We often develop notions about which NFL head coaches are good at game management and which are bad at it using mainly anecdotal evidence. Certain coaches make more appearances than others in our running “This Weekend in NFL Stupid” feature, but it’s still pretty tough to quantify the good and/or bad decisions coaches make.
But what about challenge success rates? We often rip coaches for bad challenges, and sometimes praise coaches for good ones. But we rarely cite challenge-related statistics.
Let’s set the record straight with the raw numbers.
Best career challenge success rates among active head coaches
1. Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers: 5-8 (62.5%)
2. Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars: 14-23 (60.9%)
3. Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions: 20-34 (58.8%)
Shanahan doesn’t even have one full season under his belt, but the fact that he’s already challenged eight plays is enough. He’s obviously got a great feel for it.
The only other active head coaches who have thrown the challenge flag at least seven times and are above 50 percent are Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons (5-9, 55.6%) and Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys (21-40, 52.5%). Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles (7-14) and Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers (44-88) are right at 50 percent.
Worst career challenge success rates among active head coaches
1. Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders: 28-82 (34.1%)
2. Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans: 8-23 (34.8%)
3. Mike Mularkey, Tennessee Titans: 12-33 (36.4%)
4. John Fox, Chicago Bears: 47-129 (36.4%)
Jay Gruden of the Washington Redskins is at exactly 40 percent (8-20), and Bill Belichick is just a notch above that (42-104, 40.4%). Not listed are newbies Sean McVay (1-3), Sean McDermott (1-4), Vance Joseph (0-3) and the already-fired Ben McAdoo (1-4), because those samples are too small.
Main takeaways: John Fox challenges far too often, while Bill O’Brien challenges less but is terrible at it. McCarthy, Garrett and Marrone are probably the league’s best active challengers, but Shanahan is showing a ton of promise.
Best challenge success rates among active head coaches, 2015-2017
1. Marrone: 8-11 (72.7%)
2. McCarthy: 10-15 (66.7%)
3. Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers: 15-24 (62.5%)
In the last three years, Rivera has thrown the challenge flag more than anybody else in the game, and with great success. That helps make up for the fact he lost 13 of the first 19 challenges of his career. Marrone and McCarthy are studs, and Shanahan is obviously also at 62.5 percent.
Worst challenge success rates among active head coaches, 2015-2017
1. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers: 3-12 (25.0%)
2. Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals: 6-20 (30.0%)
3. Mularkey: 4-13 (30.8%)
4. Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts: 7-21 (33.3%)
5. Fox: 5-14 (35.7%)
Both Tomlin and Arians were above 50 percent for their careers before hitting cold streaks in recent seasons. Fox and Mularkey suck, but O’Brien doesn’t fare quite as poorly (7-17, 41.2%) because he was 1-for-6 in his first season.
Main takeaways: Del Rio (8-16, 50.0%) has recovered in recent years, but Fox and Mularkey are probably the worst challengers in professional football. Marrone, McCarthy, Rivera and Shanahan appear to be the best.
Best challenge success rates among head coaches, 2017
1. Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins: 2-3 (66.7%)
2. Caldwell: 2-3 (66.7%)
3. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints: 2-3 (66.7%)
4. Shanahan: 5-8 (6.25%)
Also deserving love are John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings, both of whom haven’t been shy, but have still been relatively successful (both 4-7, 57.1%). Marrone and Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals are both 3-5 (60.0%). Nobody else is above .500 except Dirk Koetter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who has challenged just one call all season and was successful.
Worst challenge success rates among head coaches, 2017
1. Tomlin: 0-4
2. Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos: 0-3
3. Mularkey: 0-2
McAdoo lost his only challenge this year before being fired, but that’s too small a sample. Going 0-for-3 is enough for Joseph to be included, but it’s common for first-year head coaches to struggle with challenges before finding grooves (Gruden is 7-for-12 ever since his 1-for-8 rookie season). Meanwhile, O’Brien, Pederson and Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills are all 1-for-4 (25.0%).
Main takeaways: The samples are small here, but the key is that Tomlin has really lost his groove. After going 24-for-44 (54.5%) during the first seven seasons of his head-coaching career, he’s just 5-for-18 (27.8%) the last four years. Also, Marrone is still awesome and Mularkey still sucks.
Best challengers in the NFL: Doug Marrone, Mike McCarthy, Ron Rivera, Kyle Shanahan, Jay Gruden
Worst challengers in the NFL: John Fox, Mike Mularkey, Mike Tomlin, Bill O’Brien, Jack Del Rio