Ranking the top NFL head coaches of all time made for quite the ruckus around the virtual office. Of all the team-discussed rankings we’ve concocted thus far, the greatest NFL head coaches have been the most contested.
Interestingly enough, it’s actually quite difficult to come up with several names for a list like this. Keeping the parameters for this exercise within the Super Bowl era makes the task a tooth-pulling experience. There are so many similar situations. Looking at everyone’s records also sheds light on just how challenging it is to win Super Bowls.
Résumés were exchanged. Words were exchanged. The philosophies surrounding “what actually makes an all-time coach” were discussed. Longevity, and also rings, matter more for a coach than…say…a quarterback. The coaching tree you leave behind matters as well. But leaving behind a legacy also mattered in placing the top NFL head coaches of all time.
Greatest head coaches of all time | Honorable Mentions
Which all-time great coaches just missed the cut as the greatest NFL head coaches of all time?
Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have had eerily similar careers as coaches
Before we get to the list of 11, we must first discuss who just missed out on the list. Battles raged with four names vying for the final two spots. The two that just missed out did so most likely because their situations and records are eerily similar. Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin made strong cases for the final spot, but both just missed out on being ranked as some of the top NFL head coaches of all time.
Cowher coached 15 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1992-2006. Similarly, Tomlin is going into his 15th NFL season with the Steelers after taking over for Cowher in 2007. The similarities are frightening. Cowher is 149-90-1 for his career, and Tomlin is 145-78-1 so far in his. They even have a tie in ties!
Additionally, both have coached in two Super Bowls, each winning one of those contests. Therefore, we couldn’t decide between the two. Although both have illustrious careers — with Tomlin being a probable Hall of Famer at the end of his — neither made the top 11.
Pre-Super Bowl head coaches worthy of consideration
Curly Lambeau, George Halas, Paul Brown, and Guy Chamberlin all deserve recognition as well, despite not having any or a majority of their careers in the NFL. Lambeau Field is an obvious giveaway when it comes to Lambeau’s success as a coach. He’s one of the greatest NFL head coaches of all time due to his 226-132-22 record and six championships.
Halas finished his career as the league’s all-time leader in wins and held that title until Don Shula passed him. He also boasts six NFL championships in his time as one of the top NFL head coaches. He has an overall record of 318-148-31.
Paul Brown has the most championships of any professional football coach with seven. Four of those are NFL championships, while the remaining were from the AAFC. Brown and the Cleveland Browns won every single AAFC championship in the league’s four-year stint.
Greatest head coaches of all time | 6-11
So which NFL head coaches made our list of the greatest of all time?
11) Tony Dungy
Tony Dungy began his head coaching career by turning around the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Before his arrival, the Buccaneers notched 13 straight losing seasons dating from 1983-1995. An alarming 10 of those seasons resulted in six wins or less.
Dungy had a losing record in his first season with Tampa Bay, but after that, he never again had a losing season as a coach. He never lost more than four games in a season in his final six campaigns with the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts.
That seems like the record of one of the top NFL head coaches of all time. Additionally, Dungy won the Super Bowl in 2006. But, almost as important to some of the PFN staff, he helped build the team in Tampa Bay that won the Super Bowl in Jon Gruden’s first year with the team.
Dungy is a different type of human being than you’d expect from a football coach. He’s soft-spoken, proper, and deeply spiritual.
10) Andy Reid
The Hawaiian shirts and high-flying offenses outweigh the questionable time management of Reid throughout his career. Oh, and Reid’s coaching tree features Super Bowl champions in John Harbaugh and Doug Pederson. It also includes Ron Rivera, who’s been to his own Super Bowl, and Sean McDermott, who’s now leading a stout Buffalo Bills team.
It seems silly to have a 10-minute argument over whether Reid should be at 9 or 10 on this list, but the PFN staff didn’t hold back. There were strong feelings for him and the next coach on the list. Eventually, this writer lost the battle in a democratic vote. Nevertheless, Reid is already one of the top NFL coaches of all time, and he still has time to pad his stats with Patrick Mahomes at the helm.
