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Data Entry: Playoffs or Bust for John Fox in 2017?

| June 7th, 2017

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

I’ve seen a lot of speculation this offseason that John Fox is on the hot seat with the Bears in 2017. There were even some rumors that he might be fired following a disastrous 2016. But now his job is widely believed to be on the line should 2017 not show significant improvement.

With that in mind, I wanted to look at what history says about Fox keeping his job beyond 2017 based on similar situations around the NFL. Since this will be Fox’s 3rd year on the job, I looked at coach success in the first three years.

New Coach

Coaching turnover happens fast in the NFL. From 2000 to 2016, there were 142 coaching hires, an average of just over 4.4 per team. Thus in the last 17 years, the average head coach has lasted just under 4 years on the job.

Looking at the current list of 32 NFL head coaches, that 4 year marker also proves to be significant. Exactly half of the coaches are entering at least their 4th season, with the other half all entering their 3rd season or less (full data here). What do those 16 head coaches who have been around for 4 or more years have in common? All but one of them made the playoffs sometime in their first three seasons, with the lone exception (Jason Garrett) achieving that feat in year 4 after 3 straight 8-8 seasons that indicated the Cowboys were close.

It appears the achievement needed for John Fox to keep his job past 2017 is clear: guide the Bears to the playoffs.

New coach and GM

Of course, coaches can enter at different situations relative to the general manager who hires and fires them, which can impact their job status. With that in mind, I looked at coaches who were hired by their new GM in the same offseason the GM took over since 2005. Again, we see the four year marker is key.

  • 9 of the 16 coaches were fired within 3 years, with 7 of 16 lasting 4 or longer.
  • Of the 9 who were fired by the end of year 3, only 3 made the playoffs, and none in year 3 (which Fox is entering).
  • Of the 7 who made it to 4 or more seasons, 5 made the playoffs at least once in the first three years.

Again, it looks like making the playoffs in 2017 will ensure John Fox keeps his job into at least 2018, though there’s a bit more hope here for Fox fans that he might be able to stick around past that with a slightly less impressive showing. Let’s look in a bit more detail at the two instances where coaches lasted longer than 3 seasons without making the playoffs to see if they might compare to Fox’s situation in Chicago.

The first instance was Gary Kubiak in Houston.

He was hired by new GM Rick Smith in 2006, and lasted 7 seasons despite not making the playoffs until year 6. However, Kubiak took over a team that was abjectly horrible, averaging only 4.5 wins per year in the first 4 seasons of their existence. In Kubiak’s first three years, Houston averaged 7.3 wins per season, a significant improvement from the past, and that included matching 8-8 records in Kubiak’s second and 3rd seasons, which were the two best seasons in franchise history at the time.

I don’t think this situation really applies to Fox. The Bears underachieved to go 5-11 the year before he took over, but had been 8-8 the year before that. The core was certainly aging, and virtually the entire roster has been turned over in Fox’s tenure, but unlike the start to Kubiak’s tenure, the on-field results in Chicago have shown no improvement during Fox’s early years. Maybe improvement to 8-8, like in Kubiak’s third year, will be enough to save Fox’s job, but that is no sure thing since Fox cannot match the track record of relative success Kubiak saw before that 8-8 year.

The second instance was Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.

He was hired with new GM Les Snead in 2012, and lasted 5 years despite never making the playoffs (or even reaching .500). Again, Fisher walked into a terrible situation, as the Rams had won 3 games or fewer in 4 of the 5 seasons prior to Fisher taking over. In Fisher’s first three seasons, the Rams won 7.5 (0.5 from a tie), 7, and 6 games, again showing a significant improvement over where the franchise was before he took over. So again, I don’t think this situation is terribly applicable to Fox’s in Chicago, as the Bears have not shown consistent improvement from where they were prior to his tenure.

All three exceptions to the “playoffs withing three years or the coach is fired” rule from the two samples looked at so far found coaches who hovered around .500 for all three of their first seasons. John Fox has not done that, so history indicates pretty clearly he is highly unlikely to still be Chicago’s head coach beyond 2017 unless the Bears make the playoffs.

Ryan Pace’s job security

Finally I want to make a brief comment about Ryan Pace’s job security. Unlike Fox, Pace is not typically rumored to be on the hot seat, as it is widely believed he will get to hire a 2nd head coach should Fox be fired following the 2017 season.

Looking at the 16 instances above where a GM hired a new head coach in his first year on the job, history suggests this could actually go either way. There was one instance where a head coach actually outlasted the GM by a year, 3 instances where the head coach and GM were fired in the same season (all after three years, interestingly enough), 1 instance where both head coach and GM are both still around, and 11 instances where the GM got a 2nd chance at a head coach after firing the first one.

It should be noted that all four instances where the GM did not outlast the coach came when both the coach and GM were fired within the first 3 years, so 4 of 9 coaches fired in similar situations to Fox took the GM with them (with 2 more getting fired after season 4). So while  Pace might have a decent chance of sticking around into 2018 even if Fox does not, he should not get too comfortable unless the Bears start showing meaningful improvements on the field in the near future.

TL;DR

If the Bears don’t make the playoffs in 2017, recent history in the NFL indicates John Fox will almost certainly be fired, while Ryan Pace has about a 50/50 shot of coming back.

There, I just saved you 1,000 words of reading with the numbers for how I came to those conclusions. You’re welcome.

(Is it time for football to start again yet? It feels like it should be.)

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