NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Coaches in NFL History

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 12, 2017

NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Coaches in NFL History

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    J. Spencer Jones/Associated Press

    The coaches in this all-time countdown are ranked according to all the things you would expect them to be:

    • Super Bowls and NFL Championships. Can't argue with those.
    • Conference Titles and Playoff Appearances. Winning a dozen playoff games across a decade is a more impressive feat than winning one Super Bowl when a talented team catches fire.
    • Career Winning Percentage. They came. They conquered. Then they left without slogging through a bunch of late-career 7-9 seasons.
    • Innovation and Impact. Did the coach invent the offense that your high school coach taught you? Are his coaching descendants still helming teams all across the NFL? That stuff matters.

    There are other factors, like winning with multiple teams or across eras with different supporting casts. As we climb the list, we will go from coaches who were the right man for the right team in the right era to individuals who changed the way we think and talk about football, sports and management, if not life itself.

    It's not hard to guess who finished among the top five. But you will have to read on to learn who is No. 1. 

25. Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh Steelers (1 Super Bowl Win, 12 Playoff Wins)

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    GENE J. PUSKAR/Associated Press

    We all genuflect before the memory of the 1970s Steelers. But when you think about "Steelers football," unless you have a lot of snow on the roof, chances are you think about Bill Cowher's Steelers.

    You think about the zone-blitzing 3-4 defense, not the Steel Curtain 4-3. You think about a freewheeling offense and a cocky splash of arrogance on both sides of the ball. You think of Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger, Kevin Greene, Troy Polamalu, Greg Lloyd and Hines Ward. And of course you think of Cowher, wearing both his joy and rage on his sleeve, coaching like he would grab a helmet at any moment to teach some punt returner a lesson.

    Cowher's Steelers weren't as good as the vintage Steel Curtain teams. Few teams in history were. But Cowher breathed new life into an organization that lost its direction at the end of the Chuck Noll era. Cowher was a master motivator and a stickler for detail honed as an assistant under Marty Schottenheimer. He built contenders with Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox at quarterback before Roethlisberger finally pushed the Steelers over the top.

    The '70s Steelers were your father's team. Cowher's team was ours. In the decade since Mike Tomlin replaced Cowher, they remain perennial contenders, and they haven't changed all that much.

24. Mike Ditka, Chicago Bears (1 Super Bowl Win, 7 Playoff Appearances)

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    Da question is: Now, did God create Da Bears, and make them superior to all teams? Or is he simply a huge fan, and Ditka made them superior to all other teams? — Bill Swerski (Joe Mantegna), Saturday Night Live.

    It's a tricky question. The Bears of the mid-1980s were a cultural phenomenon. Mike Ditka was such a symbol of Midwestern blue-collar virtues that a recurring Saturday Night Live skit was built around his bratwurst-munching worshipers.

    If I may shift gears for a moment gentleman, Coach Ditka vs. The Hurricane, who would win?

    Ditka, Ditka!!

    Hold on, hold on, hold on. The name of the Hurricane is Hurricane Ditka?

    Old coaches either retire as champions or hang around long enough to become dinosaurs. Ditka is now a designated Angry Old Man of professional sports, a font of dubious old-school wisdom that translates to modern ears as GET OFF MY LAWN. Ditka's coaching peak was brief, his Bears devastating on defense but a little too old-fashioned on offense to repeat the glory of the 1985 season. His Saints were big on bluster but short on results.

    Now what if Da Bears were to enter the Indianapolis 500? Uhhh, what would you predict would be the outcome, huh?

    How would they compete?

    Well, let's say they rode together in a big bus.

    Is Ditka driving?

    Of course.

    Then I like Da Bears!

    Ditka motivated through sheer personality. Players would walk over lava for him. His Bears played the way he played in the 1960s. It was brute force and aggression, and within a few years that would not be enough to compete in the more technical, professionalized NFL, especially as Ditka aged away from the players he needed to relate to.

    But for a few years, Da Bears were a force of nature, and Ditka looked to some like he was on par with the almighty.

23. Weeb Ewbank, Colts-Jets (3 NFL Championships)

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    Weeb Ewbank won two of the most important, legendary games in football history: the so-called Greatest Game Ever Played (the 1958 Colts-Giants NFL championship) and Super Bowl III (his AFL Jets defeating Don Shula's heavy-favorite Colts).

    Ewbank doesn't get much credit for those wins. The 1958 game is talked about in hushed whispers for its impact on pro football's popularity, for the advent of sudden-death overtime and for the sheer number of Hall of Famers on the field that day (including Ewbank, but not headlined by him). Super Bowl III is all about Joe Namath and guarantees, even though Ewbank was instrumental in developing the run-heavy game plan that led to the Jets upset.

    Ewbank was self-effacing and soft-spoken with the media, so his coaching never brought attention to itself. He coached the Jets and Colts through many forgettable years before and after the championships, in part because the Jets were a shoestring operation when he arrived, but also in part because Ewbank was more methodical and meticulous than brilliant.

