LOS ANGELES, February 21, 2017 — As soon as Bill Belichick led the New England Patriots to their fifth Super Bowl title, far too many sportswriters declared him the greatest coach in the history of the National Football League. Those with short memories need to be reminded of the many great coaches who preceded Belichick. He is one of the very best, and will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his first ballot. However, those living outside New England are aware that football greatness existed long before Belichick.
Lists are always controversial, but that is part of the fun. Everybody has an opinion and these debates will hopefully never be settled. With that in mind, here are the top 10 NFL head coaches of all time.
1.) Vince Lombardi — It is called the Lombardi Trophy for a reason. His Green Bay Packers won five NFL championships in the 1960s. The first three came before the Super Bowl existed. His teams won the first two Super Bowls by lopsided margins. He then took over a Washington Redskins team that won only one game the previous year and willed them to a 7-5 record. Had cancer not cut his life tragically short, there is no telling how much more he could have accomplished. He is still the standard of excellence that all NFL coaches must be measured against.
2.) George Halas — Papa Bear coached the Chicago Bears for 40 years in four decade-long stints with breaks in between and was also the team owner. In addition, he was Lombardi’s chief nemisis in the NFL’s oldest rivalry. His first championship came in 1921 with the Chicago Staleys, the team that would change its name to the Bears the following year.
His Bears were champions in 1921, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1946 and 1963, perhaps most notably in 1940 when his legendary Monsters of the Midway demolished the Redskins 73-0 in the NFL Title Game, a record for points in a single championship game that still stands. His 1963 Bears took down Lombardi’s Packers, which nobody else in the NFL seemed able to do.
Halas won six NFL championships as a coach and one more as an owner. Chicago is a tough town, and Halas was as tough as it got. Dick Butkus was Halas tough. So was Sid Luckman. So were Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan, both of whom owner Halas brought together. That team produced the 1985 Bears, whose members may have been the greatest single season defense of all time.
3.) Don Shula — Shula is the winningest head coach of all time, with 347 victories over a 33-year career. He led the Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl over three straight seasons from 1971 through 1973, winning the last two of them. His 1972 Dolphins remain the only perfect unbeaten team in NFL history. They went 17-0 with backup quarterback Earl Morrall filling in for much of the season for an injured Bob Griese.
Shula would rank even higher if not for two blemishes on his career. With Dan Marino, the Dolphins only went to one Super Bowl, a 1984 blowout loss. In 1985 and 1992 Miami were halted one game short of the Super Bowl. Even worse, they lost both times at home. However, Shula’s most painful loss came when he coached the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The 1968 Colts were 18-point favorites, yet lost 16-7 to the New York Jets in what remains the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
4.) Paul Brown — His Cleveland Browns went to the championship game 10 straight years from 1946 through 1955. Those downgrading Brown will point out that from 1946 through 1949, the Browns played in the All American Football Conference and not the NFL. Those four straight AAFC Championships count because the Browns maintained their level of success when they joined the NFL in 1950. Six NFL championship games produced three more championships.
Helping out considerably, Brown also had Otto Graham, one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time on his team’s roster. He also had running back Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest NFL player of all time. When Paul Brown later took over the Cincinnati Bengals, he had initial success until blonde bomber quarterback Greg Cook went down with a shoulder injury.
Brown’s greatest legacy was his role as a mentor. He taught the game to Shula, which could allow for making the case to be made he should rank higher on the “great coaches” list. Further evidence: he also taught Super Bowl III winner Weeb Ewbank the tricks of the trade, as well as Blanton Collier, and molded the careers of Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh as well, who produced a combined seven super Bowls and the greatest stretches of defense and offense in the modern era, respectively. Without Paul Brown, Noll does not reign over the Steel Curtain and Walsh does not install his West Coast Offense. Without Paul Brown, we never see “The Immaculate Reception” or “The Catch.”
5.) Bill Parcells — Critics of “The Tuna” will howl that he only went to three Super Bowls, winning two. However, he has two characteristics that make him worthy of such a high ranking. He took over multiple dreadful teams and turned the ultimate losers into winners. He coached the New York Giants to their 1986 and 1990 championships with two different starting quarterbacks in those Super Bowls. He maximized the talent of Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler. Parcells was 3-12-1 in his first season and 14-2 in his fourth season.
