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Making the case for Tom Landry on the NFL’s Mount Rushmore of head coaches (Part I)

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Showing just how legendary legendary coach Tom Landry was.

Dallas Cowboys Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Hey, it’s the offseason, the draft and free agency (mostly) have come and gone. There’s no offseason practices happening. So why not engage in a big, dumb, completely unanswerable debate about the four faces that belong on the NFL’s Mount Rushmore of head coaches? I’m game to make the case for our very own Tom Landry.

Look, this is going to take a while because there’s a lot of names to consider. There’s also more than raw win-loss totals or championship trophies to count. There’s innovations and coaching trees and contribution to the game, etc. Which means we’ve got a lot of stuff to consider so let’s get to it.

The candidates

Inclusiveness was a key when starting the list of candidates and that created a lengthy list. To make it easier to digest, they are grouped into three separate groups:

Epic Legends

These are legendary figures within the NFL; names familiar even to youngsters who weren’t alive when these people made their mark in the league. One or two might be a bit unfamiliar due to the fog of time, but most should be recognizable.

All share similar qualities:

  • Coached a minimum of 23 years (except for one)
  • All won a minimum of two NFL or Super Bowl Championships
  • All won a minimum of 58% of their games coached

Longtimer

These names should also be familiar to most NFL fans. They’re coaches who generally coached 15+ years and made their mark on the game but didn’t enjoy quite the level of success of the legendary names noted above.

Only three of these names won multiple championships and several were never crowned champion. Many have winning percentages in the mid-50s. There’s also a handful of “innovators” who’s on-field winning perhaps didn’t capture their true contribution to the game.

Ten-Year Club

Our final group consists of coaches whose tenures were a bit shorter than the others noted above. These men coached anywhere from six to 13 years. Many enjoyed impressive levels of success with multiple championships and sustained levels of success throughout most of their career. However, unlike other names, this success usually came with the same team and often the same quarterback or core group of players. That makes their candidacies a bit different.

Whittling this initial group down to eight finalists is no easy task. There are names from each of the three groups that you could persuasively argue deserve to not only make the final eight but be immortalized on this mythical Mount Rushmore. So, we can do some winnowing by agreeing to a few basic requirements.

Must be a champion

First, you have to be a champion; you can’t be one of the four best head coaches in NFL history without at least once being crowned champion. That means the following coaches are excluded:

  • Bud Grant
  • George Allen
  • Marv Levy
  • Marty Schottenheimer
  • Don Coryell

Dropping any of those names doesn’t bother me much because I never envisioned any as among the top 10 head coaches in history. Coryell is underrated in terms of innovation as he basically invented the modern, vertical passing game with three receivers combined with a pass-catching tight end. Otherwise, this seems like a list of really good coaches who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to climb to the top.

Must win more than 55% of games coached

Mandating that candidates must have won 55% of all games coached may seem arbitrary. But when you consider these coaches combined to win 62% of all games coached, winning at least 55% seems a reasonable requirement.

  • Weeb Ewbank (51%)
  • Tom Flores (54%)
  • Dick Vermeil (53%)
  • Sid Gillman (54%)

Again, excluding these names is not a huge deal. Tom Flores is probably the most accomplished (2X Super Bowl winner), but outside of those two seasons Flores reached the playoffs only three times in ten years and won only one playoff game.

This leaves us with 22 remaining candidates which means we need to eliminate 14 more names to get to our final eight. Rather than excluding names let’s start looking at the remaining names in each group and choose those who obviously belong.

Best of the Longtimers

The Longtimers group was somewhat handicapped from the outset in this analysis. Placing in the “longtimers” group as opposed to the “epic legend” group pretty much tells the story. Here are our remaining “longtimers”:

None of these names strike me as “must have” final candidates. All have positives:

  • Sustained success - minimum of 136 wins
  • Playoff success - all but Stram won at least 11 post-season games
  • Champions! A combined seven Super Bowl or AFC Champions

A few metrics I came up with during this exercise are what I call “finals appearances” - there’s three numbers:

  • Playoff wins per year - simply playoff wins divided by seasons coached
  • Final 8 percent: percent of years coached the team reached the final eight (division round)
  • Final 4 percent: percent of years coached the team reached the final four (conference championship)

The numbers here are pretty revealing:

Here we see that among these names Bill Cowher easily accumulated the best results. His teams reached the conference championship six times in 15 years. By comparison, Parcells’ teams reach the conference championship only four times in 19 years.

For reference, that 40% number for Cowher reaching the final four ranks ninth among all candidates

In totality, I can’t say any of these names are “must haves” for the final eight. Cowher is at the top of the list of names we’ll consider if we can’t get to eight from the remaining candidates.

