Pure Genius: The 25 Greatest Defensive Minds In NFL History
Recently, the role of the defensive coordinator has been thrust head first into the NFL limelight.
This is due in part to the unfortunate passing of longtime Eagle Jim Johnson as well as the senior election of the Steelers’ Dick LeBeau into the Hall of Fame.
Both were commended for their excellent mastery of defenses. As a result many individuals – including myself – included them amongst the best defensive minds of all time. However, is this really true?
And if so where do they rank all-time amongst the best defensive minded individuals, whether coach or coordinator?
Comparing these two individuals to others that are considered great defensive minded coaches and coordinators is a problem because of trouble quantifying greatness.
However, after a while I worked out a system through utilizing the following 12 things as criteria:
• Number of times that a defense affiliated with the individual placed in the top five at either points per game allowed or yardage per game allowed. (Doing both in one season counted twice)
• Placing first in either points per game allowed or yardage per game allowed over a season.
• Being affiliated with a defense that is considered by numerous factions as one of the ten best single-season defenses in the history of the NFL.
• Inventing a defensive scheme that predominately had strong success in its era and some success in subsequent eras.
• Being affiliated with a defense when a player on that respective defense won an “NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award” or “Defensive Rookie of the Year Award” from the Associated Press.
• Having a coaching tree with strong defensive coaches that could have been considered for placement on this list.
• Being affiliated with an infamous defense such as “The Steel Curtain”, “The Purple People Eaters”, or “The Monsters Of The Midway”
• Being on a defense that has reached numerous Super Bowl, NFL Championship or Conference Championship Games.
• Winning a Coach or Coordinator of the Year accolade from The Associated Press, The Sporting News, The UPI or Pro Football Weekly.
• Having defenses that average over 40 sacks per season throughout your tenure.
• Being affiliated with one of the best units of all time at the defensive line, linebacking corps or secondary in addition to things listed above.
• Having a gameplan within the Hall of Fame.
With that said this is an opinionated list and the chances remain that I may have missed somebody or that one person could be argued to jump a few spots up or moved a few spots back so please bare that in mind.
With that said, here are 25 individuals that I feel can make valid cases for being the 25 best defensive minds both pre- and post-merger.
Honorable Mentions: Joe Collier, Mike Ditka, John Fox, Dave Wannstedt
25. Marty Schottenheimer
Team Affiliations: San Diego Chargers(Head Coach), Washington Redskins(Head Coach), Kansas City Chiefs(Head Coach), Cleveland Browns(D-Coordinator/Head Coach), Detroit Lions(Linebackers Coach), New York Giants(Linebackers Coach/D-Coordinator)
Argument: Being known as the coach that couldn’t win the big one shouldn’t keep Marty Schottenheimer from making this list though it does detract his overall placement.
Marty has spent most of his career as an award winning head coach(1x Associated Press Coach of the Year and 1x PFW Coach of the Year) with a focus on defense.
Marty’s focus on defense includes having 10 of his teams place within the top five during their respective season based on either points per game or yards per game.
Additional to this is the fact that a Marty Schottenheimer defense has finished as the defense allowing the least amount of points in a season twice during his career.
While Schottenheimer hasn’t drafted anybody that has won the Defensive Player of the Year Award he has drafted two players that have one the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award; one of which is a Hall of Fame inductee. These two players are Derrick Thomas and Chip Banks.
Unfortunately for Marty he went to three Conference Championship Games and never won one.
Additionally those in his coaching tree such as Bill Cowher and Herm Edwards both had the stigma over their head for the majority of their careers that they could not win the big game.
Having Cowher on his tree aids his standing as does the fact that “Marty Ball” is a backhanded compliment for playing good sound defensive fundamental football. Unfortunately the lack of Super Bowl appearances truly hurts.
24. Vic Fangio
Team Affiliations: Baltimore Ravens(Linebackers Coach/Defensive Assistant), Houston Texans(Defensive Coordinator), Indianapolis Colts(Defensive Coordinator), Carolina Panthers(Defensive Coordinator), New Orleans Saints(Linebackers Coach)
Argument: A lot of people don’t know who Vic Fangio is but he is easily one of the best defensive minds to ever be associated with the National Football League.
Just a few years ago the league’s official station–The NFL Network–held a special naming the top ten linebacking corps of all time. At the top of this list was the “Dome Patrol” for the New Orleans Saints during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The skills position coach for the “Dome Patrol” was none other than Vic Fangio. Fangio was easily the braintrust for the “Dome Patrol” as he was there from its inception in 1986 to its decline in 1994. Under his tutelage, Pat Swilling won the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Following defensive coordinator Dom Capers to the expansion Carolina Panthers and taking dome patroller Sam Mills with him as well as recruited Kevin Green.
With these two at the helm of his defense the Carolina Panthers ranked as a top 10 defense in the team’s inaugural season.
His playcalling as the coordinator was a major reason as to why the Panthers defense was instrumental in reaching the Conference Championship Game in only the team’s second season in existence.
After leaving Capers’ side to work with Jim Mora for a second time, Fangio became the Colts’ defensive coordinator and immediately improved the defense from last to 15th in 1999.
After two more years and the firing or Mora, Fangio would go on to again become the coordinator under Dom Campers for another expansion franchise; The Houston Texans.
After the Texans, Fangio would move on to his current home in Baltimore in which he has further solidified his stance as the master of the 3-4 linebacking corps.
Fangio has been instrumental in the success of guys like Sam Mills, Kevin Green, Pat Swilling, Ricky Jackson, Vaughan Johnson, Bart Scott, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs.
Defenses that Fangio has been associated with have finished top five based on points per game allowed or yards per game allowed five times and in 2006 – his first year with the Ravens – they returned to prominence becoming the No. 1 defense based on points per game allowed.
Unfortunately, Fangio has never reached a Super Bowl and his 10 seasons as a defensive coordinator leave a little to be desired hence he’s only 22nd.