    But if Ewbank's Colts had laid an egg in front of the New York media and a national television audience in 1958, pro football's popularity may never have gotten the jump-start that made it what it is today. And if his Jets were hammered by the Colts, the Super Bowl might not be the spectacle it is today, and the NFL-AFL merger would not have been as smooth as it was.

    Ewbank won a pair of games that changed the game. Only a handful of the coaches ranked above him can make a similar boast.

22. Jimmy Johnson, Cowboys-Dolphins (2 Super Bowl Wins, 6 Playoff Appearances)

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    Jimmy Johnson was a great coach for three years which felt like an eternity to the Cowboys' opponents).

    Johnson arrived from the University of Miami during a time of upheaval in Dallas: Jerry Jones had just bought the team, the Tom Landry old guard was unceremoniously shown the door, and the 1987 strike had caused a rift between fans and many formerly beloved players. Johnson was not one to stand on ceremony: He shed other famous names from the roster, then shocked the NFL by trading the team's best player midseason.

    The Herschel Walker trade catalyzed the sudden rebirth of the Cowboys as Johnson's team. While Johnson used the ransom of extra picks to assemble a supporting cast, he suffered patiently through Troy Aikman's rookie season and gave Michael Irvin extra time to overcome early-career injuries. Emmitt Smith arrived, the Wowboys achieved critical mass and the rest of the NFL surrendered for a few years.

    Then Johnson and Jones squabbled over credit, and Johnson left. When he returned as the Dolphins head coach, he assembled a great defense but lacked a little bit of the magic and a lot of the extra resources that helped him build the Wowboys.

    How much credit does a coach deserve for helming two Super Bowl champions and building the nucleus of a third? There are coaches with multiple championships who did not make this countdown, including Tom Flores and Mike Shanahan. Johnson's career was brief, and it can be argued that his greatest success came in the role of general manager (though that's a bit of a hair-split).

    Johnson was no Bill Parcells. He couldn't repeat his formula in any city and turn a doormat into a contender. But he did it once, and it was, well, like a hurricane blowing through the league, destroying everything in its wake.

21. Tom Coughlin, Giants-Jaguars (2 Super Bowl Wins, 9 Playoff Appearances)

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    Tom Coughlin's persona has been fun to poke fun at in recent years. He's pro football's official cranky father-in-law, the one who gets mad when you don't show up early enough for Sunday dinner, the one who won't take a hint when it's time to leave.

    It's all a great joke. But when a pipe bursts in the basement, your cranky father-in-law is the only one with the tools and handyman skills to fix it, right?

    Coughlin took the expansion Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game in their second season. He led them to four straight playoff appearances, capped by a 14-2 season, at a point when most expansion franchises are still trying to assemble a competitive roster.

    From Jacksonville, it was off to the Giants, where Coughlin won a pair of Super Bowls by beating one of the greatest teams in NFL history with the kind of talent that usually loses a Wild Card Game.

    As for the persona, Coughlin came by it honestly. But those who follow his teams closely know that he's far more flexible and forward-thinking than his image suggests. Coughlin balances the stern Jesuit disciplinarian routine with a love of new ideas and an enthusiasm for the game and its players.

    Coughlin is back in Jacksonville as an executive now. He'll probably be meddling in the day-to-day coaching before you know it. That's probably not a bad thing.

20. Marty Schottenheimer, 4 Teams (200 Wins, 13 Playoff Appearances)

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    If it's late January and you need to win a big game to earn a trophy, let's be frank: Marty Schottenheimer is not the coach you want.

    But what if your organization has been in the doldrums for years? Your team lacks cohesion; your players lack fundamentals. You need a system that will get you to that big January game, year after year. And  let's say Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells already turned you down. Well then, Schottenheimer may be the coach you need.

    Scottenheimer was an architect. He built playoff teams from rosters that didn't look like they could crack .500. He reached the playoffs 11 times in 13 years with the Browns and Chiefs, then built a challenger for the Bill Belichick Patriots in San Diego.

    There was always a John Elway or Tom Brady standing in the way of Schottenheimer's teams. Playoff games ended with a fumble or an epic drive by the opponent. His teams missed chip-shot field goals and botched fake punts in the fourth quarters of playoff games. Every season ended like a Final Destination movie.

    But Schottenheimer's teams kept surviving and returning for sequels.

    Schottenheimer made some bad decisions in the postseason. He certainly had abysmal luck. But the problem was never a lack of planning or preparation. Schottenheimer's teams were always ready to compete. And while his playoff losses made him a punchline for some fans, his peers took their duels with Schottenheimer, in the regular season and postseason, very, very seriously.

19. Dick Vermeil, Eagles-Rams-Chiefs (1 Super Bowl, 6 Playoff Appearances)

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    Associated Press

    Dick Vermeil's coaching style required him to pour everything he had into his teams.

    Vermeil surrounded himself with some of the best offensive minds in history: Sid Gillman, Mike Martz, Al Saunders and others. While they installed the systems, Vermeil raced around practice fields attending to every last detail, his tireless work ethic and passion for football rubbing off on his teams.

