25 Best Playoff Coaches in NFL History

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IJanuary 10, 2012

25 Best Playoff Coaches in NFL History

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    Four NFL teams—and who knows, maybe more—are currently in search of a new head coach. Although each job, owner and team is different and unique, they all want one thing from their new hire: a Super Bowl championship.

    That's what every team wants.

    To do that takes three, sometimes four, wins in the postseason. For all the hundreds of coaches in NFL history, only a scant few have mastered the landscape in the "second season" of the playoffs.

    I've ranked the 25 greatest postseason head coaches based on a few criteria. 

    Total wins and Super Bowl titles (or NFL championships) are obviously the starting point, but not the be-all, end-all.

    Suffice it to say that the quality of their roster, the quality of the opponents they played, the stage—home game or away—and upsets vs. chokes are also huge factors in ranking these coaching icons.

Honorable Mention: The One-Time Super Bowl-Winning Head Coaches

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    Winning a Super Bowl doesn't necessarily earn a spot on this list. The cumulative effort of an entire career has to be taken into account. Otherwise, this list would be nothing more than a roster of Super Bowl winners.

    But these head coaches all deserve at least a mention on this list...especially the still active ones like Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton, who soon could climb up this list with another Lombardi Trophy.

    - Mike McCarthy

    - Sean Payton

    - Mike Tomlin

    - Jon Gruden

    - Brian Billick

    - Barry Switzer

    - Don McCafferty

    - Hank Stram

No. 25: George Seifert

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    Playoff Record: 10-5

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1994 NFC Championship Game vs. Dallas Cowboys

    His critics will say that George Seifert was something of a "push button" head coach in that he was given tons of Hall of Fame and All-Pro talent, talent that Bill Walsh had largely put in place or was acquired when the 49ers broke the bank for free agents in 1994.

    But Seifert still won those 10 playoff games and two Super Bowls. Plenty of head coaches have squandered great talent and not won in the postseason. Seifert certainly did. 

    Besides, had it not been for the Cowboys dynasty of the mid 1990s, Seifert may have coached in four Super Bowls.

No. 24: Mike Ditka

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    Playoff Record: 6-6

    Greatest Playoff Win: Super Bowl XX vs. New England Patriots

    In the "One Super Bowl Title" club I purposefully left Mike Ditka—and several others—out, opting to slot them higher.

    For Ditka, here's why.

    Let's forget about the unstoppable 1985 Bears team for a second.

    Ditka won three additional playoff games, and two of his losses were very close games, one to the Cowboys in 1991 and another to the Redskins in 1987.

    But that's not the top reason he stands alone from Jon Gruden, Sean Payton, Hank Stram and the others.

    Ditka's prime was the mid to late 1980s, and in the NFC there was such a wealth of talent that he almost always faced a Super Bowl-worthy team, like Bill Walsh's 49ers, Joe Gibbs' Redskins or Bill Parcells' Giants. There's an argument to be made that the easiest opponent Ditka's Bears played in the postseason was their Super Bowl XX opponent.

No. 23: Tony Dungy

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    Playoff Record: 9-10

    Greatest Playoff Win: Super Bowl XLI vs. Chicago Bears

    Here's another interesting case.

    Tony Dungy's teams certainly choked several times in the postseason: the 2005 loss to Pittsburgh, the 2007 loss to San Diego and all the times they really laid an egg against the Patriots.

    But he did win a Super Bowl and in some respects out-coached Bill Belichick in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. And back in 1999, when he was with the Buccaneers, he nearly upset the Rams in the Dome with Shaun King, of all people, as his quarterback.

No. 22: Dick Vermeil

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    Playoff Record: 6-5

    Greatest Playoff Win: Super Bowl XXXIV vs. Tennessee Titans

    It really didn't pan out this way in his third life, with the Kansas City Chiefs, but Dick Vermeil did have a great playoff career.

    He is one of the five head coaches (Mike Holmgren, Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves, Don Shula) to take two different franchises to Super Bowls.

    As memorable as "The Greatest Show on Turf" 1999 Rams team was, that 1980 Eagles team that won the NFC title—despite lacking any real superstars—was more impressive.

