Pro Football History.com Blog
By Stephen Juza
October 17th, 2020
Throughout NFL history, coaching strategies can be traced by following a head coach’s coaching tree--assistants from their coaching staff that went on to become head coaches themselves. Previously, an article examined the difference in success between Andy Reid’s and Bill Belichick’s coaching trees. While Reid’s was clearly superior, it begs the question: how does it stack up among the best coaching trees in history?
Two head coaches stand out with the most successful coaching trees in NFL history, leading in NFL championships won while also maintaining their own level of personal success.
Jim Lee Howell--Highest Coaching Tree Win Percentage (59.6%), Tied for Most Championships Won(7)
Jim Lee Howell was the head coach of the New York Giants from 1954-1960 before moving into a front office role. During his seven season head coaching career, the Giants won a single NFL championship and played in two more. However, his coaching staff was packed with future talent that would influence the NFL for the next four decades.
Howell’s coaching tree does not have the breadth of other coaches, consisting of only four coaches. Between the four of them, they won 421 games and seven championships in their combined fifty one seasons leading their own team--the vast majority of that success coming from Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, two of the most successful coaches in league history.
Lombardi was the first coach from his tree to branch out and lead a team on his own. While Lombardi’s claim to fame comes from his tenure with the Green Bay Packers, he was an impressive offensive coordinator for years under Howell. Pioneering a zone blocking scheme, the Giants offense improved from last to sixth in a single season.
Under Lombardi’s leadership the Packers won five championships in seven years, a run of domination that has yet to be surpassed by any team in league history. During his career, he would also hold one of the highest winning percentages among coaches in NFL history.
After coaching the defense for six years under Howell, Landry became the first head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Leading the Cowboys for 29 years, Landry’s team won more than half of the coaching tree’s total victories (250).
Under Landry, the Cowboys grew into the dominating team in the NFL during the 1970s, winning two championships and playing three more. While the team remained competitive throughout the 1980s, Landry’s time with the Cowboys, and the NFL, came to an end in 1988 under new owner Jerry Jones.
Not only is Howell’s coaching tree dominant in the regular season, they are also tied with the most championship rings among coaching trees (seven) with Paul Brown’s tree.
Paul Brown--Tied for Most Championships Won (7)
Paul Brown began his NFL coaching career in 1946 for the eponymous Cleveland Browns, replacing the city’s team after the Rams left in 1945. Starting in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), the Browns dominated the new league to the point of dissolution.
In the four years of the AAFC’s existence, the Browns won all four championships while posting a regular season record of 47-4-3. After four seasons, the league dissolved and the Browns, along with two other teams, joined the NFL. However, this didn’t halt the Browns’ domination. The team played in the NFL championship seven of their first eight years, winning three.
Ewbank was the first to get a head coaching position, first leading the Baltimore Colts and eventually the New York Jets. Ewbank led the Colts for nine seasons and two championships, working with the legendary QB Johnny Unitas. After his tenure with the Colts, Ewbank led the Jets for the newly established American Football League (AFL), eventually winning Super Bowl III. This helped lead to a merger between the AFL and the NFL.
Bill Walsh coached quarterbacks and wide receivers for Paul Brown during his tenure with the Bengals. Walsh left the Bengals after Brown stepped down and coached a year in San Diego before becoming head coach for Stanford for two years. In 1979, Walsh earned his opportunity as an NFL head coach for the San Francisco 49ers.
During Walsh’s ten years as a head coach, the 49ers won three Super Bowls and spawned an offensive revolution throughout the league. Walsh adapted the offense around quick, short passes built on precise timing. Not only did this lead to the dominant dynasty for the 49ers through the 80s, but also Walsh’s own successful coaching tree that soon saw the West Coast Offense take hold across the league.
Andy Reid--Successful and Still Growing
Reid’s tree has more branches (ten) than either Brown or Howell, and is still growing. Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs current offensive coordinator, has been considered a top head coaching candidate for a few years and will definitely receive consideration again this year January.
However, the tree has a long way to go to match the success of either Howell or Brown. Reid’s assistants have only won two championships so far and several have left a lot to be desired as a head coach. Steve Spagnuolo, for example, lost more games in his three seasons as a head coach for the St. Louis Rams than Andy Reid has lost since 2012.
However, several coaches are primed to carry the torch of Reid’s coaching tree for many years to come. John Harbaugh looks to have the Baltimore Ravens built to compete for many years behind reigning MVP Lamar Jackson while Sean McDermott has the Bills in the pole position to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995. Even if they can’t surpass either Brown or Howell’s trees, they can further cement their status as the most dominating coaching tree in several decades.
