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The Offseason Skeptic Examines Head Coaches

What is the chance that Ron Rivera has a winning season in Washington? 

Washington Commanders v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

For the past several weeks I have been doing my best to shine the light of statistical reality on the hype, and in one case the anti-hype, developing around some of the Commanders less proven players ahead of the 2023 season. Four of the players – Cole Turner, Chase Young, Saahdiq Charles, and Dyami Brown – have become the subject of more optimistic expectations than would seem to be warranted based on what they have shown so far.

QB Sam Howell, on the other hand continues to draw skepticism from the national media, which stands in contrast to the guarded optimism among the local fanbase. As I showed, the recent history of late-round quarterbacks who have started in their first two seasons would seem to suggest that the fans might be closer to reality than the national media pundits.

For the final installment of the Offseason Skeptic, I would like to shift gears to examine the other most pivotal position on the team heading into the 2023 season. Ron Rivera was brought to Washington in what turned out to be Dan Snyder’s final attempt to right the ship. According to team lore, Snyder had an epiphany following the disastrous 2019 season and committed the team to a new coach-centric model.

The man that team elder Joe Gibbs apparently suggested to be the new head of all things football was a curious choice. Ron Rivera had rebuilt a moribund Panthers squad, leading them to the Super Bowl in his fifth season in Carolina. But after reaching that peak, the team had faltered. In his nine year tenure with the Panthers, the team had only enjoyed three winning seasons.

The promise upon Rivera’s arrival in Washington was that he would restore an air of respectability to the franchise and introduce a winning culture. In three years, Rivera has almost completely remade the Commanders’ roster, bringing in players that fit his mold. Reports from within the locker room indicate that there is greater cohesion and a more positive team culture.

The one thing that has been missing from coach Rivera’s winning culture is the winning. I don’t know about you, but I can’t escape the feeling that that’s the most important part. In his introductory press conference, Rivera was emphatic that he didn’t have patience for a five-year rebuild. As we enter his fourth season in Washington, however, the progress on the field has been slower than his comments might have led fans to expect. In his first three years with the team, Rivera has yet to deliver a winning season.

Will 2023 be the year that Rivera finally bursts through the 0.500 ceiling in Washington? To get an idea of how likely that might be, the penultimate edition of the Offseason Skeptic will ask how often head coaches with similar records to Rivera’s through their first three seasons with a team have posted winning records in their fourth seasons.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Commanders Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

Third Year Head Coaches with No Winning Seasons

To estimate the chance of Rivera breaking out in his fourth season, I scanned the franchise histories of all 32 NFL teams throughout the entire salary cap era (from 1994) to identify head coaches who failed to post a winning season in their first three years. For this purpose, a winning season is defined as one in which the team won the majority of its games. Therefore, an 8-7-1 record was counted as a non-winning season.

The 27 head coach tenures identified in this search are shown in the following table. Jeff Fisher appears twice.

I included all non-winning streaks of three years or more at the start of a coach’s tenure which started or ended within the cap era. The length of the streak of non-winning seasons is shown in years, with decimals where coaches were fired part way through their final season. The start of a streak was counted as the first season that the coach started as head coach. Partial seasons when an incoming head coach replaced a coach fired mid-season were not counted.

The final column indicates the result of the coach’s fourth season with the team, if there was one. “Fired” on its own indicates that he was fired, mutually parted ways or retired after the third non-winning season. Otherwise, the coach’s Win-Loss record in his fourth season is shown, along with any firing during or after the fourth season. If only the Win-Loss record is shown, then the coach remained for at least one more season with the team.

Out of 27 head coaches with no winning seasons in their first three years, 15 (55.5%) were fired following their third seasons. As you might expect, however, the firing rate depended heavily on the coaches’ Win-Loss records through their first three seasons. The coaches in this sample had win rates ranging from 0.208 (Rod Marinelli) to 0.500 (Jason Garrett). Through his first three seasons, Ron Rivera has a regular season win rate of 0.450, which places him near the upper end of the range. To estimate the firing rate among comparable coaches, I therefore focused on those win rates above 0.400 (lowest = 0.427), who are indicated in bold font.