Reid is 221-130-1 in his 22-year career. Of the coaches in the Super Bowl era with at least 150 wins, only Bill Parcells and Shula post better regular-season win percentages than Reid. For reference, Tomlin would have a higher rate with five more wins.
Furthermore, Reid took the Donovan McNabb-led Philadelphia Eagles to five straight conference championships in a division with a hilarious history of parity.
He’s only posted three losing seasons in his career. Some would use Mahomes’ abilities against Reid, but when one reads that he and general manager Brett Veach were infatuated with Mahomes, it becomes clearer that Mahomes is there because of the coach.
Certainly, Reid could skyrocket up this list in the future.
9) Bill Parcells
Bill Parcells is the foremost disciplinarian type that graces this list. But what we hadn’t discussed in our meeting for the top NFL coaches of all time is that Parcells is partially responsible for the greatest dynasty of all time when you look at his coaching tree. That is what makes Parcells one of the greatest coaches in NFL history.
He’s adjacent to nine Super Bowl victories — not including the two he actually won as head coach. Sean Payton, Tom Coughlin, and most importantly, Bill Belichick are all branches of his tree.
Parcells went 172-130-1 for his career, which itself is nothing to write home about outside of the sheer number of wins. However, Parcells led four different franchises to the playoffs throughout his illustrious career and won his two Super Bowls with the New York Giants.
8) John Madden
John Madden boasts the single-greatest winning percentage of any coach in the Super Bowl era. His 103-32-7 record is staggering. He’s also one of the top NFL coaches of all time because of the legacy he leaves behind.
Madden is one of the most recognizable names and faces in the sport in large part due to the Madden franchise of video games. He never had a losing season as a coach. Heck, only his final season (9-7 record) as a coach resembled anything but elite winning.
Madden’s 1976 Oakland Raiders team didn’t quite make the cut for our greatest NFL teams of all time, but in the grand scheme of professional football, that Super Bowl-winning Raiders’ squad was one of the greatest ever to play the game. Unfortunately, Madden’s hot career ended prematurely due to health issues.
7) Bill Walsh
Bill Walsh may deserve to be higher on the list given his three Super Bowl championships in just 10 seasons, but the lack of longevity hurts his overall case. Still, Walsh is one of the top coaches in NFL history for his ability to win. Moreover, Walsh’s introduction of the West Coast offense is quite possibly his most illuminating legacy.
He turned around what was a bad San Francisco 49ers team and made them into a perennial powerhouse. He won two and six games, respectively, in his first two seasons and then only ever had another losing record in the 1982 strike-shortened season.
Walsh gets a ton of credit for the 1989 Niners team that won the Super Bowl, but the coach was burnt out, and the message had become a bit stale. That team probably still wins it that year, but we can’t know for sure.
6) Tom Landry
Tom Landry trails Belichick and Shula in career wins as a head coach, and that’s it. Landry’s longevity actually hurts his case as one of the top coaches in NFL history because the beginning and end of his career kill his overall win percentage.
Landry didn’t have a winning season with the expansion Dallas Cowboys until his seventh season as their coach. However, that first winning season also happened to be the first season in the Super Bowl era, part of our criteria. We didn’t ignore that time before, but it’s fun to look at what he did in this era.
His 225-109 win/loss record in the Super Bowl era just eeks out Belichick’s win percentage with a .674 win rate. Landry won two championships and competed in five during his time as the Cowboys coach. In addition, Landry led Dallas to 20-straight winning seasons. That sustained success is why Landry ranks so high on our list of the greatest NFL head coaches.
Greatest head coaches of all time | 2-5
Who are the top-five greatest NFL coaches of all time?
5) Chuck Noll
Chuck Noll has somehow become underrated on many of the lists of the all-time greats. Nevertheless, his career in Pittsburgh makes him one of the top NFL coaches of all time.
