The title of being an NFL head coach is one of the most prestigious titles in all of sports. An NFL head coach is tasked with the difficult job of managing 53 players, keeping the team together, focused, and ready while leading the way in terms of game planning. We’ve seen a number of successful head coaches throughout the years and the impact they can make on a team.
However, what about the head coaches that don’t make an impact on a team? While we remember the coaches that became successful what about guys who were unable to get things done with a team due to circumstances. While being the head coach means being the face of the team when things go wrong, some coaches are unable to find success due to being in the wrong situation, bad moves by the general manager, players departing/getting suspended and other reasons. That being said, let’s take a look at the 10 unluckiest coaches in NFL history.
10. Ray Mclean: Green Bay Packers
The story of Ray Mclean is disappointing for a number of reasons. For one, Mclean was one of the men with the unfortunate honor of being a Packers head coach in between Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi. Secondly, he was the last head coach the Packers had before Lombardi took over the team in 1959. Mclean was a solid player for his day, playing both offense and defense for the Bears from 1940-1947, being apart of four NFL championship-winning teams.
After his playing career, he coached at Lewis College in Illinois from 1948-1950 where the team went 14-2 in his first two seasons as head coach. He then took a job as the backfield coach for the Packers in 1951. After serving as interim co-head coach in 1953 for two games, he was given a chance in 1958 to be the head coach. Unluckily for Mclean, his lone season would go on to be the worst in Packers history as the team went 1-10-1.
Despite having a roster filled with future pro bowl players and future Hall of Famers like Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Paul Hornung, and others, Mclean couldn’t coach them to victories. His contract expired and he did not return, which opened the way for the team to bring in Vince Lombardi as head coach. Lombardi, of course, would go onto lead the Packers to five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowl titles in NFL history.
After the Packers, Mclean would go on to serve as the backfield coach for the Detroit Lions from 1959-1963. Mclean did well as backfield coach and may have been able to find another head coaching gig if he had the chance, however, he sadly passed away in 1964. We’ll never know how Mclean could have done with a second shot, and it is a shame he never got the chance and will be remembered as likely the worst head coach in Packers history.
9. Dom Capers: Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans
Capers holds the unique distinction of being the only coach in NFL history to be the inaugural head coach for two expansion teams. The longtime defensive coach was given an interesting chance when he was hired to be the head coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995. The Panthers didn’t have a spectacular inaugural season but the team did finish 7-9, and five of their nine losses were by one possession or less.
Capers would then lead the team to a 12-4 record in 1996. With second-year quarterback Kerry Collins, receivers Willie Green and Muhsin Muhammad Jr., 1000-yard rusher Anthony Jonhson and a veteran defense led by Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon, the team would make the NFC championship game that year. After dispatching and Cowboys, the team fell to the eventual champion Packers.
Despite the successful 1996 season, the team would regress in 97 and 98 and it led to Capers being let go. After serving as a defensive coordinator in 1999 and 2000, Capers was given another chance prior to the 2002 season, as he was named head coach for the expansion Houston Texans. With a 30-34 record as Panthers coach and an NFC title game appearance, some would have thought Capers could work some magic with the Texans, but those hopes were dashed early.
The Texans thought that they had a good foundation, picking five-time pro bowl tackle Tony Boselli with the first pick in their expansion draft, and quarterback David Carr with the first pick of the 2002 draft. However, injuries prevented Boselli from ever playing and he would retire after 2002, and Carr would be regarded as one of the biggest busts in NFL history. To be fair to Carr, he was sacked 76 times as a rookie and that did equate to his rough season, but even in 2003 when he was only sacked 15 times, the team went 5-11.
Capers’ best year with the team was in 2004, where the team went 7-9. While the team made some solid draft picks during Capers tenure, like Andre Johnson in 2003 and Jason Babin in 2004, the team didn’t have enough talent. After a 2-14 season in 2005 Capers was let go after an 18-46 record with the team. Capers would then go on to be a defensive coordinator/coach in some way since, which included a Super Bowl XLV win with the Packers. Capers Panthers tenure showed that he could have been a solid coach had he had the right second chance, but the expansion Texans were not the proper second chance that Caper deserved.
8. Steve Spurrier: Washington Redskins
With 142 career wins in college football by the time 2002 hit, Steve Spurrier took his shot at the NFL with signing a five year, $25 million dollar contract with the Washington Redskins. A college football coach transitioning to the NFL is a true hit or miss situation, as for every Jimmy Johnson, there is a Spurrier. At the time, he was signed to the most lucrative contract in NFL coaching history, and Spurrier himself expected a solid career before retiring.
