There are multiple eras in the NFL where teams have had to persevere, whether it's a color barrier or player strikes, it's the coach behind that effort. We've seen several dynasties over the years, including Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh Steelers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots. There have been many successful head coaches, but only few can be considered the greatest of all time. These coaches led through grit, determination, and creativity to become the greatest NFL head coaches in history.
Let's get the obvious out of the way. Bill Belichick is probably the greatest NFL head coach of all time. Belichick harnessed his coaching prowess as defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells with the Giants, winning the Super Bowl in 1986 and 1990. After a forgettable tenure as head coach with the Cleveland Browns, Belichick followed Parcells to the New England Patriots where he would soon become head coach in 2000 and become a record breaker and dynasty maker. With five Super Bowl wins and seven AFC championships, Belichick is a skilled tactician, confusing defenses for two decades with a creative playbook.
Don Shula was the only coach to have a perfect season, remaining undefeated throughout the season and the playoffs, winning the Super Bowl with the Miami Dolphins in 1972. Shula led the Dolphins to another Super Bowl victory in 1973, later becoming the highest-winning coach in the NFL with 347 career wins. The fact that Shula still had winning seasons during both the Dead Ball Era in the 70s and the offensive turnaround in the 80s speaks volumes.
Vince Lombardi is probably one of the most well-known coaches in sports, let alone NFL head coaches. The Super Bowl trophy is even named after him. Known for his remarkable wisdom and uncanny grit, Lombardi led the Green Bay Packers to victories in the first two Super Bowls in the 1960s. Lombardi led by example and was known to treat all of his players and staff as equals. Even in the heat of civil rights and gay rights, Lombardi invited gay players to training camp and stuck up for them.
After beginning his career with an 18-46 record in five seasons with the newly introduced Dallas Cowboys, Landry led the Cowboys to two decades of success. In addition to his strong defenses, Landry was known for inventing the 4-3 defensive background, bringing the shotgun formation and pre-snap motions to the offense. Landry would cement himself as one of the greatest NFL head coaches, leading the Cowboys to Super Bowl victories in 1971 and 1977.
When Bill Parcells became head coach of the New York Giants, they had just one winning season in the past ten years. After finishing to a disastrous 3-12-1 season in 1983, the Giants bounced back the following seasons with a 9-7 and 10-6 record. Parcells then led the Giants to their first Super Bowl victory in 1987 against the Denver Broncos. Parcells later had success coaching the Jets, Patriots, and Cowboys.
John Madden was probably best known for his personality as a NFL broadcaster, but was also one of the most successful NFL head coaches. Hired as the Oakland Raiders' head coach at the age of 32, Madden became the youngest coach in the NFL in 1969. Madden never had a losing season for the Raiders, finishing his coaching career with a 103-32-7 record and a .759 winning percentage, the highest in football history.
Paul Brown is credited for founding the Cincinnati Bengals and the team that's named after him, the Cleveland Browns. Brown was an innovator, creating the first playbook during his tenure as a high school coach and brought it with him to Ohio State and later, the Browns. He also introduced face guards on helmets and diagrammed passing plays. Brown was strict with his teams, instructing them to sacrifice luxuries like smoking and drinking during the season.
The Bill Walsh coaching tree includes multiple successful coaches who worked under him. Some of these coaches include Mike Holmgren, Steve Mariucci, John Gruden, Mike Shanahan, and Tony Dungy. Before coaching two seasons at Stanford University, Walsh became head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. In Walsh's first season, the 49ers struggled to a 2-14 record, but soon found success in the draft. Walsh is credited with drafting Joe Montana, who later became a football icon and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time
. Walsh would lead the 49ers to three Super Bowl wins in 1981, 1984 and 1988, becoming one of the greatest NFL head coaches.
In addition to winning four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chuck Noll was also credited in providing opportunities for African-American players. Joe Gilliam became the first African-American starting quarterback in the NFL on Noll's team. Noll later appointed Tony Dungy as an assistant coach. The "Steel Curtain" phrase became infamous for Noll's Steelers, one of the best NFL defenses in history
, whose dynasty in the 70s was unmatched until Bill Belichick's Patriots teams.
Joe Gibbs was creative with manipulating his offensive attack, replacing his fullback with the halfback, and later making the halfback a third wide receiver. The Washington Redskins became one of the first teams to incorporate the three receiver attack. During the strikes and work-stoppages during the 1980s, Gibbs insisted on continuing to practice and led the Redskins to two Super Bowl wins in 1982 and 1987. Gibbs was one of the most creative and most respected of NFL head coaches.