2019 NFL Coach of The Year: Who Can Exceed Expectations?
Checking the prices in the market at a sportsbook is one of those activities that gets less interesting the more you do it. It’s rare that I see a futures market that is utterly fascinating nowadays. I’ve handicapped, modeled, and thought intensely about most futures markets in most sports, and there usually isn’t anything that surprises me. That isn’t to say I win bags of money all the time, but just that I can generally figure out ahead of time what the market is going to look like before opening the page or clicking the button. There is consistency to the process both on my side and on the oddsmaker’s side.
Well, NFL Coach of the Year is a market that consistently surprises me. It seems to rarely make sense. And it’s very interesting.
As a bettor, especially one with a low-to-moderate level of experience, this should be very appealing for you. The prices in this market do not change hour-to-hour, or even day-to-day (although a very good price has been bet recently at one offshore (by me and others), and we’ll get to that in a minute). Because the prices are stationary, you aren’t really competing against the trader with an odds screen, or a team/syndicate, or the best of the best. You’re competing against less-talented bettors in general. And if your goal is to make money, you should always be targeting the softest market possible that you can still get a good return from.
There are rules we can apply that can make the process of handicapping the Coach of the Year market easier. Looking at history, there are very, very clear angles in terms of who wins the award, and who does not. And the best part is, this is a market that seems to ignore those angles year after year. Looking through history can give us a very clear picture of the possible candidates.
1990 was one of the strangest years in the history of the award, and from that point on, our data set is going to begin. In 1990, Jimmie Johnson took an atrocious Dallas Cowboys team and got them to 7-9. He won Coach of the Year despite the fact that 7-9 isn’t a very good record. And therefore, it should be no surprise that in the 50+-year history of the award, he is the ONLY coach who has won it with a below .500 record. There hasn’t been a coach to win it with a .500 record either, so Jimmie really is an outlier. And because our record-keeping gets better and better from the early 90’s forward, we will be using numbers from 1991 onward. The more work I do in this market, the more 1990 stands out as a wild situation. It proves that such a winner is possible, even if VERY rare. It’s always a reminder that even if you think you have a market completely nailed, a wild series of events is always possible.
Anyway, the rules. Here are some things we can learn with a thorough evaluation of who has won the award. I will use words like “no one,” “always,” and “never,” and just understand that we are talking about 1991-present day when I make those proclamations. All of these rules will be about the same theme.
1. The award is, above all else, about improvement, and usually unexpected improvement. No one has won the award without improving their record from the previous year. Moreover, the average win improvement year-over-year for the winner’s team is 5.82 wins. So not only does the winner make a team better, but he makes the team MUCH better, to the point that it draws a lot of attention and makes voters of the award take notice. There are only two situations where a coach won the award with a 1-win improvement – 2002 and 2014. In 2002, Andy Reid had yet another great Eagles team, and there was no other deserving candidate. It was a rare situation. In 2014, Bruce Arians got the Cardinals to the playoffs, and that accomplishment was historically significant, as they hadn’t made it in a long time, and they also won the most games in their franchise’s history (11). So although that year there was only a 1-win improvement, there was a huge narrative, which for voters is significant. After those 2 winners, every other coach improved their team’s record 4 games or more who has won. People get really confused here because they know Bill Belichick has won the award a lot (3 times), but actually in all 3 of those seasons, the Patriots improved their record at least 4 games.
2. I say unexpected improvement, because that’s a big part of this. If everyone already thinks a team is going to be good, and then that team is good, do we give the coach credit? Probably not. After all, even WE thought the team was going to be good. There was no defying expectation. This can most aptly be demonstrated in the win-total market preseason. The average win-total of the Coach of the Year is 7.28 before the season. There are only 2 instances since 1990 where a coach won who had a preseason win total of 10 or greater, and only 1 additional instance of a coach with a win total of 9.5 winning. It is extremely rare. The most frequent values by far of the winner are 7 and 7.5. So basically, the market expected below-.500, and got above-.500, and that surprised and impressed everyone enough that the coach got a lot of the credit. People who want to bet Matt LaFleur this year would be well-advised to remember this rule considering expectations for Green Bay are so high already.
3. To further advance the improvement storyline, the team probably had to be pretty bad the year before. Otherwise, improvement would be really difficult. If a team went 16-0, how are they going to improve? The average Coach of the Year winner coached a team that won 6.07 games the year before. This is important to remember because, and this will come as no surprise, winning NFL games is incredibly difficult to do. Winning a LOT of NFL games is almost impossible to do consistently. So when targeting coaches who could win, you are going to want to avoid coaches who just had a lot of success. It’s hard, after having a lot of success, to have EVEN MORE success. It’s much easier to take a team that was awful and get them to slightly above average. It may not even mean you’re a very good coach, but it will get everyone’s attention.
