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Do NFL Teams Benefit from Firing their Coach Mid-Season?

As Week 5 of the 2015 NFL season rolled around, the Miami Dolphins used their post-London bye week to confirm what had been a strong rumor for a long time: they fired their Head Coach, Joe Philbin, after three-plus years at the helm. Philbin had gone a respectable 23-25 before the season started, but after starting 1-3 in 2015 with an underachieving roster, the franchise decided to go ahead and make the tough decision to fire a coach in the middle of the season.

Philbin was a strong preseason candidate to be on the proverbial hot seat, and he now will be replaced by former player Dan Campbell, who is bound to inherit the dreaded interim designation. If history is any indication, the results are probably not going to be very positive for the Dolphins. They are 1-3 in the same division as the 4-0 Patriots, who look like the best team in the NFL. The rest of the AFC is full of contenders, and so Miami is probably bound to suffer another lost season in which they can start preparing for 2016, and to see if Campbell can become a quality coach for the future.

When we take a look at how the past 10 seasons of mid-season firings have fared, the results are not particularly auspicious for the Dolphins:


It is quite logical that if a team fires its coach with the season in progress, there must be something really wrong with the team. However, the reinforcements haven´t been a true solution, either. Out of the 16 cases on this list, only two coaches were able to enter as interims, remain as full-time coaches, and make the postseason. Even that comes with a caveat, as Leslie Frazier was more a one-year wonder than a long-time solution. On the other hand, Jason Garrett and the Cowboys have been the exception that proves the rule. Following three straight 8-8 finishes, Garrett led Dallas to a 12-4 mark in 2014 and remains the only active head coach in the NFL that started his tenure as a mid-season replacement.

Firing a coach in the middle of the season can also represent the ultimate desperate measure of a badly-run franchise. Out of the sixteen instances that we´ve seen since 2005, that have included 13 franchises, only a handful of them were able to turn things around in the short term, and they included mostly a combination of better head coaching and a competent quarterback to do it.

The Falcons found Matt Ryan in the draft and hired Mike Smith to build a successful tenure in Atlanta, even as Smith has been replaced. The 49ers moved on from Mike Singletary and hired Jim Harbaugh, who reached three straight NFC Championships and a Super Bowl alongside Alex Smith and then Colin Kaepernick. The Broncos ran into Peyton Manning and the steady John Fox to also become a Super Bowl squad, and now Fox coaches the Bears.

Outside of them, teams like the Raiders, Jaguars, Rams, Bills, Lions, and now even the Dolphins have been marked by long playoff droughts and dysfunctionality.

The final casualties in these desperation ploys have been the fired head coaches themselves, as most of them have had a hard time getting a job in the NFL after losing their jobs mid-season. Here is a list of where the sixteen fired coaches landed eventually.


As we can see, getting fired mid-season has become practically a death threat for the head coaching careers of these men. While all of them have been able to land a job somewhere around the NFL and its never-ending coaching carousel (or in the college ranks), the market for their services has been practically non-existent, with only Wade Phillips and Tony Sparano serving as interims that didn´t stick, and Jack del Rio and Gary Kubiak getting a chance to start anew in 2015 with new teams.

In the end, history suggests that the Dolphins (and whoever decides to fire their coach next) will have a hard time rebuilding things quickly. Dan Campbell has a top-heavy, talented squad to try to salvage something out of 2015 and audition for the full-time gig in 2016 and beyond, even if the Dolphins go yet another year without a playoff spot. As for Joe Philbin, the odds are against him getting another head coaching opportunity in the NFL, but he should be fine in the long term, even if it means going back to being an offensive coordinator.

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