    Vermeil led the Eagles to the Super Bowl after two decades of mismanagement. The effort exhausted Vermeil to the point where he added a new word to the corporate lexicon: "Burnout" became something hard-working executives could actually talk about.

    After a long recuperation period in the college and NFL broadcast booth, Vermeil took over the Rams, suffered through two frustrating seasons, then captured lightning when an injury to Trent Green forced Kurt Warner into the lineup. Warner was the perfect vessel for both Vermeil's visceral commitment to success and for Martz's offensive vision. The Rams won a Super Bowl, and a tearful Vermeil resigned.

    Two years later, Vermeil was back in the NFL, coaching a series of solid-to-great Chiefs teams with Saunders at his right hand and Green at quarterback. By the mid-2000s, Vermeil welled up with tears after games and during press conferences as often as a sad dad on a CW drama. He possessed a raw, all-consuming love for the game and its players that was impossible for him to hide. It was so strong that it kept him from finishing what he started in Philly or trying to repeat in St. Louis.

    Vermeil still shows up for a few Eagles practices every year, roving the sideline and scrutinizing the game like he's waiting for an excuse to grab a whistle. Other coaches had more success. None of them loved football more.

18. George Allen, Rams-Redskins (7 Playoff Berths, .712 Career Winning Pct.)

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    Associated Press

    George Allen was one-of-a-kind. Some of his innovations, like hiring full-time special teams coaches, made a permanent mark on the game. Others, like trading all of his draft picks for veterans, would get him laughed out of modern football.

    Allen was the coach who popularized working around the clock, eating peanut butter dinners in his office and sleeping on a cot. Allen was also a pioneer of coaching paranoia; in fairness, some opponents really were spying on him. Allen was one of the game's strictest disciplinarians and a fiery motivator. But he wasn't very disciplined himself. When it came to spending money or frustrating owners and commissioners, few in NFL history can come close to him.

    Allen started his career as George Halas' prized pupil and top scout (Allen was instrumental in drafting Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers). He grew tired of waiting for Halas to retire and left for the Rams, where he reinvigorated the Fearsome Foursome defensive line, coaxed Pro Bowl seasons from Roman Gabriel and built a team that went 32-7-3 over a three-year stretch. But Allen constantly feuded with management, and he was fired after a 9-4-1 season in 1970 (a near mutiny by Rams players prevented an earlier firing).

    Washington gave him complete control over the franchise in 1971, and boy did Allen use it. He traded every draft pick that wasn't nailed down to acquire veteran talent. Sometimes, he traded the same pick to two different teams, forcing both the NFL and would-be partners to watch his every move. Allen created the Over-the-Hill Gang defense in Washington out of all the veterans he acquired, leading the team to Super Bowl VII.

    Allen wore out his welcome in Washington as he did in Los Angeles; that will happen when you cannot stick to a budget or keep track of your own trades. But no Allen-coached pro football team ever finished the season with a losing record. That includes Allen's two USFL teams.

    Allen's .712 career winning percentage ranks third among modern coaches. Allen's most enduring legacy may be his 24-7-365 commitment to football, which became a job requirement for all future coaches, as well as the don't-reveal-anything secrecy that has gotten a little silly among football coaches. Yet Allen never burned out. He just ran out of money and draft picks. 

17. Tony Dungy, Colts-Buccaneers (1 Super Bowl Win, 11 Playoff Appearances)

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Tony Dungy's greatest contribution to the coaching profession was cutting out the tough-guy bullcrap.

    In the wake of the successes of Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells, a whole generation of coaches started to believe that ranting and raving like a pro wrestler stood at the core of great leadership. Gone were stoic, disciplined commanders like Tom Landry or Bud Grant. In their place grew a few too many bellicose loudmouths who copied the image of Iron Mike and the Big Tuna but little of the substance.

    Dungy marked a return to quiet leadership and discipline without the histrionics. His Tampa-2 defense was an extension of his philosophy. Instead of turning blitz-attack-destroy cliches into hyper-aggressive, easy-to-counterattack tactics, he modified the old Steel Curtain defense he once played in until it became a stay-at-home strategy to stymie West Coast Offenses.

    Dungy roused Buccaneers football from nearly two decades of doldrums, building a playoff team out of a defense full of superstars like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Hardy Nickerson and John Lynch. He then went to Indianapolis, where local sports fans worshiped all-time rant 'n' raver Bobby Knight, and where the high-strung Jim Mora couldn't get a Peyton Manning-led team over the playoff hump. Dungy quietly presided over a seven-year span that included six 12-plus-win seasons and a Super Bowl victory.

    Dungy's success paved the way for a generation of less blustery, more managerial head coaches. He also paved the way for African-American coaches at every level, though that should go without saying.