4. Lastly, we can detect some quality candidates using one additional calculation. We are looking for improved teams, that are a little under the radar, but they still need to have some talent. On paper, they need to at least look better than they did entering the year before. And one way we can measure that is the difference between the preseason win-total and the previous year’s win-total. In a lot of cases, the market DOES expect some improvement from the team, but the improvement ends up becoming much more than any of us expected. A team is supposed to go from 6 wins to 7.5, but they go to 11. Something like that. And when you look at market history, that type of picture emerges. In the last 27 years, only 7 times did the winner have a win total worse than his team’s win total before the previous season. On average, the win total improved by about 1.2.
So using those rules, we can actually create a really good list of candidates who make a lot of sense. We can’t bet ALL of those candidates, because we still end up with, reasonably, about 12-14 coaches every season. Still, going from 32 to 14 is helpful. But now it’s time for the really good news: the market isn’t pricing basically anyone correctly, so your pool of bets can be bigger than you expected.
Each year, the favorites in the market are, with some exceptions, an ordering of who the best teams were last year. Bill Belichick. Mike Tomlin. Andy Reid. They are almost always the favorites. Even weirder, the winner of the award last year is frequently among the favorites the next year. Sean McVay won a couple years ago, and the following year was the 2nd choice. Because…the Rams were going to win 19 games? That seems like an unlikely accomplishment.
The market seems to want to price coaches based on who the really good coaches are. But that’s not at all what the award is about. If the award was about coaching ability, Belichick or Reid (or now McVay or Pederson, etc.) would win the award every year. But they don’t. So this award isn’t about who the best coaches are. It’s about a team who improves unexpectedly. Part of unexpected improvement is that we probably DON’T think the coach is very good, or at least, we don’t know yet. Then once we learn that, the coach probably can’t win any more, because we’re off looking for next shiny objection that unexpectedly strikes our fancy.
This year, 6 of the top 8 choices in the market won 9 or more games last year. The coaches of the Saints and Rams, who each won 13 games last season, are among them. How likely is it to get significant improvement after a 13-3 season? Not very. The only way those coaches can win the award, realistically, is to go 16-0. And going 16-0 is unlikely, to say the last.
OK, so we’ve established the type of coaches who win, and how the market wants to instead focus on the best and the brightest. There is the chance of value here. Let’s move on to actually identifying viable candidates. Here are coaches who seem to check all the boxes, but who I have excluded from my pool this year. We’ll call this the Honorable Mention list. Prices listed will be the best one available between two offshores who have markets for the award.
Honorable Mention (They could win, but I am not betting on them)
Matt LaFleur (GB, 20/1) and Freddie Kitchens (CLE, 11/1): They make sense in a very obvious way, because we know the Packers and Browns are expected to improve and be contenders this year. Kitchens is the favorite to win on one site, and was the favorite on a 2nd site until a coach I bet on took over that spot. I would imagine people are going to bet both of them more than anyone else in the entire market. The Packers have been contenders for several years with Aaron Rodgers, and are expected to resume that status this year. Here’s the thing though: there is nothing at all unexpected about the success either of these teams could have. The Browns win-total is 9 and the Packers win-total is 9.5. We’ve already established we are looking for the 6.5-7-7.5 range, so that success is unexpected. When Green Bay wins 11 games, does Matt LaFleur even deserve any of the credit? Rodgers should get it all. What I will say about Kitchens is that he has the “Bruce Arians narrative” card in his favor big-time. If the Browns make the playoffs after years of awfulness, despite the market expecting to happen, he may just win the award as a celebration of that accomplishment. But with the shortest price on the board, and Kitchens not fitting the win-total aspect of the profile at all, I’m looking elsewhere.
Zac Taylor (CIN, 40/1) Brian Flores (MIA, 50/1) and Kliff Kingsbury (ARI, 33/1): New hires who are taking over struggling teams. The Bengals won 6 games last year, the Dolphins won 7, and the Cardinals won just 3. If these coaches could get things turned around, they would be obvious choices, and they are listed at really, really long prices. There is a lot to like here, except one thing: I think all 3 teams are going to be absolutely dreadful this year. They have the 3 lowest win-totals in the market, lower than the threshold we’ve even established for coaches. It’s not enough to just be the coach of a bad team from last year…you still need talent. And I’m just not sure there’s enough on any of these teams for the coaches to turn things around that fast.
Jon Gruden (OAK, 40/1), Pat Shurmur (NYG, 50/1): Basically, the two laughingstock coaches from last season. Gruden and Shurmur both completely cratered as coaches of historic franchises. We mocked Gruden’s player moves all season, and we mocked basically everything about the Giants for even longer. To me, these two are so much more dangerous to win the award than the first-timers I listed before, because there should be SOME level of improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 when you keep the same coach. Then again, Gruden may start Nathan Peterman, so I don’t know.
Jay Gruden (WAS, 50/1): An incredibly tough omission, which sounds absurd until you remember that as a nation we are awful at predicting breakout teams every year. First off, he is 50/1, yet checks a lot of the boxes, so that’s interesting. His team won 7 games last year, and has a win-total this year of 6.5. Improvement for this team would be unexpected, and that’s putting it mildly. Jay Gruden is currently the overwhelming favorite to be the first coach fired in that market. His best offensive lineman doesn’t want anything to do with the team anymore, and he’s probably starting rookie Dwayne Haskins out of the gate because the owner loves him. It sounds like a dumpster fire…which means there could be a lot of unexpected improvement. And their market numbers completely fit with what we know about past winners. Are they just too much of a complete mess to really achieve good things this year, though? I think so, but this isn’t nearly as bad of a bet as the market would have you believe.
