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Head Coaches, Part 1 – Quickest Path to the Super Bowl: Find a Great Head Coach

Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sure, there have been teams that have played in the big game without having an outstanding head coach. Compiling a fabulous roster of players can on occasion get the job done. Sometimes just a handful of Hall-of-Fame level players can get you there. And once in a while a single transcendent talent – usually but not always a quarterback – can carry an entire team on his shoulders. There are also some years where there is no truly dominant team.

But those are the exceptions. The best way to becoming a Super Bowl contender is to have a great head coach at the helm. A rough definition of greatness would be a coach who’s been to the Super Bowl multiple times, and/or a coach who takes his team into the playoffs around three-fourths of the time.

In my lifetime, the early greats were: Vince Lombardi at Green Bay (60’s); Tom Landry at Dallas (mid-60’s through 80’s); Don Shula at Miami (70’s); Chuck Noll at Pittsburgh (70’s); Bud Grant at Minnesota (70’s); Joe Gibbs at Washington (80’s); Joe Walsh at San Francisco (1983-88); Marv Levy at Buffalo (80’s and 90’s); George Seifert at San Francisco (90’s); Jimmie Johnson at Dallas (90’s); and Mike Holmgren at Green Bay (90’s);

Since Holmgren, the only names I see are: Mike Shanahan at Denver (mid-90’s to mid-2000’s); Tony Dungy at Indianapolis (2002-08); Pete Carroll at Seattle (2012-18); Andy Reid at Philadelphia (1999-2010) and Kansas City (2013-present); and Bill Belichick at New England (2000’s to present). It seems that it keeps getting tougher to keep an NFL team at or near the top for any considerable length of time.

According to my parameters, there’s only been a dozen or so great coaches since the advent of what came to be called the Super Bowl. But those coaches consistently fielded highly competitive teams while they were at the top of their games – an important distinction, for most of them were not able to sustain their greatness as they aged.

I have a theory why the importance of a head coach is under-appreciated. At any given time, there are maybe four great coaches in the NFL. There are also around eight or so lousy head coaches. That leaves around 20 mediocre, or unexceptional, head coaches.

For the most part, those 20 unexceptional HCs preside over unexceptional teams. Think of it this way: those 20 teams are playing as we should expect: right up to the abilities of their head coaches.

As to the eight or so incompetent HCs, they fairly quickly lose their jobs. We seldom pause to think that those teams, too, are playing up to the abilities of their top guy. How many times do we see teams fire a lousy coach, and almost immediately show a marked improvement with a new coach – even if the new guy is not exceptional (but not lousy)?

The question becomes: were these unfortunate coaches saddled with inferior players, or were those losing records primarily due to having a lousy head coach? I think it’s mostly the latter.

Last year we saw Chicago switch from John Fox to Mike Nagy, and the Bears went from 5-11 to 12-4. In 2017, we saw the Rams go from 4-12 under Jeff Fisher to 11-5 under Sean McVay. The great turnaround that senior Packers fans got to experience was of course the Packers going from 1-10-1 under Ray McLean to Vince Lombardi leading them to 7-5 in 1959.

I’m finding it hard to overestimate the importance of having a top-notch head coach.

Does anyone doubt that the 33-year-old McVay will be in the hunt for the Super Bowl more often than not over the next decade – or two or three?

Or how about Anthony Ray Lynn? Green Bay fans are probably not real familiar with what goes on with the Chargers, or even where they are playing of late. Head coach Mike McCoy took the team to a 5-11 record in 2016. Replacing him was Anthony Lynn, who got the team to 9-7 in 2017. Then in 2018, he upped the mark to 12-4 – and into the playoffs for only the second time since 2009. In a few years, the sports world might be talking more about Lynn than McVay.

I see that many forecasters are predicting even better things for the 50-year-old African American and his mates in 2019. By the way, the Chargers will play their home games at Dignity Health Sports Park until the 2020 opening of the Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park, which they’ll share with the Rams. One of the Chargers’ home games this year will be against the Packers – get your tickets early, as the stadium’s capacity is only around 30,000. And be sure to head toward Carson, California, not L.A. or San Diego.

Great coaches excel despite adversity. Personnel come and go, but the winning continues. Injuries abound, but the beat goes on. And after a great coach departs, more often than not, that team quickly returns to mediocrity.

In selecting Matt LaFleur, the Packers selected a coach with great possibilities. We’ll see how it all unfolds.

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Rob Born

Someone else said it first but I popularized it: “Athleticism is important in athletic pursuits.” It took three years, but the Packers finally listened. My new mantra: “Trading down is fine, but never trade up.”