That did not happen at all, as the main drawback for agreeing to coach the Redskins is agreeing to work under Dan Snyder, and Spurrier and Snyder did not get along at all. While Spurrier did make some questionable choices, as he brought in several Florida players (he coached at Florida from 1990-2001) and his several members from his Flordia coaching staff, Snyder was no better at choices either.
Before his first season began, the first issue between the two began, as Spurrier and Snyder were debating on selecting Tulane quarterback Patrick Ramsey. Eventually, Snyder would win out, and the team selected Ramsey late in the first round, and against Spurriers’ wishes, Snyder wanted Ramsey to get playing time his rookie season which he eventually did.
Aside from quarterback, the team wasn’t outstanding during Spurriers’ tenure. While there were solid pieces on defense like Lavar Arrington, Jeremiah Trotter, Champ Bailey, and Bruce Smith at the end of his hall of fame career, the team was not well constructed. Spurrier would go 7-9 in 2002 and 5-11 in 2003 before he resigned from the team. He rebounded relatively quickly as after sitting out the 2004 season, he agreed to be the South Carolina head coach in 2005 and remained until the middle of the 2015 college football season.
7. Brian Flores: Miami Dolphins
While he may not have finished a full season with the team yet, Brian Flores is in one of the more interesting head coaching situations in NFL history. While Flores and the Dolphins roster are trying their best every single week to win games, to their credit as of this writing the Dolphins have won two in a row, the organization is clearly tanking. Since the end of the preseason, the team has traded a number of key players to the team.
Starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Kenny Stills, linebacker Kiko Alonso, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick are the main names the team agreed to trade away. Aside from being four starters traded away, those are four quality players the team agreed to part ways without having any kind of legitimate backup plan in place to properly replace them (aside from Stills due to receiver depth). Even going back to the offseason, the team allowed Juwan James to walk and traded away Ryan Tannehill, which to be fair was understandable.
However, it is clear that the Dolphins planned to strip down their roster to tank the 2019 season in order to get one of the top picks in the 2020 NFL draft, where most would report that they are looking to draft Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. While 2020 may look promising for the team if things fall right, 2019 has been a rough season for Flores. After the season-opening 59-10 blowout loss to the Ravens, many players wanted to leave the team immediately.
Having to coach and lift the spirits of the players on a team that is mediocre is tough enough, so having to do the same on a team that many believed had a chance of going 0-16 is not an easy task. Flores also had to deal with a less than favorable quarterback situation as his guys for the 2019 season has been Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Flores deserves all the credit in the world for maximizing the team as much as he can, and have won two games as of the end of week 10. The Dolphins also deserve some credit because they knew Flores accepted a tough job and they will keep him around.
However, it will take more than just a good 2020 draft for the Dolphins to have a good roster. While they will likely get the quarterback of the future and have three total first-round picks, the team has a number of holes to fill. Aside from quarterback, the offensive line, running back core, and defensive line all need help. The receiving core is somewhat passable, but they need more established players there. The core of defensive backs is the strongest group on the team, Xavien Howard is their bonafide No.1 corner and Reshad Jones is a great starting safety. That being said the depth needs a lot of improvement and Jones will be 32 next season so his play will need to be monitored. While Flores will have a better roster in the coming season, it will still be two more seasons before we get to properly grade his Dolphins tenure.
6. Zac Taylor: Cincinnati Bengals
A fellow rookie coach for the 2019 season, Zac Taylor has also had quite the tough 2019 with the Bengals. The issue for the Bengals doesn’t have to do with tanking like the Dolphins for Brian Flores, but rather a worn down roster from the Bengals years as a solid but not spectacular team throughout much of the 2010s decade. Similar to the Flores, most would assume that the Bengals organization will give Taylor time to build the roster more in his vision because the roster coming into the season was not the most optimal.
Despite having a No.1 receiver in A.J. Green, Green has been injured for the entire season as of week 10. Rookie first-round tackle Jonah Williams had promise and was going to be a starter but got hurt during OTAs and had to get surgery and missed the season. Aside from those two, other veterans like Andy Dalton and Geno Atkins haven’t been terrible but are nowhere near the players they were earlier in the decade. Combine that with underwhelming players at other positions, and we see that Taylor is in a very similar position like Brian Flores.
To his credit, Taylor has had some bright spots, four of their first six losses were by one score or less, and Taylor has helped show bright spots from former first-round pick John Ross, and second-year safety Jessie Bates III is having a solid sophomore season. However, when the kicker is the leader in points for the team by a wide margin (taking into account rushing and receiving touchdowns by other players) then the team was not well built going into the season.
