The Best Coaches In NFL History

With the 2012 NFL Draft less than a week away, many fans and analysts are trying to predict the future. Let's save the forecasts for after players get matched up with teams, and instead take a spin into the past, ranking the greatest head coaches in NFL history. We'll do the top 15 in order, then round out the top 25 alphabetically.

1. Paul Brown
Cleveland Browns, 1946-62; Cincinnati Bengals, 1968-75
213-104-9 (.667), 7 championships

Paul Brown is the father of modern professional football. He was the first Modern Era coach to racially integrate his squad, the first coach to regularly call plays for his offense, and the first to hold classroom practice sessions. The list goes on (modern pass-blocking techniques and the quarterback "pocket") and on (year-round coaching staffs and positional coaches) and on.

Brown not only modernized the game, he also tutored a generation of great coaches. Hall of Famer Weeb Ewbank was Brown's assistant both at Great Lakes Naval Station and with Cleveland. So was Blanton Collier, who met Brown in the navy and was an assistant on the Browns before serving as head coach when they won an NFL Championship in 1964. Hall of Famer Bud Grant and four-time Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll played for Brown. All-time wins leader Don Shula played for Brown and Ewbank, and coached for Collier. Bill Walsh was an assistant to Brown with the Bengals. Paul Brown's coaching tree is the greatest in history.

Brown was a success at every level. His team at Washington High School went 80–8–2, won six straight Ohio poll football championships, and once went an entire season without punting. He led the Ohio State Buckeyes to their first-ever national championship and was hugely successful at Naval Station Great Lakes. Brown's teams went 47-4-3 in the AAFC and won all four league championships. After the merger with the NFL, the Browns made six straight championship appearances, including three NFL titles.

Including the four years the Browns played in the AAFC, Paul Brown is one of only five head coaches with at least 200 regular-season wins, and one of only six with twice as many victories as defeats (min. 100 wins). He also holds the record for most championships (7) of any head coach in the history of the NFL, AFL, and AAFC. Brown, Shula, and George Halas are the only coaches in history more than 100 games over .500, and only Shula and Tom Landry made the playoffs more times as head coach.

2. George Halas
Chicago Bears, 1920-67
318-148-31 (.671), 6 championships

Halas didn't really coach the Bears for 48 seasons. As a player, coach, and owner, this titan of NFL history occasionally stepped away from coaching to focus on the business side of things. When he was on the sidelines, the Bears were invariably successful. Halas coached the team in four separate 10-year stints. The chart below shows his regular-season record and number of championships in each decade.


No coach in history has so successfully adapted to (and shaped) a rapidly changing sport; each time Halas ran the Bears, the team was well over .500 and won a championship, including an official designation as league champion in 1921, when there was no championship game, but the 9-1-1 Staleys (they became the Bears in '22) had the league's best record. Halas' 318 wins stood as the career record for almost 30 years after his retirement.

3. Tom Landry
Dallas Cowboys, 1960-88
250-162-6 (.605), 2 championships

In evaluating coaches, I'm not just looking at championships or longevity, though obviously those are major factors. In my mind, coaches establish greatness through their contributions to the game: innovations, new strategies and practice methods, teaching and the legacy built through a coaching tree.

Tom Landry was a phenomenally successful head coach, whose teams went 20 years in a row without a losing season (1966-85). The Cowboys played in the NFL Championship Game in 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1975, 1977, and 1978. They are the only team in history to make five Super Bowls in 10 years, and Landry holds the all-time record for postseason wins as HC (20). His five post-merger conference championships are also a record, since tied by Don Shula and Bill Belichick.

What elevates Landry over other successful coaches are his strategic contributions and innovations. As a player and assistant coach, Landry helped develop the "Umbrella Defense" that became the basis for today's 4-3. He also introduced or revolutionized situational substitution, movement before the snap, and the shotgun formation. Future Super Bowl winner Mike Ditka played and coached for Landry, as did four-time conference champion and 190-game winner Dan Reeves.

4. Bill Belichick
Cleveland Browns, 1991-95; New England Patriots, 2000-present
175-97 (.643), 3 championships

I know this won't sit well with some people. Bill Belichick is not the most likeable guy in the world, and some fans still perceive him as a cheater because of the Spygate controversy five years ago. But Belichick is far and away the most successful coach of his generation, distinguished by both regular-season and postseason triumphs. His consistency in the free agency era is unmatched, and his coaching tree (while still in flux) is among the grandest of any contemporary HC.