    The television networks now position Dungy as the NFL's moral compass. In these fractious times, that's a thankless, no-win job. As a coach, Dungy led by example and spoke the language of mutual respect. He wasn't the coach we wanted to hear give a juicy postgame press conference; he was the coach we wanted to play for. The turn-of-the-millennium NFL needed him and was blessed to have him.

16. Tie: Don Coryell and Sid Gillman, Various Teams (Pioneers and Innovators)

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    The backs are in an I-formation. The quarterback play-fakes and takes a seven-step drop. The X-receiver runs a 9-route deep, the Z-receiver an 8-route to the post. Both safeties stay deep, so the quarterback looks off his primary receiver. As soon as his back foot plants on that final step, he resets and fires to the slot Y-receiver, who ran a deep comeback.

    Everything in the play I just described was invented by Sid Gillman or Don Coryell: the I-formation, the receiver route tree, precise quarterback drops, three-receiver sets, vertical concepts more refined than "let 'er rip" ... basically, the modern offensive principles that everyone from high school coaches to Madden gamers take for granted. 

    Gillman began his NFL career with the Rams, concocting a Hollywood-worthy passing game for Norm Van Brocklin and receivers Tom Fears and Crazy Legs Hirsch. From there, it was on to the AFL, where the wide-open playing style allowed him to perfect his offensive philosophy.

    Meanwhile, Coryell (shown above) took the head coaching job at nearby San Diego State and began adjusting his patented I-formation into something more pass-oriented. The city of San Diego became a cauldron of new football ideas. A young Al Davis took a job as Gillman's assistant. A JUCO coach named John Madden began attending seminars where Coryell spoke.

    The rest is not history; it's genealogy. Gillman's coaching tree begat Davis and the coaches he hired,  Chuck Noll, Dick Vermiel and others. Coryell begat Madden, Joe Gibbs and two generations of Super Bowl-caliber offensive coordinators (Ernie Zampese, Al Saunders, Mike Martz, Norv Turner, etc.) Bill Walsh spent a year learning Gillman's system from Davis, then slowly adapted it into the West Coast Offense.

    Without Gillman and Coryell, modern football might still look like that T-formation jalopy your Pop Warner coach made you run.

    As head coaches, Gillman won just one AFL title, while Coryell was always a playoff bridesmaid. It took their disciples to turn their innovations into championships. But no list of great coaches can be complete without the two men who sequenced the DNA of modern American football.

15. John Madden, Oakland Raiders (1 Super Bowl Win, .759 Career Winning Pct.)

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    Imagine if Al Davis was your boss, Ken Stabler was your most important employee and everyone else at your office was a certified lunatic. How long would you last on the job? How successful would you be? When you finally called it quits, would you still be sane enough to launch two other high-profile careers?

    Davis was a brilliant football mind, of course, and Stabler one of the most talented quarterbacks in history. But neither of them were user-friendly individuals. And the rest of the 1970s Raiders were both great and nuts. It was up to John Madden, a wunderkind coach plucked from Don Coryell's staff at then-tiny San Diego State, to turn Davis' marauding anarchists into a champion.

    Madden amassed a .759 career winning percentage (103-32-7), the highest in pro football history of anyone who coached 10 or more seasons. His Raiders won one Super Bowl and reached seven conference championship games, making the playoffs eight times in his 10 seasons as a head coach.

    The team Madden helped assemble went on to win two Super Bowls under Tom Flores in the early 1980s. By then, Madden was rewriting the rules of sports broadcasting with his boisterous color commentary. He then lent his name, ideas and credibility to the video game genre in an era when gaming was greasy kid stuff.

    Madden synthesized the ideas of Davis, Coryell and others into his own system. In an era of dour drill-instructor head coaches, he was the long-leash coach the Raiders needed. Madden may have been driven a little crazy by the Raiders, but it was the right kind of crazy.

14. Marv Levy, Buffalo Bills (4 Consecutive AFC Championships)

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    Marv Levy took the strangest path to head coaching of anyone in modern NFL history.

    The three-sport college standout started by getting a master's degree in English history from Harvard. Then he coached football and basketball at a prep school. After nearly 20 years climbing the coaching ranks, he became one of the NFL's first special teams coaches. Then came the CFL, then the USFL.

    Perhaps that's why Levy did everything a little differently than other coaches when he finally took over the Buffalo Bills in 1986. The ultra-literate Levy certainly sounded nothing like Mike Ditka. His scheme, particularly the no-huddle offense triggered by Jim Kelly, was also unique. Levy built an exciting, pass-heavy offense in one of America's coldest cities. That isn't supposed to work. Levy made it look logical.

    Levy's Bills are famous for losing four straight Super Bowls, of course. They can easily be branded symbols of futility. But look at how hard it is for modern teams to come back from a lost Super Bowl. Look at the struggles the Panthers coped with last season or how the Seahawks are almost going out of their way to tear themselves about. It took a feat of leadership to keep a team coming back after Super Bowl beatings that got worse every year.

    Levy brought a perspective from academia, special teams coaching and the JUCO hinterlands to the NFL that helped his team endure those frustrating so-close seasons. He never won a Super Bowl, but he made football a lot smarter.

