When you look at interim head coaches throughout history you don’t expect to see much success. After all, these men have taken over NFL teams that fired their head coach during the season. Things were already going poorly and no one expects that an interim solution is going to fix all of a team's problems immediately. But thanks to a conversation I had with Chris Blystone (blame him), the wheels in my head started turning and I realized some questions needed answering.
Initially, I wondered if Jeff Saturday was the worst head coach of all time. I realized pretty quickly that wasn’t a fair question. He’s only coached in five career games and his winning percentage is similar to guys like Hue Jackson and it’s better than guys like Marty Mornhinweg and Urban Meyer, but the circumstances that surrounded both Jackson and Mornhinweg becoming head coaches in the NFL were vastly different. So comparing Saturday to real, full-time head coaches wasn’t fair to anyone. Instead, I took to pro-football-reference.com to check out all comparable interim head coaches from after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. What I found was pretty interesting. I am not including any coaches who were retained after their time as interim head coaches. The goal of this exercise is to name the worst, if you are hired permanently after your time as an interim HC even if you stink, you can’t be the worst of all time. I have excluded former HCs who found themselves in an interim role, as this doesn’t fit the spirit of the exercise.
Only four interim head coaches failed to win a game, those coaches:
- 1977 Dick Modzelewki, Cleveland Browns- Dick went 0-1 in a 20-19 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
- 1984 Hal Hunter, Indianapolis Colts- Hunter went 0-1 in a 16-10 loss to the New England Patriots coached by none other than Colts legend Raymond Berry.
- 1989 Henry Kuhlmann, Phoenix Cardinals- Ol’ Hank’s Cardinals went 0-5 and lost by an average of 15.2 points per game. Highlighted by a December 16th loss to the Denver Broncos with a final score of 37-0. Brutal.
- 2016 John Fassel, Los Angeles Rams- Fassel took over for Jeff Fisher and found himself staring down three division opponents. Losing 24-3 to the AFC West Champion, Seattle Seahawks. Then playing the moribund San Francisco 49ers close before losing 22-21. Finally wrapping up the season with a 44-6 loss to an Arizona Cardinals team that had a top-10 offense and a top-15 defense and somehow managed to finish with a 7-8-1 record. The week 17 blowout put John Fassel’s average points differential at -16.7. Truly awful.
Excluding Saturday, 10 Interim Head Coaches won just one game. They are:
- 1984 Fred Bruney, Philadelphia Eagles- Went 1-0 beating the Minnesota Vikings 37-35
- 2010 Jim Tomsula, San Francisco 49ers- Went 1-0 blowing out the Cardinals. Tomsula was retained after 2010 and then named head coach of the 9ers in 2015- an odd career.
- 2007 Emmitt Thomas, Atlanta Falcons- Finished 1-2. An OT loss to the Cards 30-27 and 44-41 victory over the ‘Hawks stand out.
- 1980 Dick Stanfel, New Orleans Saints- His 1-3 record looks a lot better when you consider he led the Saints to their only win of the season and the fact that his -4 point differential was 11 points better than the first 12 games of the Saints 1980 season. The team was competitive under Stanfel.
- 2010 Eric Studesville, Denver Broncos- Taking over for Josh McDaniels and starting Tim Tebow at QB combined for a brutal set of circumstances. Studes got a win over the Houston Texans but finished with a -12.5 point differential. Finished 1-3.
- 1975 Ken Shipp, New York Jets- A 30-28 win over the Pats is the highlight here. In the four games he lost, he lost by an average of 15 points per game.
- 1973 Ron Waller, San Diego Chargers- Finished 1-5 with a -15.5 point differential.
- 1977 Tom Bettis, Kansas City Chiefs- His 1-6 record doesn’t tell you what his -5.14 point differential does. The Chiefs under Bettis were competitive. Under Paul Wiggin, the man Bettis replaced, the same team had a -12.57 point differential in seven games.
- 1978 Fred O’Connor, San Francisco 49ers- Went 1-6 with a -9.14 point differential. Not a statistically significant improvement.
- 1990 Jim Shofner, Cleveland Browns- 1-6 with a -18.14 differential, nearly two points worse than the man he replaced.