Belichick's .643 winning percentage is among the highest in history, trailing only Tony Dungy (.668) among recent head coaches. Belichick has led the Patriots to 10 seasons of double-digit wins, including nine in a row. Where Belichick stands out from Dungy — and almost everyone else in history — is in the postseason.

From 2001-04, Belichick broke Vince Lombardi's record for longest postseason winning streak, taking 10 in a row. His .714 career postseason winning percentage is tied (with Bill Walsh) for third-best in history among those with at least 10 postseason games as head coach. He is also one of only three HCs to appear in five Super Bowls, and his three Super Bowls rings are the most by any coach in 20 years (Joe Gibbs) and tied for second-best in history. That kind of sustained success in the free agency era is stunning. Paul Brown, Don Shula, and Belichick are the only men to win Coach of the Year three times.

5. Bill Walsh
San Francisco 49ers, 1979-88
92-59-1 (.609), 3 championships

Bill Walsh did not have a long head coaching career, just 10 seasons, and two of them strike-shortened. The 49ers remained dominant after his retirement, going 98-30 (.766) and winning two Super Bowls under Walsh's successor, George Seifert. Walsh is listed here because of his extraordinary success in a brief career (3 Super Bowls, 10-4 postseason record, first 15-win regular season in NFL history) and because of his enormous influence on the game.

Walsh is arguably the most influential offensive coach in the history of football, certainly the most influential of the last 30 years. Every team in the NFL today either runs some variation on, or at least borrows from Walsh's horizontal short-passing system, often referred to as the West Coast Offense. Walsh designed the system for Virgil Carter in Cincinnati, but it was perfected by Joe Montana and Steve Young in San Francisco.

6. Vince Lombardi
Green Bay Packers, 1959-67; Washington Redskins, 1969
96-34-6 (.739), 5 championships

This is five spots lower than he is usually ranked. I have great respect for Vince Lombardi, and I believe listing him in the top six is a sign of that respect, but it is a shame that so many people blindly name Lombardi as the greatest coach in history. He won five championships, more than almost everyone, and from 1965-67 he won three straight titles, the only head coach to do so in the NFL. He was 9-1 in the postseason, and his .900 winning percentage is by far the best in history. Those are extraordinary accomplishments, and Lombardi deserves immense credit for them. But he didn't do anything else.

Lombardi didn't have a long career. He's 37th all-time in wins, 11 behind Norv Turner. Lombardi didn't introduce radical new strategies; he just executed the old ones better than anybody else. That produced a lot of wins, but it didn't revolutionize the game. Lombardi didn't leave behind a great coaching tree. Forrest Gregg went on to coach in Super Bowl XVI, but Lombardi wasn't a teacher the way Paul Brown and Tom Landry were.

What Lombardi has are eight tremendous seasons, but lots of coaches had eight or nine or ten great seasons in a row. Paul Brown from 1946-55 was 105-17-4 (.849) with 7 championships. Tom Landry from 1968-78 was 117-38-1 (.753) with 5 NFC championships. George Halas from 1933-42 was 88-24-4 (.776) and won three championships. Bill Belichick from 2001-11 was 134-42 (.761) and won three Super Bowls. Bill Walsh from 1981-88 was 94-39-1 (.705) with three Super Bowls. Every great coach has a six or seven or eleven-year run like Lombardi's.

But for most coaches, those records fade. The players retire, the assistants get new jobs, people get traded or injured or grow old. Lombardi never had to win without Bart Starr and Ray Nitschke and Forrest Gregg. Maybe he would have; Washington in 1969 went 7-5-2, its best record in 14 years. But Lombardi died, and it was George Allen who led Washington to the Super Bowl in 1972. Vince Lombardi was one of the finest coaches in the history of professional football, but I don't see how you rank him ahead of someone like Brown or Halas, who were just as successful in their primes, but sustained that success for decades.

