What Recent History Tells Us About First Year Coaches And Brandon Staley

Ty Nowell captures a moment from Brandon Staley's first day in the Chargers facility.
Ty Nowell captures a moment from Brandon Staley's first day in the Chargers facility.

What Recent History Tells Us About First Year Coaches And Brandon Staley

With the 2021 NFL Draft and Free Agency periods behind us, it is officially the offseason hype period of the year. Every team has nailed the offseason and expectations are higher than ever! Unless your team just signed Tim Tebow to be its fourth-string tight end…

In all seriousness, there is a ton of excitement surrounding the Los Angeles Chargers immediate future in particular. Chargers fans watched Justin Herbert shatter every rookie passing record in 2020, despite being handicapped by an atrocious offensive line and porous coaching staff. The Chargers seem to have upgraded both of those aspects of their team – putting a cherry on the top two weeks ago when they drafted Rashawn Slater.

Brandon Staley has never been a head coach before and has rocketed up the food chain in the NFL. Many people around the league were surprised when the Rams hired him as their defensive coordinator after just three years of NFL coaching experience. After leading the Rams to the best defense in the league it was clear that he was a force to be reckoned with. When he was hired by the Chargers, he was dubbed as the next genius head coach by the media and fans alike.

As a result, expectations haven’t been this high for the franchise since LaDainian Tomlinson was on the team.

The question we have to answer now is how much of the hype is warranted? Obviously, we won’t know until the Chargers are able to put all of the new pieces on the field. Thankfully, we can look at past first-year head coaches to at least get an idea of what the possibilities for this upcoming season could be, and that’s what we’ll be doing in this article.

The Chargers are very familiar with this process at this point after hiring McCoy and Lynn as rookie head coaches – interestingly enough both of them went 9-7 in their first seasons. McCoy is one of the few first-year head coaches to win a playoff game in year one, which we’ll discuss later. Lynn of course, missed the playoffs by way of the NFL’s tiebreaker policy. Unfortunately, Staley cannot pull off the trifecta due to the league adding one more game to the schedule. 

Going over every single first-year head coach in the NFL would take several articles, instead, I will be focusing on the first-year head coaches from the past 10 years only. In the past 10 years the following individuals have been hired as first-time head coaches:

2011 – Ron Rivera (CAR), Pat Shurmur (CLE), Jason Garrett (DAL), Leslie Frazier (MIN), Hue Jackson (OAK), and Jim Harbaugh (SF).

2012 – Joe Philbin (MIA), Dennis Allen (OAK), *Chuck Pagano (IND), and Greg Schiano (TB).

2013 – Chip Kelly (PHI), Marc Trestman (CHI), Gus Bradley (JAX), Mike McCoy (SD), Doug Marrone (BUF), Rob Chudzinski (CLE), and Bruce Arians (ARI).

2014 – Mike Pettine (CLE), Mike Zimmer (MIN), Jay Gruden (WAS), and Bill O’Brien (HOU).

2015 – Jim Tomsula (SF) and Todd Bowles (NYJ).

2016 – Ben McADoo (NYG), Doug Pederson (PHI), Adam Gase (MIA), and Dirk Koetter (TB).

2017 – Vance Joseph (DEN), Sean McDermott (BUF), Kyle Shanahan (SF), Sean McVay (LAR), and Anthony Lynn (LAC). 

2018 – Mike Vrabel (TEN), Matt Patricia (DET), Steve Wilks (ARI), Matt Nagy (CHI), and Frank Reich (IND). 

2019 – Freddie Kitchens (CLE), Matt LaFleur (GB), Vic Fangio (DEN), Zac Taylor (CIN), and Kliff Kingsbury (ARI). 

Finally, 2020 – Matt Rhule (CAR), Joe Judge (NYG), and Kevin Stefanski (CLE).

*Pagano missed 12 games in his first year while dealing with cancer. Arians led the Colts to the playoffs that year but those games technically count for Pagano.

The total across the last 10 years comes out to 45 first-year head coaches for us to use as a baseline for Staley’s first season.

This year, all seven available openings went to first-time NFL head coaches: Staley, Urban Meyer (JAX), Robert Saleh (NYJ), Arthur Smith (ATL), Nick Sirianni (PHI), Dan Campbell (DET), and David Culley (HOU).

Predicting how anything will pan out in the NFL is a tricky business. We can make analysis based on what we see on paper in the offseason but until we see things pan out on the field, we just can’t know with 100% certainty. Nothing exemplifies this more than the 2016 coaching cycle. 

