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September 22, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Welcome to Golden Age of Coaching

September 22, 2004

The return of Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells to the NFL coaching ranks over the last two seasons has heralded what may be a golden age for pro football coaches. Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls in Washington, is only the second man to return to coaching after being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Paul Brown was the first). Parcells took both the Giants and the Patriots to the Super Bowl and fell one game short of taking the Jets in 1998. Last year, his first with the Cowboys, Parcells became the first coach ever to lead four different teams to the playoffs .

While those two members of the old guard have received a lot of attention, there's no shortage of talent among the coaches who were already in the NFL. A third of the other active head coaches have taken a team to the Super Bowl, and six have won at least once. Bill Belichick (Patriots), Mike Shanahan (Broncos), and Dick Vermeil (Chiefs) have each won a pair of Super Bowls, and all three led their teams to the playoffs again last year. Brian Billick (Ravens), Mike Holmgren (Seahawks), and Jon Gruden (Buccaneers) each have one Super Bowl ring so far.

With so much brainpower pacing the sidelines in an era of unprecedented parity, it is worth asking which coach gives his team the biggest edge.

Traditionally, coaches are ranked by the number of games they've won in their career, and the all-time list has names like Don Shula, George Halas, and Tom Landry at the top.

In the modern era, however, a mere quantity of wins is not a very effective metric. Landry coached the Cowboys for 29 seasons, and Halas coached the Bears from 1920 until 1967; if you stick around that long, good things are bound to happen.

These days, nobody has that sort of job security - 54% of NFL coaches get fired by the end of their third season, meaning new hires have got to make a mark quickly if they want to stay around. Coaches are judged by their ability to make the playoffs, and their ability to win playoff games.

The job of a football coach has changed in the past 15 years, particularly because of the adoption of the salary cap and free agency. Gone are the days when a team could horde talent and keep players for their entire careers. These days, about a third of each team's roster changes from one season to the next, and coaches are constantly forced to adapt. There's less time for coaches to develop young players in the hopes that they can help the team down the road.

Coaching success is no longer about being better at scouting and teaching, and it's not about coming up with an innovative new playbook. The modern coach must give his players a common purpose and get them to buy into his plan. Not counting injuries, there's very little difference between the player talent on the NFL's top five teams and the bottom five teams. What distinguishes one group from another in today's league is the quality of coaching.

For proof, you need look no further than Dallas, and the turnaround that the Cowboys made in their first season under Parcells. The team improved from 5-11 to 10-6 without any major personnel changes.

John Fox pulled off a similar coup in Carolina, taking over a 1-15 team and leading them to the Super Bowl in his second season. To affect this turnaround, Fox didn't need to build a new team from scratch: Fifteen of the 22 starters in the Super Bowl had played for that 1-15 team in 2001. Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis and Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio appear to be on the same track, taking over moribund franchises and steering them towards the playoffs in their second seasons.

Several other coaches have been in the league five years or less, and are already making their mark. Mike Martz inherited a Rams team that had just won a Super Bowl and took them back to the playoffs in three of his first four seasons. The Packers were 8-8 the year before Mike Sherman took over and have finished with a winning record every year since. Andy Reid has taken the Eagles to the playoffs four times in five seasons, advancing to the NFC title game in each of the last three years. In each case, these coaches have kept their teams at the top from one year to the next while making personnel changes at key positions.

My system for ranking coaches gives them one point for accomplishing each of the following milestones:

  • Finishing with a winning record
  • Reaching the postseason
  • Winning a Conference title
  • Winning the Super Bowl
  • Winning 10 games in a season
  • Winning 75% of games in a season

Parcells and Gibbs have the most points of any active coach, and they rank ninth and 10th respectively on the all-time list. But when we look at the coaching points accumulated per season, Sherman ranks no. 1, followed by Gibbs, Martz, Reid, and Fox.

Based on their accomplishments, it's clear that some of the greatest coaches of all time are working in the National Football League right now. A careful examination suggests that there could also be a number of great coaches in the early stages of their career. Under the current system, coaching matters more than ever, and some truly great ones are doing their thing.

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