5. Dave Shula: Cincinnati Bengals
Back-to-back Bengals head coaches really says a lot about a franchise now doesn’t it? This hiring was also an example of how being a great coach isn’t genetic. Dave Shula was hired in 1992 to be the new coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, at just the young age of 32, Shula was their wide receivers coach in 1991 before being promoted. The Bengals were clearly hoping for some Shula magic, as Dave was the son of legendary head coach Don Shula. The elder Shula was a one time NFL champion led the Dolphins to back-to-back Super Bowl titles, which included having the only undefeated season in NFL history in 1972.
Dave Shula had been a coach under his father for six seasons before joining Jimmy Johnson and the Dallas Cowboys to be their offensive coordinator in 1989 and 1990. After leaving them for the Bengals in 91, Shula was, of course, was hired in 92. While not to the same level, Shula being hired at the age of 32 is similar to how Sean McVay was hired just before he turned 31. While Shula likely wasn’t an offensive wunderkind like McVay, serving under his father for six years and under Jimmy Johnson for two came with expectations.
Shula was unlucky for a number of reasons. For one, he was inheriting a team that went 3-13 the year prior, the final season under Sam Wyche. Wyche had led the team to an appearance in Super Bowl XXIII, where they lost to the 80s dynasty 49ers. However, three seasons had passed since then and the team was no longer that talented, aside from still having 1988 MVP Boomer Esiason, but Esiason would be traded after 1992. Aside from that, Shula did not have a high caliber team throughout his tenure. Aside from 1993 5th overal pick John Copeland, 1994 number 1 pick Dan Wilkinson, and a few other names, Shula never had that great of a roster.
To once again put in perspective how rough this one was for Shula and the Bengals as well, Shula was hired over then Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bill Cowher. Cowher would then be hired by the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Cowher would go on to make the playoffs with the Steelers 10 times, and make two Super Bowl appearances, winning Super Bowl XL. Not only was Shula not ready for the position but the guy the Bengals could have had gone above and beyond their guy.
4. Bobby Petrino: Atlanta Falcons
Another college head coach who tried their hand at the pros, after four solid seasons at Louisville, Bobby Petrino signed a five-year, $24 million dollar contract with the Atlanta Falcons. Unlike Spurrier in Washington years prior, Petrino wasn’t at odds with Falcons ownership. Petrino was looking forward to coaching Michael Vick, wanting to help Vick add better passing to his already elite running ability.
The roster also had a number of pro bowlers on it. John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux, and DeAngelo Hall were the keys to the defense. With an offense led by running back Warrick Dunn, tight end Alge Crumpler, and wide receiver Roddy White, the Falcons were poised to have a solid 2007.
Those hopes were quickly dashed after Vick was pressed with charges due to his dogfighting scandal. Vick was not only suspended but his court hearing was going to be so far into the season that there was no chance to Vick returning during the 2007 season. With a trio of backups in Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, and Chris Redman the Falcons offense didn’t have the same explosiveness that it had under Vick.
Due to this Petrino resigned before the season even ended, leaving the team after going 3-10 and taking the job at Arkansas. The Falcons dragged him for leaving and it’s clear he would likely not have another NFL chance. It’s worth it to wonder what could have been if Petrino had been able to work with Vick. It would have also been good for Petrino considering he would’ve avoided a certain Motorcycle incident that would happen while at Arkansas.
3. Lane Kiffin: Oakland Raiders
Joining the list of college coaches who didn’t have a fond experience in the NFL we have Lane Kiffin. Unlike most coaches that usually make the transition, Kiffin was only an assistant before being hired by Al Davis to be the Oakland Raiders new head coach. Kiffin was 31-years old at the time of the hiring and was viewed as a very promising coaching prospect. Also worth noting was that Davis had a history of hiring promising coaches in their early thirties as he did so with John Madden, Mike Shanahan, and Jon Gruden. However, it is worth noting that only Madden won championships with the Raiders, Shanahan, and Gruden both won elsewhere.
Life, however, had a funny way of panning out as the Kiffin tenure mirrored that of Shanahans’ time with the franchise. Before he even coached a game, Kiffin was at odds with Davis due to the selection of JaMarcus Russell with the first pick in the 2007 NFL draft. Clearly an Al Davis selection, Kiffin was not a fan of Russell and never really got much of a shot to work with him because Russell held out and was not fit to play until December of that season.
Aside from the Russell selection, the 2007 and 2008 drafts both ended up being failures for the Raiders. The only other notable names from the 07 draft were tight end Zach Miller (the one that eventually played in Seattle, not Chicago), who did make a pro bowl in his final season as a Raider before leaving the team, and running back Michael Bush, who was a solid value pick as a fourth-round player. The 08 draft also produced only two notable names in running back Darren McFadden and defensive back Tyvon Branch. Branch had a solid career and was a good value pick as a fourth-round pick, but McFadden never lived up to his status as the 4th overall pick in the 2008 draft.
