Being a head coach in the National Football League is one of the most challenging and most difficult coaching jobs in the sports world. Football is the ultimate tactical sport, with only a few coaches seeing sustained success in the NFL.
Every team is looking for the next great head coach, whether it be an up-and-coming young genius or a disciple of an already proven and experienced head coach. When a team finds its guy, they could be set for the next 20 years, consistently near the top of the NFL Super Bowl odds.
After going over the NFL Las Vegas scores and odds since the inception of the league, our NFL expert picks the top five greatest head coaches in league history. We will look at the numbers, compare hardware, and dive into each coach’s most defining moments in NFL history.
5. Paul Brown
The sixth-winningest coach in NFL history, with a career record of 213-104-9, Paul Eugene Brown was born in 1908 in Norwalk, Ohio. After a head coaching job at Ohio State and a stint at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1946, Brown was hired by the owner of Cleveland’s franchise in the All-America Football Conference (AAFL), a post-war competitor to the NFL. The team had yet to establish a name for the franchise, but popular demand was to name it after the new head coach.
Brown opposed, but the name stuck, and despite an alternate version of the story being created to divert attention from the legendary coach, the Browns were given the team name in honor of Brown.
The Browns’ initial head coach was a visionary for how today’s NFL prepares on a weekly basis, scouting opponents, hiring assistants, and quizzing the players on the playbook. His leadership and team preparation were unmatched at the time, and he led Cleveland to four straight AAFL titles before the league joined the NFL in 1950.
Even though the competition improved, the Browns continued to succeed, going 12-2 and beating the Los Angeles Rams to win the 1950 NFL Championship. Cleveland would also win back-to-back NFL titles in 1954 and ‘55 and was a favorite in the NFL odds and spreads throughout the decade.
While Brown’s time in Cleveland did not end well, he returned to the sidelines in 1962 to become the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals until 1968. The Bengals made the playoffs three times while Brown led the team. In 1975, after coaching his team to an 11-3 season and after 45 years of coaching, Brown retired.
Brown was a great coach during a time when football and the NFL began its transition from the number two sport in America into the giant it has become today. He also invented the modern-day facemask, practice squads, and the draw play. The last of which has become one of the most used plays in all of football, from Pop Warner to the NFL.
Perhaps his most important accomplishment, Brown broke the modern-day NFL color barrier, signing the first African Americans to his teams. Bill Walsh, Don Shula, and Sam Wych are among the many Brown assistant coaches who became NFL coaches. His coaching tree is among the all-time NFL greats and one of the reasons he is #5 on our list.
4. George Halas
George Halas is another old-school football legend. Halas is number two on the all-time wins list and coached the Chicago Bears for an unbelievable 40 seasons. With a career record of 318-148-31, only Don Shula has more wins than Halas.
Before becoming affectionately known as Papa Bear in the NFL, most people aren’t aware that Halas played 12 games as an outfielder for the New York Yankees until a hip injury ended his Major League Baseball career.
Halas went on to work for a wealthy starch manufacturer and was a player/coach on the company’s football team, the Decatur Staleys. In 1920, the Staleys agreed to join the American Professional Football Association (which would become the NFL in 1922).
The same year the league transitioned to be known as the National Football League, or NFL, Halas renamed the team to the Bears as a tribute to the Chicago Cubs. As football players were bigger than baseball players, Halas was famously quoted as saying, “If baseball players are cubs, then football players must be bears!”
His first ten years in the league, Halas was a two-way player/coach, handled ticket sales, and managed the club’s day-to-day operations. After a decade, Halas gave up playing and coaching and focused on the ownership until the Great Depression caused him to cut back on his spending, and in 1933, he resumed head coaching duties.
He promptly led Chicago to a 13-0 record and the NFL Championship Game, where the Bears would lose to an underdog. The failed attempt at the perfect NFL season is one of the few blemishes on his record. Somewhat incredibly, and in a foreshadowing of what would come more than 70 years later, the New York Football Giants defied all NFL Odds and were the team responsible for ruining Halas’ perfect season.
His detractors would also note that the Bears’ teams in the mid to late 1960s were not that good, despite having two of the NFL’s Top 100 All-Time Greatest Players in Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers.
Halas won an NFL title in four different decades, with his first coming in 1921 and his last in 1963. The NFL went through various changes in philosophies and play styles, and Halas was able to navigate it for close to half of a century and was prosperous during most of it. Halas is credited as the first coach to have daily practice with film study of the opposing team, and the Bears were the first professional football team to broadcast their games on the radio.
Halas retired in 1967, with eight NFL Championships. His jersey number seven was retired by Chicago, and he is a member of the Bears Ring of Honor.
3. Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi is a man whose name will forever be associated with the Super Bowl Trophy. Lombardi’s career in the NFL started as an assistant coach for the New York Giants. In 1959, he was hired by the Green Bay Packers to become its head coach. It was a decision that defined the Packers franchise, as Lombardi would remain in the position for eight years, and Green Bay would not have a losing season with him at the helm.
