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Buffalo Bills Coaching Search: Does Previous Experience Matter?

A brief look into the job each NFL head coach had immediately preceding his tenure with his current team. Is a certain type of experience more successful than others?


As the Buffalo Bills search for their next head coach, seemingly every fan following the news has an opinion on what type of coach the team should pursue. One of the biggest points of contention is how much previous job experience - and success at that job - matters. Here's how every current NFL coach - and every current Bills coaching candidate - breaks down.

Previous Losing NFL Head Coach

  • Current examples: Bill Belichick, Mike Mularkey
  • Bills Candidates: Ken Whisenhunt

The most successful NFL head coach at the moment was a failure in his first stop. Bill Belichick (36-44 in Cleveland) fits the profile of a "retread" so often lamented in the Bills fanbase. He's won three Super Bowls and five AFC championships since being fired by Cleveland, and spending four years as Bill Parcells' top assistant. Mularkey was 14-18 in Buffalo, bringing the Bills closer to the playoffs than anyone since 1999.

Previous Winning NFL Head Coach

  • Current examples: Tom Coughlin, John Fox, Mike Shanahan, Pete Carroll, Jeff Fisher
  • Bills candidates: Lovie Smith (if the Bills ever reciprocate interest)

Coughlin (68-60 in Jacksonville), Fox (73-71 in Carolina) and Fisher (142-120 with the Oilers) all took their previous teams to Super Bowls, while Mike Shanahan (138-86 in Denver) won two. Shanahan and Fox are returning to the playoffs with their new teams, while Coughlin twice won the big one over Belichick. Carroll - who fits into the below category, as well - was 33-31 with the New York Jets, and has taken Seattle to the playoffs twice in three seasons.

Previous College Head Coach

  • Current examples: Jim Harbaugh, Greg Schiano
  • Bills candidates: Chip Kelly, Doug Marrone

Harbaugh led San Francisco to the NFC championship game in his first season and is back again. He had the added benefit of being a former NFL player, something Schiano and Carroll can't claim. Carroll spent nine years at USC before taking over in Seattle. Schiano improved Tampa Bay by three wins in his first season.

Previous NFL Offensive Coordinator

  • Current examples: Gary Kubiak, Sean Payton, Mike McCarthy, Jason Garrett, Joe Philbin
  • Bills candidates: Mike McCoy

Payton and McCarthy have won Super Bowls for their respective teams, while Kubiak led Houston to the first playoff win in franchise history and another this season. Philbin's first season in Miami was rocky with a rookie quarterback, while Garrett's 16-16 in his two full seasons with Dallas.

Previous NFL Defensive Coordinator

  • Current examples: Marvin Lewis, Mike Tomlin, Rex Ryan, Mike Smith, Jim Schwartz, Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera, Chuck Pagano, Dennis Allen
  • Bills candidates: Ray Horton

Mike Tomlin's the only Super Bowl winner among the nine former defensive coordinators to run their own team. All but Rivera and Allen - who both inherited complete messes - have led their teams to the playoffs, however.

Previous NFL Assistant

  • Current examples: John Harbaugh (special teams/defensive backs), Mike Munchak (offensive line)
  • Bills candidates: Russ Grimm (offensive line)

Munchak was promoted straight from offensive line coach to head coach when Jeff Fisher left Tennessee. The Hall of Fame guard fell from 9-7 to 6-10 in his second year at the helm. Harbaugh was a special teams coordinator in Philadelphia for nine seasons before spending one season as defensive backs coach.

Based on this highly unscientific look at current NFL head coaches, men with previous head coaching experience are generally more successful - and despite Belichick's success, it helps if you were already a successful head coach. It would point to Lovie Smith (or Reid, who has not been linked to the Bills) having the best shot at success in Buffalo. That shouldn't rule out any of the other possibilities, though, as Super Bowl rings can - and have - come from any of these avenues.

For the record, recently fired coaches Romeo Crennel and Norv Turner would have fit into the "losing NFL head coach" category when they were hired. Pat Shurmur and Ken Whisenhunt were offensive coordinators, Smith was a defensive coordinator, and Andy Reid was an assistant (quarterbacks coach). Chan Gailey and his 18-14 record in Dallas would have qualified him for the "winning NFL head coach" category. Go figure.