Football Betting: Handicapping Coaching Changes
by Trevor Whenham - 10/03/2008
In a bizarre and unprecedented reality, we have seen two NFL coaches fired just four weeks into the season. The league isn't that keen on mid-season changes - they just increase the already high chances of a lost season. Scott Linehan of the Rams and Lane Kiffin on the Raiders really did deserve their fate, though. Linehan had proven to be inept, and Kiffin was embroiled in the most ridiculous personality struggle with an owner since Al Davis last hired a really young coach. The Rams weren't going anywhere, and the improvements the Raiders were making were being handicapped by the fact that the head coach wasn't speaking to his owner or, for the most part, his defensive staff.
Now that the moves have been made it's up to the sports bettor to determine how they are going to deal with the changes. It's, of course, a total guess to try to figure out how the teams will react. We aren't in the locker rooms, so we don't know how bad the situation was, how much players felt a change was needed, and how the players feel about their new, interim coaches. If we are going to try to figure it out anyway, there are a few lines of thought that we could pursue.
Was the coach the problem? - Changing coaches is great, but if the problem wasn't the coach in the first place then it ultimately isn't going to make any big improvements. Lane Kiffin is surely not blameless in his situation, but he was doomed before he ever started. Al Davis has had his coaches in a revolving door for years, and he maintains far too much control over personnel and staffing decisions. Vince Lombardi probably wouldn't thrive in the situation, so a 30-year-old college assistant didn't stand a chance. Neither does the next guy, or the guy after that, or anyone until systematic changes are made that stops the madness in Oakland and lets them operate like something resembling a football team. St. Louis' problems, on the other hand, seem more closely linked to Scott Linehan's inability to design a good gameplan and get his team to buy into it. His decision to bench Marc Bulger in his last game with the team is a clear sign that he couldn't read the locker room - Bulger was a popular guy, and it clearly wasn't his fault. It would seem, then, that St. Louis will have more positive effect from their change than Oakland will. Looking at the actual problem is a crucial handicapping step.
Who is the new coach? - The fate of the team is determined as much by who the new coach is as by the departure of the old one. Has the new coach been with the team so that he is familiar with the personnel and the schemes? Has he coached before, or will he be learning on the fly? Is he a progressive and up-to-date football mind, or is he old and out of date? How is he respected by the players he works with? What is his track record in the first couple games with a new team (this will only partly apply here, since he won't have the whole preseason to implement his schemes and ideals)? Is he an offensive or defensive coach? Does his focus fit well with the needs of the team, and the players on the roster? As is clear, not all interim coaches are created equal. At first glance it would seem like the Rams made a better choice in Jim Haslett than the Raiders did in Tom Cable. Cable's never been a head coach at any level, and he has some unimpressive stops on his resume - two years as offensive coordinator for a UCLA team that didn't have a noticeable offense, and a year in Atlanta as part of the doomed Jim Mora staff. Haslett, on the other hand, is a former NFL Coach of the Year who took a 3-13 Saints team that Mike Ditka had driven into the ground and turned it into a 10-6 team that won a playoff game in his first season. He has talent issues, but he seems prepared for the huge challenge he faces.
Will the system change? - Often the problem a coach has is that he won't let go of his system, but that system doesn't fit with the team he has. You need to ask yourself if that is happening to some extent, and whether that s going to be able to change in a meaningful way. It probably can't during the season. The public, though, is likely to overcompensate for the impact of a coaching change.
What does the schedule hold for the team? - It doesn't matter if a new coach is able to make small tweaks if his team is grossly outmatched in their games. A coach's success early on in a mid-season change depends as much as anything on who and where they play their first two or three games. If he can get a win or two there than the team and the fans will buy in and good things can happen. If it is ugly early then chances are it is going to be even uglier later on.