Anytime a team like the Browns is on the verge of potentially hiring a failed retread like Josh McDaniels, defenders will always point to Bill Belichick’s first job in Cleveland and use it as an example of a retread turning things around. But in general, Belichick is the exception. I can’t even imagine how many teams have ruined themselves just randomly hoping they got the next Belichick when no such thing exists.
I think the general point here is correct: hiring a coach who did a terrible job in the hope that he’ll be better the next time around is a really dumb idea. If you look at most of the top coaches in the league — Payton, Tomlin, the Harbaughs, Coughlin — they didn’t fail at their first job. If you count Fox, he didn’t either.
And here’s the thing — the poster boy for the idea that you might strike gold if you go back to the old boy’s network isn’t actually an example of this either. Viewed in context, Belichick did an excellent job in Cleveland. Look at the team he took over, which overachieved its point differential by going 3-13. The year he took over, the team improved by 200 points, although this wasn’t fully reflected in the record (they were 6-10 although they were more like a .500 team in terms of performance.) This didn’t happen because of a QB change, although he did get 3 more games out of Bernie Kosar. The team maintained that improvement for 2 years, going 7-9 both years — although most teams that rapidly improve regress — and then leaped to 11-5 and a playoff win. The team did regress after that, although it was a little better than its 5-11 record. Still, after firing Belichick the team immediately got nearly 150 points worse again, going 2-14. Now, I’m not saying that this record indicated the level of success Belichick had in New England — you’d have liked the team to make the playoffs a year sooner, and the collapse after the playoff season is worrisome, even if winning a playoff game with the Browns is roughly the equivalent of winning 25 straight Super Bowls with the Steelers. But when a defensive coordinator with two Super Bowl rings takes over a terrible team and it improves 200 points the year he takes over, gets to the playoffs, and the team declines by 150 points the year he leaves — well, that strikes me as a guy you’d like to take a chance on. It sure as hell isn’t Josh McDaniels.
So, really, the closest there is to a “retreads can work!” argument now is Pete Carroll. But even so, I wouldn’t put him in the McDaniels class. Getting fired after one season is a failure by any standard, but when the team that fired you did so to hand over both the coaching and personnel reins to Rich Kotite, it’s not a definitive one. His tenure in New England was mixed — he was six games over .500 in 3 years, but had been to the Super Bowl the year before he took over and regressed over the next 3 years. His performance was certainly worse than the coach who preceded and followed him, but since those coaches are a Hall of Famer and the best coach of his generation that’s not necessarily hugely damning. Carroll’s record wasn’t terrible, although without his remarkable success at USC he wouldn’t have gotten (and wouldn’t have deserved) another NFL head coaching gig.
Indeed, I asked in comments if anyone remotely as bad as McDaniels at his first job had become a good head coach. A sharp commenter mentioned Mike Shanahan’s brief and painful tenure in Los Angeles, which would seem to be the best recent example. Still, if you’re going to hang your hat on a 36-year-old hired by Al Davis…good luck. It seems pretty obvious to me that the Browns were right to take a chance on a talented coordinator rather than hiring someone like McDaniels. Pettine is likely to fail just because most new coaches will. But he could be good, and when a coach has failed once he’s almost never going to prove to be a good head coach.