A First-Round Pick for Sean Payton is a Steal
Looking through existing research and advanced stats to answer the question of how much an elite head coach is actually worth
We’re in the thick of the coach-hiring cycle, and my piece last week (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hiring an NFL Head Coach) highlighted some existing research on forecasting coaching success from Andrew Healy, former economics professor and contributor to Football Perspective and Football Outsiders, who’s now the Vice President of Research & Strategy for the Browns.
Healy studied the success of new head coaches based on their previous success in coaching, and saw that there was some relationship. Healy only found that relationship had a meaningful correlation for previous head coaches, not first-time hires who were previously coordinators. He also was able to estimate how much value a second-time head coach would carry over from his previous performance.
On the other hand, the relationship between previous performance and future success is strong for previous head coaches. For second (or third or fourth) acts, head coaches carry over about 70% of their value from their previous jobs.
This 2013 study is now a little dated, but I was able to use the 1999-2022 data from nflfastR to confirm Healy’s findings into the present. Healy used DVOA over expectation, while I used schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per play.
Armed with a somewhat confident estimate that coaches carry over 70% of their previous outperformance to subsequent jobs, now we need to calculate how much the “retread” names vying for head coaching jobs in this cycle outperformed at in their previous jobs.
I calculated out the team EPA over expectation during the previous tenures of Sean Payton, Dan Quinn, Frank Reich, and Brian Flores. I even looked at Jim Harbaugh, even though he’s taken himself out of consideration (until next year).
I then extrapolated the per-play estimates for outperformance to project how many points these coaches would be worth over an entire season, and translated those points into wins, the ultimate measure of coaching success.
Sean Payton: New Orleans Saints, 2006-2011, 2013-2021
Payton is currently being vetted - or perhaps more like wooed - by the Broncos, Texans and Panthers, and almost seems certain to land a head coaching gig for 2023 after a year off.
Payton’s hiring is a bit more complicated than the normal process, where current coordinators all have the ability to move up to a head coaching job in their contracts, and coaching free agents don’t have to concern themselves with any current attachments. Payton is still under contract with the Saints, so his potential new team will have to compensate the Saints to release him from his contract, most likely a mid-to-late first round pick, according to Payton.
The reason Payton is so coveted is his track record of consistent success, even when adjusting for expectations, which if we use trailing, three-year performance as the input, rose significantly as he improved the franchise.
In Payton’s 15 years as head coach of the Saints, his actual team EPA per play outperformed expectations in 11 of those seasons, only falling materially below in 2014, 2015 and his final season.
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