NFL Head Coaching Credentials: Who Deserves a Shot?

Which head coaching candidates have the strongest cases to lead a franchise?

One song that many NFL coaching families and teams don’t want to hear right now is: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year...” I do find it oddly fitting, however, that Black Monday happens to fall a few days before the new year at the end of most seasons; teams, coaches, and fanbases receive a fresh start as the calendar rolls over. With the slew of annual firings –- and even one ship-jumping -– complete, the perpetual motion rumor mill turns its attention from speculation on who will get fired to speculation on who will fill the vacancies.

I decided to take a look at the real numbers of the most in-demand candidates for head coaching positions this offseason and offer an analytical perspective on this matter. At numberFire, we pride ourselves at going beyond box score success and the win-loss columns when assessing value of players or coaches. We do this with the help of a signature metric we call Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps to describe not just what happened on the field, but what its impact on the game was. A nine-yard rush doesn’t mean the same thing to a game on first down-and-long as it does on third-and-short, and NEP helps to illustrate that.

By looking at these coaches’ portfolios through the lens of NEP production, we can see just how effective they’ve been for their teams over time. Which coaches should be handed the reins in this new year of the NFL?

Darrell Bevell

Some of the current head coaching candidates have fairly short track records as coordinators or head coaches in the NFL. They’ve been successful, but they haven’t sustained this success for long, and thus are more uncertain commodities for NFL franchises to hire as their organization’s leader. That, fortunately, isn’t the case with Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

Bevell previously worked with the Minnesota Vikings as their offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2010, then joined the Seahawks in 2011. He oversaw the explosive 2009 season in Minnesota with Brett Favre, and was the architect of the offensive overhaul for the Seattle Seahawks that has turned them into the epitome of a ground-and-pound offense in recent years.

His resume speaks to three top-six finishes in Adjusted Offensive NEP (adjusted for the strength of opponent) –- in 2009 with Minnesota, and 2012 and 2014 with Seattle. He’s also seen some inconsistency, with three bottom-third finishes in this metric among league offenses. His offensive creativity has been widely panned as well, as he seems to misuse his best receiving options quite often, from Percy Harvin to Doug Baldwin and more. Bevell is an interesting option, but a weaker candidate and one best suited for a team with a strong defensive coordinator and front office, at least in his first potential turn as a head coach.

Todd Bowles

Todd Bowles is an accomplished defensive mind with nearly two decades of NFL coaching experience. Bowles, a former safety in the league, specializes in coaching the secondary himself, but ascended to the role of interim defensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles in only 2012. He then joined the Arizona Cardinals in 2013 and has remained their defensive coordinator since, the sole play-caller for that unit (head coach Bruce Arians is an offensive specialist).

Bowles’ career as a defensive coordinator started rather accidentally –- and ignominiously. Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was fired after Week 6 of the 2012 season, and Bowles was promoted to take over the unit at that time. His defense proceeded to allow massive NEP totals that not only paced the league by a longshot when extrapolating his playcalling over 16 games, it nearly did so without. For reference of this, the table below displays Bowles’ units and their NEP scores for the past three years.

YearTeamRoleAdj. D NEP RankAdj. D Pass NEP RankAdj. D Rush NEP Rank

Now, this table doesn’t tell the full story. In 2012, the year before Bowles joined the Cardinals’ coaching staff, that Arizona team finished third in Adjusted Defensive NEP. It was a much easier gig to take over and sustain a stout Cardinals defense than a completely mismatched Eagles’ one that was giving up a historical amount of yardage to opposing passers. What shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is Bowles’ ability to sustain his unit and get production out of them in the face of as many injuries as the Cardinals have suffered this season. Bowles’ deserves a shot to head coach, but his ideal landing spot will be with a fairly already-well-assembled team.

Adam Gase

How much do you credit the personnel versus the scheme? This question can also be rephrased as: “How much do you believe Adam Gase remade Peyton Manning, versus how much do you believe Peyton has made Gase?”

Gase is one of the coaches with the least experience in the NFL on this list. Though he’s been a part of the offensive planning for around a decade with the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, he only became an offensive coordinator in 2013, after having been the Broncos’ quarterbacks coach for two years.

Since then, we all know what’s happened: Gase’s Broncos in 2013 put up the single-best offensive season by Adjusted NEP since 2000, all on the arm of Peyton Manning’s record-breaking year. This season didn’t quite duplicate those numbers, but his offense still ranked second overall in the NFL in Adjusted NEP, and both phases of offense ranked in the top 10 of the league in Adjusted Passing NEP and Adjusted Rushing NEP.

Are Gase’s credentials ironclad in their worthiness for a head coaching gig? By no means. Teams have been very wary this offseason of candidates with less experience, and this -– as well as his current success with the Broncos’ organization -– could lead him to receive fewer offers than expected from coach-needy teams. He is a terrific offensive coach, but his prospective employers should like to see a longer track record of success before handing the reins of a franchise to him.