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Methodological Note: Only trees with at least four coaches were included. When looking at the success of coaching trees, I made the decision to remove Bill Belichick’s stats from the analysis. The success of the Patriots dynasty made any historical comparison irrelevant. His individual success was enough to raise his parent coaches to the top of virtually any comparison made, making the impact of the broader tree impossible. When removing Belichick’s impact, the affected trees fell far behind the success of Howell or Brown.
By Stephen Juza
October 9th, 2020
Each January, the coaching carousel turns in the NFL, leading several teams to give walking papers to their head coaches in hopes of future success. However, even with the utmost consideration, replacing a head coach can lead to dismal results for a team.
Should a team select an up-and-coming coordinator to be a rookie head coach? Should they hire someone from the college ranks? Or should they hire one of the many experienced head coaches waiting for a shot to redeem themselves?
Since the NFL merger in 1970, only 66 coaches have been hired for a second head coaching opportunity. These coaches fall into one of four groups:
- Unsuccessful in their first job and immediately hired for their second job (the “Adam”)
- Successful in their first job, but at least a year between their head coaching opportunities (the “Mike”)
- Unsuccessful in their first job, but at least a year between their head coaching opportunities (the “Bill”)
- Successful in their first job and immediately hired for their second role (the “Andy”)
For a general manager, there is no guarantee for success regardless of which coach they hire. There is also not a more consequential decision they will make in their job. Unfortunately, there’s far more chance of failure than success; the average coach in the NFL, throughout the league's history, has a sub-.500 winning percentage. For every Don Shula (with a win percentage of 68%), there are a dozen Hue Jacksons (with a win percentage of only 21%).
However, we may gain more insight into this conundrum by comparing examples of the four groups of redemption (or retread) coach:
In 2019, the Miami Dolphins fired Adam Gase after three seasons. After a promising rookie season, the Dolphins went 13-19 in his last two seasons, and Gase was subsequently fired. Despite the lack of success, the New York Jets swooped in and hired him less than two weeks later.
It seems crazy to expect different results, but what does NFL history tell us about a coach like Gase, who was sub .500 in their first job and immediately hired by a new team. This doesn’t happen very often, and for good reason. Barring a dramatic turnaround by Gase and the Jets the rest of the season, none of the six coaches would go on to have a winning record in their second job.
Ray Rhodes was close, posting a record of 8-8 in his sole season for the Green Bay Packers.
Teams tend to quickly recognize their error, and “Adam” typically only coaches 35 games for his second team; more than two seasons, but fewer games than the other coach groups. Historically, expecting a failed coach to immediately turn into a winning coach in a single offseason seems like a tall order, and one that GMs should shy away from in the future.
Mike McCarthy had an incredibly successful run with the Packers starting in 2006. After an 8-8 season that year, the Packers won at least 10 games in eight of the next ten seasons, including a Super Bowl victory after the 2010 season. However, the Packers couldn’t maintain that excellence forever, and McCarthy was fired during the 2018 season, going 12-16-1 in his final two years. Spending a year outside of the NFL, he re-emerged in 2020 as the new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys appear primed for success behind young stars Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, and after a decade of mediocrity under Jason Garrett, they are eager to prove themselves. Tenacity aside, here’s a word of caution for Cowboys fans: this coaching group rarely works out.
“Mikes” tie for the largest number of repeat coaching hires; twenty-three of the 66 rehired coaches fall under this group. After winning an average of 58% of their games in their first job, or at least for nine wins every year, their average win percentage drops down to 39% with their next team, translating to only six wins per season. Most of the coaches in this group had amazing success in their first job that failed to develop in their next job.
Vince Lombardi won five championships with the Packers, but he only went 7-5-2 and missed the playoffs in his sole season with the Washington Redskins. Jimmy Johnson won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys in the 90s. He only won two playoff games with the Dolphins in his four seasons as their head coach.
However, the largest drop-off in success belongs to George Seifert. After winning two Super Bowls and 75% of his games in San Francisco, he was tasked with leading the expansion team, Carolina Panthers. In three seasons, the Panthers won 16 games and endured a then-record 15 consecutive losses.
While bringing in a “Mike” to turn around the franchise seems like a sure thing, only 4 of the 23 coaches in this group won more games than they lost with their second team.
Bill Belichick was a rising star as a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, a star pupil of Bill Parcells, and instrumental in their two Super Bowl wins. After the second Super Bowl victory for the Giants in 1990, he earned his first shot as an NFL head coach. However, the five seasons leading the Cleveland Browns were anything but the success the team envisioned. Winning only 45% of their games and one trip to the playoffs in that time led to Belichick’s firing as the team moved to Baltimore before the 1996 season.