Doug Marrone (JAX, 25/1): Marrone may just be a toss-out because of his history of quitting on Buffalo, and how much that soured people on him. But his team can easily get back to where they were just a couple years ago, with Nick Foles at QB instead of Blake Bortles. Improvement makes sense, and they won 5 games last year, with a win-total of 8 for this season. I’m just not sure I can come up with a narrative for him that ever gets people excited though (that being said, Jason Garrett once won this award). He’s Doug Marrone. That may be the thing going against him the most. Still, it’s possible.
Sean McDermott (BUF, 33/1): They won 6 games last season, and have a win total of 7 this year (a 1.5-win upgrade over last year’s win total). That fits the profile completely. They have a QB (Josh Allen) going from Year 1 to Year 2 who could improve. They drafted Ed Oliver, who I have already bet to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. And unlike some of the other bets, you are getting a break on the price here despite the fact that the profile fits. 33/1 isn’t bad at all. He was the last person I left off the list, because I just don’t really believe in Josh Allen at all. That could end up costing me money, but that’s why I excluded McDermott. I don’t think Josh Allen can QB an 11 or 12-win team.
My List of Bets
Kyle Shanahan (SF, 20/1): People are going to bet on him, a lot. In fact, at one offshore, due partly to me, he has gone from 20/1 to 10/1. The 49ers won 4 games last season and have a win total this year of 8. They had a Pythagorean expectation much better than their record last season despite the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t play in most of it. The fact that they were still competitive is actually kind of a testament to Shanahan’s ability already, which is a window into what he could do with better QB play. He is one of the most obvious choices on the board, because unlike Matt LaFleur or Pat Shurmur or Doug Marrone, we are actually pretty sure Shanahan is a competent person. We have some evidence to that effect.
Vic Fangio (DEN, 20/1): I have no idea how many previous winners passed kidney stones during the preseason, but hey, there’s a great narrative for the voters! Vic Fangio, tough guy. The Broncos won 6 games last season, and their win-total this year is 7, the same win-total they had last year. They were better than their record indicated last season, and Denver’s story for a couple year has been just atrocious QB play. I can’t guarantee you that Joe Flacco or Drew Lock will be better, but they are at least different than what was under center last season, so there is at least the chance of improvement.
Bruce Arians (TB, 20/1): They won 5 games last season, and have a win-total of 6.5 this year. Tampa is kind of my team this year. I have 1-2 teams every season that I have irrational belief in, and the Bucs are that in 2019. Arians has won this award twice already, as coach of the Colts, and again with the Cardinals. He has a crazy backstory, as he had to retire for medical reasons with Arizona, but couldn’t resist the call of coaching. He came out of retirement despite the fact he’s ended up in the hospital at basically every stop of his career. It’s exactly the type of thing voters should eat up big time. What a legend. Arians also inherits Jameis Winston, and if he could ever coach Winston to cut down on his turnovers even a little, this team’s offense would completely explode. Winston has huge upside this year, and had better-than-you-would-think numbers last season. People are down on this team because of their schedule, but schedule analysis implies that we have any idea who is good and bad among the 32 teams. I would argue that every year, there is so much parity, we have no idea about that, and therefore schedule analysis is unhelpful before the year.
Adam Gase (NYJ, 28/1): The first line of my notes for him is “Has crazy eyes but can still win.” The Jets make all the sense in the world as a team to make the leap. They won 4 games last year, and their win total this season is 6. Their Pythagorean expectation last season was better than their record, and they have a QB in Sam Darnold who should improve going into Year 2. They spent a lot of money on Le’Veon Bell, and we’ll see whether that pays any dividends. The table is set here for a run to a Wild Card spot, and 10-11 wins, as a ceiling. If that happens, no matter what you think of Gase, or his coaching ability, he will be a candidate to win the award. He also coaches in New York, which means his success will be amplified even more than usual (as will his failure, if it goes that route).
Matt Patricia (DET, 50/1): Probably my favorite bet because the price makes absolutely no sense. He is one of the biggest longshots on the board despite the fact he fits so many more of the criteria than other coaches. Detroit won 6 games last season, and their win total this year is 6.5. Their Pythagorean expectation was better than their record. We now know that their QB Matthew Stafford, one of the best QB’s in the NFL, played last year with severe injuries. Unlike a lot of the coach candidates, where you are relying on unproven QB commodities to make improvements, you get a coach at 50/1 here who has Matt Stafford. That’s an incredibly big advantage. A lot of the value seems to come from the fact that the division is so difficult, but again, we have no idea who is going to be good in the NFL this year. This exact same type of “difficult division” analysis would have made you exclude Matt Nagy last season. It would have made you exclude Sean McVay two years ago, with Seattle dominant and Arizona with a win-total of 10 entering that season. Again, we don’t know. But they are pricing coaches in the market like they do, which is great for you as a bettor.