13. Bud Grant, Minnesota Vikings (4 NFC Championships, 12 Playoff Appearances)

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    Jack Thornell/Associated Press

    Bud Grant's professional athletic career began with a half-court buzzer-beater on Christmas night for the Lakers. The Minneapolis Lakers, that is, in 1949.

    After two years as an NBA forward, Grant became an NFL defensive end. After (unofficially) leading the Eagles in sacks in 1951, he moved to offensive end and led the team with 56 receptions for 997 yards and seven touchdowns in 1952.

    When the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offered Grant more money than the NFL, he took off for the CFL, leading that league in receptions three times and setting a league record with five interceptions in a playoff game. The Blue Bombers named Grant their head coach before his 30th birthday. Grant led them to four Grey Cups before returning to the NFL to coach the Vikings.

    Grant's story is already remarkable, and we haven't even gotten to his NFL coaching record yet; you know, the part that this slide is about. (We even skipped the part where his Marine Corps unit quelled a prison riot at Alcatraz.)

    Grant led the Vikings to four Super Bowls, losing all of them. He was famous for his emotionless sideline demeanor and for preparing his Vikings for the bitter cold at old Metropolitan Stadium. Grant did not let his Vikings wear gloves or thermal underwear, outlawed heated benches on the sidelines and held winter practices outdoors.

    None of this would go over well in the modern NFL. But it worked: With their Purple People Eaters defense and Fran Tarkenton-led offense, Grant's Vikings made the playoffs nine out of 10 years from 1969 through 1978. When the poor Rams showed up from Los Angeles to face them in Arctic conditions, they never stood a chance.

    Grant, who turned 90 years old in mid-May, is still reinventing himself; his annual garage sale (he just hosted his last one) has become the stuff of internet legend. Grant took the field for the Vikings-Seahawks playoff game two seasons ago when it was six below zero. He wore short sleeves. The NFL (and CFL and NBA) will never see the likes of him again.

12. Curly Lambeau, Green Bay Packers (6 NFL Championships)

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    Associated Press

    Imagine Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll and John Schneider all rolled up into one Wilson-aged-and-sized package. That's who Curly Lambeau was in his prime.

    In ancient times, a bright and ambitious college football star could become an NFL captain-coach-owner-operator in just a few years. Lambeau co-founded the Packers, played tailback (something close to option quarterback in modern football), called the plays, ran the football operations and did just about everything else for the franchise in the league's infancy.

    The Packers won three straight NFL championships from 1929 through 1931 (after the 30-year old Lambeau retired from playing). Vince Lombardi's Packers are the only other NFL team to win three consecutive titles.

    Lambeau was a pioneer of the modern passing game. He signed Don Hutson, and together the coach and the Alabama Antelope devised many of the wide receiver routes still used today. While Hutson led the NFL in every receiving category for a decade (and the Packers to three more titles), Lambeau devised a scheme to stop opponents' passing games. Having virtually invented the wide receiver, Lambeau was forced to invent the linebacker.

    The city of Green Bay embraced Lambeau's Packers as a source of civic pride in the 1920s and '30s, and the football world embraced Green Bay as the sport's cradle, a reminder of pro football's small-town roots worth preserving like a World Heritage Site. Green Bay only became "Titletown" later. But it was Lambeau who brought the titles, and who helped drag football out of the Stone Age.

11. Mike Holmgren, Packers-Seahawks (1 Super Bowl Win, 12 Playoff Appearances)

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    You have seen the photo on a hundred game telecasts: Mike Holmgren's staff, posed beside a staircase in white golf shirts and khakis. Jon Gruden, Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci and others are in the photo; it's a generation of successful, influential NFL coaches, dressed like counselors at the world's dweebiest summer camp.

    If all of the coaches of the modern era brought their "family trees" for a parking lot rumble, the Holmgren family would mop up the sidewalks, and it wouldn't be close. Bill Belichick would have to line up with Sean Payton behind Bill Parcells to even stand a chance. Holmgren was that influential.

    Nitpickers will point out that much of Holmgren's staff was just Bill Walsh's old 49ers staff. But the version of the West Coast Offense that Holmgren's proteges spread across the NFL was supercharged for the new millennium: less quick slants, more daring downfield shots. It was a system designed to unleash Brett Favre, but it could also be retrofitted for the more cerebral Matt Hasselbeck.

    Nitpickers will also point out that Holmgren would never rumble in the parking lot with anyone. The devout Christian who helped lure Reggie White to Green Bay (impersonating the Almighty himself on White's answering machine, Sunday School humor that has become NFL legend) was never the ranting-raving-cussing type. Along with Tony Dungy and others, Holmgren reintroduced mild-mannered professionalism to NFL coaching.

    Second-generation Holmgren proteges still dominate the NFL; Reid's family alone features John Harbaugh, Ron Rivera, Doug Pederson and Sean McDermott. It's a legacy in the truest sense of the word, and it starts with the coach who spread Walsh's message to two moribund organizations, and then to the football world.

