Jackson reaction: Does a coach’s area of expertise matter?

Chris Palmer's offensive credentials alone couldn't help the league-worst Browns' offense in 1999 and 2000.

I like challenges, and boy, what a challenge!

— Browns head coach Hue Jackson, Jan. 13, 2016

Let the honeymoon commence! Congratulations are in order for the Haslams and their new executive team for landing their apparent first choice for head coach.

But for the balance of today’s post, let’s look at what difference an offensive-minded or defensive-minded head coach can make. Does the area of a head coach’s main experience tend to outperform the other side of the ball? Does his “expertise” unit tend to improve more year-over-year than the the unit he’s less familiar with?

With Jackson, the Browns get an offensive football guru after two years of former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. In fact, the Browns since 1999 have had defensive-minded head coaches for 12 of 17 years.

So can we expect the offense to improve appreciably from this year? Will the offense become the strength of the team? Here’s a look at some precedent:head coach expertise rankings

This chart shows the NFL rankings for the new Browns’ offense and defense (in the points and yards columns, lower numbers is better). The shaded areas represent the head coach’s primary area of expertise. Green marks an improvement of at least three slots in the league ranking; red means they ranked three or more slots worse in that category than the prior year.

The combined rankings columns how many slots up or down — in scoring and yardage combined — the Browns moved from the prior year. The upshot is that the unit of the head coach’s primary expertise is slightly more likely to improve its league ranking than the other side of the ball.

And though the math is not shown, we can conclude from this data that the unit of the coach’s expertise tends to rank better than the other side by 2.56 slots.

Granted, this is less than a scientific study. The analytics folks might even get a chuckle out of it. It might be interesting to look at this kind of thing across all NFL teams in recent years, particularly for the first year of a coaching regime on teams who switch from offensive-minded to defensive-minded head coaches, or vice versa.

But this quick glance at recent Browns history does yield a few interesting observations.

  • We may remember the 2002 playoff team more for its offensive exploits, with the Four Deuces and Run, William, Run, but its defense was the better unit. Butch Davis’ D enjoyed a respectable three-year run as arguably the most consistent performing unit of this Browns era.
  • Coordinators Rob Chudzinski (offense, 2007) and Dick Jauron (defense, 2011) helped usher in the most improved units in any single new Browns season, complementing head coaches whose experience lay across the line of scrimmage. But in each case, the incoming coordinators’ first-year gains totally reversed themselves in year two.
  • Chud, as head coach, led a Browns team that significantly improved its yardage rankings on both offense and defense, the only time a first-year coach has done so in this Browns era. It would’ve been something worth building on, had not the organization around him been so utterly dysfunctional.
  • For the last three seasons, the scoring offense has underperformed compared to its yardage ranking. We can hypothesize its causes to include poor red zone execution, a subpar power rushing attack, and the loss of a premiere field goal kicker. (Phil Dawson has made 13 FGs of 50-plus yards since 2013, compared to the Browns’ three.) In any case, it’s reasonable to expect Jackson to help effect improvement in this area in particular.