23. Marvin Lewis
Team Affiliations: Cincinnati Bengals(Head Coach), Washington Redskins(D-Coordinator), Baltimore Ravens(D-Coordinator), Pittsburgh Steelers(Linebackers Coach)
Argument: The argument as to why Marvin Lewis is on this list is quite obvious. However, the question surrounding that argument is whether or not it is enough to place him amongst the truly elite within the top 10 or 15.
Perhaps Marvin Lewis is forgettable or at least it would seem that way to ESPN.
This off-season as Rex Ryan took the Jets head coaching job ESPN erroneously credited him with being the defensive coordinator of the 2000 Ravens well over 30 times.
Let us set the record straight that it was Marvin Lewis who called the defense on that team; a defense that is arguably the best of all time. That alone is strong enough to land on this list. But let’s examine what else Lewis accomplished.
Under Marvin Lewis, Ray Lewis blossomed into the player he is today as stated by Ray Lewis himself. Lewis attributes his Defensive Player of the Year Awards to his grooming under Marvin Lewis.
In Baltimore, Lewis’ defenses turned in 12 top five finishes based on points allowed per game or yards allowed per game.
Of those 12 defenses one – the infamous 2000 Ravens – turned in a first place finish based on points per game. It just so happens that that record still stands for a 16 game season.
As you know that Ravens’ defense of 2000 won it all in the Super Bowl which was the second time a team that Lewis was affiliated with reached the Super Bowl.
During Super Bowl XXXV Marvin Lewis’ gameplan resulted in the infamous result of ”punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, interception, punt, interception, interception, punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, end of game". That gameplan result is currently placed in the Hall of Fame for its brilliance.
Unfortunately for Lewis, he eventually ended up in Cincinnati. Though the 2005 team’s defense was key in it reaching the post-season for the first time in 14 years via leading the league in turnovers, most of Lewis’ tenure in Cincinnati has been abysmal hence he lacks a higher rating.
22. Fritz Shurmur
Team Affiliations: Seattle Seahawks(D-Coordinator), Green Bay Packers(D-Coordinator), Phoenix Cardinals(D-Coordinator), Los Angeles Rams(D-Coordinator), New England Patriots(Defensive Assistant), Detroit Lions(Defensive Assistant)
Argument: I – as well as those who helped me in naming potential candidates for the list- egregiously overlooked Shurmur during the initial compilation of the list but it is quite obvious that he deserves to be on this list.
Shurmur is one of those guys that deserves eventual Hall of Fame consideration due to their contributions to the game as a coordinator. Shurmur spent 19 seasons in the NFL all of them as a defensive coordinator.
Shurmur managed to field 10 top five defenses based on either points allowed per game or yards allowed per game during his tenure in the NFL.
However, his most impressive season is the one in which he lead the Packers to the undisputed number one defense ranking as they finished first in both points allowed and yardage allowed – a rare accomplishment.
Shurmur was the defensive coordinator under Mike Holmgren for four years and in addition to the Super Bowl and undisputed number one defensive ranking, Shurmur also managed to have Reggie White reimerge for a Defensive Player of the Year Award.
While the Green Bay years were obviously his best, Shurmur accomplished a lot prior to joining Holmgen’s staff.
Due to injuries Shurmur was forced to create two defenses during his time in Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Due to injuries to the team’s inside linebackers in 1989, Shurmur was forced to utilize linebackers as defensive linemen and created the “2-5 Eagle Defense”.
You can purchase a book explaining how to utilize this defense online. This is just one of four defensive books that Shurmur published.
Shurmur is hurt by his stings in Phoenix and Los Angelas in which he had trouble consistently fielding top five defenses but competitive ones none-the-less.
21. Dom Capers
Team Affiliations: New Orleans Saints(Secondary Coach), Pittsburgh Steelers(D-Coordinator), Carolina Panthers(Head Coach), Jacksonville Jaguars(D-Coordinator), Houston Texans(Head Coach), Miami Dolphins(D-Coordinator), Green Bay Packers(D-Coordinator)
Argument: A gross oversite by myself when originally compiling this article I was too blinded by Capers' lack of success in this decade to realize his success in the 90s. As I was reading an article earlier today I believe the headlining quote best defined Dom Capers. It read "If Dick LeBeau is the father of the Zone-Blitz scheme than Dom Capers is it's favorite son". These words are so true.
Having success as the secondary coach of the late 80s Saints Capers was overlooked by Vic Fangino's "Dome Patrol" but you had best believe that his secondary aided greatly in their defensive success.
Seeing his skills Bill Cowher would hire him as a defensive coordinator. Working alongside fellow list makers such as the aforementioned Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis and Dick LeBeau, Capers was capable of employing Dick LeBeau's "Zone Blitz" scheme to the tune of allowing Rod Woodson to win the Defensive Player of The Year Award in 1993. Unfortunately for Capers he would leave to coach the expansion Carolina Panthers and lost his shot at a Super Bowl by not being a member of the 1995 Steelers.
Capers has managed to field 13 teams that managed to finish in the top five in either points per game allowed or yards per game allowed during his NFL tenure and three times have they placed first.
What is most impressive about Capers' resume, however, is the teams that he experienced his success with. Three of them - the Jaguars, Panthers, and Texans - where all in the first five years of development as expansion franchises. With the former two Capers managed to field an elite defense allowing less than 14 points per game and had Defensive Player of The Year candidates on both respective teams.
20. George Siefert
Team Affiliations: Carolina Panthers(Head Coach), San Francisco 49ers(Head Coach/D-Coordinator/Secondary Coach)
Argument: Seifert is often overlooked due to the fact that the San Francisco 49ers of the 80s and 90s were Bill Walsh built teams that centered around their offenses.
However, no matter how ahead of its time the West Coast Offense was the fact remains that the 49ers couldn’t have won those Super Bowls without some sort of defense.