- 1975 Ernie Hefferle, New Orleans Saints- Won his first game 23-7 over the Falcons and then went on to lose seven straight with a total differential of -11.5. That is bad but not as bad as the -17.17 differential the Saints started the season with under John North.
8 interim coaches went on to win two games. They are:
- 2011 Todd Bowles, Miami Dolphins- He’s a good coach.
- 1979 Larry Wilson, St. Louis Cardinals- Went 2-1 but did get blown out on the road against the Chicago Bears 42-6 in the final game of the season.
- 1971 Jerry Smith, Denver Broncos- Smith went 2-3 with a -9.2 point differential.
- 2011 Mel Tucker, Jacksonville Jaguars- Another 2-3 finish but this one includes a -4.8 point differential.
- 2012 Aaron Kromer, New Orleans Saints- With a record of 2-4 things didn’t go as planned but he finished his six-game run with a -1 point differential. After filling in for Sean Payton at the start of the season Kromer was stripped of his interim label. That’s rough.
- 2000 & 2004 Terry Robiskie, Washington, and Cleveland- Robiskie got two cracks at being an interim head coach and he went a combined 2-6 with a -12 point differential.
- 2020 & 2021 Darrell Bevell, Detroit Lions, and Jacksonville Jaguars- Another guy who has had two chances to fill in, Bevell is a combined 2-7 with a -12.23 point differential.
- 1983 Chuck Studley, Houston Oilers- As far as I can tell that is his real name. He went 2-8 with a -8.9 differential.
At this point, I think you get the idea. I’m not going to sink any more time into finding all of the three and four game winners as I have a better chance to win the Boston Marathon next year than Jeff Saturday does to win out this season. If by some miracle they beat the Chargers and or the Giants in the coming weeks, I’ll be sure to update the article but I think I’m safe.
Some people are going to criticize this article and claim that I only picked bad coaches. That criticism is mostly valid. I have chosen bad coaches (except for Todd Bowles). In my defense that criticism is silly. Good coaches tend to not make lists of bad coaches and this is a list of bad coaches.
The next criticism might be that I am declaring Jeff Saturday to be a bad coach after only five games. Some people will think this is very unfair. The team is bad. Matt Ryan is playing poorly. Chris Ballard didn’t draft your favorite player four years ago. There is a boatload of excuses that can be made, but the fact of the matter is Jeff Saturday is 1-4 with a -8.2 point differential.
There will be people who point that out and say that there’s no way Jeff Saturday is on pace to be the worst interim head coach in NFL history. -8.2 is solidly in the middle of all of the bad interim coaches. So, yeah things haven’t been great but hardly the worst.
And this is a fair rebuttal. If you just look at the numbers, Saturday probably doesn’t even crack the top 10. The problem is that these numbers don’t take into account the circumstances that surround them. You see, Jeff Saturday is the only coach on this list of bad coaches to allow 33 points in a fourth quarter. Nobody else on that list sat back and did less to stop the bleeding than Jeff Saturday did against the Dallas Cowboys in week 13.
Also, Jeff Saturday accomplished something that no other interim head coach has ever done, going back to 1930. And not only has no interim coach but no NFL coach at all has ever blown a 33-point lead. Before week 15 against the Minnesota Vikings teams that had a lead of 30 or more points were 1,548-1-1. Now they are 1,548-2-1. One of those losses is the newest most embarrassing loss of all time and that distinction belongs to a team coached by none other than Jeff Saturday.
You can criticize my methodology, and that’s fine. There are criticisms to be made. See, the first thousand or so words of this article are mostly irrelevant. I dazzled you (see also: put you to sleep) with a list of some of the worst interim head coaches you’ve never heard of just so that it might help any skeptics or people who are still “wait and see” on the disaster that has been the Jeff Saturday hire understand that in very real ways Jeff Saturday has objectively done a worse job than every awful name on that list.
The decision to hire Saturday was always a stupid decision. Now we have proof.
The worst part of Saturday’s hiring wasn’t even that he was hired. It was that I believed Jim Irsay when he said he was hiring Saturday to come in and win games. If Jim Irsay is pulling the strings, bypassing his general manager (like him or not), and hiring the Jeff Saturdays of the world because he believes unqualified and inexperienced people give his organization the best chance to win... Well, Colts fans, the next decade might be rough.