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Study: What's the Shelf Life of an NFL Offensive Coordinator?

Dating back to 2000, the NFL sees just under 40% of its offensive coordinators turn over each year, to the tune of 12.5 new offensive coordinators at the start of an average year and 263 changes total. Even in the most stable year on record for this metric, 2003, seven teams still entered the year with a new OC. By comparison, Of course, since the end of the 2011 season, we’ve seen 15 or more OC changes an astounding five times (55%). All of this is to say that the role is incredibly demanding, and coordinators are getting cycled through very quickly.

From the management perspective, should teams be more patient? Continuity is an important factor in building strong teams, so would teams have stronger offenses if they waited longer to make changes? By looking at the timeline of an offensive coordinator, we can assess how effective teams are at making these decisions.

As a quick note, this study is counting an offensive coordinator hire as a designated OC starting the year with a new team. Head coaches filling the role are excluded, as are midseason hires or promotions. It’s incredibly tough to implement your offense during a season, so it’s unfair to compare to the rest of a data set. However, if this midseason hire was retained as an OC for the following year, they were then credited as a new OC.

Of the 263 OCs hired since 2000, the average tenure is only 2.29 years, while the median is two years. Clearly, teams are looking for results quickly, and are willing to make bold moves to get it. A whopping 84.8% of OCs have had a tenure of three years or less, while just under 5% make it to their sixth year with a team. This has a few different explanations. The first and simplest: Offensive coordinators who don’t produce aren’t retained. Whether an offseason change or a sacrifice to save the HC, a struggling offense in the 21st century is a struggling team, and those aren’t known for mercy.

Another major explanation is the opposite – standout success. The NFL has become very quick to hire the next up-and-comer, such as Sean McVay’s three years as the OC of the Washington Football Team before getting hired as the head coach of the L.A. Rams. While this reason would seem to skew much of the data, it’s key to remember the perspective of the hiring head coach, who wants an OC to succeed with the team for as long as possible, not leave for another job. Additionally, the large number of OC hires dwarfs the number of OCs who are hired up, limiting their impact on the data.

The final reasoning for shorter tenures is the ever-present search for a franchise quarterback. Offensive coordinators who can develop or maximize these QBs are in high demand, and they’ll get cycled around the league frequently as the QB matures or another attractive opening with a potential superstar becomes available.

The most important job for any offense is to score. With the above flowchart, we can see how NFL OCs have fared since 2000, based on how effectively their offense scored points compared with the league as a whole. In their first year of the job, OCs average a ranking of 18.77 for scoring offense, below the league average. For many of the 21st century OCs, this becomes their only year, as coaches who do not return average a 22.63 rank in scoring while returners are right around league average.

For their second year, the bar gets slightly raised. While a similar 21.44 average scoring ranking will lead to a new OC, the 79 OCs who returned are pushing their offenses higher to an average 13.32 scoring ranking.

However, the third year is when we truly see a split. For the 15.2% of OCs to survive to see a fourth year, they are consistently excelling by year three, averaging just under a top-10 offense. For the non-returners, a league-average scoring offense is no longer good enough, although this number is skewed slightly by those coaches who are hired up.

The 40 OCs who remained to see a fourth year make for a strong group that can be used to compare potential hires. While not all were necessarily good coaches, they each filled the highly demanding role through struggles and ordeals and fulfilled at least modest expectations. To look at how they survived, we can split their tenures into five different (subjective) groups to get a general sense of their tenure. Four coaches (10%) were the beneficiaries of patient ownership. While they never really led strong offenses, these OCs mostly led in the early 2000s and likely had strong leadership tendencies or dealt with significant injuries or other contextual factors. One of the larger groups, with 10 coaches (25%), were those that had unreplicated early success. With a top-10 scoring season in one their first few years, they laid the groundwork as a promising OC and extended their tenure, but were unable to ever repeat that standout season. The final three groups all comprise the ideal OCs, with consistent improvement (six coaches, 15%), sustained turning point (4 coaches, 10%) and repeated excellence (16 coaches, 40%).

The consistent improvement and sustained turning point groups both dealt with early adversity in the form of bad seasons but beat the odds to turn their offenses into consistent top-10 units. Of courses, the repeated excellence OCs did that from the jump. A key similarity between each of these three groups is the presence of a franchise QB. While not required to get into the group, these coordinators all improved or benefitted from a standout under center, whether a Hall of Famer or somebody who played at a higher level than ever before.

In their roles, we surprisingly don’t see a strong distinction between OCs who were far more succesful running the ball (25%) or those that were far better passing (27.5%). Rather, the longest-lasting OCs could do either, leading top 10 rushing offenses one season and top 10 passing the next. This runs contrary to the current concept of “hire the person to improve your passing game the most,” as it doesn’t seem to translate as well as management expects it to.

It’s also valuable to evaluate these 40 OCs based on their expertise before assuming the role that earned them a spot on this list. While not limited to just their job immediately prior, it’s notable that a ridiculous 92% had expertise as an NFL position coach and 54% as a college positional coach. This somewhat speaks to the path that new coaches take into the league, but is instructive nonetheless. In perhaps the most surprising result, former NFL and college HCs rank at the bottom of the list. Despite having previously run programs, we don’t commonly see these OCs go on to have lengthy OC tenures. While they may get re-hired as an HC or OC elsewhere, this result doesn’t support the idea that former HCs make good, long-term coordinators, and you’re likely to be looking for another OC in a few years regardless.

A shoutout is also in order to Bill Muir, who made this list as the OC for the 2002 Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but completely broke any reasonable charts as a former NFL and college defensive coordinator, defensive position coach and pro scout.

The final distinguisher in place involves former experience coaching specific position groups. While this result should be taken lightly due to hiring practices that emphasize passing-game coaches and de-emphasize run-game coaches, it’s still instructive to look at some of the previous experiences of our long-term OCs. While the 25 QB coaches and 22 WR coaches speak to the emphasis on coordinators who can develop their QBs, it’s also highly interesting to note the 15 TE coaches. As a position that has to work in both the run game and pass game, blocking and receiving, it’s possible that having to learn all of these varied techniques trains coaches more efficiently to manage a full offense.

As we’ve seen, the NFL doesn’t have nearly as much patience with OCs as they used to. Only 15% of OCs make it to a fourth year, and far fewer make it much beyond that due to high expectations by that point. While the NFL is primed to emphasize the passing game, the longest-lasting OCs can also lead top run offenses and overwhelmingly have NFL position-coach experience. It’s apparent that decision-makers are too quick to give up on first-year OCs due to the double-digit coaches who turned around a bad first season and sustained the improvement, but the number of OCs who hung on after unreplicated early success is just as long.

Nevertheless, the value of a strong OC has never been higher.