7. Don Shula
Baltimore Colts, 1963-69; Miami Dolphins, 1970-95
328-156-6 (.676), 2 championships

Another coach usually rated higher than this. I don't know how many fans remember it these days, but Shula used to have a reputation as a guy who couldn't win the big one. The Colts were favored to win the 1964 NFL Championship Game against Cleveland. They got shut out, 27-0. They were huge favorites to win Super Bowl III, a team that was already regarded by many as the greatest in history. They lost to Joe Namath and the Jets. Shula went to Miami, and the '71 Dolphins became the first team in Super Bowl history not to score a touchdown. The undefeated '72 Dolphins were underdogs in Super Bowl VII, partly because of Shula's reputation.

From 1972-73, the Dolphins had two of the greatest teams in history, winning back-to-back Super Bowls. That saved Shula's legacy, but he went on to lose two more Super Bowls, and he could never get past Marv Levy's Bills in the early '90s, when Dan Marino and the Dolphins always seemed to come in second.

Shula won more games than any other coach in history. He coached in more Super Bowls than anyone else. He had a terrific winning percentage, one of the best ever. And he's 2nd all-time in postseason victories, trailing only Landry. But Shula's postseason record was 19-17. This is a coach who had three Hall of Fame quarterbacks — Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese, and Dan Marino — and only won two titles. As with Lombardi, I'm not saying Shula was a bad coach. He was a great coach. But how do you put him on the same level as someone who consistently turned talent into championships?

8. Joe Gibbs
Washington Redskins, 1981-92, 2004-07
154-94 (.621), 3 championships

Joe Gibbs turned talent into championships. In fact, he turned marginal talent into championships. Gibbs famously won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, none of them Hall of Famers: Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien. Gibbs was 17-7 in the playoffs; his .708 postseason winning percentage is the 5th-best in history (min. 10 games). His numbers were even better before Daniel Snyder lured him out of retirement in 2004: 124-60 (.674) in the regular season and a remarkable 16-5 in the postseason (.762), second only to Lombardi in postseason winning percentage.

Gibbs was particularly noteworthy for his creativity and adaptability on offense. When Lawrence Taylor was wrecking the NFC East, Gibbs re-worked two tight ends to contain the madness. In the early '80s, he won with John Riggins and a power running game. In the late '80s and early '90s, he won with Art Monk, Gary Clark, and a top-notch passing attack. In the 2000s, he led Washington to its only two playoff appearances of the Snyder Era*, once again using multiple QBs: Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, and Todd Collins.

*1999 doesn't count as the Snyder Era. He owned the team, but he hadn't had a chance to ruin it yet.

9. Curly Lambeau
Green Bay Packers, 1921-49; Chicago Cardinals, 1950-51; Washington Redskins, 1952-53
226-132-22 (.624), 6 championships

Almost 60 years after his retirement, Earl "Curly" Lambeau still has the fourth-most coaching victories in history. His six NFL championships are more than Vince Lombardi, more than Chuck Noll, more than Bill Walsh and Don Shula put together, or Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells put together. Lambeau emphasized the passing game before passing was considered a legitimate strategy, and his teams and players set records that stood for decades.

10. Chuck Noll
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1969-91
193-148-11 (.580), 4 championships

There are three coaches in the top 10 who nonetheless are ranked much lower here than on most other lists. Vince Lombardi and Don Shula are usually cited as the two greatest coaches ever, and Chuck Noll, the only head coach to win four Super Bowls, is also typically rated near the top of the list. Noll was a great evaluator of talent, and the Steelers in the mid-70s had an incredible roster, yielding nine future Hall of Famers. Purely as a coach, though, I don't believe it's clear that Noll excelled the way his reputation, and those four rings, suggest.

Noll is negatively distinguished from the rest of the top 10 by his winning percentage, well below .600. From 1972-79, the Steelers were 88-27-1. He won when he had great players. But in Noll's other 15 seasons, Pittsburgh was just 105-121. His teams were great for eight years, and below average for most of the other 15. I actually regard 10th as a generous ranking.

I'll repeat this one last time, to be sure there are no misunderstandings. When I point out the relative weaknesses of legendary coaches like Lombardi and Shula and Noll, it's not to disparage these exceptional coaches. I'm just trying to explain why I don't believe their accomplishments quite live up to their respective reputations, but I'd never want to give anyone the impression that they weren't great coaches.