Though the 49ers won four Super Bowls during the Bill Walsh era the fact remains that they won a championship after Walsh retired which was under Seifert’s reign as head coach, meaning Seifert has 5 Super Bowl rings to his name.
In addition to the five Super Bowls are the three NFC Championship Games lost under his tenure. These most certainly help his case.
As either a coordinator or a head coach George Seifert lead his teams to 18 top five finishes based on either points per game allowed or yards per game allowed defensively.
Of those 18 finishes, one of them was a first place finish based on points per game allowed and two of them were first place finishes based on yards allowed per game.
Additional to all of this is the fact that Deion Sanders had, arguably, his best year as a Pro under Seifert in 1994 winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award for the only time in his career.
Additionally one year after Seifert retired as the head coach of the 49ers longtime 49er Dana Stubblefield won the Defensive Player of the Year as well which can be strongly attributed to Seifert.
Unfortunately for Seifert is the stigma of Bill Walsh. Widely considered by many to be the best coach of all time Walsh being the coach for four of those Super Bowls and the 49ers being an offensive team during those spans hurts him.
However, not enough to ignore his success in the first 16 of his 19 NFL years.
19. Wade Phillips
Team Affiliations: Dallas Cowboys(Head Coach), San Diego Chargers(D-Coordinator), Atlanta Falcons(D-Coordinator), Buffalo Bills(Head Coach/D-Coordinator), Denver Broncos(Head Coach/D-Coordinator), Philadelphia Eagles(D-Coordinator), New Orleans Saints(D-Coordinator), Houston Oilers(D-Line Coach/Linebackers Coach)
Argument: A lot of people might be scratching their heads to this one but to me Wade Phillips is a clear cut choice for this list and could possibly be argued as deserving of being much higher.
In fact I’d probably rank him higher personally but I’m afraid of backlash. So let me explain why Phillips is placed here.
Phillips–like Marty Schottenheimer–has always been known for not being able to get it done in the post-season and–even worse–not even being able to reach the post-season as both a head coach and a coordinator.
As a result, people look down on him but few realize that Phillips is possibly one of the best coaches in history at utilizing the blitz.
Phillips’ teams have averaged over 40 sacks per season during his tenure which is indicative of his skills with utilizing the blitz.
On the back of these blitzes came a Defensive Player of The Year Award for Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Bryce Paup as well as a second place finishes in voting for Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware. Those three wins and two nominations are almost unheard of when one considers the fact that they happened on four different teams.
Wade Phillips has also managed to have 10 top five finishes under his various teams whether they be top five in points per game allowed or in yards per game allowed.
Of those 10 top five finishes one was in first place in regards to points allowed over a season and another was in first place in regards to yardage allowed per game over a season.
Perhaps most impressive about Phillips’ resume, however, is that he helped in building the framework for a top 10 defense of all time in the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles. Wade Phillips may be the master of the 3-4 defense.
18. Jeff Fisher
Team Affiliations: Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers(Head Coach/D-Coordinator), San Francisco 49ers(Secondary Coach), Los Angeles Rams(D-Coordinator), Philadelphia Eagles(D-Coordinator/Secondary Coach), Chicago Bears(Defensive Assistant)
Argument: Another pick that seems as if it is a surprise but once you delve further into it you realize how great of a defensive mind Jeff Fisher is.
Furthermore, one begins to realize just how impressive his career has been and the only thing that he is missing is a Super Bowl title.
Fisher started off as a defensive assistant with the infamous 1985 Chicago Bears therefore connecting him to a top three defense of all time.
Buddy Ryan felt that Fisher was such a good contributor to those 1985 Bears that he brought him along with him to Philadelphia as his defensive coordinator.
As the defensive coordinator of the Eagles from 1988 to 1990 Fisher helped them total an asinine 62 sacks on the season. Additionally he aided Ryan in building the framework for a top 10 defense all time in the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles.
Fisher would eventually parlay his success into a 1 year coordinator stint in Houston and would become the head coach the next.
He has yet to relinquish that title since having been the defensive minded coach of the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans for the past 15 years.
As the head coach of this franchise he has managed 2 Conference Championship Game appearances, a Super Bowl appearance and has fielded a top five defense of all time in the 2000 Titans.
As a coordinator or head coach Fisher has fielded seven top five defenses during their respective seasons based on points per game allowed or yards per game allowed.
One of those defenses managed to be the number one defense in terms of preventing the opposition from scoring.
While Fisher has never had the pleasure of fielding a Defensive Player of the Year – though some argue Albert Haynesworth deserved such an accolade – he did turn Jevon Kearse into a Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Unfortunately for Fisher is the fact that he hasn’t won a Super Bowl and has consistently come up short when his teams have received a first-round bye.
Additionally there have been numerous seasons in which his team hasn’t fielded a stout defense while in Houston and Tennessee.
17. Jim Johnson
Team Affiliations: Philadelphia Eagles(D-Coordinator), Seattle Seahawks(Linebackers Coach), Indianapolis Colts(D-Coordinator/Linebackers Coach), Arizona Cardinals(D-Line Coach/Secondary Coach)
Argument: One of the two men who are the reason that I am writing this article upon his passing I called him the “third best defensive mind the NFL has ever seen.”
While that was a little haste and marred in remorse for one of my favorite current individuals in the league, the fact still remains that he is one of the best defensive minds in the history of the National Football League.
The late Johnson’s blitzing schemes–adapted from Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz scheme–are easily what he is most known for and are his coup de grace.
Utilizing his blitzing scheme in Philadelphia, Johnson was capable of averaging an incredible 39 sacks per season and was near the top of the league in red zone and third down defense.
While in Philadelphia, Johnson’s amazing defensive scheme has aided the Eagles in reaching five Conference Championship Games as well as a Super Bowl appearance. He also produced 26 Pro Bowlers during his tenure in Philadelphia.
