The move to interim head coach has historically been a tough one for NFL assistants or coordinators to finish off a season after the head coach has been fired.
An even harder transition than that? The (hopeful) elevation from interim head coach to permanent head coach that men such as the Carolina Panthers’ Steve Wilks and now the Indianapolis Colts’ Jeff Saturday will be looking to make in the offseason.
Colts owner Jim Irsay is taking a big swing with Saturday, who will be the first head coach in NFL history without any previous coaching experience at either the NFL or college level since Norm Van Brocklin went from 1960 NFL MVP with Philadelphia to coach of Minnesota in 1961.
USBettingReport.com took a deep dive into the performance of interim head coaches over the past 10 years in the NFL to identify trends, characteristics and situations that either led to the coach securing the job at the end of the season or to the team moving on and hiring someone else.
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NFL Interim Coaches Since 2013
|Year||Team||Coach Fired||Record||Interim Coach||Record||Full-Time?|
|2022||Carolina||Matt Rhule||1-4||Steve Wilks||1-3||TBD|
|2021||Las Vegas||Jon Gruden||3-2||Rich Bisaccia||7-5||No|
|2020||Detroit||Matt Patricia||4-7||Darrell Bevell||1-4||No|
|2020||Atlanta||Dan Quinn||0-5||Raheem Morris||4-7||No|
|2020||Houston||Bill O’Brien||0-4||Romeo Crennell||4-8||No|
|2019||Carolina||Ron Rivera||5-7||Perry Fewell||0-4||No|
|2019||Washington||Jay Gruden||0-5||Bill Callahan||3-8||No|
|201||Green Bay||Mike McCarthy||4-7-1||Joe Philbin||2-2||No|
|2018||Cleveland||Hue Jackson||2-5-1||Gregg Williams||5-3||No|
|2017||NY Giants||Ben McAdoo||2-10||Steve Spagnuolo||1-3||No|
|2016||Buffalo||Rex Ryan||7-8||Anthony Lynn||0-1||No|
|2016||Jacksonville||Gus Bradley||2-12||Doug Marrone||1-1||Yes|
|2016||LA Rams||Jeff Fisher||4-9||John Fassell||0-3||No|
|2015||Philadelphia||Chip Kelly||6-9||Pat Shurmur||1-0||No|
|2015||Tennessee||Ken Whisenhunt||1-6||Mike Mularkey||2-7||Yes|
|2015||Miami||Joe Philbin||1-3||Dan Campbell||5-7||No|
|2014||Oakland Raiders||Dennis Allen||0-4||Tony Sparano||3-9||No|
|2013||Houston||Gary Kubiak||2-11||Wade Phillips||0-3||No|
Marrone, Mularkey the Rare Exceptions
As seen in the chart above, only two of 17 interim head coaches in the last 10 years have retained the head coaching position the following season, with Doug Marrone (Jaguars) and Mike Mularkey (Titans) both becoming head coaches after holding the interim title.
Interestingly enough, Marrone only had two games as an interim coach, while Mularkey had more than half of a season with nine games, and neither of them had winning records as interim coaches.
Mularkey’s hiring was actually met with pessimism from Tennessee Titans fans, but he ended up leading the team to a very respectable 9-7 record in his first year as head coach and took them to the playoffs the year after that.
Marrone’s first full year as head coach was also solid, with a 10-6 record that saw the Jaguars nearly defeat Bill Belichick and the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
But in the three following years the team finished last in the AFC South, culminating in a 1-15 record in 2020 that led to his firing.
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Long Odds to Overcome
The first obstacle facing an interim head coach is obvious — the team generally isn’t very good.
When a coach is fired, it almost always means that something has gone wrong and there are issues with the team. If the team is bad enough for the head coach to be fired, the team likely is not good enough to show that the interim coach should be hired.
The next obstacle is the interim coach is usually brought up from the former head coach’s current staff — a coordinator or assistant that is already with the team. When ownership looks to hire a new coach in the offseason, they are often looking to move on from that previous coach’s entire regime, so hiring one of his old assistants is always going to be a long shot.
In Wilks’ situation with Carolina (where he is 1-3 so far), it seems unlikely the departed Matt Rhule’s former secondary coach is going to be tabbed as the long term solution (though maybe higher profile candidates will be hesitant to sign on with embattled Panthers owner David Tepper).
The only interim head coach in the last 10 years to take over a team with a winning record has been Rich Bisaccia with Las Vegas in 2021, and that was after Jon Gruden left the team due to off-field issues, not because of a performance related firing.
Bisaccia did a fine job in relief, compiling a 7-5 record of his own and leading the Raiders to the playoffs in a season full of off-field distractions.
The kicker? Even with that success, Bisaccia was unable to secure the full-time gig the following season, proving yet again how hard it is for an interim head coach to keep his role.
Another notable interim coach who had success was the Browns’ Gregg Williams in 2018, who compiled a 5-3 record to finish the season after the disaster that was the Hue Jackson era.
But in a particular reminder of how cruel the interim label can be, the Browns opted to hire Williams’ offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens for the full-time job in the offseason.
Suffice it to say, both Wilks and Saturday face an extremely uphill battle in Carolina and Indianapolis, respectively.
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Interims Face Perpetual Uphill Battle
It seems logical that one of the main reasons for firing a coach with games remaining in the season is to evaluate a potential new head coach, but once you look into the data, it appears that simply is not the case.
In-season firings are clearly much more about getting rid of the old coach more than they are about looking for a new coach, with offseason interviews and the full hiring process a much more popular way for management to fill their vacancies.
But Wilks and other interim head coaches who have taken over partway through a failed season still have to look at it as an opportunity to audition for the head coaching gig they are unlikely to get, even with the odds stacked against them.