10. George Halas, Chicago Bears (6 NFL Championships, 318 Wins)

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    Associated Press

    Papa Bear George Halas was there when the NFL was born. He was practically the obstetrician.

    Halas was a former multi-sport superstar at the University of Illinois turned sales rep for A.E. Staley's starch company (and ringer for the company teams) when a collection of barnstorming football entrepreneurs met at an auto dealership in Canton, Ohio, and formed the American Professional Football Association in 1920. 

    The APFA became the NFL. Halas' Decatur Staleys became the Chicago Bears. Halas became a player, coach, general manager, owner when Staley stepped away, ticket manager, road secretary and promoter for both his team and a league fighting for attention and respectability.

    Halas professionalized coaching, scouting and even playing the game, initiating regular practice routines and conditioning habits. He developed the T-formation offense, which opened up play and introduced the under-center quarterback as the most important player on the field. While Halas was never commissioner, he was the primary power in the NFL of the 1920s and 1930s. Innovations like the college draft would never have occurred without Halas' blessing.

    And of course, Halas' Bears won. They were league champions in 1921 (though not without some chicanery) and champions again in 1963. Halas won in the era of Vaudeville and the dawn of color television. He won with Red Grange and Mike Ditka.

    Perhaps Halas wasn't pro football's greatest coach in the modern sense. But no single individual in the history of the sport—maybe in the history of sports—was more important to his game.

9. Joe Gibbs, Washington Redskins (3 Super Bowl Wins)

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins were a football innovation laboratory. With the help of general manager Bobby Beathard and coordinators like Joe Bugel and Richie Petitbon, Gibbs won Super Bowls by devising creative solutions for football's trickiest problems in the early 1980s.

    When Lawrence Taylor terrorized quarterbacks, Gibbs replaced the fullback with the H-back in his base offense. As passing offense exploded, that H-back became a third wide receiver, and the Redskins became one of the first teams to use a base three-receiver set.

    As salaries for first-round picks exploded, Gibbs and Beathard revised George Allen's old Redskins tactic of trading top picks, building the roster by drafting and developing late-rounders from small colleges.

    When work stoppages interrupted the 1982 and 1987 seasons, Gibbs did his finest work. His 1982 team remained unified by practicing together through the 57-day strike, often following Gibbs' standard practice routines. The same thing happened in 1987, but while the regular Redskins walked the picket line and worked out on playgrounds, Gibbs coached the replacement Redskins to three wins, including a Monday night victory over a Cowboys team full of real Cowboys stars.

    Gibbs led the Redskins to Super Bowl wins in those two strike-shortened years, then took them to a third title in 1991. Three different quarterbacks, running backs, playing styles and circumstances: Gibbs adapted, and the Redskins prevailed.

    Gibbs took his formula for success to the auto racing world in 1992, winning four NASCAR cups and over 270 races since as the owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. A system based on innovation, creativity and teamwork adjusts easily to any sport.

8. Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh Steelers (4 Super Bowl Wins)

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    Chuck Noll almost ended up coaching the Patriots instead of the Steelers.

    In the days leading up to Super Bowl III, the Steelers had narrowed their coaching search down to Noll (then the Colts defensive coordinator) and Penn State coach Joe Paterno. The Patriots were torn between Noll and Jets offensive coordinator Clive Rush. The Jets beat the Colts, the Patriots chose Rush and the Steelers chose Noll.

    Rush turned out to be one of the most eccentric coaches in NFL history, lasting just one-and-a-half contentious years in New England. Noll assembled one of the greatest teams ever. With the help of coordinator Bud Carson and several years of outstanding draft classes, he reconfigured the Cover-2 defense into a system that nearly smothered NFL offense completely. Noll's Steel Curtain defenses didn't just win Super Bowls; they inaugurated an offensive Ice Age that forced the league to rewrite the rule book.

    Who knows how different history would have been if the Patriots chose Noll? Maybe the Patriots, a financially bankrupt organization in those days, would have gotten better, sooner. Maybe Joe Pa could have built a strong team in Pittsburgh. But without Noll in Pittsburgh, it's hard to imagine that we would instantly recognize the phrase "Steel Curtain" 40 years later. The Steelers legacy is the result of a perfect alchemy: a coach, a team and a time.

7. Bill Parcells, 4 Teams (2 Super Bowl Wins, 10 Playoff Appearances)

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    Bill Waugh/Associated Press

    The Giants were one of the worst franchises in the NFL. They had reached the playoffs once in the previous 20 seasons. Bill Parcells rose from defensive coordinator to head coach, and the Giants soon won two Super Bowls and became a perennial powerhouse.

    The Patriots were coming off a long period of financial woes and ownership turmoil. After 1-15 and 2-14 seasons, the franchise almost became the St. Louis Stallions. Instead, Parcells came out of retirement, and Robert Kraft arrived a year later to ensure fiscal stability. Three years later, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl.