He took over a 2-14 New England team and brought the 1996 Patriots to a Super Bowl in his fourth season. He inherited a 1-15 Jets team and got them in 1998 to a 12-4 record and one game short of another Super Bowl. He then took a Dallas Cowboys team that went 5-11 three straight years and turned them into a 10-6 playoff team.
As President of the Dolphins, he led a 1-15 squad to an 11-5 AFC East Championship. Parcells critics will claim his success was because of Belichick. This argument is refuted by other Parcells proteges. Tom Coughlin won two Super Bowls with the 2007 and 2011 Giants, beating Belichick both times. Sean Payton led the 2009 New Orleans Saints to their only Super Bowl trophy. Parcells hated the West Coast Offense, winning games with smashmouth running backs like Otis Anderson and brutal defenses led by Lawrence Taylor, Leonard Marshall and Harry Carson. Parcells teams crushed Walsh teams in 1985 and 1986 and beat the 1990 49ers 15-13 in perhaps the most brutal NFC Title Game ever played.
6.) Bill Belichick — When you reach seven Super Bowls and win five, you are among the very best. Belichick is a polarizing figure with regards to his ranking for several reasons. His tenure with the Cleveland Browns was mostly unsuccessful. He had Tom Brady as his quarterback for most of his entire New England tenure where he was entangled in scandals from Spygate to Deflategate. His Patriots won all five Super Bowls by a combined 19 points. The Patriots absolutely should have lost their two most recent Super Bowl victories, but they didn’t. The 2014 Seattle Seahawks and 2016 Atlanta Falcons literally gave the games away. Another knock on Belichick is his lack of a coaching tree. His assistants have not succeeded as head coaches anywhere.
Belichick supporters also have plenty of valid ammunition. Belichick has to contend with the NFL salary cap, which coaches before 1994 never had to confront. That said, outside of Brady, Belichick has cut players at every position and restocked the roster brilliantly, proving he is also a great general manager as well as coach.
The 2008 Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel playing the entire season for an injured Brady. The 2016 Patriots started 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppollo and Jacoby Brissett filling in during Brady’s suspension. The Patriots frequently had to beat the legendary Peyton Manning to make the big game. Nobody schemed against Manning like Belichick. Manning did lead the 2006 Colts from a 21-3 deficit to a 38-34 AFC Title Game win, but otherwise Belichick owned Manning. The 2013 Patriots came within one failed two-point conversion against Manning in that AFC Title Game. Since 2011, the Patriots have been to the AFC Title Game six straight times, an NFL record. The 2007 Patriots had the only 16-0 NFL regular season. They lost the Super Bowl that year due to a miracle helmet-catch by David Tyree. Had they finished 19-0 that year, Belichick very well could top this list.
7.) Sid Gillman and “Sons” — An entire wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame could be reserved for Sid Gillman and those he taught. He is the Godfather of the passing game, the antidote for those who despised the “three yards and a cloud of dust” running game. He passed the ball early and often. His San Diego Chargers went to five of the first six American Football League Championships, winning it all in 1963. While these were not NFL victories, Sid Gillman has the greatest coaching tree in football history. He taught the passing game to Don “Air” Coryell and Al Davis, who would have quarterbacks raining down bombs for over two decades.
Davis as an owner would win three Super Bowls with two different quarterbacks and head coaches. He had to beat Coryell in a track meet 1980 AFC Title Game to get to one Super Bowl. Coryell got the Chargers back to the AFC Title Game in 1981. The 1983 Raiders beat the Seahawks in the AFC Title Game. Seattle Coach Chuck Knox was another Gillman son. So was Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. His 1979 Steelers defeated Knox’s Rams in the Super Bowl. Ditto another yet Gillman protegé, George Allen, whose 1972 Redskins got to the Super Bowl only to lose it that year to Shula’s perfect Dolphins. And let’s not forget Dick Vermeil, who led the 1999 Rams and the “Greatest Show on Turf” to their only Super Bowl win.
Gillman’s “grandsons” included Al Davis hires John Madden, Tom Flores and Art Shell. Madden took the Raiders to five straight AFC Title Games, winning it all in 1976. Only Shula and Noll stopped him from stacking a few more into the win column.
Flores got to Super Bowls in 1980 and 1983 by beating Noll, Knox, and Coryell, winning those Super Bowls by beating two other Gillman proteges, Vermeil and Joe Gibbs.