Josh McDaniels

New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is in a similar predicament as Adam Gase: by coaching an all-time great at quarterback, does that mean one’s coaching credence is diminished? Fortunately for us wonderers, McDaniels does have an extensive and varied resumé for us to take a look at in our assessment. From 2001 to 2008, he worked in the Patriots’ organization, being allowed to take over offensive coordinator and play-calling duties in 2005. This massive success led the Broncos to offer him their head coaching job in 2009, and he accepted, shaping this franchise through 2010, when he was fired midseason. He then had a one-year stint as the offensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams before returning to the Patriots as their offensive coordinator once again.

The table below displays McDaniels’ units and their offensive NEP ranks over the course of his coaching career.

YearTeamRoleAdj. D NEP RankAdj. D Pass NEP RankAdj. D Rush NEP Rank

While, again, playing with Tom Brady will make any coach’s offense historic, there was room to grow before McDaniels became the playcaller in New England. He took an offense that ranked 7th in Adjusted NEP in his first year calling the shots (and actually ranked outside the top-ten of the league in the metric every year except two) and made them a perennial top-five offense, including two first-place positions. Let’s be honest, he even had a top-ten passing offense with Tim Tebow at the helm for the majority of the season during his time in Denver. He improved the Broncos offensively in his time there, significantly.

McDaniels is one of the most sought-after coaches this offseason, and I believe it’s high time he’s offered another head coaching job. He has one of the strongest resumés out there, and has the experience of being a first-time head coach out of the way already. It’s time for him to get a second chance.

Doug Marrone

The newly-liberated former head coach of the Buffalo Bills, Doug Marrone actually has less NFL coaching experience than anyone else on this list, yet has already taken a turn as a head coach in the league. Marrone previously appeared in the NFL as the New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2008, and was a popular hire after coming off of a stunning turnaround of the Syracuse University football program between 2009 and 2012. Now a free man after surprisingly opting out of his contract with the Buffalo Bills after just two years, Marrone will be free to pursue any other opportunities that come his way. But should teams pursue him?

In Marrone’s time in New Orleans, his offenses ranked third, ninth, and first in the league in Adjusted NEP. He was not a member of the coaching staff during their Super Bowl victory in 2009, but he helped to mold the team that would make that explosive run and secure the trophy. His time with Buffalo has been much less successful on the offensive side of the ball, and many have argued that he’s misused the talent of players such as C.J. Spiller. However, Marrone showed astute knowledge of team management, bringing in a veteran quarterback this year in Kyle Orton to assist the floundering offense, and did have an extraordinarily successful defense during his tenure.

I don’t think Doug Marrone’s NFL head coaching career is done just yet. He’s done enough to deserve a chance with another team, at least as an offensive coordinator. He doesn’t seem as strong a candidate as some think, but he isn’t bottom-of-the-barrel either.

Dan Quinn

Another Seattle coordinator is being highly sought after in the league. Dan Quinn has overseen the overhaul of the Seahawks’ defense into the “Legion of Boom” over the past two seasons as their defensive coordinator. Prior to this, Quinn had worked as a defensive line positional coach with various teams in the league for ten years, as well as coordinating the Florida Gators’ defense from 2011-2012. He’s still relatively new to the coordinator game, however, as 2013 and 2014 have been his only seasons with the headset. Does he deserve a head coaching gig?

Last year, the Seattle Seahawks were the best defensive unit in the NFL by far. This team was an easy number one in Adjusted Defensive NEP and Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, and a stout eighth in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. This year, they ended up posting back-to-back top-three seasons in Adjusted Defensive NEP, and ranked third in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP and fifth in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. Quinn has led his unit to be one of the most feared in the league.

For a coach with very little experience, Quinn’s case is probably one of the strongest. Before his arrival, this unit was very good (especially against the run), but he turned them into the single best pass defense unit in the league. In a pass-happy league, that is a valuable quality to have. Quinn appears to be one of the best candidates for a head coaching job.

Rex Ryan

Well, well, well. Here we are again, Rex. Many times I personally have referred to Rex Ryan as “the best defensive coordinator in the league… that is masquerading as a head coach”. There are severe and very public shortcomings to Ryan’s coaching style – specifically that he cannot manage a roster and does not understand how to build an offense –- but, goodness gracious, can he build and scheme a defense and inspire a team. Ryan’s strongest quality probably is just that: he has a fiery personality, but one that can inspire players if they buy into his system. Ryan’s coaching experience in the NFL goes way back as well, so that helps; he was Baltimore’s defensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008, then took the head coaching job in New York with the Jets. Can he convince someone to take another shot on him?

The table below shows Rex Ryan’s defensive unit rankings by Adjusted Defensive NEP over the course of his time in the league.

YearTeamRoleAdj. D NEP RankAdj. D Pass NEP RankAdj. D Rush NEP Rank

Things got bad toward the end of Ryan’s tenure in New York because player selection was extraordinarily poor under general manager John Idzik’s reign, so there wasn’t much of a way to sustain success. However, it’s stunning to realize that every year between 2006 and 2011 saw a Rex Ryan rush defense either first or second in the league in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. Only once in that span of time was his defense as a whole outside the top-ten in the league in Adjusted Defensive NEP.

Ryan’s coaching credentials are legit. Give him a strong offensive coordinator or unit and a competent general manager, and Ryan will lead that team to success. He has the strong will to lead a team, has proven success in this league both in game-planning and in execution, and I believe his is the strongest case for a new job very quickly.