Perhaps his best invention and addition to the NFL is the fact that Johnson created the concept of the “Hybrid Safety” which revolutionized the way the game was played from the Safety position.
No longer having to be a simple last line of defense Johnson turned the Safety position into one of relevance. He did this by making it one that is the center of the defense rather than an afterthought.
As a result of doing this with Brian Dawkins in 1999 guys like Troy Polamalu, Kerry Rhodes, Ed Reed and Adrian Wilson were allowed to become superstars.
Johnson also attended a 6th Conference Championship Game with the Colts in 1995. He also was the linebackers coach for the 1999 Seattle Seahawks defense which is the 2nd best scoring defense of all time with 10 touchdowns scored by the defense.
However, with Johnson no longer with us his legacy will probably have to be passed on through his coaching tree of Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera, John Harbaugh and Steve Spagnuolo.
Unfortunate for Johnson is the fact that he never fielded the league’s number one defense in points per game or yardage per game which is a very big qualifier for this list.
He also never won a championship which is another huge detriment on his case.
16. Bill Cowher
Team Affiliations: Pittsburgh Steelers(Head Coach), Kansas City Chiefs(D-Coordinator), Cleveland Browns(Secondary Coach)
Argument: “The Chin” as he used to be called, Bill Cowher was one of the first two men I ever saw coach a football game as it was my first game watched; Super Bowl XXX.
I immediately became a fan of Cowher and his Steelers and remain so until today. However, Cowher got some good work done for his resume prior to joining the Steelers.
As the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs under Marty Schottenheimer Cowher was the braintrust for drafting Derrick Thomas.
He turned Thomas into the Defensive Rookie of The Year and eventually would do the same for Kendrell Bell in 2000.
After joining the Steelers as the youngest head coach in the NFL Cowher would remain with the organization for 14 years becoming the longest tenured coach in the NFL over that span.
During thie time he would become the Associated Press Coach of the Year once and the Sporting News Coach of the Years twice. In just his second year with the team Cowher had Rod Woodson become the Defensive Player of the Year.
However, Cowher’s tenure with the Steelers included much more than just the aforementioned.
Under the Cowher regime the Steelers and Chiefs had 17 top five defensive finishes in a season based on points per game or yards per game.
Twice did a Cowher-affiliated team finish in first place based on points allowed throughout a season and one more time did they finish in first place based on yards allowed.
Perhaps this is why Cowher was capable of reaching 2 Super Bowls and winning one of them (though filled with controversy).
Cowher doesn’t have much of a coaching tree but it does include fellow listee Marvin Lewis.
Holding Cowher back, however, was the fact that he is part of the Marty Schottenheimer tree and was “Marty Jr.” for most of his career.
Cowher continually had trouble winning the big game throughout his career reaching six Conference Championship Games but only winning two of them.
Additionally hurting Cowher is the fact that, while he had defensive success without Dick LeBeau, he never made it past a championship game without LeBeau running the defense.
15. Monte Kiffin
Team Affiliations: Tampa Bay Buccaneers(D-Coordinator), New Orleans Saints(D-Coordinator), Minnesota Vikings(D-Coordinator/Linebackers Coach), New York Jets(Linebackers Coach), Buffalo Bills(Linebackers Coach), Green Bay Packers(Linebackers Coach)
Argument: If you are reading this article than chances are you knew that Monte Kiffin was going to be on this list. Kiffin is one of those names that is almost synonymous with defense.
When one thinks of Tony Dungy and the way in which he pumped life into the lethargic Buccaneers franchise the thought of Monte Kiffin is usually right behind.
Kiffin is the co-architect of the infamous Tampa 2 defense that he and Dungy created together.
The Tampa 2 defense is used around the league by numerous teams including those that are coached by individuals that fall under his and Dungy’s coaching tree in Lovie Smith and Herm Edwards.
Though Mike Tomlin doesn’t use the Tampa 2 he has shifted the Steelers base coverage to a Cover 2 and Tomlin falls under the Kiffin/Dungy coaching tree.
Kiffin is also known for being the defensive coordinator of the 2002 Buccaneers who are considered a top five defensive unit of all time.
However, perhaps what is most important about being the coordinator of that team is that it occurred without Tony Dungy and resulted in a Super Bowl win before Dungy got one.
Additional to this is the fact that Derrick Brooks won the Defensive Player of The Year Award during this campaign making him the second player under Kiffin to receiver the award with the other being Warren Sapp. Surely both players are future Hall of Famers.
Kiffin’s most impressive attribute, however, is his consistency. He produced 18 top five defenses based on points per game or yards per game during his 12 years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
He may not have been the most feared coordinator of his era but he was most certainly the most consistent. Of those 18 top five defenses five of them placed first in yards per game. One of them, those 2002 World Champions, placed first in points allowed over the season.
Marring Kiffin’s resume for higher placement is the fact that much of his career overlaps with fellow listee Tony Dungy.
Additionally, it is widely considered that Dungy invented the Tampa 2 defense and Kiffin merely perfected it’s execution. Dungy’s success after Kiffin left hurts him as well as one can’t say that Dungy was a product of having Kiffin on his coaching staff.
But what might hurt his case most of all is the fact that he gave up on his longtime franchise last season and stopped coaching in the second half of the season once he was out the door to go help his son in Tennessee.
14. Tony Dungy
Team Affiliations: Indianapolis Colts(Head Coach), Tampa Bay Buccaneers(Head Coach), Minnesota Vikings(D-Coordinator), Kansas City Chiefs(Secondary Coach), Pittsburgh Steelers(D-Coordinator/Secondary Coach)
Argument: It’s Tony Dungy! While Monte Kiffin will be linked to the Tampa 2 there is no doubt about who was the true creator. Kiffin had two seasons as a coordinator prior to working with Dungy in which he didn’t implement anything similar to the Tampa 2.
