Is a coach defined by their era? In that case, can we argue that a great coach defines their era? The man on the sidelines can certainly be the difference between winning and losing a game, but some are worth more than that. Some coaches become synonymous with a franchise, often epitomizing the codes and values that the team lives by. A great period or legacy can often come down to the coach, and that has never been disputed.
As eras have played out and the game has progressed, coaches of the modern era owe a lot of their craft to the greats of yesteryear. NFL legends like Don Shula and Vince Lombardi revolutionized the game in their respective eras, while Bill Belichick continues to demonstrate how organization and consistency are closely related to a ferocious appetite for mastering the game like a wartime strategist approaches each battle.
It is not just in preparation where a great coach finds their strengths. The ability to adapt and overcome is something that every great leader must possess. Maintaining discipline and managing each man is another. Creating plays based on each player’s strengths – and their perceived weaknesses – is yet another of the finer traits associated with the true winners who make franchises great.
The coach has always been responsible for handling multiple tasks. Even with a star quarterback in their team, the coach is akin to the great director of a movie set: getting the best out of the stellar actor requires a deep understanding of that person. Additionally, each and every other player must perform in unison for the director, if they are to create a masterpiece, game by game.
Below, I have listed the five men I believe to be the greatest coaches in NFL history. Once I made my case for each, I am hoping that you will agree with my picks.
There is a clear distinction between the right way and the wrong way. However, to this coach’s players, the right way might as well have been called the Paul Brown way. Brown is credited with instigating a new way of looking at football and is widely regarded as the man who created the football playbook. A methodical coach who was incredibly dedicated to the smallest of details, Brown’s legend is found in his obsession.
The Norwalk, Ohio-native is perhaps best known for his pioneering efforts while in charge of the Cleveland Browns, but the truth is, he was trailblazing in football coaching long before. Brown was the head coach of Ohio State prior to his NFL career and had coached two schools in Ohio prior to this. At a time when World War II was in full flow, Brown was creating new ways to gain an upper hand in the sport.
The legendary coach’s contribution to football cannot be ignored. He was the co-founder and Coach of the Cleveland Browns – the “Browns” part being named after him – and invented many aspects of the game we know and love today. For example, he was the first coach to scout opponents with footage of previous games; the first to use a practice squad; he was the pioneer of draw play; he was also the inventor of the face mask.
Brown will always be known as the man who brought football to another level. He was also responsible for helping to integrate the sport by signing black players to the AAFC. As such, you would not be criticized for thinking that Brown was loved by one and all. Quite the contrary: the coach was very divisive and earned his fair share of detractors, from players angry at not receiving what they felt they ought to be paid from others who felt disrespected at his strict and controlling demeanor.
Aside from co-founding the Cleveland Browns, helping to found the Cincinnati Bengals, and basically creating the foundation of modern-day football, Brown also achieved a lot in his time as a coach.
In the 1978 season, the one prior to the arrival of Bill Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers could only manage a poor record of 2–14. Walsh’s first season at the helm produced exactly the same record. That was until something clicked for the team, of course. Walsh had a specific plan in mind for the 49ers, and this was something that appeared to gain traction with the signing of Joe Montana from Notre Dame.
Montana got his chance to shine under Walsh when starting quarterback Steve De Berg was pulled following a 59-14 destruction at the hands of Dallas. Montana’s first game was against New Orleans Saints, and he helped the team come from behind at 35-7 to win 38-35 in overtime. The 49ers continued to make progress and showed the signs of a team that was finding their stride in the league.
Behind the progress was a team completely buying into Walsh’s philosophy. His plan of employing an offense based on three-step drops, quick reads, and short throws contributed to a philosophy that would go on to inspire a complete turnaround of the team. By injecting confidence, togetherness, congruity, and responsibility into players, the 49ers would become a solid unit capable of beating any team on their day. It took time, but the West Coast Offense created by Walsh took the NFL by storm.
Unlike Brown, Walsh was more mild-mannered and content with keeping the limelight off his work. Regardless, he ended with an overall record of 102–63–1 at San Francisco. He won six division titles, three NFC Championships, and three Super Bowls, claiming the NFL Coach of the Year accolade in 1981 and 1984. Walsh, like Brown, was an innovator and serial winner and has to go down as one of the truly great coaches of all time.
Walsh is one of the most successful and revered coaches in the history of NFL and is credited with the revolutionary West Coast Offense. Additionally, Walsh has three Super Bowls to his name, among other achievements.
If any coach has ever been close to perfection, that coach must be Don Shula. Well, he is the only coach in the history of the NFL to lead a team to a perfect season. In 1972, the Miami Dolphins – under the guidance of Shula – set the bar for how to win every game in a season. This statistic alone is certainly enough to credit Shula with his place in the pantheon of the greatest coaches of all time, even if it is just scratching the surface.
