The fourth Super Bowl victory for New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has vaulted him squarely in the mix in any discussions of the best NFL coach ever. The four championships are in addition to six AFC crowns and churning out 11-12 wins a season with the efficiency of an assembly line. But unlike Belichick’s quarterback Tom Brady, whom I believe moved to the top of the list at his position, I think the head coach is still trailing a couple other names in my generation (1978 and beyond). Those names are Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh.
Gibbs led the Washington Redskins during their glory years of 1981-1992 and while he didn’t match Belichick in terms of sheer volume, the Redskin coach still won three Super Bowls and went to a fourth. Gibbs’ signature achievement is that, alone among other great coaches, he never had stability at the quarterback position for an extended period of time. Gibbs won his championships (1982, 1987, 1991) with three different quarterbacks. And really, it’s four, when you consider that there was a QB controversy for all of 1987.
But it’s not just the quarterback spot that was in flux. He won with different running backs, with John Riggins leading the way at the start of the dynasty and an Earnest Byner/Ricky Ervins combo at the end of it, with George Rogers in between. And for good measure, little-known Timmy Smith set a Super Bowl rushing record in 1987.
Even the offensive line, perhaps what this era of Washington Redskins history, is most remembered for, went through changes. “The Hogs”, of NFL lore, were not the same five players throughout the glory years. Jeff Bostic, Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm were steady, but other regular starters ranged from Raleigh McKenzie to Ed Simmons to Mark May to Mark Schlereth to Jim Lachey. No matter what the position, Gibbs kept turning personnel over and kept winning.
Finally, Gibbs had never had the advantage of coaching in a bad division, something Belichick has enjoyed most of his career. Gibbs’ rivals were Tom Landry’s Cowboys at the beginning of his career, Bill Parcells’ Giants for much of the latter part of the 1980s, with Buddy Ryan’s Eagles mixed in. When those Redskin teams played a divisional game, there weren’t a lot of Ryan Tannehill’s or E.J. Manuel’s or Mark Sanchez’s dotting the schedule.
The case for Walsh is a little different. Like Belichick, the San Francisco 49er legend found a Hall of Fame quarterback in the middle of the draft, getting Joe Montana in the third round. Walsh won three Super Bowls with Montana (1981, 1984, 1988) before passing the reins to defensive coordinator George Seifert who won one more with Montana in 1989, and another with Steve Young–whom Walsh had acquired–in 1994.
What happened with San Francisco after Walsh retired underscores his greatness. He ran the entire football operation and built a legacy that would endure after his retirement. Furthermore, he changed the way offensive football was played, introducing the West Coast offense. Today, every NFL team uses some form of the system’s basic concepts.
Walsh shifted away from the power-run/throw-deep to a constant use of short passing. And he did without going to the extremes of later versions, such as the run-and-shoot, a four-receiver set that compromised a team’s ability to run the ball when it really it needed to.
The Walsh coaching tree is legendary, spawning countless new head coaches into the NFL stream that changed football forever. Walsh is certainly the most impactful NFL person of my lifetime, and he’s probably the most important historical figure in the league since its founders.
Bill Belichick is a brilliant mind, who has dealt with a salary cap and kept rotating supporting casts around to Tom Brady for fourteen years now. He’s shown amazing creativity in his use of personnel and his willingness to be flexible and adapt to his talent, rather than making the talent adapt to him. It’s why he’s extremely high on any credible list of all-time coaching greats.
But he has to rank behind Gibbs and Walsh. Gibbs never had the anchor of a Tom Brady-type to stabilize the retooling. Walsh went beyond creativity and into a true football revolutionary. Any discussion of Belichick’s rank has to begin at the #3 spot.
Is Gibbs or Walsh #1? I think it depends on how you phrase the question. If you want the coach who simply got the most out of his talent year-in, year-out, then I think Gibbs is the best ever, and it’s really not all that close.
If you want someone who went beyond coaching and into the complete oversight and changing of the game then Walsh is #1, and that really isn’t all that close.
When Gibbs left, the Redskins couldn’t survive without him. When Walsh left, the 49er machine churned on, but with his handpicked talent on the sidelines and on the field. That underscores the difference in their greatness in a nutshell.
Either way, these two men, Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh, are a cut above everyone else in the modern era of NFL head coaches.