Only one of seven (14.3%) head coaches with comparable Win-Loss records to Rivera was fired after his third non-winning season. So it should really be no surprise that Ron is still with us. In contrast, 14 of the 20 (70%) coaches with win rates below 0.400 (highest = 0.388) were fired after Year 3.

To get the best idea of the chance that a head coach with a record like Rivera will post a winning season in his fourth year, I focused on the most comparable coaches. Among the seven coaches with win rates above 0.400, two had winning seasons in Year 4. Therefore, the estimated probability that Rivera will finally break the 0.500 barrier in Washington this season is 2/7 = 0.286, or 28.6%.

The two head coaches who posted their first winning season in Year 4 after similar slow starts to Rivera were Gary Kubiak with the Texans and Jason Garrett with the Cowboys. Kubiak had a 9-7 record in his fourth season in Houston, and stayed with the team for four more seasons. He took the Texans to the playoffs twice in 2011 and 2012, winning Wild Card games and losing in the divisional round both seasons. In eight years with the Texans, he had a Win-Loss record of 61-64.

Garrett was somewhat more successful than Kubiak. After starting his tenure in Dallas with a run of three 8-8 seasons, he led the ‘boys to a 12-4 regular season record and a playoff appearance in Year 4. Dallas beat Detroit in the Wild Card round and then lost to the Packers in the divisional round. In nine years with the Cowboys, Garrett had three seasons with 10 or more wins and three post-season appearances. He finished his time in Dallas with an 85-67 regular season record (0.559 win rate) and two Wild Card playoff wins.

The other comparable head coaches to make it to a fourth season were Dennis Erickson, Joe Philbin and Jeff Fisher twice (Oilers/Titans in 1998, Rams in 2015). Philbin was fired after Week 4 of his fourth season, with a record of 1-3. Erickson went 8-8 and was fired after the season.

The only comparable head coach to lead his team to real playoff success after a start like Rivera’s was Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. In his fifth season, he finally broke the 0.500 barrier with a 13-3 record and led the Titans to their first Super Bowl, which they lost to Kurt Warner’s Greatest Show on Turf, 16-23. Fisher led the Titans back to the playoffs five more times and coached the team for 17 seasons with a final regular season record of 142-120.

While this is a very small sample to draw conclusions from, the historical data from head coaches making comparable slow starts to Rivera would seem to suggest that there is around a 28.6% chance that Ron will finally have a winning season in 2023. If he doesn’t, it would seem unlikely that the new ownership will keep him on. However, three head coaches have made it to a fifth year with a team without a winning season. Well, actually two have, but Jeff Fisher did it twice. So it is at least conceivable that he could survive another non-winning season.

Only one head coach making a similar start to Rivera has gone on to have real playoff success with his team in the salary cap era.

Rivera is Already Elite and Has an Opportunity to Achieve Greatness

The preceding analysis is all based on the fact that Rivera has failed to post a winning record in three seasons with Washington. In fact, his non-winning streak as head coach extends back even further to the 2018 season with Carolina. Commanders fans may not fully appreciate that his current streak of five years with no winning seasons places him in truly rarified company.

In the salary cap era, only three men have achieved non-winning streaks of five or more seasons as head coaches. Here they are:

Rex Ryan holds the record for the longest streak of continuous seasons without a winning record, extending for six years from his third season with the New York Jets through his second season in Buffalo. He was fired following the 2016 season with the Bills and has not had another NFL coaching job ever since.

The other two coaches on the list had slightly longer streaks of consecutive seasons as head coaches without winning seasons. But in both cases the streak was punctuated by a season off from head coaching.

Jeff Fisher is the undisputed king of weathering non-winning streaks. He survived a four-season drought to start his successful career with the Oilers/Titans. In his 16th season with the Titans (2009), however, he began a second slump. In his final two seasons with the Titans, he finished with records of 8-8 and 6-10. After the 2010 season, the team and Fisher mutually agreed to part ways.

Fisher took 2011 off from head coaching and was hired the following season to be the new head coach of the St Louis Rams. In four complete seasons with the Rams, he did not have a single winning record. He was fired after Week 14 of the 2016 season with a record of 4-9. The total non-winning streak extended for 6.62 seasons, exceeding Rex Ryans streak by 14 games. Within that span, however, the longest continuous streak of seasons without a winning record was the final 4.62 season stint with the Rams. The firing by the Rams ended Fisher’s head coaching career.