    The Jets were the Jets. They hadn't had a winning season in a decade and were coming off four wins in two years. They moved heaven and earth to get Parcells released from his Patriots contract and instantly went from one win to nine wins to 12.

    The Cowboys, just a few years removed from the Super Bowl, went 5-11 for three straight years while Jerry Jones tried to dazzle the world with his football acumen. Parcells arrived, quickly rebuilt the program and immediately returned the team to the playoffs.

    Parcells would rate higher if he ever stuck around to finish the job in his later stops. He was always squabbling with Kraft or chafing under Jones' decisions, retiring and un-retiring, finding reasons to move on when he wasn't completely satisfied. Part of coaching is getting along with the guys who sign the checks, as well as pushing past the adversity that comes as soon as a team starts to achieve success. Those weren't the Big Tuna's strong suits.

    Still, no coach rebuilt down-and-out franchises more thoroughly and effectively than Parcells. The Giants, Patriots and Cowboys can still draw direct lines from their recent successes to the day Parcells arrived. And the Jets tenure was fun while it lasted.

6. Tom Landry, Dallas Cowboys (2 Super Bowl Wins, 5 NFC Championships)

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Tom Landry took over an expansion franchise no one wanted and turned it into America's Team, then into one of the most recognizable sports entities on Earth and a model for how the professional sports industry operates.

    The Cowboys were originally going to be called the Dallas Steers (imagine rooting for a team with that nickname). They shared the Cotton Bowl with the better-funded Dallas Texans of the AFL. The Redskins didn't even want them in the NFL, and skeptics felt pro football would never supersede the college game in Texas. The NFL approved the Cowboys as an expansion team after the 1960 draft, so they would play their first season with a collection of has-beens and leftovers. Landry, who served as a Giants assistant alongside Vince Lombardi, volunteered for an uphill battle toward legitimacy.

    Landry went 0-11-1 in his first season, 18-46-4 in his first five seasons. Instead of firing him, the Cowboys awarded him with a 10-year contract extension. Landry rewarded them for that loyalty by building a team that would remain a contender for two decades.

    Landry's Flex defense introduced several new wrinkles: wider splits, taller linemen, one-gap responsibilities. He brought the shotgun formation and sophisticated pre-snap motion to offense. With the help of Tex Schramm, Gil Brandt and others, Landry began drafting and developing track stars, small-college players and soccer kickers. Landry's Cowboys became the team people wrote screenplays and MBA dissertations about.

    And Landry became an icon in his own right: stoic, immaculately dressed, a CEO on the sideline who turned winning into more of a process than brawl.

    America came to either love or love to hate Landry's Cowboys. But at their peak—which lasted a generation—even the rowdiest Eagles or Giants fans grudgingly admired them. We just never admitted it.

5. Don Shula, Colts-Dolphins (2 Super Bowl Wins, 6 Conference Championships)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Don Shula was a win or two away from finishing at the top of this list.

    Maybe if his Colts had won Super Bowl III, he would rank first. Or if his Colts had held on to beat Vince Lombardi's Packers in the 1965 divisional round, when halfback Tom Matte was forced to play quarterback in place of injured Johnny Unitas and backup Gary Cuozzo.

    Shula could rank first if his 1964 Colts hadn't been shut out in the championship game by the Browns. Or if the 1982 or 1984 Dolphins weren't taken down by John Riggins and Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. Or even if his 1990s Dolphins teams could have just beaten the Bills and gotten one more crack at the Super Bowl.

    Shula led both the Colts and Dolphins to league championships, though Super Bowl III places an asterisk next to that 1968 title. He coached the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, of course. He coached some of the greatest quarterbacks in history: Unitas, Bob Griese, Dan Marino. But his teams kept reaching the postseason with backups at the helm: Matte, Earl Morrall (twice), the David Woodley-Don Strock platoon of 1982.

    Shula won with all-time great offenses like the 1984 Dolphins, all-time great defenses like the 1968 Colts, and balanced teams like those undefeated Dolphins. His teams won in the Dead Ball Era of the 1970s and after the offensive explosion of the 1980s. Much is (rightfully) made of Bill Belichick's ability to keep a great team together in the free-agency era. But the pre-merger NFL was no picnic, either: Al Davis might lock your first-round pick in a hotel room and stack $100 bills on the table until he signed a contract. Shula, no older than many of his players in that era, kept the Colts together for years.

    Shula won more games than any other NFL coach. At the rate of 12 wins per year, Bill Belichick won't catch him until 2024. But Shula needed just another win or two to climb to the top of this list. And of course, one of the guys at the top kept standing in his way.

4. Bill Walsh, San Francisco 49ers (3 Super Bowl Wins)

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    Associated Press

    Bill Walsh's quiet revolution began as a desperate measure.

    As a Bengals assistant, Walsh had to get through a season with Virgil Carter, the Ryan Fitzpatrick of the early 1970s, at quarterback in place of injured star Greg Cook. Carter had a noodle arm but an engineer's brain, so Walsh designed an offense of three-step drops, quick reads and short throws. The system gave the raging barbarian defenses of the time fits. When Walsh finally got a head coaching opportunity with the 49ers, that short-passing principle became part of an entire football philosophy.

