Is Bill Belichick the greatest coach in NFL history?
Simple question, impossible to answer. But since ESPN.com has used the 100th anniversary of Vince Lombardi's birth to run down its list of the top 20 coaches of all time, I figured now is as good a time as any to see where Belichick ranks in the pantheon.
(If your IQ is higher than say, 30, you should be right now accusing me of blatantly ripping off an idea from ESPN. To which I would retort: Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright. Probably important to note I stole those last two lines an episode of "The West Wing.")
And it's absolutely fair to ask the question. No one in this era -- post salary cap -- has come close to Belichick's success. I think we sometimes get lost in it because it is happening right now, but this is the most consistent winning machine in the history of the league at a time when it is the most difficult to build a year-in, year-out playoff contender, much less a Super Bowl favorite. Think about it: Since 2003 the Patriots have been one of the two or three favorites to win the Super Bowl every season. And it's going to be the same next year and presumably the year after that. This is going (with the obvious injury disclaimer) to be a decade and a half on the A-list, a staggering achievement. Jim Harbaugh is a terrific coach and Colin Kaepernick looks very much like the real thing, but does anyone think the 49ers will be winning 12, 13 games a year from now until 2027?
Here's one man's list of the 10 greatest coaches in NFL history:
10. John Madden
It has been noted this week around here that Dan Bylsma is young for a head coach, just 42 years old. Some have used that to make a case that he's perhaps overwhelmed, odd when you consider he won the Stanley Cup four years ago. Either way, 42 is a coaching infant by almost any measure. It also was John Madden's age when he retired as coach of the Raiders after 10 seasons, seven division titles and one Super Bowl. His worst record as coach was 9-7 in 1978 (his last season), his only season with a winning percentage less than .667. If turbulence didn't exist it's possible Madden could have been head coach of the Raiders for 25, 30 years and been somewhere in the top two or three on this list.
9. Tom Coughlin
Too high? Nope. I know it doesn't feel right, but this is a guy who took a franchise from scratch to the AFC title game in three years (and to 14 wins two years after that) and has beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in two Super Bowls. He lacks the consistency of some of the others on the list, and yes, if I had written this the day before Super Bowl XLII Coughlin wouldn't have been in the top 40, but so what? Two Super Bowls, 12 playoff wins and seven division titles in 17 years gets you a seat at the table.
8. Chuck Noll
Four Super Bowls (and 4-0 in Super Bowls) is impossible to spin negatively, so let's just gently suggest that Noll benefitted greatly from eight Hall of Famers and an all-time defense. Look, you still have to win the Super Bowls, but does anyone think the 1970's Steelers would have won less if Bud Grant and Noll had swapped jobs? Noll is fascinating in this regard, though: You never hear from him, ever. He doesn't take part in any NFL Films stuff, not on ESPN, not interviewed, not the subject of any books or documentaries. You know what Landry sounded like, what Shula sounds like, same with Bill Walsh or even Lombardi. But not Noll. Silence. He's been J.D. Salinger compared to Mike Ditka's Truman Capote.
7. Tom Landry
He's the Greg Maddux of NFL coaches -- just churned out B+, A- seasons forever with a few serious peaks mixed in. From 1966 to until 1985 he had zero losing seasons, made the playoffs 18 times, won 14 division titles, five NFC championships and two Super Bowls. It's the other nine years that knock him down a spot or two -- 42-71-3 and no playoff appearances.
(Landry won 0, 4, 5, 4, 5 and seven games in his first six years with the Cowboys, never finishing better than fifth in his first five seasons. How many coaches would Jerry Jones have gone through in that span? I'll set the over/under at 3.5 and take the over.)
6. Don Shula
Could have easily flipped Landry and Shula here, really, but I'll give Shula the edge because a) he won in two different places, b) went to a Super Bowl with David Woodley (career passer rating of 65.7, 48 touchdowns against 63 INTs) as his quarterback and won 78 more games (with a .678-.607 edge in winning percentage). Someone will break Pete Rose's hit record before Shula's 328 wins is surpassed. Belichick is the active leader in wins, he's 141 behind Shula. If he averaged 10 wins a year (no small feat, post-Brady) for 14 years he'll there at age 75.
5. Bill Walsh
Anyone think he doesn't win the two George Siefert Super Bowls if he sticks around? We can do this with all these guys, Belichick could have five Super Bowls if not for Tyree and Manningham, Jimmy Johnson would have won a couple more if he stayed, etc. The knock against Walsh is that he had the best quarterback and best receiver (and some think player, though the 49ers won a Super Bowl without Jerry Rice) in history at his disposal, but I'm not willing to assume that Walsh didn't help them nearly as much as they helped him. Is it fair to rank Walsh (nine seasons) over Shula (33 seasons) and Landry (35 seasons)? Probably not, but I'll take peak value first, give me seven years of brilliance over 30 years of very, very good. It's Pedro Martinez over Andy Pettitte, though Landry and Shula are better than that. How about Pedro over Tom Glavine?
4. Joe Gibbs
Three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, all not in the Hall of Fame and not even close. That's the most impressive sentence I can think of for any NFL coach in history. Look at every other coach on this list -- they had guys like Stabler, Eli Manning, Bradshaw, Staubach, Marino, Montana. Sure, Joe Theismann was an MVP (and we are all glad he's bested that tricky need to urinate all the time) but he never led the NFL in a single category in any season and made two Pro Bowls in 12 seasons. The three winning Super Bowl quarterbacks for Gibbs made a total of four Pro Bowls in 33 combined seasons, or two more than Vince Young has in six seasons.
3. Paul Brown
I think it's fair to suggest that I've overrated the modern coaches and not given the old-timers their due. It's just hard to figure it out. Paul Brown, as we all know, is the ultimate innovator, won seven titles and 14 division championships. But how I can compare, for example, Brown's 1950 title to Belichick's in 2004? Brown went 10-2 in a 13-team league and had to win one playoff game before beating the Rams in the championship game. In 1954 the Browns won the NFL championship (beating the Lions 56-10) with the title game as the only playoff game. No free agency, no turnover, a less complicated game with an easier path to a title. I think five conference titles and three Super Bowls today is a more impressive feat than what Brown accomplished.
2. Bill Belichick
You have to factor in Cleveland, sure, but Brown was 55-56-1 in eight seasons with the Bengals, which also made it a little easier to move him up to second. And 11-5 with Matt Cassel goes a long way in wiping out Cleveland. Also this: When the Patriots beat the Rams Tom Brady wasn't Tom Brady. Belichick beat an top five all-time offense with (essentially) a rookie quarterback who did nothing for 58 minutes. And the two Super Bowls with the Giants is another tie-breaker over Brown and Gibbs.
1. Vince Lombardi
A career .738 winning percentage, 9-1 in the playoffs, five titles, zero losing seasons and the white T-shirt tucked into the shorts at practice? Lombardi is a no-brainer No. 1, Belichick would have to win at least one more Super Bowl before the conversation could be started again.