11. George Allen
Los Angeles Rams, 1966-70; Washington Redskins, 1971-77
116-47-5 (.705), no championships

The first listed coach not to win a championship, Allen makes this list for his remarkable winning percentage, third-best in history (min. 100 games), and his contributions to strategy and organizational philosophy. Allen was the first head coach really obsessed with special teams. Allen hired an assistant named Dick Vermeil, and made him the first special teams coach in history. When Vermeil was hired away, Allen replaced him with Marv Levy.

You hear stories today about coaches sleeping at the office, stories meant to illustrate their dedication. But no one can match George Allen, who reportedly liked to eat spaghetti because it was easy to chew and he could continue concentrating on football. Allen was sometimes derided for being too conservative. Sonny Jurgensen hated him, and Allen's teams seldom replicated their regular-season success in the playoffs, but Allen's attention to detail, gift for defensive strategy, and ability to get the most out of veteran players set him apart. As a defensive mind, Allen oversaw the 1963 Bears, the Fearsome Foursome, and the Over-the-Hill-Gang, building great defenses with three different teams.

12. Sid Gillman
Los Angeles Rams, 1955-59; Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, 1960-69, 71; Houston Oilers, 1973-74
122-99-7 (.550), 1 championship

Sid Gillman was a perfect fit for the American Football League. An offensive mastermind and devotee of aerial fireworks, Gillman lit up AFL scoreboards with Jack Kemp, Tobin Rote, and John Hadl, reaching the league championship game with all three. Gillman's greatest legacy involves his influence on the modern passing game and his astonishing coaching tree.

Gillman's teams did not always have great records. From 1960-65, the Chargers made five championship appearances in six seasons, but Gillman also coached the 2-10 '59 Rams, stayed with the Chargers a bit too long, and took over the Oilers when they were little more than misery in helmets and cleats. The 1973 Oilers opened 0-5 and fired Bill Peterson in midseason. Gillman led the team to its only win (1-8), and the team improved to 7-7 the next year, Gillman's last as a head coach in the NFL.

13. Hank Stram
Dallas Texans / Kansas City Chiefs, 1960-74; New Orleans Saints, 1976-77
131-97-10 (.571), 2 championships

A point of clarification becomes necessary with this entry. Hank Stram's teams won three AFL championships, but I've listed him above with two. The first Super Bowl was played following the 1966 season, and from that time on, most fans (myself included) only consider the Super Bowl winner to be a true champion. Gillman and Stram, back to back on the list, were the only men to serve as head coaches for every season of the AFL's existence. Their longevity corresponded to success: the Texans/Chiefs had the best record in AFL history (87-48-5), while the Chargers were 2nd-best (86-48-6).

In 1969, many fans remained convinced that the AFL was a second-class league, and the Jets' Super Bowl III victory a fluke. Stram's Chiefs, haunted by a baseless gambling scandal allegedly involving quarterback Len Dawson, dominated the NFL-champion Vikings and sent the AFL into the merger an even 2-2. Stram's defense made an immediate impact in the post-merger NFL, with stars such as Bobby Bell dominating the new league just as convincingly as they had the old one.

14. John Madden
Oakland Raiders, 1969-78
103-32-7 (.750), 1 championship

A consensus seems to have developed in recent years placing Madden among the top 10 coaches in history. Madden has the highest regular-season winning percentage in NFL history, he's a Super Bowl champion, he was the youngest coach to reach 100 wins, and he's 71 games over .500 for his career. Of course he should be top-10!

The problem is that Madden's teams tended to underachieve in the postseason. His teams were loaded with talent, and they proved it in the regular season, but when the playoffs rolled around, Madden's Raiders only won their own conference once. Altogether, his teams had a horrific record of 1-6 in AFL/AFC Championship Games. Madden was elected to the Hall of Fame as a Senior Candidate in 2006, almost 30 years after his retirement. I'm glad he's in, but I think the combination of his very high public profile as an announcer and video game franchise, combined with that one magic stat — highest winning percentage — have led some fans to deify Madden in a way his record doesn't merit.