    Walsh's philosophy went well beyond the West Coast Offense. He preached a holistic formula for team success, a culture of leadership, accountability and mutual respect. It was more corporate than military, and the businesslike approach meshed perfectly with an offense that stressed precision, detail and finesse over the slobberknocker tactics and rhetoric of the era.

    But it was the West Coast Offense that spread Walsh's culture to the rest of the league. What a simple concept: Design the offense for the smart, moderately talented quarterback you have instead of the John Elway clone you wish you had. Walsh trained successors like Mike Holmgren, and he spawned copycats. There is now a little bit of Walsh's offense—and the culture it carried on its back—ingrained in the expectations, practice habits, scouting priorities and terminology used by every NFL franchise, as well as most major colleges. 

    It all happened quietly, but relentlessly. Walsh wasn't a shouter or much of a self-promoter. He just went about his business, and that business redefined the game.

3. Paul Brown, Cleveland Browns (3 NFL Championships, 4 AAFC Championships)

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    Associated Press

    Paul Brown invented the playbook when he was a high school coach.

    Inventing the playbook is the football equivalent of inventing the wheel. Brown did it before founding the Browns, before coaching Ohio State, before using military-base football as a strategic laboratory during World War II. Brown modernized the sport before anyone outside of Eastern Ohio had ever heard of him.

    Brown went on to invent or revolutionize just about everything else associated with modern football, from the 40-yard dash to the facemask to the draw play.

    He also integrated professional football, signing two black players to the AAFC without drawing attention to them or himself. Integration was just another smart way to win football games for Brown. His Browns dominated the AAFC so thoroughly that he broke the league before arriving in the NFL and promptly upsetting the league's balance of power.

    Ranking Paul Brown on a countdown of football coaches is like ranking Moses on a list of all-time community organizers. What Brown did for football transcends categorization. The men who rank ahead of him didn't just stand on his shoulders. They were born unto a world he made. Modern football is Paul Brown's game. He's the reason we spend spring afternoons writing and reading countdowns like this one.

2. Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers (2 Super Bowl Wins, 3 NFL Championships)

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    To simplify NFL coaching history into bullet points:

    • George Halas invented it.
    • Paul Brown professionalized it.
    • Bill Walsh refined it.
    • Bill Belichick re-engineered it for the Information Age.

    As for Vince Lombardi, he gave coaching an ethos.

    Whole books, documentaries and award-winning plays have been written about Lombardi, so I will keep the poetics and myth-making to a minimum. Lombardi made the football coach into a societal ideal, a combination father figure and philosopher king. Do you trust football coaches more than politicians? Do you assume that the good ones are more competent at their job than senators? Then you are seeing the shadow of Lombardi, a cultural icon from an era of cultural upheaval.

    The phrase Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing predated Lombardi by many years. Lombardi adjusted the phrase to Winning isn't everything. The will to win is the only thing. A few words separate a callous attitude from an inspiring philosophy. The difference between good and great coaching—between good and great living—can be summed up in the difference between those words. Lombardi won, but he also preached a gospel of winning well. We're all a little better off when we try to lead like Lombardi, in football and in life.

1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots (5 Super Bowl Wins, 7 AFC Championships)

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Every coach is defined by his era. The best coaches define their eras.

    George Halas was the coach pro football needed during the Depression and World War II. Vince Lombardi was the coach the sport needed in the tumultuous 1960s. Joe Gibbs was the perfect coach to weather the work stoppages of the 1980s.

    Bill Belichick is the coach of the new millennium: the era of free agency, the salary cap, 24/7/365 scrutiny and big data analysis. Belichick is the coach who exploits market inefficiencies, who knows how to demand excellence and set expectations without screaming at players who have never been screamed at. He's the coach who manages egos by managing communications, the one who knows what every successful public school teacher now knows: Nothing gets done until everyone puts their smartphones away.

    Belichick was always a master defensive tactician, dating back to his days as Bill Parcells' defensive strategist. But he flunked his interpersonal communications exam at his first coaching stop with the Browns. He adjusted his approach in New England, saving the gruff monosyllables for press conferences. Belichick never let conventional wisdom dictate his coaching decisions, whether it meant scouring the waiver wire for "useless" free agents, simplifying the play-calling process or leaving a Pro Bowl quarterback on the bench in favor of a sixth-round sophomore with a hot hand.

    Belichick's Patriots have become football's Apple or Google: so sleek and successful that they make it look a little sinister. They have dominated for a generation by being so calculating and efficient that they attract both conspiracy theorists and fawning apologists. What could be more definitively 21st century than success despite endless controversy? Allegations and scandals would have whittled away a lesser coach long ago. They just feed Belichick. The more chaotic the league and the nation get, the more remarkable his gift for simultaneously imposing order and inspiring excellence.


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