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10 Comments

  1. Howard April 6, 2019

    Rob, what do you think about Tom Coughlin being added into that since Holmgren group of coaches?

    1. Robster April 6, 2019

      Borderline. I didn’t try to apply my parameters (post-season 3/4ths of time, multiple Super Bowl appearances) In an unusually long career of 21 years, he won the only two SBs he reached. His best stretch (1996-2008), he went post-season 4 straight with JAX, missed the next 4, then went to playoffs four more times in a row with the Giants. One post-season in his last 7 left him with an unimpressive .531 win percentage overall. He stayed on a bit too long, which marred his reputation, but he had a an extensive run of greatness.

  2. Savage57 April 7, 2019

    A couple of thoughts.

    As you’re well aware, almost all of the early coaches you cite never had to deal with free agency. The one’s who followed that did also had iconic QB’s who led them to Super Bowl wins, except Andy, who didn’t and who didn’t.

    Nagy and McVay both had very high-draft capital QB’s bolstered by rosters which were augmented by liberal spending on free agent acquisition due mostly to their comparatively meager QB cap hits.

    So, yeah, they were good, but in the prior case they sustained that excellence on a playing field that’s not level with today’s and whether or not Nagy/McVay can sustain it is TBD.

    1. PF4L April 7, 2019

      Yes Sir.

      I think a good head coach is very important, but if you don’t have talent, in most cases it doesn’t matter.

      With iconic multiple Championship winning coaches, they all have one thing in common, they all have had franchise players. Who had more talent to work with than Phil Jackson? Take guys like Chuck Noll, Pat Riley, Bill Walsh, etc. All had highly skilled talent.

  3. Deepsky April 7, 2019

    I’m of the belief that any good coach can win a Super Bowl and that player procurement is far more important.

    There are many Super Bowl winning coaches that moved on to other teams and never had the same results. If Jimmy Johnson was such great coach, why didn’t he win in Miami? If Holmgren was such great coach, why didn’t he win in Seattle? Is Seifert was such a great coach why didn’t he win in Carolina?

    And there are average or worse coaches who have won Super Bowls with Super Bowl talented teams.

    Lombardi won because the Packers had Vianasi, who redefined how scouting was performed. What Vainasi learned, he passed on to his brother, who built the Super Bowl winning Bears.

    Jimmy Johnson won because of the Hershel Walker and Steve Walsh trades.

    Holmgren won because the Packers were one of the few teams under the salary cap in 1993 allowing them to pay Reggie White more than any other team.

    Bill Polian was GM of the Bills in the 80s. He went on to the Colts and they won a Super Bowl with him as GM.

    The Steelers have had a long history of great GMs.

    Nowadays team do so much professional scouting, its much more difficult for teams to get separation from other teams.

  4. PF4L April 7, 2019

    This is why i believe Belichik is by far the greatest coach, who ever coached

    Sure he has had Brady, a 6th round pick. But…i think it’s safe to say Belichick had a hand in grooming Brady to be the QB he is today. But that’s not the genius of Belichick.

    The genius is he constantly produces winning teams with ever evolving rosters. the reason for that is, he’s also in charge of player acquisition and he is at another level over most GM’s in finding people at a team friendly cost to fill roles. A player isn’t signed, or let go without his stamp.

    If you can’t produce for Belichick, he will send you packing and find someone in short order that can help him. Where weak teams sometimes take years and years just to fix one position.

    Belichick is almost always used as the template for excellence in coaching at it’s highest level. The reason for that is he’s earned it.

    There are many more facets to Belichick’s coaching style that put him above the rest, but you get the picture.

    You will never hear Belichick tell you how successful he is. Other people tell him that

    1. Jason Parker April 7, 2019

      As much as I despise the Patriots, I think you are correct.

    2. Ferris April 7, 2019

      Imagine him saying..”I’m a highly successful coach.” No he won’t he lets his results talk, like every successful person should do. He picks the right players and they play better on his team. They leave there and they are average again. He is the best, no matter how much people hate him and are tired of the Pats winning. That is what a dynasty is…just like GB before I was born.

    3. Deepsky April 8, 2019

      I think the greatness of the Patriots doesn’t come from Belichick but in his secretive “Football Research Director” Ernie Adams. His statistical (or other) research is the reason why Brady and company know what the other team is going to run.

      Look up some of the stuff this guy has done. He was involved in Spygate and lot of other things. Plus he hires folks from MIT to help him out.

  5. PF4L April 8, 2019

    And yet….another way to look at it.