Best of the ten year guys

This is interesting because several things jump out immediately:

  • Vince Lombardi won five championships and nine of ten playoff games his team participated in - his teams also won 74% of all games played over a ten-year period
  • Tony Dungy’s teams reached the playoffs eleven times in thirteen years (85% - best of any name on this list)
  • John Madden’s team’s were close, reaching the playoffs eight times in ten years - and also won 73% of all games played over ten seasons
  • Bill Walsh’s teams won ten playoff games in ten seasons

Those are impressive credentials and are supported when we look at the “finals appearances” metrics:

Here we see how dominant Lombardi and Madden’s teams were. Madden has the highest final eight and final four percentages of any name on this list. We also see how the candidacies of names like Tony Dungy, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin and Jimmy Johnson pale in comparison.

In conclusion, there’s three names that I feel must be among the final eight:

  • Vince Lombardi
  • John Madden
  • Bill Walsh - Walsh’s raw numbers aren’t quite as impressive but his innovations are noteworthy enough to be included among the finalists.

Which leaves us with (at most) five spots for the final group:

Best of the epic legends

This was always going to be the hardest group to winnow down simply because, well, they’re legends. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Rather than looking overall we’ll just summarize each candidate (eliminating four of these names is going to be hard):

  • Bill Belichick: six-time Super Bowl champion, 31 playoff wins, 18 playoff appearances in 19 years, 13 times in final four in 19 years, 304 total wins - a no-brainer finalist.
  • Tom Landry: two-time Super Bowl champion, 20 playoff wins, 20 consecutive winning seasons, 12 times in final four in 17 years, 270 total wins; supreme innovator - also a no-brainer finalist.
  • Don Shula: three-time champion, six finals appearances, 19 playoff victories, 328 total victories - missed playoffs 14 times, however, and wasn’t known as an innovator or big influence on game after his departure. Borderline candidate for finalist.
  • Joe Gibbs - full disclosure, I did not expect Gibbs résumé to be so impressive, but it is: three-time Super Bowl champion, each with a different QB, 17 playoff wins, 72% playoff win percentage, 171 total wins. Not a no-brainer but definitely a strong candidate.
  • Chuck Noll: four-time Super Bowl champion, won 16 playoff games (67% win percentage), 209 total wins. Only won 57% of all games, missed playoffs 11 times in 23 years. Noll also wasn’t an innovator so it’s hard to include him above any of the names listed so far.
  • Paul Brown: seven-time champion, 11-time finalist, perhaps the most influential and innovative coach in NFL history. Another no-brainer candidate.
  • George Halas: hard to judge, honestly. On the one hand his teams won six championships in 30 years and played in two more championship games; totaled 318 victories. On the other hand, from 1947 to 1967 his teams made the NFL title game only twice, winning once. Halas was a visionary and innovator in terms of the NFL as a business and a league, but I’m not sure he was as a coach. I realize it may be sacrilege but I’m making him a borderline candidate as a finalist.
  • Curly Lambeau: also hard to judge. Won six NFL championships in 33 years. Fifteen times finished first or second in the NFL (no championship game many of those years). But that also means 18 times when his teams finished outside the top two. I’m making him borderline simply because there’s not enough to make him a no-brainer like others.
  • Steve Owen: probably the least known name on this list. Owen coached the Giants from 1930 to 1953 and won the NFL Championship twice. More impressively, his teams reached the final game ten times in his 24 year tenure ( 42%). His overall win percentage, however, was only 58% and his teams did lose eight championship games (including five times in an eight-year span). Another borderline candidate.

Summarizing, we end up with three no-brainers:

  • Bill Belichick
  • Tom Landry
  • Paul Brown

The following borderline candidates remain:

  • Don Shula
  • Joe Gibbs
  • George Halas
  • Curly Lambeau
  • Steve Owen

All of these names are more accomplished/deserving than the borderline candidate from the longtimers group (Bill Cowher), which means we need to eliminate three. Don Shula’s accomplishments are very similar to Tom Landry’s but he doesn’t have nearly the long-term influence on the game as Landry so he’s eliminated.

Steve Owen and Curly Lambeau would be the other names to drop, but it’s extremely difficult to judge them against contemporaries. They played during an era when there were often only eight teams in the league, so your team should win a championship every eight years and be among the finalists every four years.

This leaves us with the following list of of finalists. Note all are (or will be) Hall of Famers; five were significant innovators. Some lasted 25+ years while others had relatively short tenures.

Obviously this is a highly accomplished group, claiming 33 championships among them and making the final four 64 times.

One metric that clearly stands out is playoff success, winning 111 playoff games. In addition, these coaches (with the exceptions of Paul Brown and George Halas) had high “playoff win efficiency” metrics, wining nearly a playoff game every season on average.

So, we’ve narrowed it to the final eight. Choosing four faces from these eight to adorn the NFL’s Mount Rushmore of head coaches will be difficult. We’ll tackle that with the second half of this analysis.

Let me know what you think - agree or disagree?

Poll

Agree with this list of finalists for the NFL’s Mount Rushmore of head coaches?

This poll is closed

  • 75%
    Absolutely! A good list.
    (281 votes)
  • 20%
    Meh - some good, some bad.
    (77 votes)
  • 3%
    Are you kidding? What was the writer thinking?
    (14 votes)
372 votes total Vote Now