With the NFL kicking off Thursday, I thought it a good time to consider the best coaches ever. A couple of observations in advance:
— these coaches aren’t the screamers; they may be “in charge” guys but see that managing/coaching is a lot more than mantras and yelling;
— these rankings aren’t based on my opinion; they take into account the team’s winning percentage during the coach’s tenure, the performance of the team before the coach arrived, the GM, the owner, the city, and expansion teams (the academic piece behind them is available here); they aren’t perfect, as no such statistically-driven results are, but they are transparent and data-driven;
— small differences in rankings matter little; readers sometimes get worked up over “how that guy can be ranked above this guy” when they differ by two spots; the point is, both are highly rated;
— the rankings are based on data up through the 2011 season and impose a 10-year minimum tenure requirement to make the list
1. John Madden (Oakland Raiders 1969-78): known to many younger fans as only an announcer and by-gone coach, he boasted a 76% winning record. His teams reached the AFL/AFC Championship game 7 times and won a Super Bowl. By current accounting, reaching the Championship game so frequently without more Super Bowl appearances can count as failure. My method doesn’t incorporate any such silly punishment for success. By these methods, Madden’s contribution netted the Raiders about 2 wins more per season than an average coach.
2. Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys 1960-88): Landry’s business apparel, stoic demeanor, and winning ways with the team that people loved or hated made him both a respected and reviled figure in his coaching prime among fans and media, although mostly universally respected by the end of his tenure. From 1966-1982, his teams reached the NFL/NFC Championship Game an incredible 12 times, visited 5 Super Bowls and won two of them. Along with GM Tex Schramm, Landry can be credited with some of the earliest uses of data-analytic methods to evaluate talent and opponents — methods that are now in widespread use. He likely stayed on a bit too long as his innovative ideas and evaluation skills began to wane, lowering his career winning percentage by the end.
3. Tony Dungy (Tampa Bay Bucs 1996-2001, Indianapolis Colts 2002-08): In Tampa Dungy took over a club without a winning record in 14 years and turned it into a regular playoff team (and a Super Bowl winner after his departure). The Colts went to the AFC Championship 3 times during his tenure and brought Super Bowl trophy back to Indy in the 2006 season. He is the antithesis of the maniacal-screaming coach. Thoughtful, controlled but smart, hard-working, and forceful in a quiet way.
4. Bill Belichick: (Cleveland Browns 1991-95, New England Patriots 2000-present): To NFL fans Belichick’s record requires little explanation — 3 Super Bowl victories and 3 more AFC Championship Game trips during his stay in New England. His rating would likely be higher but for the fact that the Patriots were a decent team when he arrived and his record in Cleveland was less than stellar. It appears he learned some valuable lessons in Cleveland, but, most importantly, he displayed the good sense to insert Tom Brady when Drew Bledsoe came up injured and never went back.
5. Don Shula (Baltimore Colts 1963-69, Miami Dolphins 1970-95): Shula’s coaching career mirrors that of Tom Landry in many respects but extended even longer. His teams went to 8 AFC Championships, won two Super Bowls, and posted a perfect 17-0 season in 1972. Incredibly, he suffered only 2 losing seasons out of 33. That figure alone should put someone on the list who witnessed a variety of players as well as swings in rules and strategic philosophies on offense and defense.
Honorable Mention: Marty Schottenheimer (the coach of many good but not great teams), Joe Gibbs (3 super bowls with 3 different QBs, likely higher had he not come out of retirement), George Allen (see Schottenheimer); Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll (two Pittsburgh icons). To me, Noll’s record is a lot like that of Lombardi (or Madden for that matter), very impressive but his success was with one core group of players making it hard to assess relative to longer-tenured coaches. (Note: George Seifert also ranks highly in the data but I’ve discounted him on this list because he really continued an existing dynasty).
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