By: Bob George
DENVER — Bill Belichick is one of the all-time greatest coaches in NFL history. Some of you might wonder “how great”.
On the advent of his eighth AFC Championship Game as Patriot head coach, it might give everyone around these parts pause to consider what Belichick’s place in history really is. Everyone knows that this might be his finest coaching year. It adds to an already impressive and potentially immortal legacy.
Bill Belichick already ranks among the best coaches in NFL history.
(USA TODAY Images)
Exactly what that legacy is is still a work in progress. The body of work has not yet been completed. How much gets added to it over the next two weeks is huge. In the big picture, if Belichick can take this bunch of Patriots and at least get them to the Super Bowl, it will elevate Belichick higher up on the highest pantheon of great coaches in NFL history.
But this is only scratching the surface. A better way of stating what Belichick has done and is currently doing is to examine other coaching runs that either do or might compare to the long run of success that Belichick has enjoyed in Foxborough. Nothing prior to the advent of the AFL in 1960 really rates other than a little run of titles in the 1940s by George Halas and the Chicago Bears. So, in the last 53 years of the NFL/AFL, here are the greatest runs of success by head coaches.
Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers, 1961-67
They named the big trophy after this guy for a reason.
Lombardi took over the Packers in 1959. The following year, he lost the NFL Championship Game to the Philadelphia Eagles, and vowed never to lose another postseason game ever again. And he never did.
The Packers won the NFL Championship Game in 1961 and 1962. The Giants and Browns won titles in the following two years. Lombardi brought the Packers back to the 1965 title game and vowed to win three NFL titles in a row.
He did just that. He won the 1965 NFL Championship Game, then proceeded to win the first two Super Bowls. Under intense pressure from everyone associated with the NFL, Lombardi guided the Packers to a 35-10 win over Kansas City in Super Bowl I. Then he closed out his Packer career with a 33-14 win over Oakland in Super Bowl II to complete the trifecta.
Sadly, Lombardi died two years later of colon cancer. But his run of five championships in seven seasons is unparalleled in NFL history. If you had to make a list of the best coaches in NFL history, this typewriter puts him at the top of the list.
Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974-79
The Steelers did squat for 40 years. Then in 1969, Noll and Mean Joe Greene came along, and Terry Bradshaw the following year, and things changed in the Steel City.
The Steelers as we know them today began with the famous Immaculate Reception game, but that was only the Divisional Round as Pittsburgh would go on to lose to the undefeated Miami Dolphin team of 1972. It wasn’t until 1974 that the Steelers finally got Art Rooney the Holy Grail of the NFL, winning Super Bowl IX, 16-6 over Minnesota. Watching Rooney hold aloft the Lombardi Trophy remains one of the most satisfying scenes in Super Bowl history.
This begat four Super Bowl wins over the next six seasons. They won Super Bowl X, 21-17 over Dallas, then later beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII, 35-31. They beat the Los Angeles Rams the following year in Super Bowl XIV, 31-19. Twice in six years they won back-to-back Super Bowls. Noll remains the only head coach in NFL history to win four Super Bowls. The Steelers of Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have had their great days, but they cannot match the sustained success of Noll and the Steel Curtain defense.
Bill Walsh, San Francisco 49ers, 1981-88
Walsh studied under Paul Brown as an assistant coach, and in the process invented something called the West Coast offense. When he became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, he made Joe Montana the focal point of his offensive game plan and designed it around Montana and the West Coast offense.
The result was a Super Bowl XVI win over Cincinnati, 26-21, and an eight-season run of greatness that would produce two more Super Bowl wins and the elevation of Montana to the highest of pantheons in quarterback history. Of course, Montana would have some help in the form of Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, Dwight Clark and many other bit players (no, this is not calling Rice a “bit player”, so stop screaming).
The 49ers would contend all throughout the 1980s. They reached the mountaintop again in 1984 when they defeated Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX, 38-16. Three years later, in one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever, the 49ers staged a late rally and defeated Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII, 20-16 on Montana’s late touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left.
Walsh retired following the game, and successor George Seifert led the 49ers to a win in Super Bowl XXIV the following season, 55-10 over Denver, which remains the most lopsided win and the highest point total by one team in a Super Bowl game. You could still put this game in the Walsh category, and Seifert would get his “own” Super Bowl win five years later, 49-26 over San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX with Steve Young throwing a still-record six touchdown passes.
Joe Gibbs, Washington Redskins, 1982-91
The NFL played a strike-shortened season in 1982, and the Redskins won their first Super Bowl ever against Miami in Super Bowl XVII, 27-17. Gibbs got on the NFL radar screen that season, though that game was more famous for John Riggins than Gibbs. Five years later, Gibbs got his team back into the Super Bowl against Denver in Super Bowl XXII. Thanks to a 35-point second quarter, the Redskins beat the Broncos, 42-10. Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to win Super Bowl MVP. Then four years after that, Gibbs won his third Super Bowl, this time with Mark Rypien at quarterback. They beat Buffalo, 37-24 in Super Bowl XXVI.
That’s three championships with three different quarterbacks. Each of the previous coaches mentioned used only one quarterback during their run of glory (Tom Brady, Bart Starr, Bradshaw, Montana). Joe Theismann won Gibbs’ first Super Bowl, preceding Williams and Rypien. Gibbs is still remembered as one of the finest coaches in recent memory, but his run of success is just a little bit different than the others. He had two different stints as Redskin head coach; he had eight double-digit win seasons in his first run, but came back in the 2000s to coach mostly mediocre teams.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots, 2001-present
He began as a humble assistant in Detroit, became the most heralded defensive coordinator of his day in New York, cut his head coaching teeth in Cleveland, then came to New England to try and finish the job his mentor Bill Parcells started in the 1990s.
Belichick won Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXXIX. He is tied with Gibbs and Walsh for the second most Super Bowl wins by a head coach with three, trailing only Noll. He has been to five Super Bowls, which is tied with Tom Landry for second most, and trails only Don Shula with six. This is the sort of rarefied air Belichick is in. The Patriots themselves can tie Dallas and Pittsburgh for most Super Bowl appearances all time with eight if they win on Sunday, and Belichick’s fingerprints are all over that.
Okay, so Belichick hasn’t won the big one in nine seasons. But this long run of success is going on thirteen seasons now. Noll coached Pittsburgh for 23 seasons but never got close to the Super Bowl again after 1979. Gibbs coached Washington for 16 seasons overall. These guys have Belichick on longevity. Gibbs’ run of eight 10-win seasons in nine years is pretty darned good. Belichick is working right now on 11 10-win seasons in a row and 12 of the last 13.
As stated earlier, more is still to come from Belichick. He ranks right up there with the greats right now. When his work is finally done, you might be saying “best ever”.