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Who succeeds more in the NFL: Offensive-minded or defensive-minded head coaches?

Is it really as simple to just go for the offensive guru?

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

There have been a lot of people who believe the Detroit Lions should limit their head coaching search to offensive-minded head coaches. Offense is the future of the league, the sport’s rules clearly favor the offense, and analytics show that the offense tends to be much more consistent and controllable year-to-year, while defensive performance can almost seem random each season.

But does that mean the Lions should really narrow their search in half? And, more importantly, have offensive-minded coaches in this league really performed any better than defensive-minded guys?

This seems like an important question to answer, because the two hottest candidates regarding the Lions’ job fall on the opposite sides of the ball. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is someone many consider to be the next brilliant offensive mind to come from the Andy Reid tree. Meanwhile, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is considered a strong leader and has done a lot for San Francisco’s defense under an offensive-minded coach.

As someone who has definitely subscribed to the idea that this is becoming an offense-heavy league, I wanted to make sure the numbers show it. So let’s dive into some numbers comparing the two approaches.

What kind of coaches are getting jobs since 2015?

For this study, we’re just dealing with the modern era, so let’s talk about the last six years. We’ve seen an offensive explosion in terms of points scored. In 2015, the average amount of points scored per team in a game was 22.8. That number is now 24.8.

So has it followed that teams are focusing more on the offense when looking for head coaches? The answer is undeniably ‘yes.’ In 2015, the NFL employed 17 defensive-minded coaches. In 2020, that numbers has dropped all the way to 11.

Here’s a look at the trend over the past six years:

(Note: two coaches over this span, John Harbaugh and Joe Judge, were considered neutral, as both had most experience in special teams before becoming head coach.)

Okay, so teams want to find the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan. That’s no surprise. But has it worked?

Are offensive-minded coaches any more successful?

I crunched the numbers over the same time period to simply look at the overall records of offensive-minded coaches vs. defensive-minded coaches. To be clear with my methods, I discounted any interim head coaches in this study, as they aren’t given ample time to install their vision and personnel on a team. If a head coach was fired midseason, I only included the record of the original coach and removed the games that followed.

Here’s what I found:

For four out of the last six years, defensive-minded coaches finished with a better overall record. For the other two—including a huge disparity in 2018—offense reigned supreme. There doesn’t appear to be a current trend in either direction.

Here’s the year-by-year breakdown for those that want raw numbers.

Win/Loss record by head coach philosophy

2020:

OHC: 142 - 150 (.486)
DHC: 88 - 72 (.550)

2019:

OHC: 151.5 - 157.5 (.490)
DHC: 87.5 - 84.5 (.509)

2018

OHC: 146 - 130 (.529)
DHC: 93 - 115 (.447)

2017:

OHC: 136 - 148 (.479)
DHC: 110 - 98 (.529)

2016:

OHC: 139 - 133 (.511)
DHC: 108 - 110 (.495)

2015:

OHC: 100 - 102 (.495)
DHC: 143 - 129 (.526)

For the entire six-year span, here’s the overall breakdown:

2015-2020

OHC: 814.5 - 820.5 (.498)
DHC: 629.5 - 608.5 (.508)

In other words, there hasn’t been a significant difference in success between offensive and defensive-minded head coaches despite a clear trend towards hiring offensive-minded guys.

How about the elite teams?

Above we took into account every team in the NFL. But where do the best teams in the NFL come from philosophically?

Let’s take a look at the conference championship teams from each year and see.

2019:

  • Matt LaFleur, Kyle Shanahan, Andy Reid, Mike Vrabel

3 offensive guys, 1 defensive guy

2018:

  • Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Sean McVay, Sean Payton

3 offensive guys, 1 defensive guy

2017:

  • Mike Zimmer, Doug Pederson, Bill Belichick, Doug Marron

2 offensive guys, 2 defensive guys

2016:

  • Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, Dan Quinn, Mike McCarthy

1 offensive guy, 3 defensive guys

2015:

  • Bill Belichick, Gary Kubiak, Bruce Arians, Ron Rivera

2 offensive guys, 2 defensive guys

While there does appear to be a recent trend towards offensive-minded guys, this sample size is too small to draw any significant conclusions.

Overall

What does that mean for the Lions? It’s simply best to get whoever they feel is the best leader and teacher. Then, when it comes to hiring coordinators, make sure to get someone who can compensate for the other side of the ball. Whether that means bringing Saleh along with someone like Mike LaFleur coaching the offense or getting a strong defensive coordinator to pair with an Arthur Smith or Eric Bieniemy, each method can, and has, worked.