Additionally Dungy’s background was in defensive backs where as Kiffin’s was in Linebackers. So while Dungy may be a “co-architect” of the Tampa 2 we all know he was the real inventor of said defense.
Though Tony was not around to experience the success as he was released a year ago there is no denying that the 2002 Buccaneers defense, which is top five all time, was his braintrust as he drafted all of those players.
The players even made sure to thank him in the middle of their celebration despite having a different head coach at the time.
Dungy has fielded two players that have won the Defensive Player of the Year Award in Bob Sanders and Warren Sapp.
It is arguable about him having fielded a third one as if you attribute the 2002 success of the Buccaneers defense to the fact that he built it than Derrick Brooks can be added to his resume as well.
Dungy fielded 17 top five defenses based on points per game or yards per game during his time in Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and Minnesota and fielded a number one defense–in terms of points allowed over a season–in Indianapolis.
Once again the argument remains how much credit can be given to him for the 2002 Buccaneers which would give him two defenses to accomplish that feat. Let’s also not forget that Dungy made 3 Conference Championship Game appearances winning 1 of them and eventually the Super Bowl on the wings of his defense.
Oh and let’s not forget Dungy’s coaching tree includes Monte Kiffin, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, Rod Marinelli and Herman Edwards.
Dungy’s struggles in the post-season are the reason he isn’t a top five guy. That and the fact that I do not believe that the Tampa 2 will stand the test of time.
And Tony…now that you’re retired it is time to stop pretending that you and Herm Edwards are not long-lost twins separated at birth.
13.) Richard LeBeau
Team Affiliations: Pittsburgh Steelers(D-Coordinator), Buffalo Bills(D-Coordinator), Cincinnati Bengals(Head Coach/D-Coordinator/Secondary Coach), Green Bay Packers(Secondary Coach)
Argument: The Steelers fan in me wants to place Richard LeBeau higher than this, especially since he is the basis for writing up this article. Unfortunately there are things harming LeBeau’s case which will be explained later.
Dick LeBeau’s biggest contribution to the National Football League is his Fire/Zone-Blitz. This form of blitzing was key in the Steelers defensive success in the 1990s and gave them the title “Blitzburgh”. LeBeau aided in bringing together two of the Steelers best linebacking corps in the original “Blitzburgh” in 1994 with Kevin Green, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown and Levon Kirkland and with the second incarnation in 2008 with James Farrior, James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons. These two units combined for 106 total sacks in their respective seasons.
LeBeau has spent two separate stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers and in both campaigns he managed to field an individual that won the Defensive Player of the Year Award in Rod Woodson (2003) and James Harrison (2008). In the case of the latter player’s season he was a part of a top 10 defense all time in the 2008 Steelers; a unit that only allowed two of the 19 teams they played to eclipse 300 total yards. As a result LeBeau was named the 2008 Coordinator of the Year by The Sporting News.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers LeBeau has lead a defense that finished in the top five in either points per game or yards per game 14 times. Of the aforementioned 14 times twice did LeBeau’s defense finish 1st in terms of least points allowed and three times it finished first in terms of least yardage allowed.
LeBeau has managed to make it to the Super Bowl five times (three times with the Steelers and two times with the Bengals) and has won it twice which strongly helps his case almost as much as his Zone-Blitz scheme.
Unfortunately for LeBeau is the fact that his stint as a head coach was disastrous as he did little to nothing to improve the Bengals as head coach from 1999 to 2002. Additionally his first and second stints with the Bengals as a defensive coordinator were admirable but didn’t meet the criteria to be placed on this list thus severely hurting his case. LeBeau is lucky, however, in that he looks to continue to dominate the NFL this decade as no coordinator has had as much of an impact this decade defensively.
12.) Bill Parcells
Team Affiliations: Miami Dolphins(Exec VP of Football Ops), Dallas Cowboys(Head Coach), New York Jets(Head Coach), New England Patriots(Head Coach/Linebackers Coach), New York Giants(Head Coach/D-Coordinator/Linebackers Coach)
Argument: “The Tuna” as he is known around NFL circuits, Bill Parcells easily makes this list and was one of the first ten names to come to mind. Parcells is undeniably a Hall of Fame coach as the selection committee has already acknowledged that the 5-year retiree rule for coaches is because of him. Parcells is a two time Associated Press Head Coach of the Year, two time UPI Head Coach of the Year, a two time PFW Head Coach of the Year and a one time MFC Head Coach of The Year.
Parcells has three Super Bowl appearances to his name with two different teams and won two of them. Leading his Super Bowl teams were defenses lead by Lawrence Taylor who many consider the best linebacker of all time. It was Parcells that looked for and drafted Taylor who would go on to win three Defensive Player of the Year Awards under Parcells. Taylor resulted in the regular addition of the “Two Tight-End Offense” into the NFL in the 1980s because of Parcells’ utilization of him.
If it weren’t enough that Parcells had won two Super Bowls his coaching tree includes two individuals that went on to win Super Bowls themselves in Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin.
Parcells fielded 13 top five defenses based on points per game or yards per game allowed over a season during his time as a coordinator or head coach and did so at least once on all four teams that he coached for. Of those 13 top five defenses Parcells managed to have the number one defense in stopping the opposition from scoring an astounding three times which is one of the highest totals on the entire list.
Hurting Parcells’ overall ranking is the fact that Bill Belichick can be given considerable credit for his defensive success coaching both New York teams.
11.) Bud Carson
Team Affiliations: Philadelphia Eagles(D-Coordinator), Cleveland Browns(Head Coach), New York Jets(D-Coordinator), Kansas City Chiefs(D-Coordinator), Baltimore Colts(D-Coordinator), Los Angeles Rams(D-Coordinator), Pittsburgh Steelers(D-Coordinator)
Argument: It makes me so happy to see yet another individual predominately associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers on this list. It just reinforces the notion that when you think defense you think Pittsburgh Steelers before any team. And the first major threat at defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers was non other than Bud Carson.