Belichick returned to the assistant ranks for several seasons before rising back to the head coaching level for the New England Patriots in 2000. From there, the Patriots have reeled off one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports history.
While Belichick is a clear outlier—any team would love to hire arguably the greatest coach ever—the break in head coaching stints seems important when hiring a “Bill”. While “Mikes” seem to regress after their time off, “Bills” come back better.
Six of the 23 coaches in this category improved to have winning records. Belichick isn’t the only Super Bowl coach in the group: Gary Kubiak won the Super Bowl in 2015 with the Broncos and Marv Levy took the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls.
The time away from head coaching seems like it gives these coaches an opportunity to reflect on what they did wrong in their first job, and come up with ways to fix it for their next team. This leaves the last, and most successful group.
Andy Reid was incredibly successful with the Philadelphia Eagles, making numerous NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl during his fourteen years as their head coach. However, after a long run of success, his tenure ended on a sour note. The team finished 4-12 in 2012, only the third losing season of Reid’s tenure, and the Eagles fired him. Quickly, the Kansas City Chiefs hired Reid as their head coach in 2013, and his success followed him. Seven seasons, 82 wins (and counting), six playoff berths, and one Super Bowl win followed.
While it’s rare that a successful coach is fired, they are able to bring that success to their new team better than any other group. . Of the 14 “Andys”, six of them continued to have a winning record for their second team. Not only are they winning games, they are winning Super Bowls. Tony Dungy, Don Shula, and Jon Gruden won four Super Bowls between them with their second stints as a head coach, and George Allen and Mike Holmgren went to one each.
While “Mikes” tend to do worse after some time away from head coaching, “Andys” are more likely to pick up at their peak and continue winning. Occasionally, they elevate their already high bar of success to new levels.
This track record bodes well this season for Washington and new head coach Ron Rivera—the latest “Andy” to be hired. After nine seasons as the head coach of the Panthers in which he coached the team to the playoffs four times and one Super Bowl, Rivera was hired by Washington as their new head coach.
Importance of Experience:
While there is a lot to consider when hiring experienced NFL head coaches, there seems to be one more variable that could help GMs make this critical decision—years of experience. Regardless of their prior success or time off, making it at least five seasons with their former team is a critical indicator of future success for most redemption coaches.
Only three coaches (out of thirty) who failed to make it five years in their initial head coaching gig were able to turn it around and lead their second team to a winning record. Jon Gruden is one of those three coaches, who moved from a successful tenure with the Oakland Raiders to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and led them to a Super Bowl in his first season as their head coach (against his former team, no less).
While former tenure (or lack thereof) offers similar results for “Mikes”, it seems to be the biggest benchmark for a “Bill” to become successful. If they were good enough to coach five years in their first job, while it wasn’t ultimately successful, they have valuable experience to bring to their future job. Five of the seven “Bills” that made it five years ended up winning in their second job. This is also an important factor for “Andys” as well. Five of nine “Andys” were successful once again, compared to only one of five rehires that coached four years or less with their first team.
It offers a mark of future success for all coaches--except for “Adam”. No one should hire an “Adam”, as the Jets are currently finding out.
After this season, there will be inevitably several head coaching positions opening up. Who are some current NFL assistants primed for a second chance at head coaching jobs? There are two potential “Bills” with five years of experience: former head coaches Jim Schwartz and Jay Gruden. Both have at least five years of experience and coached a team to the playoffs.
There could be a few other enticing names, albeit falling short of the five years of experience, such as Josh McDaniels or Steve Spagnuolo. Both had disastrous results as a head coach in their first stint, but have had a decade pass since they were a head coach and, subsequently, may have learned a few new tricks.
Either way, teams should shy away from fired coaches who failed to win in their first job. Chances are, they will replicate the success, or lack thereof, and both the teams and the fans will find themselves disappointed.
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By Stephen Juza
June 29th, 2020
In the early 1990s, the ability to shape and maintain dynasties in the NFL underwent a drastic change with the implementation of free agency. Prior to that, teams were able to hold on to their best players more easily. This allowed teams to dominate the league for long stretches of time. Free agency meant teams such as the Green Bay Packers would no longer be able to dominate the league and win five championships in a 10-year stretch of time. Teams would naturally be broken up long before that could happen. It had that effect for less than a decade.
From 2001 until 2019, the Patriots success is unrivaled in almost any sports league, regardless of era. Stringing together six championships and nine appearances in 18 years, the Patriots surpass most of the greatest dynasties throughout sports history.
