The Top Five Series: NFL head coaches

The final entry in the all-time Top Five Series covers head coaches. Check out the past iterations of the series, covering quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers.

Honorable Mention: Joe Gibbs
Team: Washington
154–94 career record, 17–7 playoff record, three championships

It’s hard to remember a time when the Washington Football Team wasn’t an abject disaster, but long before Dan Snyder drove the franchise into the ground, Joe Gibbs was coaching Washington to an incredible run of success.

Washington dominated the NFC East in the 1980s thanks to Gibbs. An abrupt retirement in 1992 appeared to take Gibbs away from the game, but the legendary coach returned to the nation’s capitol in 2004. Gibbs led the team to the playoffs twice in four seasons, accounting for 40 percent of the team’s postseason appearances under Snyder’s embarrassing stewardship.

5. Don Shula
Teams: Baltimore Colts, Miami Dolphins
328–156–6 career record, 19–17 playoff record, two championships

Only one coach in NFL history has completed an undefeated season. That coach also happens to own the NFL record for most career victories and is the only coach to lead two different teams to the Super Bowl.

Any one of those accomplishments would have made Don Shula a legend. Over 33 seasons, Shula won 328 games with the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins, leading the Colts to Super Bowl III and the ‘Fins to five more appearances in the NFL’s biggest game. Miami’s 1972 team capped off its 17–0 season by defeating Washington, 14–7, in Super Bowl VII, a feat that hasn’t been matched since.

4. Bill Walsh
Team: San Francisco 49ers
92–59–1 career record, 10–4 playoff record, three championships

No coach in NFL history had a bigger impact on the game than Bill Walsh.

Walsh created the West Coast offense, a system that completely revolutionized the game in the 1980s. The scheme dominated the league and is still in place today, with Walsh’s 49ers currently running a version of the scheme under head coach Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan is widely considered one of the best offensive minds in the NFL today, proving the timelessness of Walsh’s offense.

Offensive innovation wasn’t Walsh’s only contribution to the game. Walsh may have the most successful coaching tree in NFL history. Two Super Bowl-winning coaches (George Seifert and Mike Holmgren) worked directly under Walsh, while 11 (!) additional coaches with Super Bowl appearances can trace their lineage back to Walsh.

3. Vince Lombardi
Teams: Green Bay Packers, Washington
96–34–6 career, 9–1 playoff record, five championships

The mythologizing of Green Bay’s legendary head coach makes it hard to remember he only coached for 10 seasons.

Those 10 seasons were pretty damn impressive, though. All five of Lombardi’s NFL championships came in a seven-year stretch that started with a 37–0 shellacking of the New York Giants in 1961. Lombardi’s only postseason loss came in his first foray into championship football, a 17–13 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

Cancer tragically took Lombardi’s life in 1970, when the legendary coach was only 57 years old. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle shortly thereafter named the league’s championship trophy after him, and the Vince Lombardi Trophy has been synonymous with excellence ever since.

2. George Halas
Team: Chicago Bears
318–148–31 career record, 6–3 playoff record, six championships

The NFL wouldn’t exist without George Halas.

Halas, along with a number of other men largely located in Ohio, founded what became the National Football League in the fall of 1920. “Papa Bear” took control of the Decatur Staleys in 1921, moved the team to Chicago and renamed them the Bears one year later.

The team found immediate success under Halas, winning its first NFL championship immediately after moving to Chicago. Halas would lead the Bears to five more championships before retiring in 1967. The stories behind some of Halas’ championships are nothing short of remarkable.

Chicago won the NFL title in Halas’ first season back in charge after Halas walked away from coaching for three seasons in the early-1930s. The Bears also won a title immediately after Halas skipped three seasons to serve in World War II. Halas’ final title came in 1963, 17 years after his penultimate championship.

The Bears were always a force with Halas patrolling the sidelines. Chicago finished with a winning record in 34 of Halas’ 40 seasons in charge and were considered one of the league’s earliest powerhouses throughout Halas’ iconic time as head coach.

  1. Bill Belichick
    Teams: Cleveland Browns, New England Patriots
    273–127 career record, 31–12 playoff record, six championships

Bill Belichick is untouchable.

He’s the best to ever coach in the NFL and nobody else is particularly close. At the pace he has maintained over a quarter century in coaching, Belichick will break Don Shula’s career victory record in no more than six years. Belichick has more Super Bowl victories than any coach other than Shula has appearances in the game and has 11 more playoff wins than Tom Landry, who is second on the all-time list. Only eight other coaches in NFL history have more than 11 career playoff victories.

Belichick’s Patriots are the only dynasty in NFL history to span two decades and you’re crazy to say it is definitively over. As far as we know, Belichick will rejuvenate Cam Newton’s career and the Pats will continue dominating the AFC in perpetuity. Time is a flat circle and the Patriots are inevitable.

They’re inevitable because Belichick is the only man in NFL history to be a good coach and general manager at the same time. Every other coach who has tried has generally been terrible at one, or both, jobs (see: Bill O’Brien) but Belichick is simultaneously the best coach ever and a top-five GM in 2020. It should be impossible to do this and Belichick has done it for 20 years.

Bill Belichick is peerless. He is, far and away, the best coach in NFL history, and he’s not done yet.

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