Nolan came from a strong football background thanks to his father. He also served as the defensive coordinator for several teams including the Giants, Redskins, Jets, Ravens, Broncos, Falcons, and Dolphins. He’s rarely struggled to find work in that regard, yet his head-coaching tenure in the NFL was an unmitigated disaster.
Nolan was hired as head coach of the legendary San Francisco 49ers in 2005. His first order of business was to select quarterback Alex Smith with the first overall pick of that year’s draft. Smith turned into a fine enough quarterback in his own right. But it was the fact that Nolan passed on future all-time great Aaron Rodgers that essentially sealed his fate before it began. He went 4-12, 7-9, and 5-11 in his first three seasons in the Bay Area. In 2008, he was fired before the halfway point of the season after posting a 2-5 record. Nolan is currently the linebackers coach for the New Orleans Saints.
Like Nolan, Shula had the pedigree of his famous father behind him. It could be argued that was not a good thing. The younger Shula failed to even come close to attaining the level his legendary father Don did with the Miami Dolphins.
Hired to coach the Cincinnati Bengals in 1992, Shula’s tenure was a wreck from the outset. He went 5-11, 3-13, 3-13, and 7-9 in his first four seasons with the team. He was then fired in 1996 after starting out 1-6. Shula’s overall winning percentage in the NFL was a laughable .268. The experience was apparently so bad for him that he left the entire game for more than 20 years. Shula only recently resurfaced in the college ranks with Dartmouth in 2019.
Kiffin also came from a famous family. His father, Monte, was a respected defensive coordinator who led the great 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense to a Super Bowl victory. Lane Kiffin would find no such success in the NFL as a head coach, however.
Hired to resurrect the floundering Oakland Raiders in 2007, Kiffin failed to accomplish that goal. He went 4-12 in his first season in Oakland before getting fired after a 1-3 start to 2008. Kiffin was reportedly opposed to the team selecting LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the first pick of the draft in 2007. Russell became one of the biggest busts in NFL history. There were also rumors swirling that Kiffin had already begun searching for college jobs during his short-lived tenure in Oakland. He later moved on to coach Tennessee, leaving them high and dry as well to coach USC. He now coaches Florida Atlantic. Overall, his NFL tenure was simply a train wreck.
Mornhinweg parlayed a decent reputation as an offensive coach into a head-coaching job with the Detroit Lions from 2001-2002. Despite his successes as a quarterback coach with the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, he was unable to find success as a head coach.
There’s not much else to say other than his record speaks for itself. He went 2-14 in his first season with Detroit and 3-13 in his second. Those are numbers that would get almost any coach fired. He was most recently seen as a quarterbacks coach with the Ravens from 2015-2016 and their offensive coordinator from 2016-2018.
Kotite’s run as the offensive coordinator of the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles earned him a chance as the Eagles’ head coach in 1991. He actually wasn’t horrific in Philly. The Eagles had a winning record with Kotite as their head coach, maintaining a 36-28 mark. Yet most believe with a team featuring stars such as Randall Cunningham and Reggie White, Kotite should have won in the playoffs. He did not. It is worth noting that he did lose the final seven games of his run there.
But then Kotite took over as head coach of the Jets. The results were not pretty. Kotite went 3-13 and 1-15 in 1995-96, sealing his fate as an NFL head coach. Those were largely the two seasons Jets fan refer to as the worst in franchise history. Due to their recent track record, that’s saying a lot.
Marinelli’s run as a defensive line coach in college and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL was successful enough to earn him a shot as the head coach of the Detroit Lions. Beginning his tenure in 2006, Marinelli did not have a good opening season with a pitiful 3-13 mark. That would be enough to get you fired in today’s NFL, but he was given a second chance.
A 7-9 mark in 2007 showed marked improvement, earning Marinelli an unlikely third season in 2008. This is where the wheels fell off. The Lions went winless at 0-16 after he reportedly broke out a horrific offensive gameplan in the offseason. It was enough to make quarterback Jon Kitna walk out of a gameplan meeting, predicting the team would go winless if they played according to that plan. Kitna was traded and the Lions went winless. Marinelli left the head-coaching ranks with a horrific 10-38 record. He has, however, resurfaced with Chicago and Dallas. He’s currently the defensive coordinator of the Cowboys and has found a level of success there.
There are coaches with more losses on this list for sure. But perhaps none have a stranger midseason exit from the NFL head-coaching ranks as Petrino. In 2007, the Atlanta Falcons brought former Louisville coach Petrino on a five-year contract to help star quarterback Michael Vick develop his skills even further. Petrino failed to last even one year.
He stepped down in the middle of his first year after going a putrid 3-10 to start the season. Petrino then returned to the college ranks as the head coach for Arkansas. This short-lived stint was one of the most disgraceful examples of a coach quitting on his team in NFL history. It may be the worst, in fact.
Bell was an NFL commissioner largely responsible for boosting the NFL to the lofty position of the U.S.’s most lucrative sports league that it enjoys today. In that sense, he’s a legend. However, he was also once a head coach. The results in that area were nowhere near as good.
Bell led the Philadelphia Eagles for five years, and that’s a term that was used lightly. He could only muster a 10-44 overall record, numbers hardly good enough for the harsh critics of Philadelphia. He resurfaced with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1941, losing the first two games of the year before being forced to resign. Interestingly, he stayed with the team in some capacity until 1945. But after his coaching days were done in 1941, he held multiple records for futility, including the worst winning percentage ever heading into the 2019 season.
Jackson found measured success as the offensive coordinator of the Redskins, Falcons, Raiders, and Bengals. Many on this list have put forth a similar body of work only to be hired and fail as a head coach. Jackson took over as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2011. His first season actually wasn’t all that bad on paper, as he went 8-8. But the Raiders started out hot at 7-4 and missed the playoffs after dropping four of their final five. That was enough to get Jackson a one-way ticket out of Oakland in only one year.
He rebounded well with Cincinnati from 2012-2015 and was hired by their division rival Cleveland Browns before the 2016 season. What followed was arguably the least successful run with any team in NFL history. Jackson went 1-15 in his first season but somehow got a second chance. He followed it up by the only worse result, an 0-16 season in 2017. For reasons unbeknownst to anyone, Jackson was given the reigns for a third year in 2018. Perhaps the team thought that with their years of stockpiling draft picks and talent, he could finally break through. He did better the next year but was fired after starting the season 2-5-1. He reportedly clashed with outspoken No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield. Jackson ended his Browns run with a 3-36-1 mark and is currently out of pro football.
It’s been a long, brutal list of the least successful NFL coaches, yet it’s Jackson who takes the top spot for his sheer ineptitude at turning around one of the most beaten franchises in sports.