Throughout NFL history, there have been twenty three coaches who have won multiple championships. Only three of these coaches have been able to win multiple Super Bowls in the time of free agency.
|Coach||Head Coaching Years||League Championships||Championship Years|
|Paul Brown||1946-1975||7||1946-1949 (AAFC), 1950, 1954, 1955 (NFL)|
|George Halas||1920-1967||6||1921, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1963|
|Curly Lambeau||1921-1953||6||1929-1931, 1936, 1939, 1944|
|Vince Lombardi||1959-1969||5||1961, 1962, 1965-1967|
|Chuck Noll||1969-1991||4||1974, 1975, 1978, 1979|
|Joe Gibbs||1981-2007||3||1982, 1987, 1991|
|Hank Stram||1960-1977||3||1962 (AFL), 1966 (AFL), 1969 (NFL)|
|Weeb Ewbank||1954-1973||3||1958, 1959, 1968|
|Bill Walsh||1979-1988||3||1981, 1984, 1988|
A major reason for this is the increased difficulty in keeping core players together for more than a few seasons. Teams often shell out record breaking contracts to retain (or lure) players, tying up a large percentage of the salary cap to only a few players. In 2011, Tom Brady was the highest paid player in NFL history with a salary of 19 million dollars, taking up about 16% of the total salary cap for the team.
That record stood for two years, until Drew Brees signed a five year contract worth $100 million in 2012. Brees’ record stood less than a year, when Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco both signed larger contracts in 2013. By 2019, the highest paid player in the NFL is quarterback Russell Wilson, who will earn $35 million per season, and 18% of the total salary cap for his team.
However, free agency hasn’t been able to slow down the Patriots, who, Brady notwithstanding, have rarely signed large contracts, often letting players go via trade in the last year of their contract instead of negotiating expensive extensions. In 2006, the Patriots traded their top wide receiver, Deion Branch, in the last year of his contract. They made this trade despite the fact that they had lost their second-most prolific wide receiver, David Givens, to free agency a few months prior. Despite the offensive changes, the team still made the AFC Championship game.
Belichick’s insistence on only paying for future performance, not prior accomplishments, has prevented the team from carrying large contracts for underperforming players. Rather than sign a contract extension for Randy Moss in 2010 , the Patriots traded him in the middle of the season. The remainder of Moss' career consisted of ten more starts, five touchdowns, three teams, and two retirements.
Belichick has always kept an eye toward the future, never seemingly going “all in” on any particular season in a way that some teams have tried. This has allowed the team to maintain consistent success without working itself into a terrible salary cap situation, which can lead to a fire sale of talented players. By successfully navigating these financial challenges that were not present during the careers of other great coaches such as Don Shula or Vince Lombardi, Belcihick again separates himself from the other greats in NFL history.
Constantly Changing Tactics
The one constant besides Belichick throughout the Patriots’ dynasty was quarterback Tom Brady. Virtually from the moment he started, he was among the best in the league. However, the team’s first championships were built on the back of a stout defense--Belichick’s original coaching forte.
Belichick cut his teeth in the league as a standout defensive coach; one whose gameplans helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s. It was on this side of the ball that his name grew in prominence and garnered the attention of head coaching positions.
Through the first several seasons of Belichick coaching the Patriots, the defense out-performed the offense as the driving force behind the Super Bowl victories. However, the team structure changed in 2007, turning the Patriots from defense-focused into an offensive powerhouse.
Behind the acquisitions of wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, the Patriots put on record-breaking offensive performances. In a single offseason, Belichick had transformed the Patriots and given them a new team identity. The result was an undefeated regular season, falling short of perfection in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. However, that offensive identity would remain for several more seasons.
In 2010,the team shifted from a wide receiver-driven passing offense to one including two new rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Drafted together, both of them eventually would sign the two largest contract extensions by tight ends in NFL history in the same offseason.
In the 2019 season, however,the offense was ranked 15th in total yards, the lowest ranking since 2003 for the Patriots. The Patriots have shifted back to Belichick’s roots with the strength of the team held primarily by the defense, led by a stifling defensive backfield. In the same 2019 season, the Patriots’ defense led the league in yards allowed, points allowed, turnovers generated, and other many defensive metrics, all while winning the division for yet another season.
Through the many different iterations of the Patriots, the team’s success was a constant. Through the last 19 seasons, the Patriots have won the AFC East seventeen times; only five teams have more wins in their entire history.
By consistently changing strategies throughout the run of championships, Bill Belichick has been able to create a record that other NFL teams can only try to emulate. By showing a willingness to change strategies around the personnel at hand, Belichick has been able to keep the Patriots at the top of the league for longer than any other team in history.