If you had to guess without looking which of the coaches from that group had the worst record in his first year would have you guessed Pederson? In fact, he was the ONLY coach from that group that didn’t have a winning record in his first year. McAdoo was fired before the end of his second season, but he won 11 games in his first year and made the playoffs. Gase has proven to be a terrible coach but he also made the playoffs in his first year after leading the Dolphins to a 10 win season. Koetter didn’t make the playoffs but they won nine games in his first season. 

His tenure obviously ended up in flames, but Pederson was the most successful coach from this cycle. He was the only first-time head coach from that cycle that led his team to any kind of playoff success, and he was also the only one who lasted more than three seasons. That being said, there are certain patterns that have emerged over these five years. The first and most relevant to Staley and the Chargers is that at least one first-time coach has made the playoffs in each of the last 10 cycles, with the exception of 2014 and 2015 – although the teams led by O’Brien and Bowles just missed the cut.

Harbaugh in 2011, Pagano/Arians in 2012, Kelly and McCoy in 2013, McAdoo and Gase in 2016, McDermott and McVay in 2017, Nagy and Reich in 2018, LaFleur in 2019, and Stefanski in 2020 all earned trips to the playoff in their first seasons. That’s good for 12 out of 45 (26%). However, since 2016, eight of the 24 first-year head coaches earned trips to the playoffs (33%). This is obviously a positive trend for a coach like Staley. 

The even more difficult task is winning that first playoff game. Of those twelve coaches to make the playoffs in their first year, only five (Harbaugh, McCoy, Reich, LaFleur, and Stefanski) were able to win their playoff debut for their respective teams. (Isn’t it crazy looking back at the McCoy era and remembering he started off with such a successful debut season?)

No one has any idea what the Chargers future holds with Staley at the helm, but one thing I feel confident in saying is that he won’t be one of the coaches who truly struggle out of the gate due to having a terrible/rebuilding roster. Such is the case for Culley, Saleh, Campbell, and Meyer on their respective teams. One of these coaches is probably picking first overall in the draft next year. (Read: Culley)

If the recent pattern of first-year playoff trips holds true, logic and the process of elimination would therefore leave us with the Eagles, Falcons, and the Chargers as the teams most likely to fit the criteria. The Eagles have a good enough roster to be competitive and have the obvious advantage of playing in the worst division in the sport so they could have a chance if Jalen Hurts can take a solid leap forward in his development this year. The Falcons will have one of the most entertaining offenses in the league after adding Kyle Pitts to a pass-catching group already featuring Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. If Smith can have a similar effect on Matt Ryan as he did Ryan Tannehill, they could absolutely push for a wild card spot in the NFC. They will have to prove they can hang with the Saints and Buccaneers, though. 

On paper, the offseason hype for the Chargers seems to be warranted this year, and it does feel different than the usual “dark horse” buzz that always permeates about the Chargers at this time of year – in large part due to the emergence of Herbert. In terms of roster construction, the Chargers have absolutely upgraded the two biggest question marks from last season: offensive line and special teams. The left to right unit of Slater, Matt Feiler, Corey Linsley, Oday Aboushi, and Bryan Bulaga should be a big improvement over their predecessors. 

The hiring of Derius Swinton II as special teams coordinator and additions of Kyler Fackrell, Ryan Smith, Tre’ McKitty, Chris Rumph II, and Nick Niemann should upgrade the coverage and return units. If whoever wins the kicking battle between Michael Badgley and Alex Kessman (my money is on Kessman) can simply be a league-average kicker, then the Chargers special teams unit could be the best they’ve had in quite some time – which isn’t saying much considering the best they’ve had in terms of DVOA was 25th in 2018. 

However, these things do go deeper than simple roster construction. The two things working most against the Chargers this year are the schedule and the depth of the AFC.

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The Chargers will have six games against 2020 playoff teams: Chiefs(x2), Browns, Ravens, Steelers, and Washington in the season opener. The Cowboys, Giants, and Patriots should all be better than they were in 2020. The good news is that the majority of those games will be played at SoFi Stadium. 

Could the Chargers make the playoffs in Staley’s first year? They certainly have the talent to do so. The history of first-year coaches making the playoffs would indicate that there is a good chance for Staley. The overwhelming majority won at least seven games in their debut season, so all is not lost if the Chargers fail to make the playoffs in his first year. 

The excitement from the fans and media is understandable, but personally, I am proceeding with cautious optimism. The Chargers are attempting to rebuild their offensive line and special teams in one year, and they will be drastically changing the defensive scheme. There are bound to be some growing pains at some point this year. I believe 2022 to be the year for the Chargers’ big push, but I remain very excited about the future of this franchise. 

Ty Nowell captures a moment from Brandon Staley's first day in the Chargers facility.

Chargers Team Photographer Ty Nowell captures a moment from Brandon Staley’s first day in the Chargers facility.