The Great Debate: The Greatest NFL Head Coaches Of All Time

Jordan LeeAnalyst IJuly 28, 2008

Football is one of the most complex sports played today. Sure the rules are simple enough, and the point of the game isn't too hard to understand. Get the ball across your end zone, you score points. Score more points than the other team, you win.

But there are those men who exploit the game, take full advantage of its rules and are able to bend full grown men to their will, orchestrating players like pawns in a game of chess.

These men know the ins and outs of this game, they know every minute detail of the game. They are generals commanding their men, doing everything in their power to reach their ultimate goal: winning.

Few of these men, the very elite of them, are able to change the game forever in a way not though possible before their time. They are able to revolutionize this game, which in its most primitive form is merely men throwing themselves at each other, into something so complex, they turn it into a science.

Those are the men that we will look at today, the men who prowl the sidelines, barking out orders like drill sergeants. Today we determine just who is, the Greatest NFL Head Coach of All Time.


The Candidates

Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys 1960-1988) Record: 270-178-6, Two Titles

"Leadership is getting someone to do what they don't want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve."

Landry got his start as the defensive coordinator for the Giants in 1956. While there he built one of the best defenses in all of football. In 1960 he was hired as the first ever coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Landry and the Cowboys got off to a rough start, as the team didn't win more than five games his first five years.

Despite the bad start Landry and the Cowboys when onto to post 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1966-1985. During this time the Cowboys won two Super Bowls, five NFC Titles, and 13 Division Titles, totaling a 270-178-6 record.

Landry also invented the 4-3 Defense (which is employed by the majority of teams today), the Flex Defense, the use of keys (analyzing offensive tendencies), and popularized the man-in motion, the shotgun formation, and the use of offensive shifts.

Landry's 20 career-postseason victories ranks as the most all time by and Head Coach.


Vince Lombardi (Packers 1959-1967, Redskins 1969) Record: 105-35-7, Five Titles

"Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."

Lombardi, the Super Bowl Trophy's namesake got his first Head Coaching job in 1959, with the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi quickly turned the Packers (who a year prior went 1-10-1) into perennial winners as they never suffered a losing season during Lombardi's tenure.

Lombardi went 9-1 in the postseason, and won five titles in seven years, including three straight championships from 1965-1967, including the first two Super Bowls, a feat still unmatched.

After stepping down as the Packers coach in 1967 (although he stayed on as GM for the 1968 season) Lombardi returned to coaching for the 1969 season, as Head Coach of the Washington Redskins. the Redskins went 7-5-2, breaking the team's run of 14 consecutive losing seasons.

In 1970 Lombardi was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and passed away ten weeks later. Lombardi is one of the most popular coaches of all time. During his tenure with the Packers he was turned into the face of the NFL.

He is renowned for motivational skills and getting the best out of his players. Lombardi is also credited for creating the zone blocking scheme.


Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers 1969-1991) Record: 209-156-1, Four Titles

“Before you can win a game, you have to not lose it.”

Chuck Noll was hired as the Steelers Head Coach in 1969. Noll took the 4-3 defense he ran as coordinator of the Baltimore Colts and quickly built one of the most dominating defenses of all time and created the NFL's first modern dynasty, winning four super bowls from 1975-1980.

Noll built this dynasty through the draft, selecting four Hall of Famers in the 1974 draft alone. Noll's Steel Curtain defense remains one of the most talented defenses of all time.

Chuck Noll is renowned for giving African Americans the chance to succeed in the NFL. Under Noll, Joe Gilliam became the first African American to start in the NFL, Franco Harris became the first African American to win the Super Bowl MVP, and gave Tony Dungy his first NFL coaching job.


Don Shula (Colts 1963-1969,Dolphins 1970-1995) Record: 347-173-6, Two Titles

"The superior man blames himself. The inferior man blames others."

Despite Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots latest attempt, Don Shula remains the only coach to lead his team to an undefeated season.

Shula was hired by the Colts at the age of 33, and lead them to a 71-23-4 record in his seven years as coach. Shula struggled in the postseason early on in his career, losing two Championship games, despite being the favorites.

Throughout his career, Shula used a pragmatic approach, changing his philosophy to suit the players he had. Despite continued regular season success, Shula could never again win a Super Bowl following the 1973 season. 

Shula holds many coaching records such as most victories (347), games coached (526), most consecutive seasons coached (33), and most super bowl losses (four). Shula's teams were consistently the least penalized in the league, a testament to his coaching discipline. Shula also served on the rules committee, helping change the league to one that was more pass oriented.


Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49ers 1979-1988) Record: 102-63-1, Three Titles

"In particular, they see the game the way I do and because of how i saw it."

Bill Walsh is often called a genius, which is a high praise for a man who drew up X's and O's for a living. But no word seems more fitting for what Bill Walsh did on the offensive side of the ball, it truly was genius.

Bill Walsh began his legendary career as an assistant with the Oakland Raiders. While there, he learned under the tutelage of Sid Gilliam, who trained him in the vertical passing offense. He later refined this technique to fit his horizontal passing scheme, incorporated in his legendary West Coast offense.

Walsh got his first and only Head Coaching job with the 49ers in 1979. The 49ers went 2-14 a year before Walsh took the job and repeated the same record his first year.

Two years later however the 49ers went on to win their first ever Super Bowl thanks to Joe Montana and the offenses mastery of Walsh's West Coast Offense, which had not been seen in the NFL prior to Walsh. Walsh and the 49ers went onto win two more Super Bowls after the 1981 season. 

Besides the West Coast offense, Walsh is known for his large coaching tree which includes such coaches as: Dennis Green, Jim Fassel, Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick, John Gruden, Mike McCarthy, Mike Sherman, Steve Mariucci, John Fox, Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Gary Kubiak, among many others.



It comes down to two coaches in my opinion, them being Lombardi and Walsh. Lombardi's success is unmatched with five titles in seven years and a career win percentage of .750.

His influence on the game is also incredible, his name being on the Super Bowl Trophy should say it all. Coaches long to raise the Lombardi trophy, they strive to be like him.

Walsh also had tremendous success of his own. Three Super Bowls in the free agent era is also remarkable, even more so when you consider how far apart they were.

Walsh's influence on the game is bar none, as numerous successful coaches fall into his tree and his West Coast offense passing game is widely credited for advancing the passing game in the NFL, and is still in use in today's passing oriented game.

For his profound influence on the game and his tremendous success I name Bill Walsh as the greatest Head Coach of all time.

Verdict: Bill Walsh



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