Part 4: Succeeding in the Most Challenging Era
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By Stephen Juza
June 15th, 2020
Bill Belichick’s accolades as the best coach in league history do not stop with the regular season, and his postseason successes further differentiates him from other greats.
He has coached in the most playoff games in NFL history, forty three games, despite frequently having a bye week in the first round of the playoffs. Recently, the Patriots had a string of first round byes that extended from 2010 until 2018, nine seasons. This is a streak so remarkable, it is tied for the longest streak of simply making the playoffs at all of any other team in NFL history.
Belichick’s success stems from not only his ability to coach his team into the playoffs, but also winning games when it counts. His thirty one playoff wins are the most in NFL history and his record will continue to stand for a very long time. His record is eleven wins ahead of the next coach (Tom Landry), and sixteen wins ahead of the next currently active coach (Andy Reid).
|Coach||Head Coaching Years||Playoff Wins||Playoff Win Percentage|
In fact, Belichick continues to win these crucial games at a better rate than almost any coach in league history. Among his peers who have coached in at least ten playoff games, his win percentage, 72%, ranks third of all time. This translates into almost a twelve win season against the best teams in the league when the stakes are at their highest, and no one is better than Belichick at getting his team to games with the highest stakes.
Belichick has coached his teams to the championship nine times, which is twice more than the next coach, Paul Brown. Also, when Paul Brown coached, four of the championships were in the All-America Football Conference against only three other teams to make the championship. Belichick and the Patriots had to compete against fifteen other teams to make each championship.
If championships are the barometer of success for a coach, Bill Belichick has no peer in the NFL. Not only has Belichick excelled at getting his teams to the Super Bowl, but also at winning them. Since the NFL merger, thirteen coaches have won multiple Super Bowls. Belichick has won the most in the league with six victories. Chuck Noll, the hall of fame coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has the second most with just four.
Belichick has been able to maintain constant playoff success through the years, creating a dynasty that has remained longer than any other in NFL history. By elevating his already stellar regular season success in the playoffs, he has been able to ensure that his records will not soon be broken.
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By Stephen Juza
June 8th, 2020
Of the 500 head coaches in NFL history, Bill Belichick ranks third in total wins with 273. George Halas and Don Shula, the two coaches with more wins, both started their careers closer to the start of the NFL than to today. Among coaches that have started their careers in the last forty years, there are only four within a hundred wins of Belichick.
|Coach||Head Coaching Years||Regular Season Wins||Regular Season Win Percentage|
Winningest Coaches Since 1980
It will take a long time before a coach surpasses Belichick’s post-merger record of 273 wins. Andy Reid, the coach with the closest total wins, has more losses despite having coached in sixty four games fewer games than Belichick. The Chiefs will need to win every game between now and Week 2, 2024 for Reid to surpass Belichick.
Belichick hasn’t only accumulated his wins through his longevity in the league, he has also won them at a faster rate than almost any coach in history. There are sixty nine coaches that have coached ten or more seasons in NFL history. Among these tenured coaches, they have a combined average win percentage of 57%, good for a consistent nine win season. Good, even playoff worthy, but not great. Belichick ranks fifth overall for win percentage (68%), good for an average of an 11 win seasons.
Eleven wins every season means that team is likely to win their division, and potentially a first-round bye. To maintain this consistency for 25 years is incredible, which is exactly what Belichick has achieved.
Belichick’s teams have consistently achieved greatness in the regular season. In his career, his team has made the playoffs eighteen times, tied for second in history. Only once did his team sneak into the playoffs with a wild card. Every other trip has been via a division title. His seventeen titles is the most in NFL history, surpassing the vast majority of other teams.
Not only has he won the AFC East division consistently, but the Patriots have the record for most consecutive division titles. For many years, the record for most consecutive division titles was seven, set by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970s. The Patriots tied this feat in 2015, broke the record in 2016, and have extended the record to an active streak of eleven straight division titles.
In fact, not only have the Patriots won the division, they have achieved it with remarkable ease. Only once, the Jets in 2009, during the streak of division titles has another team finished within one game of the Patriots. During the current run, the Patriots have consistently won the division with more than three games separating them from the second place team. Put another way, they could have been playing 14 game seasons under Belichick and still set the record for most division titles in a row at 10.
Overall, Belichick has consistently coached his team through decades of success without a bad season. Some teams experience a lack of motivation in the season following a Super Bowl victory, but Belichick has kept the Patriots at the top of the game for much longer than anyone else in history.
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