San Francisco 49ers: Was Bill Walsh the Best Head Coach in NFL History?

Tom Smeaton@ByTomSmeatonContributor IIIJune 12, 2013

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In honor of what would have been Vince Lombardi's 100th birthday, ESPN has spent the last few weeks counting down the "Greatest Coaches in NFL History," according to the network's panel of experts. Not surprisingly, the legendary Green Bay Packers head coach eventually was revealed at the top spot on the 20-man list.

At No. 2, however, was former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, the innovator of the West Coast Offense and arguably the greatest offensive mind to pace an NFL sideline. As is the case with every "Best of All Time" list, the final rankings leave the floodgates wide open for debate, but this article will pose one simple question: Should Walsh have ranked ahead of Lombardi?

To be clear from the start, this article is by no means meant to belittle Lombardi's legacy and the impact he had on professional football. The man is the namesake of the Super Bowl trophy, after all. But for the sake of a good argument, who's to say Walsh's contributions to the game weren't just as profound? 

As crude as it may seem given the difference in eras between these two Hall of Fame coaches, we'll start with the raw numbers. Including Lombardi's one-year stint in charge of the Washington Redskins, both coaches conveniently spent 10 years in charge, which makes the numbers closer for comparison. 

      Wins  Losses    Ties W-L% Playoff Wins Playoff Losses Playoff W-L%
Bill Walsh 92 59 1 .609 10 4 .714
Vince Lombardi  96 34 6 .738 9 1 .900

(The numbers above were taken from pro-football-reference.com.)

Walsh's 49ers won six division championships and three Super Bowls during his tenure. Lombardi's teams also won six division titles and captured five NFL Championships, including the first two Super Bowls. Obviously, the regular season and postseason formats were expanded over the time between Walsh and Lombardi, but both records are impressive nonetheless. 

If numbers were the only side to the story, Lombardi's would be tough for any coach to compete with. After all, his playoff record is still the best of all time, and most likely will never be beaten. However, stats and records don't tell the entire story. They never do.

Both men similarly righted the ship for what had been floundering franchises before their arrival. The Packers were on hard times when Lombardi took over, coming off a 1-10 season and 11 straight without a winning record. The 49ers hired Walsh in the aftermath of a 2-14 campaign, having posted losing records in five of the previous six seasons.

What those numbers don't show are the five coaches the 49ers had employed in the four years before Walsh took over. This was a franchise in hopeless disarray before his arrival, having won only 31 of their previous 86 games, as mentioned in the ESPN feature on Walsh that I linked to earlier. 

The Packers had certainly fallen far from the glory days of Curly Lambeau, but had maintained at least a certain level of stability at the top. The pre-Walsh 49ers were at rock bottom. Sure, Walsh took a few more seasons to get his team off the ground, but both coaches captured their first title in Year 3. 

Another factor to consider is each coach's lasting impact on the game's philosophy. Lombardi's famed "Power Sweep" dominated the game for much of his tenure, but has since been largely eliminated in favor of zone blocking schemes in the modern NFL. Teams still employ sweep plays, of course, but the style of the play has changed dramatically from the fullback-led force that the Packers once ran. 

On the other hand, Walsh's West Coast offense is still utilized by many NFL teams, with certain principles applied to almost every professional playbook. While Walsh often resisted full credit for the system, the modern West Coast offense is derived from his creation, and that pass-first style revolutionized offense in the modern NFL. 

The styles of leadership differed between the two greats as well, with Lombardi's famed fire contrasting nicely against Walsh's usually-calm exterior. In a sense, their demeanors also matched their offensive philosophies, considering Lombardi's smashmouth style versus Walsh's tact and finesse.

Albeit for different reasons, both coaches present us with only a small sample size of greatness. Lombardi died of colon cancer not long after his only season at the helm of the Redskins. Walsh, both physically and mentally stressed, retired after a Super Bowl championship in 1989. He openly regretted the decision later in life, until his death in 2007. However, the short nature of their careers only accentuates their greatness in both instances.

For the purposes of this article, I can only present this research and show a comparison that ESPN didn't delve into. I think a great case could be made for either coach, so I took a chance to play devil's advocate. And let's be realistic: how much can you really talk about OTAs anyway?

But now with that all said, the question still remains: who would you take as the greatest coach in NFL history?