15. Steve Owen
New York Giants, 1930-53
153-100-17 (.653), 2 championships

Other than Giants fans, most people don't remember Steve Owen these days. He was one of only 16 coaches to win 150 regular season games, and one of the few to win multiple championships. Under Owen's leadership, the Giants played in six of the first nine NFL Championship Games. If Owen's longevity and record suggest his greatness, his strategic contributions and coaching tree cement it. Owen helped develop the offensive "A Formation" and the defensive "Umbrella Defense." His legacy also includes turning over the Giants to former assistant Jim Lee Howell, whose offensive and defensive coordinators were Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, respectively.

From here, we'll just go alphabetically:

Don Coryell
St. Louis Cardinals, 1973-77; San Diego Chargers, 1978-86
111-83-1 (.572), no championships

Although he is still the winningest coach in Cardinal history, Coryell is best remembered as the mastermind behind the Charger offenses of the early 1980s. From 1979-82, San Diego led the NFL in passing offense every season, a unique accomplishment. Coryell is listed here less for his 100 wins and success with two different teams than for his strategic influence on the modern passing game. Coryell is not in the Hall of Fame, but he probably should be.

Tony Dungy
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1996-2001; Indianapolis Colts, 2002-08
139-69 (.668), 1 championship

I always felt like Tony Dungy's Colts teams underachieved in the postseason, and it seemed to be largely Dungy's fault. His strategy of resting the team before the playoffs never worked, appearing to throw his team out of synch, and he often got out-coached by Bill Belichick. But there's no denying Dungy's many positive accomplishments. The Buccaneers went 6-10 in Dungy's rookie season at the helm, and in 12 more years as a head coach, he never had another losing season. Dungy made the Bucs a sustained powerhouse for the first time in franchise history.

Dungy's accomplishments with the Colts are even more remarkable, including eight straight seasons of double-digit wins, the last seven all 12-4 or better. It would be naïve to imagine that Dungy didn't face some extra challenges because of his race, but he never tried to use that as an excuse when his team fell short. Dungy was the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, and really the first to draw widespread admiration. He also left behind a strong legacy of assistants tutored by himself and Monte Kiffin, many of whom have gone on to head coaching positions.

Weeb Ewbank
Baltimore Colts, 1954-62; New York Jets, 1963-73
130-129-7 (.502), 3 championships

Wilbur "Weeb" Ewbank has by far the worst winning percentage of any coach listed here, but he won three championships with two different teams. The Jets went a combined 21-7 from 1968-69, but they were 71-77-6 in Ewbank's other nine seasons. The Colts were rotten when Ewbank took over, and he can't be blamed for that, but the team stagnated after its championship victories in 1958-59, rebounding when Ewbank was replaced by Don Shula. Like many members of Paul Brown's coaching tree, Ewbank left his own impressive legacy, including assistants like Chuck Knox and Buddy Ryan.

Ray Flaherty
Boston/Washington Redskins, 1936-42; New York Yankees, 1946-48; Chicago Hornets, 1949
80-37-5 (.676), 2 championships

In seven seasons, Flaherty led the Redskins to four championship appearances, including two wins. Flaherty ruined the Bears' perfect season in 1942. Chicago had gone 11-0 and had routed Washington (73-0) in the championship game two years earlier. Before the game, Flaherty wrote "73-0" in large figures on the chalkboard. What else needed to be said? Washington won the game and prevented Chicago from completing the first perfect season in NFL history. Later, Flaherty coached the AAFC's New York Yankees, perpetual runners-up to Paul Brown's Cleveland dynasty, and the 2nd-best team in the All-America Football Conference.

Bud Grant
Minnesota Vikings, 1967-83, 85
158-96-5 (.620), no championships

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Harry Grant, Jr., presided over some of the most dominant teams in history and led the Vikings to four Super Bowls, but always came up short in the big game. Grant is among the all-time top 20 in both wins and winning percentage (min. 100 games). Grant is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and also the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, having led the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers to four Grey Cups in the '50s and '60s.

Marv Levy
Kansas City Chiefs, 1978-82; Buffalo Bills, 1986-96
143-112 (.561), no championships

Like Grant, Levy was a four-time Super Bowl loser, a coach who could win in the regular season and could win in the playoffs, but never put everything together on the sport's biggest stage. And like Grant, he did find success in Canada, winning two Grey Cups with the Montreal Alouettes. Levy's record in the (NFL) playoffs actually was exceptional (11-4), and even including the Super Bowl losses he's well over .500. After losing to the Bengals in the 1988 AFC Championship Game, Levy adapted Sam Wyche's no-huddle offense into the K-Gun, and Buffalo led the AFC in scoring for the next four years in a row.