Noll won four Super Bowls in his 23 seasons with the Steelers. He also won twice as many games as he lost in the playoffs. His Steelers teams in the 70s won four championships in six seasons. They were the first NFL dynasty.
Noll is also the first coach to name an African American quarterback the starter before the beginning of the regular season. The year was 1974, and the presumed starter was Terry Bradshaw. The players went on strike for a week in the preseason, but Joe Gilliam did not. In doing so and in performing well, he won the starting job.
Noll’s career slowed down as the mid-1980s approached, which hurt his overall win percentage. Still, his four championships place him high in the conversation for the greatest NFL head coaches of all time.
4) Joe Gibbs
Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks. The only one considered anything close to one of the all-time greats is Joe Theismann, but he does not even reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gibbs is one of the top NFL head coaches of all time for his ability to win consistently. In his first stint as a head coach, he only produced one losing season. Gibbs even returned to coach 12 seasons after he first retired, but he hurt his overall record with two losing seasons out of four in his second stint as the coach in Washington.
Gibbs also coached one of the greatest teams ever in the 1991 Washington squad. They boasted an outrageous offense that led the league in scoring and a defense that ranked second in the league in scoring defense. Their team outscored opponents by a larger margin than points they allowed for the season. They scored 485 points compared to their opponents’ 224. And they did that without one of the all-time greats at quarterback, as one might expect.
3) Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi could very well be the top NFL head coach of all time for his legacy alone. After all, the darned trophy is named after the man!
Lombardi won five championships in his Hall-of-Fame career, with two of them being the first two Super Bowls ever. Still, he ends up third on the list here to the winningest coach of all time and the most successful in terms of championships all time.
Perhaps if Lombardi coached longer, he could have cemented himself as the greatest NFL head coach. Unfortunately, intestinal cancer ended Lombardi’s coaching career at age 56 and ultimately took his life at 57. His legacy is cemented as the name and face of the Super Bowl Trophy and as one of the top NFL head coaches of all time.
2) Don Shula
Shula has a few feathers under his cap in the argument as one of the greatest NFL head coaches ever. He coached the only undefeated team in league history in 1972. He owns the highest winning percentage of any coach in the Super Bowl era. And above all, Shula has the most wins in NFL history as a coach.
However, in 33 seasons as a head coach, he won two Super Bowls. In a world with Belichick, no sustained regular-season success (which the Patriots head coach is catching up on) is enough to wear the crown.
Shula-coached teams only had losing records in two of his 33 seasons as a head coach. That is otherworldly consistency. Contrarily, Belichick had five losing seasons out of his first six as a head coach. Although, to be fair, it was with the Cleveland Browns.
At any rate, Shula is only 2-4 in Super Bowl appearances and just 19-17 in the playoffs as a coach overall. Yet, the fact that he made 19 appearances in 33 years is astonishing.
Who is the greatest NFL head coach of all time?
No. 1 on this list should come as a surprise to no one.
1) Bill Belichick
There’s no other argument to be made at this point. He’s competed in nine Super Bowls and has won a record six, cementing his legacy as the top NFL head coach of all time. In truth, it will be an uphill battle for anybody to take a legitimate shot at the throne. Belichick is the greatest of the NFL head coaches for the Super Bowl victories alone, but it’s so much deeper than that.
In his 21 seasons with the New England Patriots, he’s won the division 17 times. The Patriots missed the playoffs in one of those seasons (2008) with an 11-5 record, and then from 2009-2019, no other team won the AFC East.
The Belichick-led Patriots won 11 straight division titles. His win percentage is second to Shula’s, and he’s also closing in on Shula’s all-time wins record.
Belichick’s coaching tree is volatile, but it also includes the greatest college football coach of all time in Nick Saban. Based on that alone, his tree is a success. Brian Flores appears promising for the Miami Dolphins, and although Mike Vrabel never coached under Belichick, he did play under his defensive tutelage for eight seasons.
Belichick is the greatest ever to do it, and it’s all been done in a torn-up hoodie.
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