Shell took the 1990 Raiders to the AFC Title Game, while Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks in 1982, 1987 and 1991. Another Gillman grandson was Tony Dungy, who led the 2006 Colts to a Super Bowl win one game after besting Belichick in perhaps the greatest AFC Title Game in history. Another grandson was Mike Martz, who as the 1999 Rams offensive coordinator took what Coryell taught him and unleashed Kurt Warner on the NFL.
8.) Tom Landry — The man in the hat coached the Dallas Cowboys for 29 seasons from their founding in 1960 through the 1988 season, leading the Cowboys to five Super Bowls in the 1970s. Landry would rank higher but he only won two Super Bowls. In 1971 and 1977 the Cowboys were champions, but more often than not there were agonizingly close losses at times. The 1975 and 1978 Cowboys lost heartbreakers to Noll’s Steelers. The 1970 Cowboys inexcusably lost to the Colts in the “Blunder Bowl.” In 1966 and 1967, the Cowboys lost in the NFL Title Game to the Packers on the very final play. 1966 saw the Cowboys at the two yard line only to lose 34-27 on an end zone interception. 1967 was the legendary Ice Bowl, where Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak and Jerry Kramer’s wedge block on Jethro Pugh meant a 21-17 Packers win. If Landry had won those two games against Lombardi, the Super Bowl trophy could be named after him instead of Lombardi.
In 1980, 1981 and 1982, the Cowboys went to three straight NFC Title Games. All three were on the road, and Dallas lost all three times. Landry lost to Vermeil, Walsh and Gibbs. The agonizing loss to Walsh featured Joe Montana’s prayer pass to Dwight Clark that forever changed both franchises. Landry won Super Bowls with Roger Staubach, lost one with Craig Morton, and came agonizingly close to the hat trick with Danny White. Landry also mentored Dan Reeves, who would get to four Super Bowls but lose badly each time.
9.) Joe Gibbs — Gibbs’ Redskins reached four Super Bowls in a decade running from 1982 through 1991. Gibbs won three of them with three different quarterbacks. Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien all delivered wins for Gibbs. In the age of gimmicky dink and dunk passes, Gibbs was old-school. He ran the ball and then ran it some more behind what might be the greatest offensive line in NFL history. Dubbed “The Hogs,” Joe Jacoby, Jim Lachey and Russ Grimm opened big holes for John Riggins in the “counter trey” offense that wore out opposing defenses. Gibbs eventually left coaching due to burnout, but his brief return to a badly-failing Redskins franchise over a decade later still found him turning a losing team into a winning one. The Redskins have had little to no success under any coach except Gibbs since he left both times. Gibbs’s tenure was relatively brief and his coaching tree is relatively unknown since the NFL has since abandoned the running game for the short passing game.
10.) Chuck Noll/Bill Walsh — Leaving either of these men off the list would be considered heresy, and supporters of both will scream that they should rank higher. Noll’s Steel Curtain, led by Mean Joe Greene, was the greatest defense in NFL history. Walsh’s West Coast offense powered by Joe Montana inspired a ton of copycats and took the rest of the league’s defenses two decades to counter it. Noll won four Super Bowls in the 1970s and Walsh won three in the 1980s. Noll’s Steelers sparred with Madden’s Raiders for five straight seasons from 1973 through 1977, with Pittsburgh winning three of those games, which included that Immaculate Reception. Both Noll and Walsh out-dueled Landry in epic games. So what could possibly have these men so low on this list?
Noll coached for 23 seasons, but after 1979 saw far less success through to the time of his retirement after the 1991 season. Meanwhile, Walsh would end up coaching at Stanford without any notable success. In both cases, their respective teams did absolutely fine after they retired. Bill Cowher took over for Noll in 1992 and immediately led the Steelers to a division championship. Cowher led the Steelers to two Super Bowls, winning one in 2005. George Siefert took over for Walsh in 1989 and immediately led the 49ers to a 14-2 record and subsequently to the biggest blowout win in Super Bowl history.
Siefert would lead the 49ers to another 14-2 record in 1990, losing a chance at a three-peat on the NFC Title Game’s final play. Walsh had Montana and Jerry Rice. Siefert kept things humming with Steve Young as the 49ers won it all again in 1994. Pittsburgh and San Francisco owners Art Rooney and Eddie Debartolo Jr. ran organizations that won even as parts were replaced. Noll and Walsh were far more than parts, but their teams did very well when they left.