Greasy Neale
Philadelphia Eagles, 1941-50
63-43-5 (.590), 2 championships

Earle "Greasy" Neale was among the foremost defensive coaches in history, the mind behind the "Eagle Defense" that grew into the modern 3-4. The Eagle Defense was born to neutralize the dominant offensive T-Formation, and it worked. Philadelphia won the 1948 and 1949 NFL Championship Games by shutout, 7-0 and 14-0.

Neale's record in a short coaching career, like Bill Walsh's, doesn't accurately reflect his success. Neale took over a team that had gone a combined 2-19-1 in the two years before he was hired as HC, and struggled his first two seasons to improve the group with wartime talent. Following a one-year merger with Pittsburgh, Neale led his team to a 54-22-3 record (.703) and three straight championship appearances, including two titles.

Bill Parcells
New York Giants, 1983-90; New England Patriots, 1993-96; New York Jets, 1997-99; Dallas Cowboys, 2003-06
172-130-1 (.569), 2 championships

I'm sure some fans think it's crazy not to have Parcells in the top 15, maybe even the top 10. Honestly, it's hard to evaluate someone who switches teams every three or four years. Parcells reached conference championship games with the Giants, Patriots, and Jets, and that obviously says something positive about his coaching, but after 1990, his teams have never reached the highest level, and the incredible success of his former defensive coordinator Bill Belichick has deflected some of the coaching staff's credit away from Parcells himself.

Parcells' .569 career winning percentage is good, but it's nothing special, ranking below the career marks of Wade Phillips (.573), who is on nobody's list of historically great coaches, and Don Coryell (.572), whose good-but-not-great record is cited as the counter-argument for a Hall of Fame case built on his massive strategic innovations. Parcells has developed great players and great coaches, and he's made the playoffs with teams that were bad before he got there. But I don't see how you rank him ahead of his old assistant Belichick, and I don't see how you put him ahead of contemporaries like Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs. A great coach, yes. Top-25, yes. Top-10? I don't believe so.

Marty Schottenheimer
Cleveland Browns, 1984-88; Kansas City Chiefs, 1989-98; Washington Redskins, 2001; San Diego Chargers, 2002-06
200-126-1 (.613), no championships

A legendary postseason underachiever, Schottenheimer nonetheless ranks among the most accomplished coaches in history. He is one of only six with 200 career regular-season wins, and his .613 winning percentage is much higher than many celebrated coaches. Only Don Shula, Tom Landry, and Paul Brown led their teams to more postseason appearances than Schottenheimer.

You don't compile a 5-13 postseason résumé without some truth to the idea that you struggle in the playoffs, but some of Schottenheimer's postseason failures may have been exaggerated. The '86 Browns lost on a crazy two-minute drill. The '87 Browns lost on a freak fumble at the goal line. The '06 Chargers had a million things go wrong, and most of them weren't Marty's fault. Every coach has things go wrong, and the great ones often overcome them, but change a couple fluke bounces, and Schottenheimer's coaching record and reputation might be a lot different.

Marty was also a major influence on three Super Bowl-winning head coaches: Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, and Mike McCarthy.

George Seifert
San Francisco 49ers, 1989-96; Carolina Panthers, 1999-2001
114-62 (.648), 2 championships

Almost no one lists George Seifert among the great coaches in history any more, I suppose because of his disastrous time with the Panthers (16-32). But I don't understand how people brush off his accomplishments with the 49ers. Some coaches really have piggy-backed on the success of their predecessors, "won with someone else's team," as we say. Barry Switzer did that in 1995. Bill Callahan did in 2002. Jim Caldwell did in 2009. Don McCafferty in 1970, and so on. George Seifert had eight consecutive seasons of double-digit wins and won a Super Bowl six years after Bill Walsh retired.

Seifert's great teams in the '90s, which would have made the Super Bowl every year in the AFC, didn't have Joe Montana or Roger Craig or Ronnie Lott. Seifert took a distinct group of players and made them perennial contenders. There was still a lot of talent on those teams, but it takes a pretty good coach to reach five NFC Championship Games in six years and win two Super Bowls.