Though head coach Chuck Noll got his first bid in the AFL as a defensive assistant and his first bid in the NFL as a defensive coordinator for Don Shula his first three years in Pittsburgh didn’t yield a top 15 defense. It wasn’t until Bud Carson arrived in Pittsburgh that the famed “Steel Curtain” defense was born. The Steel Curtain – mainly it’s 1976 incarnation – is widely considered one of the best defenses of all time, if not the best of all time.
Carson’s Steel Curtain fielded four Defensive Player of the Year Award winners in five seasons in Mel Blount, Jack Lambert and Joe Green (twice). Those were four of the first six Defensive Player of the Year Awards issued in the NFL. Additional to this is the fact that Carson would go on to reach four Super Bowls – three with the Steelers and once with the Rams – and would win three of them.
During his tenure as a defensive coordinator or a head coach Carson fielded one first place defense based on points per game allowed and four first place defenses based on yards per game allowed. All in all Carson fielded 15 top five defenses based on points per game or yards per game.
If all the above isn’t enough Carson is the only person to field two top ten defenses of all time; the 1976 Steelers and the 1991 Eagles. Additionally he is considered the architect of the Cover 2 defense as listee number 15 Tony Dungy has stated it was under Carson in 1975 that the roots of the Tampa 2 were born. If being considered the architect of the Cover 2 defense isn’t enough than one has to consider that people feel as if Carson “invented” the Quarter Defense in the 1979 post-season.
His coaching tree arguably includes Tony Dungy.
As impressive as Carson’s resume is it is blemished by the fact that his first success was under Noll and Noll beat him in the Super Bowl. It is also blemished by the fact that his 1991 Eagles defense was pre-built for him as were his Rams. His time between the Rams and the Eagles hurts him as well. These make him arguably a product of systems as opposed to what would seem – on paper – as the greatest defensive mind ever.
10.) Bill Arnsparger
Team Affiliations: San Diego Chargers(D-Coordinator), New York Giants(Head Coach), Miami Dolphins(D-Coordinator), Baltimore Colts(D-Coordinator)
Argument: Original Don Shula was going to be placed as an early entry onto this list because – on paper – his defensive resume matched up with a lot of the other guys listed; even if it was because he coached for so long. However, a closer examination of Don Shula’s defensive numbers reveals that Shula never fielded a top five defense without Arnsparger as his defensive coordinator.
Arnsperger was present on the coaching staff for all but one of Shula’s Super Bowl appearances and was present for both Super Bowl victories as well as Shula’s NFL Championship victory. One of those victories was the culmination of the undefeated season in which Arnsperger’s “The No-Name Defense” played a vital role.
Arnsperger fielded an amazing 26 top five defenses based on yards per game or points per game which is amongst the three highest totals of all time. One could place it on longevity but those with similar numbers to his also had considerably long careers. Of those 26 top five defenses an unrivaled five finished in first place based on points per game and an additional two finished in first place based on yards per game.
Under the Arnsperger regime Dick Anderson and Doug Betters won the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Hurting Arnsparger’s case for a much higher position, however, is the fact that he was never a successful head coach as well as the fact that a lot his numbers may be aided by the fact that he was on Don Shula teams. While Shula may has never fielded an elite defense without Arnsparger the Dolphins were always an offensive based team. The argument that his numbers might be a product of longevity hurt him as well.
09.) John Phillip Bengtson
Team Affiliations: New England Patriots(Head Coach), Green Bay Packers(Head Coach/D-Coordinator)
Argument: All I should really have to say is that John Phillip Bengtson was trusted enough to be the successor to Vince Lombardi in Packertorwn. Bengtson was Lombardi’s first assistant hired in 1959 and would remain his defensive coordinator from Lombardi’s inception as head coach to his eventual retirement. After Lombardi retired Bengtson’s Packers would remain defensively productive for the next two seasons.
As the defensive coordinator for the Vince Lombardi-era Packers Bengtson was instrumental in the Packers winning five NFL titles including two Super Bowl victories. What was impressive about his role in this was that Bengtson had a knack for finding offensive players and turning them into All-Pros on the defensive side of the ball. Examples of this include Willie Davis, Ray Nitschke and Willie Wood. Had the Associated Press had Defensive Player of the Year voting during the Lombardi-era it is widely considered that Nitschke would have won the award at least once.
JPB managed to field 19 top five defenses – all in the NFL – based on points per game or yards per game during his time as a defensive coordinator or head coach in Green Bay. Of those 19 top five finishes his defense was the best at preventing opponents from scoring three times and was the best at stopping the opposition from moving the ball twice.
Hurting Bengtson is the fact that he struggled as a head coach and that he didn’t truly make any innovations towards the game. His raw numbers, however, still remain impressive to this day.
08.) Hank Stram
Team Affiliations: New Orleans Saints(Head Coach), Kansas City Chiefs(Head Coach), Dallas Texans(Head Coach)
Argument: There is a reason that Hank Stram has his bust in Canton. Stram was – far and away – the best defensive mind in the AFL and managed to bring some of his success over to the NFL after the merger. Perhaps this is why Stram won the 1968 UPI AFL Coach of the Year Award. Stram’s Chiefs dominated the AFL winning three championships. However, his Chiefs’ most impressive accomplishment was winning a Super Bowl which ultimately led to the AFL-NFL merger. As the video and audio of Super Bowl IV will show you the Chiefs defense is what won them that game.
It was in that game that Stram utilized a Triple Stack Defense. Such a defense brought about the utilization of the nose tackle position into the American/National Football League. His Triple Stack Defense was instrumental in helping him develop future Hall of Fame inductees Len Dawson, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan and Willie Lanier.