No. 21: Jimmy Johnson

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    Playoff Record: 9-4

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1992 NFC Championship Game vs. San Francisco 49ers

    There's no doubt that Jimmy Johnson's performance with the Cowboys in 1992 and 1993 was fantastic. When he took Dallas into San Francisco and defeated the mighty 49ers, it was one of the most memorable victories in team history.

    He showed no fear in that game (the fourth-down attempt over a field-goal try) or in the rematch the next year, when he guaranteed victory before the NFC championship game in Texas Stadium.

    To repeat in 1993 as Super Bowl champions—amid all the turmoil about his possible resignation—capped one of the greatest back-to-back performances in history.

    However, his Miami teams were embarrassed in the postseason in 1998 and 1999 by a combined score of 95-10. That takes him down a few pegs.

No. 20: Weeb Ewbank

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    Playoff Record: 4-1

    Greatest Playoff Win: Super Bowl III vs. Baltimore Colts

    On this list, Weeb Ewbank has by far the fewest playoff games coached. Of course, the era he coached in—pre-merger—is a major reason why.

    But when you were the winning head coach in two of the most important games in NFL history—the 1958 NFL title game and Super Bowl III—that doesn't matter.

    Ewbank's 1958 NFL title game win over the Giants—on the road in Yankee Stadium—along with his Jets' upset of his old club in Super Bowl III 10 years later earn him an everlasting place in postseason football history.

No. 19: Bud Grant

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    Playoff Record: 10-12

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1973 NFC Championship Game at Dallas Cowboys

    Keep this in mind for the next three slides: Making it to the Super Bowl is a tremendous achievement. Look at the coaches that never did: Marty Schottenheimer, Jim E. Mora, Chuck Knox, Don Coryell, etc.

    Thus, Bud Grant winning four NFC championships in an eight-year span was historic.

    I certainly won't go as far as to say that "it doesn't matter that he lost all four Super Bowls" because that's the only achievement that really counts. However, those losses aren't enough to keep him from a prominent place in NFL history.

No. 18: Dan Reeves

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    Playoff Record: 11-9

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1998 NFC Championship Game at Minnesota Vikings

    As great as Dan Reeves' tenure with the Broncos was—reaching three Super Bowls in four seasons—the triumph over the Vikings in 1998 was his most impressive achievement.

    No one expected the Falcons to go up to the Metrodome and defeat an unbeatable team with an unstoppable offense.

    The fact that his teams were pounded in each of his four Super Bowls does hurt his overall legacy, but Reeves still deserves a spot on this list—especially since he is one of just four head coaches to take two separate franchises to the Super Bowl.

No. 17: Marv Levy

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    Playoff Record: 11-8

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1992 AFC Wild Card vs. Houston Oilers

    Why did I put Marv Levy ahead of Reeves and Grant, his fellow four-loss Super Bowl head coaches?

    Three reasons:

    1) Levy's Bills won nine playoff games in a four-year stretch to reach those four Super Bowls.

    2) Two of those Super Bowls (XXV, XXVIII) Levy's club led at halftime.

    3) Engineering a 32-point second-half comeback with a backup quarterback in the postseason is the ultimate job of postseason coaching.

    Still, without a single Super Bowl win, he can't make it inside the top 10.

No. 16: Tom Flores

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    Playoff Record: 8-3

    Greatest Playoff Win: Super Bowl XVIII vs. Washington Redskins

    Tom Flores, one of the most underrated coaches in NFL history, certainly filled John Madden's shoes and then some.

    The 1980 team, the first Wild Card ever to win a Super Bowl, won two road playoff games—in the vastly different climates of Cleveland and San Diego—which was a tremendous achievement. 

    But the 1983 team that pulled off one of the bigger upsets in Super Bowl history by defeating the powerhouse Redskins was his crowning achievement and pushes him past many names on this list.

No. 15: George Halas

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    Playoff Record: 6-3

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1963 NFL title game vs. New York Giants

    Like Ewbank, George Halas' playoff record is a bit difficult to compare to today's modern standards. His Bears only played two playoff games that weren't a championship game. 

    But since he won five of those NFL championship games—covering a 30-year stretch—his playoff record is fantastic.

No. 14: Tom Coughlin

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    Playoff Record: 8-7

    Greatest Playoff Win: Super Bowl XLII vs. New England Patriots

    If this entry just included Tom Coughlin's tenure with the Giants, it wouldn't have been nearly enough to push him this high.