Shula’s legend knows no bounds. He won more games than any other NFL coach in history and displayed how exceptional offense can often be the best form of defense. When we think of incredible attacking plays, there is no doubt that the Dolphins class of 1984 is up there with the best. Shula was far from a gung-ho coach, however, as his 1968 Colts team showed. In short, he was a great all-around coach and mastermind of football.
When we consider coaches that improved consistently throughout their career, Shula has to be your man. Over the course of 33-years as a head coach, the Grand River, Ohio-native put together 19 playoff appearances with six Super Bowl appearances. He emerged victorious with the Dolphins in 1972 and 1973, with the losing appearance in 1971 making him the first coach in NFL history to reach three Super Bowls in a row.
What made Shula so special was the manner of how he would make the smallest inches count. He was a shrewd operator, too, as his decision to leave the field uncovered overnight in torrential rain before the 1983 AFC Championship Game showed. By doing so, Shula negated the Jets’ defense and capitalized on the sluggish conditions. Such small margins in sports can make a huge difference, and this is something the savvy coach only knew too well.
Shula is a two-time Super Bowl and multiple championship winner. He is believed to be one of the finest coaches of all time, evidenced by his record-breaking 328 wins as a coach and his lengthy list of honors and accolades.
When Bill Belichick was fired from his first coaching job at the Cleveland Browns, no one would have expected him to come back as strong as he did. For Belichick, he went back to the drawing board, taking the assistant head coach and defensive backs coordinator role at the New England Patriots before assuming the role of assistant head coach and defensive coordinator with the Jets. In 2000, following a weird one-day role as head coach of the Jets, Belichick took over at the Patriots.
Since 2000, the Pats have established themselves as the team of the 21st century. Behind the 5 Super Bowl victories is the philosophy Belichick brought to the franchise. In the age of the salary cap and a whole host of new demands, the Nashville, Tennessee-native has steered a powerful ship by way of peerless leadership skills. Respect, honor, and responsibility have been the foundations of that philosophy, one which has produced some incredible NFL football along the way.
While Belichick was regarded for his defensive prowess, the Patriots have demonstrated some incredible offensive plays over the years. Behind their force as a franchise is Belichick’s unwavering dedication to preparation. Additionally, that preparation comes with enough fluidity to allow for adaptation at the last minute. Belichick was honing such a philosophy as a child, and it certainly shows.
No team finds themselves with 5 Super Bowl victories. There is no doubt that Belichick is the catalyst for the precision-based, comprehensive football that the Patriots have become known for. He is certainly one of the greatest leaders of all the NFL coaches that have come and gone over the years. When the curtain comes down on the Belichick and Patriots partnership, that will be a sad day for football.
Belichick’s legacy is set in stone. He is widely regarded as one of the very best coaches in NFL history, with some claiming that he is the ultimate coach of all time. With 5 Super Bowl wins, 8 AFC championships, and numerous other accolades, it is hard to argue with that claim.
When the Super Bowl winners collect their trophy, it is perhaps fitting that Vince Lombardi’s name is on it. The legendary coach summed up what it meant to be a leader and an inspirational figure for those around him. Players loved him and wanted to perform for him. He summed up the winning ethos that the Green Bay Packers became synonymous with in the 1960s.
When Lombardi took over at the Green Bay Packers in 1959, they were a struggling franchise. By the next decade, they were the benchmark of pro football. Lombardi’s deep understanding of football and strategic mindset helped guide the Packers to 5 championships in just 9 seasons. Green Bay won the first two Super Bowls, establishing them as the greatest team of the era.
It was an incredible turn of fortunes for the Packers, who had not registered over .500 since 1947. In Lombardi’s first season, the franchise went 7-5, which was the highest return in a season for the Packers since 1944. His influence on the Packers was incredible and there was no doubt that the revolution at The Pack was down to his supreme leadership and incredible football brain.
Lombardi passed away after a short battle with cancer in September 1970, aged just 57. At the time of his death, the Brooklyn-native had a winning percentage of .738, with an overall record of 105–35–6. As legendary as it gets, Lombardi is still very much loved and revered by football fans, almost 50 years after his death. The greatest of all time? There are many who believe the Green Bay legend is that man.
Lombardi is one of the most influential coaches in NFL history. He is widely regarded as the greatest of all time. The New Yorker won the first two Super Bowls and collected 5 championship wins while at head coach of Green Bay Packers. His legacy is set in stone.
The five coaches above are widely regarded as the most influential and successful coaches ever seen in the NFL. These men redefined what football was (and is) in their respective eras, cultivating a path traveled by their successors and creating legacies for franchises to savor. Whether it was revolutionary plays or inspirational leadership, these legendary coaches will always have a place in the hearts and minds of millions.
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