NFL Coaches Aren’t Like a Fine Wine… They Tend Not to Get Better With Age

With the regular season over and several coaches fired already, I figured I would post the results of some of the stuff I’ve been working on recently.  I’m very interested in the age effects that NFL coaches might experience.  Last night I tweeted that NFL coaches typically have coached their best football by the age of about 51 or 52.  It’s not going to be the same in every case, but that’s the age that coaches tend to crest if you look at about the last 30 years of results.

In order to measure whether coaches decline in their 50’s, you can’t just break the NFL up into age cohorts and average the winning percentage for each year.  This doesn’t work because you run into what we call survivor bias.  Basically only the good coaches survive to coach into their 50s, so you end up comparing good coaches who are coaching at the age of 57 with bad coaches who might get fired before they even reach 50.

What I’ve done instead is to measure each coach’s winning percentage at each age, and then compared it with their career average winning percentage.  So let’s say that Bill Belichick posts a winning percentage of 1.000 in 2007 at the age of 55.  That’s 0.360 above his career winning percentage of 0.640, so that year counts +.36 for Belichick.  Another example is that in 2010, Wade Phillips posted a 0.125 winning percentage in his final year with the Cowboys when he was 63 years old.  So that counts as –0.41 for Wade because his career winning percentage is 0.540.

If we do that with every NFL coach who was a head coach since 1980, we can average the +/- relative winning percentage for each age.  Here’s a graph of the results:

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The X axis is basically at 0 when compared to a coach’s career winning percentage.  The red line is a smoothed trendline, but the average relative winning percentages for all coaches are shown by the blue dots, just so you can see the data points in addition to the trendline.  Basically a coach is going to post winning percentages higher than their career average when they are in their 40’s and then things are going to slightly decline in their 50’s, which becomes a rapid decline when they’re almost 60.

If you want a simple way to interpret the graph, you could say that a 0.600 coach is likely to be closer to .500 in the year that they are 60 years old.

Before I move on to what implications this information might have for hiring coaches, let’s also look at the distribution of ages of NFL coaches, as well as the age distribution of Super Bowl winners.  The graph below shows a normal distribution that you get when you use the mean age and standard deviation for these subsets of coaches.  The basic takeaway – Super Bowl winners are younger than the average coach, but it’s not just that they’re younger on average, the distribution curve shows us that Super Bowl winners are a lot more tightly clustered around the age of 49.  Coaches with winning records were 1/2 year younger on average than coaches with losing records.

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It might be easier to look at the same information in table form:

Average Age
Super Bowl Winners 48.9
Conference Champions 49.7
Coaches With Winning Records 50.4
Coaches with Losing Records 50.9

How then should this information be interpreted?

First, this information is also consistent generally with what science can tell us about the way the brain ages.  As we get older we continue to increase or maintain our knowledge and experience (crystallized intelligence) while our problem solving abilities (fluid intelligence) are deteriorating.  For an NFL coach it’s a matter of threading the needle and compiling enough experience to be a good coach, while your problem solving abilities are still generally intact.  Coaching football isn’t a contemplative profession, decisions have to be made quickly and in the fog of war so to speak.  So problem solving is extremely important.  The other thing to keep in mind is that often these older coaches are coaching against competitors who also have a lot of experience, but are younger and might be a little sharper from a cognitive standpoint.

For instance, when Jim Caldwell faces off against Sean Payton, both have a lot of football experience.  Payton has been coaching since he was 23, so he has over 20 years of coaching experience.  But Payton is also about 13 years younger than Caldwell, which means that it’s likely (not guaranteed) that he can process information faster.

For the purposes of making coaching personnel decisions, to me it seems like this information should be one of a number of factors that is looked at.  If you’re a team and you have a 0.500 coach at the helm, and that coach is also getting older (like has passed 53 years old), then you know that not only have they probably coached their best football, but their best football wasn’t that great anyway.  Unless there’s a compelling reason to keep them around, it might be time to get younger.  But alternatively, if you have a great coach who is entering his late 50’s, your replacement might not be as good as your older coach.  Maybe it’s just time to get him a little more help that might address some of the slowing in cognitive processes that occur as people get older.

Lastly, if you’re an NFL team and you’re on a coaching search, there’s probably not a lot of upside in hiring the known coaching names who are also older.  Jeff Fisher is 53 years old and is a lifetime 0.530 coach.  He’s an example of a guy who has a ton of experience and had the chance to use that experience throughout his 40s, but was really just above average.  He would be a rare case if he suddenly became a really great coach later in his career.

Maybe one cautionary tale is Mike Shanahan.  The Redskins are paying him something like $7 million per season because he’s a coaching legend with multiple Super Bowl titles.  But he won those Super Bowls when he was 45 and 46 years old.  He’s 59 now and will be 60 years old next year.  He was a 0.580 coach until he turned 53 and has only been a .500 coach since.  What are the chances he turns things around at the age of 60?

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