coach shortly after the passing of Jeff Fisher Day on August 8th. The guy is simply teflon when it comes to avoiding the pink slip. Fisher hasn’t won a playoff game since we were both in the third grade (2003), and hasn’t seen eight wins since 2009. Fisher is simply immune to the heat.

While these seats remain hot, many seats are ice cold. The traditional powers of the league as of late—New England, Green Bay, Denver, and Arizona, among others—see very small odds that they’ll be in search for a new coach this coming offseason.

There’s also one caveat we’d also like to make: Jason Garrett’s probability is most likely inflated after last year’s 4-12 campaign, as he ought to get some slack due to the injuries to Romo and Dez—although, with Jerry Jones, who knows, honestly.

We wish for no one to get fired; but, at the end of the day, it’s part of the reality of the NFL. McCoy might want to take some tips from Jeff Fisher on how to avoid the pink slip; or, better yet, learn from Belichick or Bruce Arians on how to make a successful playoff push.

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