Lombardi left a lasting legacy as one of the most successful coaches of all time. He is
the only coach to win five titles in seven years, and his Packers were the last team to win three straight NFL championships, and “The Pope” famously won the first two Super Bowls.
With a career record of 96-34-6, Lombardi sported a .738 winning percentage. Even more impressive is his 9-1 record in the postseason, meaning his Packers were a guaranteed lock in the NFL Vegas lines.
Lombardi was a great talker and a master at motivating his players. He was also great at preparation, ready for anything the opponent would throw at him. He would step down as the Packers’ head coach in 1968 but return to coaching in 1969 as the head coach of the Washington Redskins.
Washington finished with a 7-5-2 record, the team’s first winning record since 1955. Lombardi’s impact was so significant that after his passing in 1970, the NFL quickly decided to name the Super Bowl trophy after him.
2. Don Shula
Don Shula holds the NFL record with 328 regular-season wins, and 347 total NFL wins. In his 33 NFL seasons, 31 of them ended with his teams’ record above .500. His first head coaching job came in 1963 with the Baltimore Colts, but he earned his stripes as an assistant under the great Paul Brown.
He spent seven seasons in Baltimore and brought the Colts to the NFL Championship Game in 1964 and the Super Bowl in 1968. Shula’s Colts were favored in 1964 and 1968 but were on the wrong side of an upset in the NFL playoff odds both times. In ‘64, he lost to the Browns, and in ‘68, a young Joe Namath guaranteed victory and then made it a reality in Super Bowl III.
Shula jumped to the AFL and joined the Miami Dolphins in 1970, where his legacy is most remembered. He won back-to-back Super Bowls within his first four years, and the 1972 Dolphins are the only team in NFL history to have a perfect season and win the Super Bowl. Shula’s Dolphins picked up where Lombardi’s Packers left off.
Miami was dominant during the regular season and frequently beat the playoff odds in the ‘70s. Shula’s offense primarily focused on rushing, but that all changed in 1983 with the selection of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. Miami represented the AFC in Super Bowl XVII and Super Bowl XIX but would lose both games.
Marino and the Dolphins are considered to be one of the best teams never to win a Super Bowl, and it all started when “Mad Dog” took over. Shula is essential to modernizing the game of football. He inspired several rule changes, making it easier for the offense to pass the ball down the field. This more pass-centric, high-scoring offense made the league more exciting and was one of the contributing factors in helping grow the popularity of the NFL.
1. Bill Belichick
While Shula holds the record for most wins by a head coach, it should be only a matter of time before Bill Belichick will break that record. Belichick sits at number three on the list heading into the 2021 season, trailing Halas by 31 and Shula by 41. Belichick started as an assistant to the Baltimore Colts in 1975 and worked his way up to the defensive coordinator of the two-time Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
His resume as a coordinator is impressive enough, but he spent time on the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s and had some success with arguably the NFL’s worst franchise. When the Browns fired him in 1995, it was the beginning of the end for the team. They would spend close to 30 years trying to get back in the NFL playoffs odds. The move by the Browns paid off for Belichick, however, as he would rejoin Bill Parcells in New England Patriots, losing Super Bowl XXXI to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers before being named head coach of the New York Jets in 2000.
The very next day after agreeing to be the head coach for the Jets, Belichick resigned his position and signed on with the Patriots, agreeing to be the team’s head coach in one of the most shocking moves in NFL history. That should have been a sign that Belichick was just getting started. His current tenure as the Patriots head coach has sustained dominance that we have never seen before.
Under Belichick, New England has won six Super Bowls, had 19-straight winning seasons, made 17 playoff appearances, and won 17 division titles.
The same year Belichick signed on, the team drafted a little-known QB with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Tom Brady grew under the tutelage of Belichick but being a defensive-minded head coach, his choices of offensive coordinators were a central component to the success of Brady.
New England was either the number one or two seed in the AFC from 2010-2018 and made the AFC Championship game eight straight years. An easy NFL wager was to take New England in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
The streaks and records Belichick has are astonishing, and he is not finished yet. It will be interesting to see what he does without Brady and how much longer we will see The Hoody on an NFL sideline.
Coaching in the NFL is extremely hard, from the on-field game planning to motivating and leading a group of men through the most grueling sport in the world. These five coaches were great in their own right and contributed to the NFL in different ways. It is hard to rank them because they are all different and are vital to the NFL we are familiar with today.
Ultimately Bill Belichick topped the list for his sustained greatness and ability to be at the top of the all-time wins lists despite doing it in less time, and his legacy is not fully complete. With Brady out of the picture, it will be a significant NFL storyline for the next couple of years to see what Belichick can do without the greatest QB of all time.
Brady won a Super Bowl in his first season without Belichick, although the NFL expert picks were against him. Meanwhile, the Patriots finished below .500 for the first time since 2000, when Brady and Belichick joined the team. Time will tell if Belichick can do it again and thus maintain his position at the top of our Top 5 best NFL Coaches of all time.