Dick Jauron had an even more complicated punctuated non-winning streak, spanning his time as head coach of the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and the Buffalo Bills. In his fourth and fifth seasons with Chicago, from 2002 to 2003, he had records of 4-12 and 7-9. He was fired after the 2003 season and joined Detroit as defensive coordinator in 2004. He was promoted to interim head coach for the final five games of the 2005 season, following the midseason firing of head coach Steve Mariucci. The following season, he was passed over by Detroit for Rod Marinelli, who had the dubious distinction of becoming the first head coach to post a 0-16 record. Jauron was hired as head coach by the Bills that same season and had 7-9 records for three seasons in a row from 2006 to 2008. He was fired after Week 10 of the 2009 season with a record of 3-6. That was his final season as an NFL head coach.

All this is to say that Ron Rivera has an historic opportunity in 2023. If he can finish the season with a winning record, he will become he first NFL coach in the salary cap era to do so after five consecutive years without a winning season. As a consolation prize, if he fails to achieve that momentous feat, but plays out the entire 2023 season, he will tie Rex Ryan’s record for the longest continuous streak without a winning season.

Therefore, the only way that Rivera will fail to at least tie a salary cap era record is if he is fired mid-season. As we saw in the previous section, only one out seven comparable head coaches was fired midway through his fourth year, making the estimated likelihood of that happening as little as 14.3%. That means there is around an 85.7% chance that Commanders fans will get to witness history being made, one way or another, in 2023.

If that isn’t something to get excited about, I don’t know what is.

Washington Commanders v Houston Texans Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Summary and Conclusions

Ron Rivera came to Washington with a mission to instill a winning team culture. In his first three seasons he might have brought about positive culture change, but that hasn’t yet translated to a positive balance in Win-Loss column. His fourth season in Washington, under new ownership could well be his final opportunity to demonstrate that he has what it takes to build a winner.

Rivera is already ahead of the curve by coaching in Washington for a fourth season. Only 44.4% of 27 head coaches in the salary cap era without a winning season in their first three seasons with an NFL team were retained for a fourth season. It could be argued that Rivera lucked into getting this far, because it would be hard to imagine any other head coach not being fired after the Cleveland game in which he made a questionable call to start Carson Wentz and then admitted after the game that he did not even realize the season was on the line. Either one of those gaffs, on its own would ordinarily be enough to get a coach fired. We were not to know at the time that the owner was probably already investigating options to sell the team, and no longer invested in the team’s success or failure.

Be that as it may, only two out of seven head coaches with comparable records through their first three seasons with a team posted a winning record in their fourth seasons. Using those figures as a guide would suggest that Rivera has around a 28.6% chance of leading the Commanders to a winning season in 2023.

Looking beyond 2023, the history of head coaches with similar records through their first three seasons does not inspire confidence for Rivera’s long term future with the Commanders. In the salary cap era, only one head coach with a comparable record has gone on to lead his team deep into the playoffs in subsequent seasons.

If Rivera is able to achieve a winning record in 2023, he will not only have beaten long odds as a fourth-year head coach without a winning season with his current team. He will also become the first head coach in the cap era to do so after five consecutive years without a winning season.

So Ron Rivera will either make history with the Commanders in 2023, or it is most likely we will begin a new era with a new head coach in 2024.

Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett, whose comments forced me to rewrite the second section, so he hasn’t seen this version.


Over under on Ron Rivera leading the Commanders to 9 wins in 2023

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    (92 votes)
  • 32%
    (96 votes)
  • 30%
    (89 votes)
  • 5%
    N/A, He will be fired mid-season
    (17 votes)
294 votes total Vote Now


What would it take for Rivera to keep his job in 2024?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    8 wins with Sam Howell playing well by mid to late season
    (40 votes)
  • 18%
    9 wins
    (55 votes)
  • 34%
    10 wins
    (103 votes)
  • 7%
    11+ wins
    (21 votes)
  • 16%
    Wild Card win
    (50 votes)
  • 6%
    Divisional round win
    (18 votes)
  • 3%
    NFC Championship
    (11 votes)
298 votes total Vote Now