However, as with everybody else on this list placement is contingent on producing some top five defenses and Stram was capable of doing that. In both the AFL and NFL Stram produced a combined 21 top five defenses based on points per game or yards per game. He also produced four teams that finished first in points per game and four more teams that finished first in yards per game.
His resume is hurt, however, based on the fact that the eight teams that finished first in either points per game or yards per game were all in the AFL which only featured a few teams. Half of his numbers were racked up in the AFL which somewhat hurts his stance.
07.) George Allen
Team Affiliations: Washington Redskins(Head Coach), Los Angeles Rams(Head Coach/D-Coordinator), Chicago Bears(D-Coordinator)
Argument: George Allen, like others, is a Hall of Fame inductee for a reason. Allen was a defensive coordinator for “Papa Bear” Hallas and was originally so just to scout the Rams. However, Allen parlayed this into an NFL career. In his first full season As Hallas’ defensive coordinator Allen lead the Bears to allowing a league low 144 points which was 62 less than the next closest team. While in Chicago Allen drafted Hall of Famer Dick Butkus. He also was the coordinator for future Hall of Famers Bill George and Doug Atkins during their most productive years.
He would later return to the Rams where he would aid in the development of the “Fearsome Foresome” with the legendary Deacon Jones. His second stint in Los Angeles was marred by the fact that he and owner Dan Reeves had multiple falling outs however he was capable winning a UPI NFL Coach of the Year Award. It would not be his last, however, as he would eventually win two AP NFL Coach of the Year, two Sporting News Coach of the Year, a PFW NFL Coach of the Year and another UPI NFL Coach of the Year Award.
During his time as a head coach and defensive coordinator Allen fielded 21 top five defenses based on points per game or yards per game. Two of these defenses were first place finishers because they allowed the least points in the league and two were first place finishers because they allowed less yardage than the rest of the league.
06.) George "Papa Bear" Halas
Team Affiliations: Chicago Bears(Head Coach/Owner)
Argument: Plain and simple… George Halas invented defense in the National Football League. Without Halas there is no defense. Unfortunately it is hard to trace back statistics to his era so I couldn’t get a full grasp on his numbers, but that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else either due to the relatively small size of the league during his time. However, Halas is the originator of the “Monsters of The Midway”
George Halas would go onto to become known as “Papa Bear Halas” because he would coach the team to 5 NFL Championships Games and they decisively won all of them and then become full-time owner of the team. While Halas was a coach he was twice voted the AP NFL Coach of the Years, twice voted the Sporting News Coach of the Year and twice voted the UPI NFL Coach of the Year. He would also go on to become the all-time victories leader but was later usurped by Don Shula.
Halas’ coaching tree includes George Allen.
I should reiterate the fact that he pretty much invented defense.
05.) Bud Grant
Team Affiliations: Minnesota Vikings(Head Coach)
Argument: It is amazing that Grant spent all of his NFL years with the Minnesota Vikings. Grant is often overlooked because his Vikings of the 70s were overshadowed by Chuck Noll’s Steelers. However the Vikings – known as “The Purple People Eaters” – of the 70s were almost as good as the Steel Curtain of that decade making them one of the top defenses of all time. In fact the Vikings defense allowed for them to reach just as many Super Bowls as their Steelers counterparts but unfortunately they lost all of them.
Grant’s “Purple People Eaters” fielded 3 Hall of Fame defensive linemen (yes I am saying that Marshall should be in the Hall of Fame). In fact, Alan Page won the very first AP Defensive Player of the Year Award under Bud Grant’s regime.
Another very important aspect that has helped in Grant placing this high is the fact that Buddy Ryan – who does make this list – was a one time defensive coordinator for Grant.
Grant fielded 12 top five defenses based on points per game or yards per game allowed during his tenure as the Vikings head coach and all of them were in years that were close to one another allowing them to dominate the NFC for a decade. Of those 12 defenses three of them managed to place first in points per game allowed and three of them managed to place first in yards per game allowed.
04.) Buddy Ryan
Team Affiliations: Arizona Cardinals(Head Coach), Houston Oilers(D-Coordinator), Philadelphia Eagles(Head Coach), Chicago Bears(D-Coordinator), Minnesota Vikings(D-Coordinator), New York Jets(Linebackers Coach)
Argument: Really? Really? Ryan could possibly be argued as being the number one guy on this list as he was the first person to pop into my mind when thinking of this concept. He is only one of two people to be associated with two of the top 10 defenses of all time in the 1985 Bears and the 1991 Eagles. Though Ryan wasn’t around for the latter he was most definitely responsible for it as he built the framework for it.
Buddy Ryan sent five defensemen to the Pro Bowl in 1985 and the Bears went 15-1 in large part due to his innovative 46 defense. They would also go onto win the Super Bowl because of the 46 defense only yielding 10 points during the post-season. During the ’85 season Mike Singletary would also go on to win his first of two Defensive Player of the Year Awards. Ryan essentially resurrected the “Monsters of the Midway” but unfortunately for the Bears the Eagles were looking for a head coach and hired Ryan.
When heading to Philadelphia Ryan would help to construct the 1991 Eagles which was a top 10 defense of all time as well. Ryan would produce another Defensive Player of the Year Award with another Hall of Famer in Reggie White. Ryan would take the Eagles to three consecutive post-season berths from ‘87 to ’90 but unfortunately he wouldn’t win a game which resulted in his dismissal. Though he probably shouldn’t have been, his dismissal resulted in Bud Carson and Richie Kotite being placed in charge and producing the aforementioned 1991 Eagles.
Ryan had three Super Bowl appearances in his NFL career. As the Jets linebacker’s coach he played a role in them upsetting the Baltimore Colts and forcing the eventual merger between the AFL and NFL. He would return to the Super Bowl with the Vikings but would lose. Finally he won one as a significant contributor with his 46 Defense in 85.
Ryan has a coaching tree that includes fellow listees Jeff Fisher and Wade Phillips as well as his sons Bob and Rex. It should be noted that in a few years Rex could very well make this list.