    The 2007 playoff run was epic, but prior to Sunday's win over Atlanta, he had lost all three of his other playoff games in 2005, 2006 and 2008—and two of those were embarrassing home defeats.

    But couple the Super Bowl XLII season with two AFC championship game appearances in Jacksonville—most notably that great run his 1996 team put together—and he has one of the best playoff résumés among active coaches.

No. 13: Mike Holmgren

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    Playoff Record: 13-11

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1997 NFC Championship Game at San Francisco 49ers

    Obviously the highlight of Mike Holmgren's playoff legacy is the back-to-back Super Bowls in Green Bay, specifically the win over New England in 1996.

    But in some ways, what he was able to do in Seattle was more impressive since he didn't have a Hall of Fame quarterback.

    He took the Seahawks to a Super Bowl in 2005 and kept pace with a much more talented Steelers team until the fourth quarter, and the next year he went to Chicago and pushed the Bears to overtime in Soldier Field.

No. 12: Mike Shanahan

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    Playoff Record: 8-5

    Greatest Playoff Win: Super Bowl XXXII vs. Green Bay Packers

    Mike Shanahan's pair of Super Bowl championships trumps Coughlin's résumé of just one. But that's not the only reason he's earned a higher spot.

    Like Coughlin, Shanahan led his team to multiple road playoff upsets (the wins in Kansas City and Pittsburgh in 1997) and dealt Tom Brady his first-ever playoff loss in 2005.

No. 11: Bill Cowher

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    Playoff Record: 12-9

    Greatest Playoff Win: 2005 AFC Divisional Round at Indianapolis Colts

    Bill Cowher earns a prominent spot on this list for several reasons.

    First, he was the first coach to win three road playoff games and a Super Bowl in one season, the feat that Tom Coughlin and Mike McCarthy soon matched.

    Second, he won playoff games with four different starting quarterbacks (Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Tommy Maddox and Ben Roethlisberger), none of whom were elite quarterbacks at the time.

    Finally, had it not been for O'Donnell's two baffling interceptions, the Steelers might have pulled off one of the greatest Super Bowl upsets in history—and Cowher's daring onside kick call in the fourth quarter would have been a huge reason why.

    Those reasons are certainly enough to absolve him of losing four AFC title games at home, in 1994, 1997, 2001 and 2004.

No. 10: John Madden

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    Playoff Record: 9-7

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1976 AFC Championship Game vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

    John Madden was unfortunate to coach in an era of the AFC that was loaded with talent, most notably Don Shula's Dolphins and then Chuck Noll's Steelers.

    As a result, his teams made it to seven AFC title games only to lose six of them.

    But Madden's team finally broke through in 1976, topping the Steel Curtain in the 1976 AFC Championship Game.

    Toss in that triumph with a dominating performance in the Rose Bowl over Minnesota and the grueling double-overtime win (the Ghost to the Post) over Baltimore a year later, and his best coaching came out in the postseason.

No. 9: Don Shula

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    Playoff Record: 19-17

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1982 AFC Championship Game vs. New York Jets

    If you're surprised to see Don Shula here, I can appreciate the concern. After all, he won two Super Bowls, coached in six and won playoff games in four different decades.

    But Shula's teams did choke away a few playoff games they probably should have won: Super Bowl III, the Sea of Hands game in Oakland and the 1992 AFC Championship Game against the Bills.

    Still, Shula won playoff games with five different quarterbacks (Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Bob Griese, David Woodley and Dan Marino) and reached the Super Bowl with two very different approaches to offense.

No. 8: Bill Belichick

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    Playoff Record: 15-6

    Greatest Playoff Win: Super Bowl XXXVI vs. St. Louis Rams

    I suppose if I were doing this list in 2006—or perhaps a few weeks from now—Bill Belichick would have to be higher. But since the Patriots have lost three straight playoff games, each against opponents they were expected to defeat, it does drop him down a few spots.

    But as a head coach, he's won three Super Bowls, the first of which was an epic upset against a far more talented team, the 2001 Rams.

    Don't forget, his lone playoff win in Cleveland was pretty special, defeating a potent Patriots passing game constructed by his former boss, Bill Parcells.

