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Top 10 Coaches in NFL History

photo by Alexander Jonesi, 2019, CC 2.0

More than any other major team sport, the game of football requires strategy. The presence of 22 men on the field at any given time creates countless combinations of play calls and results. With so many potential outcomes, it takes a tremendous amount of knowledge to bring order to this chaos. It also takes a great leader and teacher to impart this knowledge to his players. The 10 men on this list have mastered their craft better than any others in the NFL’s first 100 years.

1) Bill Belichick, 1991-95, 2000-present

No coach has done more with less than the 6-time Super Bowl champion. Belichick’s teams are not stacked with superstar talent, nor are his rosters filled with high-priced free agents. Instead, his teams are filled with players who are a perfect fit for his system. Belichick’s schemes are effective because they are highly adaptable. This ability to adapt requires intense preparation from both coaches and players, and no team is more prepared than the New England Patriots. Another attribute that sets Belichick apart is his competitive drive. Despite appearing in nine Super Bowls since 2001, his Patriot teams are never complacent. It’s why they continue to win despite frequent roster turnover. Even without his one constant, Tom Brady, Belichick has a 14-6 record. Since 2001, the Patriots are a remarkable 233-72 in the regular season, with 19 consecutive winning records and 17 division titles along the way.

2) Vince Lombardi, 1959-67, 69

Lombardi was arguably the greatest motivator in the history of American sports. Not only did his Green Bay Packer teams win five NFL titles over a 7-year span in the 1960s, but his players would also achieve success after retiring from football. On and off the field, Lombardi taught his players to seek out perfection in the hope of catching excellence. His scheme represented complexity within simplicity, featuring fewer plays but with more options built into those plays. Lombardi built his roster with highly coachable and intelligent players who he could trust to make the right decisions on the field. It worked, particularly on the biggest stage. In the postseason, Lombardi posted a 9-1 record, the highest winning percentage of any coach in NFL history.

3) Paul Brown, 1946-62, 68-75

Brown was perhaps the greatest innovator the game has ever seen. He used intelligence tests to rate his own players, revolutionized film study, and was the first to hire a year-round, full-time coaching staff. He also devised the strategy of using guards as messengers, so he could call plays from the sidelines. Aside from being an innovator, Brown was also a winner. Between the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and the NFL, the Cleveland Browns appeared in 10 straight league championship games, winning four in the AAFC and three in the NFL. After leading his namesake team for 17 years, Brown helped put the expansion Cincinnati Bengals on the map with three playoff appearances in the early seventies.

4) Bill Walsh, 1979-88

Walsh has influenced the current NFL more than any other coach. His West Coast offense, which was designed around shorter pass patterns and precision timing, has made the passing game more efficient. It would be hard to find a current team that doesn’t use some aspect of the West Coast offense. Off the field, Walsh revolutionized the protection of player health, utilizing shorter more focused practices, and having practices without pads. On Sundays, Walsh’s teams were fresh and ready to dominate. They did just that, winning three Super Bowls between 1981 and 88. Using Walsh’s system, assistant George Seifert would add two more championships in 1989 and 94.

5) Earl “Curly” Lambeau, 1921-53

The founder of the Green Bay Packers actually preceded the NFL, beginning his career as Packers coach in 1919, one year before the league’s founding. Lambeau was one of the game’s early innovators, pioneering daily practices, flights to road games, and most importantly, the passing offense. Along with Hall of Fame receiver Don Hutson, Lambeau invented the modern pass pattern, and made the forward pass more than just a novelty play. In his first 27 years in the NFL, Lambeau had only one losing season. He also won six league championships, including a three-peat from 1929-31, one of only two coaches to achieve that feat in the NFL.

6) George Halas, 1920-29, 33-42, 46-55, 58-67

No person was more instrumental in building the NFL than Halas. In addition to being one of the league’s co-organizers in 1920, he was also a player, coach and owner for the Chicago Bears. Along with Lambeau, Halas was the first coach to hold daily practice sessions. He was also the first to utilize film study of his opponents, to broadcast his team’s games on the radio, and is credited with perfecting the T-formation with a man in motion. In four stints spanning five decades as Bears coach, Halas compiled a 318-148-31 regular season record, and won six NFL championships.

7) Don Shula, 1963-95

No coach has won more games as an NFL coach than Shula. The Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins Hall of Famer won 328 games in 33 years, with only two losing seasons along the way. A coaching chameleon, Shula adjusted his strategy based on the strengths of his players. In the 1970s, the Dolphins featured a stout defense and the two-headed rushing attack of Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris. In the 1980s, Shula’s Dolphins set NFL passing records with quarterback Dan Marino. But his crowning achievement came in 1972 when Miami became the only undefeated and untied team in league history at 17-0.

8) Chuck Noll, 1969-91

Noll is responsible for perhaps the biggest franchise turnaround in NFL history. In their first 34 years of existence, the Pittsburgh Steelers made only one playoff appearance. From 1972-84, the Steelers made the playoffs 11 times, including winning four Super Bowls in six years from 1974-79. A soft-spoken but confident leader, Noll ran an aggressive defense that often used unorthodox techniques to frustrate opposing offenses. He was also a master at building through the draft, selecting nine Hall of Famers between 1969-76, including a record four in 1974 alone.

9) Tom Landry, 1960-88

Landry shaped the NFL game like few others from the 1960s to the 1980s. He introduced the flex defense and multiple offense in the sixties, restructured the spread offense in the seventies, and helped develop the situation substitution concept in the eighties. Landry’s innovations helped lead the Dallas Cowboys to 20 straight winning seasons from 1966-85, including 13 division titles, five Super Bowl appearances and two NFL championships.

10) Bill Parcells, 1983-90, 93-99, 2003-06

A success wherever he went, Parcells is the only coach in NFL history to lead four different teams to the playoffs. An outstanding defensive coach who perfected the 3-4 defense, Parcells’ “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” brought two Super Bowl championships to the New York Giants in 1986 and 1990. He also led the New England Patriots to their first Super Bowl appearance in 11 years, took a 1-15 New York Jets team to 12-4 and the AFC title game in only two years, and led the Dallas Cowboys to the playoffs twice.

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