Justin Moyer is Outlook’s editorial aide.
When the Redskins hired Jay Gruden as their new head coach Thursday , fans of the burgundy and gold could be forgiven for finding a silver lining to their terrible 3-13 season. As the Cincinnati Bengals ’ offensive coordinator , Gruden helped guide the team to the playoffs the past three years . Shouldn’t his presence on the sideline at FedEx Field help jump-start a struggling franchise?
Well, maybe not.
“Firing a coach reduces a team’s expected performance during the next season and the team’s average performance over the next two seasons,” M.A. Roach writes in “Mean reversion or a breath of fresh air? The effect of NFL coaching changes on team performance in the salary cap era,” which appeared last year in the journal Applied Economics Letters . “Teams are ﬁring coaches an inefficiently high percentage of the time.”
Head coaches, Roach points out, are only one element of a successful football team.
“Players win these games,” Roach, an assistant economics professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said in an interview. Replacing a head coach is a flashy move that sparks fan interest, but it doesn’t necessarily pay off. “You can pursue intermediate options” — changing offensive or defensive coordinators, for example — “before you press the big red button,” he said.
There’s also whiplash to consider. The Skins have had eight head coaches, including Gruden, since 1999. Such serial firing can make for difficult transitions — as Roach wrote, “significant learning costs” for coaches as well as players — that don’t translate into more wins.
And, with only 16 games per season, success in the NFL is often a matter of chance. “If you’re extremely lucky one year, there’s no reason to think you’ll be extremely lucky next year,” Roach said. “In football, a few lucky bounces you can ride all the way to the playoffs.”
Gruden and the Redskins may need more than a few of those next season.