Obviously, there are some very fine coaches who aren't listed here. Dan Reeves led his teams to four Super Bowls. Mike Holmgren coached in three Super Bowls and briefly had a coaching tree that made up about a quarter of the NFL. Tom Coughlin and Andy Reid are still active and could easily force their ways onto this list by the same time next year. Bill Cowher, Tom Flores, Guy Chamberlin, Chuck Knox ... it's harder to tell the difference between 25th and 26th than it is to draw distinctions at the top of the list. Everyone agrees that Brown and Halas and Lombardi and Shula and Gibbs are among the greatest coaches in history.

Your opinions, of course, are welcome in the comments, but please remember to justify your position. If you believe Parcells should be higher, or it's crazy to omit Holmgren and Cowher, or whatever else, please don't forget to say why. Arguing about something like the greatest coaches in history is fun, but not when people just shout, "You're wrong!" at each other. I've given this list a lot of consideration.

Comments and Conversation

April 25, 2012

Andrew Jones:

Very well written. Very well reasoned. I looked at the rankings before reading the arguments and had a few initial disagreements. Reading your arguments, I disagreed less.

All in all, I might move around things a spot or two, but the only major thing is that I’d actually put Shula at 5 ahead of Walsh and Lombardi.

To me, comparing these guys is almost not fair. Shula had three times as many wins as both of them. To me that is too staggering to not have Shula above those two.

And I’d take Madden out of the top 15. He’s similar to Dungy in my opinion, underachieving teams. Both should have won three championships and only managed one.

April 26, 2012

Brad Oremland:

Thanks, Andrew. Regarding your suggestions concerning Shula and Madden, you certainly have a point, but I almost feel like the arguments run counter to one another. Madden’s weakness is also Shula’s weakness.

The 1968 Colts were one of the greatest teams in NFL history, maybe even the best. For them to lose to a perfectly solid but essentially unexceptional Jets team was a disappointment of massive proportions. Shula’s failure to win a title in 20 seasons with Unitas and Marino is sort of astonishing.

Lombardi won more than twice as many championships as Shula, in a much shorter career. Walsh radically changed offensive strategy, league-wide. Madden, whatever his short-comings, won 3/4 of his games and developed some truly great players. To me, his career is a mirror of Shula’s, only shorter, and the difference between 7th and 14th reflects that.

You make a case for Shula based on his huge number of regular-season wins, while arguing that Madden’s unique regular-season success is insignificant because he underachieved in the postseason — which is precisely the argument against Shula. He was uniquely successful as a regular-season coach (328 wins), but his teams seldom met expectations when the games mattered most.

You may very well be right — ranking Shula 5th or Madden 20th is perfectly reasonable — but that’s why I rated them where I did.

May 3, 2012

Andrew Jones:

Fair point Brad. Shula underachieved in the playoffs for far longer than Madden.

I guess for me, I look at these two and think in a wins above replacement mentality. If Shula or Madden had given way to other coaches, what would those coaches have accomplished. I think Shula’s longevity is something very few people could do, but Madden’s streak is perhaps more doable. I could be wrong.

But you’re right, those differences could be the difference between 7 and 14 rather than 5 and 20.

Thanks for your great attention to detail.

May 4, 2012

Brad Oremland:

Thank you, Andrew, for a thoughtful discussion about football — I can’t get enough of those. You certainly could be right about Shula and Madden — our rankings don’t differ by very much. I have a rationale for every ranking here, but it’s not an exact science, and 328 wins demands a lot of respect. Part of me actually thinks Joe Gibbs should be ahead of Shula, Lombardi, and Walsh — his record is as good as or better than Walsh’s in every respect.

As you noted, Shula, like Landry, is distinguished by his success with different groups of players. From a certain point of view, Shula = Madden + Schottenheimer. I guess that could be good or bad depending on your point of view.

October 31, 2012


Bill Parcells was the very best at achieving great from teams that were the very worst. He is the top 10 in my books.

February 2, 2013


Man, did we watch the same league? You’ve got Knoll, Grant, Shula, Madden and Landry way too low.

February 4, 2013

Brad Oremland:

So if I boost everyone from the ’70s and lower the coaches from every other decade, you’ll be happy? This is an all-time ranking, Ken.

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