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.