Ryan fielded 13 top five defenses based on points per game or yards per game allowed. Of those 13 defenses two of them were the best in the league at preventing the opposition from scoring and another two were the best in the league at preventing the opposition from moving the ball.
03.) Chuck Noll
Team Affiliations: Pittsburgh Steelers(Head Coach), Baltimore Colts(Secondary), Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers(Defensive Assistant)
Argument: With all due respect to Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau, Bud Carson and Bill Cowher… Chuck Noll IS the Steelers. When you think Steelers - all-time – you think Noll. Noll was the head coach of the infamous Steel Curtain defense and just about every accolade that was given to Bud Carson can be attributed to Noll.
Noll’s Steelers appeared in four Super Bowls and won all four of them including the fourth in which he beat former defensive coordinator Bud Carson. This – combined with Carson’s lack of sustained success throughout his career – lead one to think that Noll was the true braintrust of the Steel Curtain defense which happened to be one of the most successful defenses as it pertains to sustained success. Not to mention the 1976 Steelers are universally considered a top five defense of all time.
Noll can easily claim the most Defensive Player of the Year Award winners as all four that apply to Carson; Mel Blount, Jack Lambert and Joe Green (twice) won the award under his regime. Additional to this is the fact that he was instrumental in drafting Rod Woodson who would also go on to win the award giving Noll five Defensive Player of the Year Award winners to his name.
Noll finishes amongst the top in all defensive categories. In the NFL Noll fielded 21 top five defenses based on points per game or yards per game and an additional eight top five defenses in the AFL. Noll managed to field two first place defenses based on points per game in the NFL and two more in the AFL. Finally, Noll produced two first place defenses based on yards per game in the NFL and three more in the AFL.
Noll’s coaching tree includes Bud Carson who placed top fifteen on this list as well as guys such as Tony Dungy. Noll also was asked to approve of Bill Cowher – also on this list – as his successor. At the end of the day there are few, if any, knocks against Noll but countless reasons as to why he should be this high.
02.) Tom Landry
Team Affiliations: Dallas Cowboys(Head Coach), New York Giants(D-Coordinator)
Argument: The man in the suit and hat along the Dallas sidelines for three decades, I usually don’t talk about Tom Landry as he is before my time. In fact, the only time Landry’s name ever really crosses my mind is when it comes out of the mouth of the cartoon character Hank Hill. However, research shows that Landry has one qualification that should easily place him within the top five.
Can you guess what that qualification is?
It’s that Landry invented the defense that over 85% of NFL defenses have used since it’s inception; the modern day 4-3 defense. Yes, that was Landry’s brainchild. But he also invented the “Flex Defense” as well. With these two innovations Landry was capable of fielding the infamous “Doomsday Defense” that helped lead the Cowboys to five Super Bowl appearances and two wins.
Prior to becoming the head coach of the Cowboys Landry was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. During his tenure the Giants went to three NFL Championship games winning only one of them. That brings Landry’s career total to 8 World Championship appearances and 3 victories.
Perhaps his ability to win is a reason as to why he was twice voted the UPI Coach of the Year, once voted the Sporting News Coach of the Year and once voted the AP Coach of the Year.
Under Landry’s tutelage Harvey Martin was capable of winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Landry managed to coach 16 top five defenses during his time as a head coach and defensive coordinator based on points per game or yardage per game allowed. However, he didn’t manage to coach a number one defense. However I think that we can ignore that given his innovation of the modern day 4-3 defense.
Tom Landry’s coaching tree also includes Super Bowl winning coach and honorable mention Mike Ditka.
01.) Bill Belichick
Team Affiliations: New England Patriots(Head Coach), New York Jets(Secondary Coach), Cleveland Browns(Head Coach), New York Giants(D-Coordinator/Linebackers Coach/Defensive Assistant)
Argument: As a Steelers fan it is my right and my responsibility to hate Bill Belichick. After all he has been a part of three teams that have prevented the Steelers from reaching the Super Bowl. However, even with all of that hate bottled up inside of me I cannot deny the genius that is Belichick both as a head coach and as a defensive coordinator.
Belichick’s career started under Bill Parcells and he quickly took off by helping Lawrence “LT” Taylor become arguably the best linebacker in the history of the NFL. LT remains, to this day, the best 3-4 outside linebacker to ever play and it is in part to Belichick’s tutelage. Taylor was capable of winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award an unprecedented three times while under Belichick’s tutelage.
If that weren’t enough, Belichick put his gameplan to perfect utilization in Super Bowl XXV and was capable of stymieing the Buffalo Bills’ K-Gun attack to the point that the Hall of Fame selection committee felt that his gameplan should be preserved in the Hall. A feat that has only been accomplished three times and only by two individuals.
Belichick would go on to struggle a little bit in Cleveland but he still managed to produce a defense that once was the stingiest in the league for it’s respective season in giving up points. He would later rejoin mentor Bill Parcells in New England where the duo would reach another Super Bowl but would fail to win it all.
Eventually Belichick would find his way to a head coaching position in New England in which his legend was cemented. In just his second season he returned to the Super Bowl and won it all. His gameplan for that Super Bowl was placed in the hall of fame making him the only person to accomplish such a feat twice.
As it stands today Bill Belichick has been a coordinator or a head coach for seven teams that have reached the Super Bowl including one team that was 18-0 at the time of reaching the Super Bowl. Of those seven teams five won the Super Bowl placing him tied for first in terms of championships of all individuals on this list.
Belichick has coached 19 teams that have finished in the top five in their respective season based on points per game or yards per game. Four of those teams finished first in points per game allowed over their respective season including the aforementioned abysmal Cleveland Browns. One of those team finished first in yards per game allowed over it’s respective season.
Oh and I guess I forgot to mention that Belichick is a two time AP Coach of the Year with a coaching tree that includes Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini.