With the theory that "NFL head coaches have success quickly, or not at all," I started looking at the Super Bowl winning coaches and their early records with their teams. In almost all cases, I saw quite a bit of success by Year 3, typically including a trend of improvement, and/or 2 out of 3 winning seasons, and/or a playoff victory.
Then, I started to notice that by Year 4, pretty much all of them had success, by which I mean multiple winning seasons, playoff victories, even Super Bowl wins. I wondered, how far do I have to go back to find a coach who won a Super Bowl, but who didn’t win a playoff game his first 4 years with that team? Shouldn’t be that hard to find, right?
So I went back. 2010s, nope. 2000s, nope. What’s remarkable, I’m noticing that even the losing Super Bowl coaches, who often show up as winners in other years, typically had great early success. 1990s. Still nope, they all won a playoff game within 4 years. 1980s. No, all the way through the 80s, including our own Coach Ditka, who won his SB in Year 4, and still no.
1970s, ah ok. In the 1979 Super Bowl, following the 1978 season, Chuck Noll’s Steelers defeated Tom Landry’s Cowboys, the defending champs of the 1977 season. To say that they're from a different era is an understatement, as Landry was the original head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1960, and they needed years to get enough talent together to compete for anything. Noll trudged through 3 bad years before assembling the talent to go 11-3 in his 4th season, winning a playoff game and losing a hard fought conference final to the undefeated Dolphins and then made the playoffs again in Year 5 and won the first of his Super Bowls in Year 6.
Since Noll won his fourth and final Super Bowl with the Steelers in 1979, there have been 41 instances of a head coach winning a Super Bowl. Out of 41 instances, 41 out of 41 won a playoff game within 4 years of joining the team they won a Super Bowl with. We could include Noll himself as the SB winner in 1979 and include that year, but we won't for other reasons
For now, 41 out of 41 SB winning coaches won a playoff game, with that team, by Year 4. What gets even crazier are the other numbers that tell the story, you better succeed early:
- Out of 41 instances of a head coach winning a Super Bowl, 39 of them won it with their team within 5 years. The 2 exceptions are highly notable: Bill Cowher, who at least reached a Super Bowl within 4 years of becoming the Steelers head coach, but didn’t finally break through for a win until his 14th season, and of course, Andy Reid, who was already on a HOF track before he reached the Super Bowl with the Chiefs for the first time in Year 7. That 39 out of 41 won the Super Bowl within 5 years, shocked me as much as the 41 out of 41 number above.
- In fact, 36 of 41 coaches won the Super Bowl within just 4 years, with only the Colts' Tony Dungy and the Packers' Mike Holmgren, 2 of the highest regarded coaches of their era, needing a 5th year with their respective teams to win the Super Bowl, along with the less highly regarded but still quickly successful Mike McCarthy.
- All but 16 of the 41 Super Bowl winning coaches got there within 3 years. Of the 16 who needed 4 or more years, 16 out of 16 had at least 2 winning seasons in their first 4, 11 had at least 3 winning seasons out of 4.
- Even more shocking: Out of 41 losing Super Bowl head coaches, 40 out of 41 either won a playoff game the first 4 years, or reached a Super Bowl within 5. All but 5 won a playoff game with their respective teams within the first 4 years of taking the job (excluding the 1987 strike-altered season from Sam Wyche), 3 of those coaches were Dan Reeves with the Broncos, another was Holmgren with the Seahawks, who is an exception in many regards here, and then finally Jeff Fisher with the Rams, who really wasn't a very good head coach but at least made a Super Bowl by Year 5.
- 30 of 41 losing head coaches reached the Super Bowl within 4 years of taking the job, another 8 needed a 5th (excluding the 1987 season for Reeves). So out of 41 losing head coaches, all but 3 reached the SB within 5 years, those 3 being Reid with the Eagles (6 years), Reid with the Chiefs (7 years; he lost last year) and Holmgren with the Seahawks.
- So in regards to winning a Super Bowl, you have to reach one within 5 years, or you'll never win it with that team, unless you're Andy Reid. The only one out of 40 who reached it in 5 years without winning was Cowher, who started his career with 6-straight winning seasons, including playoff wins in multiple seasons and a Super Bowl appearance in Year 4. That was enough to withstand 3 years of a mini rebuild before they got back on the winning path and finally won one in his 14th and final season (and then they won another in Tomlin's first season).
- In fact, out of the last 53 total head coaches to just reach the Super Bowl, all but 2 had done it within 5 years, Reid in both stops, and Holmgren in Seattle. So it appears that if you don't get to a Super Bowl within 5 years and you're not a Hall of Fame coach and preeminent offensive coach of your era, you won't get there at all. Reid at least won playoff games in both stops within 3 years. Holmgren in Seattle was the one real outlier, since he didn't win his first playoff game with Seattle until Year 7, the same year he made the SB, making Holmgren the only Super Bowl appearing coach out of 82 instances who didn't show success early with that team, in terms of playoff wins by Year 4 or a Super Bowl appearance by Year 5. And, ultimately, Holmgren didn't win the Super Bowl in Seattle.
Forget everything you know about learning with experience, about the importance of stability, about giving people a chance to grow into their jobs. It simply doesn't apply to NFL coaches. NFL head coaching success comes quickly or not at all. They either bring something that wins playoff games within 4 years and appears in a Super Bowl in 5, or they don't win at all going back 41 years, the exception being Reid needing 6 years to reach a Super Bowl with the Eagles and 7 with the Chiefs, and for whom a lack of post season success was as legendary as his offensive mind. I also pointed out that Mike Holmgren needed 7 years to really show some results in Seattle, but he had already proven himself in Green Bay, much like Reid had in Philadelphia.
So, sorry if I’m being hasty with Matt Nagy, but he needs to win a playoff game this year along with a winning regular season, and the Bears need to reach a Super Bowl by next year, or he’s for sure not going to win a Super Bowl with the Bears. In fact, he almost for sure won't even reach one. We have 41 years of history that says he won't.