Also worth noting is that the Radier only had five total selections in the 2008 draft due to trades made by Davis. The most noteworthy one being the DeAngelo Hall trade which saw Oakland trade Atlanta their second-round pick in the 2008 draft. However, the team would cut him halfway through the following 2008 season, mere weeks after Kiffin was fired. While the Hall trade was good for the sake of getting a high-quality corner, the team pulled the trigger too quickly on parting ways with him and in the end it cost them draft capital and money.
In the end, Kiffin and the Raiders were not a match made in heaven and Kiffin would be the first to admit that. As some reports stated that Davis wanted Kiffin gone after the first year. While things ended sourly for Kiffin it is worth wondering what if he had a slightly better quarterback to work with, as well as have some better draft decisions in 2007 and 2008. Perhaps the team could have traded for Jason Campbell earlier than they did or wait until 2008 to have a chance at getting Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco. Alas, with Davis, Kiffin would have never had the time to wait and as a result, he didn’t have a real chance at making things work.
2. Rich Brooks: St. Louis Rams
College coaches really don’t work out sometimes huh? To be fair, Brooks was a great coach at the University of Oregon. He helped lead the Ducks to their first outright conference title in school history at the time in 1994 and led the team to the Rose Bowl. He was also the first coach in Ducks history to make it to four bowl games. He revived the University of Oregon and helped set the stage for its’ prominence in the 2000s, and after 1994, Brooks agreed to a deal to be the head coach with the St. Louis Rams.
Brooks was tasked with trying to lead a team that was coming off of five consecutive losing seasons and had just relocated from Los Angeles to St. Louis. During his two years as the coach in 1995 and 1996, the team had some great players in running back Jerome Bettis, wide receiver Issac Bruce, and safety Keith Lyle, but the overall talent wasn’t there. The main detriment of Brooks’ tenure was that his pass-heavy focus limited the usage of Bettis and led to the Rams trading him.
Aside from that, Brooks was clearly in a situation where the team was rebuilding, as for years the Rams had been towards the top of the draft. The 1995 draft saw the Rams select Kevin Carter with the sixth overall pick, and in the 1996 draft (Brooks last as the coach) the Rams had the sixth overall pick. Despite being given the Rams their best two seasons since 1989, albeit he went 7-9 and 6-10, Brooks was fired at the end of 1996 and was replaced with Dick Vermeil.
The unluckiest thing about Brooks’ tenure was the fact that he missed out on “The Greatest Show On Turf” Rams team, and he missed out by a few years. While Brooks had solid players, he never had the chance to work with the team that Vermeil, and Mike Martz, a coordinator on the Rams under Brooks, would get. After he was fired the Rams 1997 draft gave them offensive lineman Orlando Pace, 1998 saw the Rams pick up two undrafted players who would have outstanding careers in quarterback Kurt Warner and linebacker London Fletcher. Then in 1999, the team traded for running back Marshall Faulk and drafted wide receiver Torry Holt.
With Brooks pass-heavy approach and the fact that he had Mike Martz on his staff, there is a legit argument that Brooks could have had success if he had been given a few more seasons. While it’s not a given that Brooks would have done as well as Vermeil, it would have been interesting to see him have Warner, Faulk and that team. After his Rams tenure, Brooks would serve on the Atlanta Falcons coaching staff as the assistant head coach, and with him, the Falcons would reach Super Bowl XXXIII but fall to the Broncos. After his Falcons tenure, Brooks returned to college and coached the University of Kentucky before retiring after the 2009 season.
1. Chris Palmer: Cleveland Browns
How apropos that this list ends with a guy that had to coach the Cleveland Browns. Of all the Browns coaches since they came back to the league in 1999, Palmer had the hardest job of them all. The reason was that he was the coach of the newly rebirthed Browns in 1999 and 2000. In his only head coaching opportunity in the NFL during his coaching career, Palmer was given the worst possible situation.
Palmer was immediately given a tough task in 1999 when with the first pick in the 1999 draft, the Browns selected quarterback Tim Couch instead of quarterback Donovan McNabb. Despite having a solid coaching staff around him with guys like Tony Sparano, Ken Whisenhunt, and Keith Butler, it was not enough to lift the team. Even after a year where they could start picking up solid players like Keith McKenzie, Shaun O’Hara, Corey Fuller, and others the team did not have enough to compete. To put it in this perspective, during Palmers’ two seasons, his leading scorer aside from his quarterback was kicker Phil Dawson.
After going 5-27 over two years Palmer was let go. He did get a number of jobs as a coordinator after his Browns tenure but was never considered for head coaching positions after his Browns tenure. We will never know how Palmer could have been with another team or a better team, and even if he would not have been a great head coach somewhere else, it would be stronger evidence to support that instead of having the daunting task to coach the revived Browns.