No. 7: Paul Brown

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    Playoff Record: 9-8

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1950 NFL title game vs. Los Angeles Rams

    Like George Halas and Weeb Ewbank, Paul Brown can't really compete game-for-game with the coaches of today's era.

    Combining the AAFC and NFL, though, he won his first seven playoff games and later on tattooed the Lions and Rams in consecutive NFL title games.

    As well, although his Bengals were totally outmanned in 1975, Brown coached a great game against a John Madden's Oakland Raiders.

No. 6: Bill Walsh

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    Playoff Record: 10-4

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1988 NFC Championship Game at Chicago Bears

    This is where I really start to split hairs.

    Bill Walsh won three Super Bowl championships, an achievement only surpassed by one man in coaching history.

    But other than those three championship seasons, Walsh's teams didn't get terribly far in the postseason. For three straight years, 1985 through 1987, his teams were one-and-done in the postseason.

    Now since two of those losses were on the road to Bill Parcells' powerhouse New York Giants, that's forgivable. But to lose at home to the Vikings in 1987 was one of the most shocking losses in playoff history.

    As I said, really splitting hairs here.

No. 5: Bill Parcells

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    Playoff Record: 11-8

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1990 NFC Championship Game at San Francisco 49ers

    I'll get the negative out of the way first. The fact that Bill Parcells went without a playoff win in Dallas is significant. Taking a fourth different franchise to the playoffs is impressive, but winning a playoff game with four different franchises would have been much more impressive.

    Furthermore, he only won one playoff game with the Jets.

    But he took the Pats to the Super Bowl in 1996 and kept that game with Green Bay close until Desmond Howard and Reggie White took over in the second half.

    Pair all of that with his Giants' truly dominant playoff performances from 1984 to 1990—which included eight wins, two Super Bowl titles and ending the 49ers' bid for a three-peat in Candlestick—and only one of his contemporaries has a better résumé.

No. 4: Joe Gibbs

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    Playoff Record: 17-7

    Greatest Playoff Win: Super Bowl XXII vs. Denver Broncos

    Super Bowls are dominated by quarterbacks, everyone from Bart Starr and Joe Namath to Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

    So for Joe Gibbs to win three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks—Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien, none of whom were Hall of Famers—is one of the single greatest achievements in NFL history. 

    Again, splitting hairs, since Gibbs' swan-song coaching stint (the second go-round with the Redskins) yielded a playoff win over Tampa Bay in 2005, he gets a slight edge over Parcells, who was unable to win a playoff game with the Cowboys.

No. 3: Tom Landry

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    Playoff Record: 20-16

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1975 NFC Divisional Round at Minnesota Vikings

    Tom Landry's 20 playoff wins are more than any other man in history. He also won two Super Bowls and took his team to five, and those three losses were by a combined 11 points.

    Since a few of his playoff losses came to other dynasties (Vince Lombardi's Packers and Bill Walsh's 49ers), he very well could have had one of his hands boasting a Super Bowl ring on every finger.

No. 2: Vince Lombardi

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    Playoff Record: 9-1

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1967 NFL title game (Ice Bowl) vs. Dallas Cowboys

    Man it's hard to keep a head coach with a .900 winning percentage who won nine consecutive playoff games and five championships out of the top spot, but I feel it's justified. More on that in the next slide.

    Nevertheless, there's a reason why the trophy awarded to the Super Bowl champion is named after Vince Lombardi.

    His name is synonymous with playoff excellence. No more explanation should be needed.

No. 1: Chuck Noll

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    Playoff Record: 16-8

    Greatest Playoff Win: 1974 AFC Championship Game at Oakland Raiders

    Chuck Noll is the only man to win four Super Bowl trophies...waiting on you to join him, Bill Belichick. But that's not the reason he leapfrogs the man who those trophies are named after.

    Lombardi may have won nine playoff games in a row, but twice Noll won six in a row. And he did it by defeating true dynasties like John Madden's Oakland Raiders and Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys on multiple occasions.

    There's one more reason Noll is deserving of the top spot.

    The Steel Curtain dynasty disbanded in the early 1980s. After the 1983 season Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Mel Blount had all retired. Nevertheless, Noll won road playoff games in 1984 and 1989, both with teams that were not terribly talented.