Twelve Great NFL Head Coaches: Which belong in Canton? Which don’t?

I don’t normally get involved with debates over who should or shouldn’t be in the NFL Hall of Fame. For one reason, I think we make the Hall of Fame more important than it is. I don’t mean the Hall of Fame itself. I’ve been to both the baseball and football halls of fame and I enjoyed them very much. They are great places to learn the history of the game and to re-live the memories.

The part we make too important is who’s in and who isn’t. You could spend all day debating over who’s in that shouldn’t be, and who’s not in that should be. In the end, it’s all a matter of someone’s opinion. It’s not a perfect system, and if the voting committee took every fans opinion seriously, half the league would be inducted by now.

I think it’s a lot more difficult on choosing which players get in because there are so many different factors to look at. Sure you can look at the stats, but stats can sometimes be misleading, and when it comes to lineman and linebackers, there aren’t that many stats to look at. But it doesn’t seem like it should be as complicated when it comes to voting on which head coaches get in. You can look at their career winning percentage, or how much improvement the team made once they took over as coach. Most importantly, you can look at how many times they led their team to a Championship game or to the Superbowl. But I think the most important stat of all is how many times they actually won a Championship or Superbowl.

There are currently five former head coaches who have each won two Superbowl’s that are not in the hall of fame. Jimmy Johnson won two in a row with the Dallas Cowboys in Superbowl’s 27 and 28. George Seifert won two with the SF 49ers in Superbowl’s 24 and 29. Tom Flores won two with the Oakland Raiders in 1980 and 1983. Mike Shanahan won two in a row with the Denver Broncos in 1997 and 1998. Tom Coughlin won two with the NY Giants in 2007 and 2011. So why aren’t they in the hall of fame? Let’s take a look at their careers.

First, we’ll look at George Seifert. He had a 124-67 career record combining regular season and postseason, including two Superbowl, wins. Not too shabby. Those who would vote against him will point out that he took over a team that was already highly successful, having won three prior Superbowl under Bill Walsh. All the pieces were already in place. While that may be true, doesn’t it take a very good coach to keep those pieces in place? And could we not say the same for John Madden, who took over an Oakland Raiders team in 1969 that was already highly successful, having won the AFL Championship in 1967 under coach John Rauch. The Raiders came very close to winning the AFL title again in 1968 under Rauch, before losing to the NY Jets 27-23 in the AFL Championship game.

I think what really hurt George Seifert’s chances were his three seasons with the Carolina Panthers, where he had a 16-32 record.

I think if he had retired after leaving the 49ers, he would have had a much better chance. With a combined regular and postseason record of 108-35 and two Superbowl trophies in San Francisco, it would have been hard to deny him a place in Canton.

Now let’s take a look at the career of Jimmy Johnson. He took over the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. The Cowboys had gone 3-13 the year before under legendary Coach Tom Landry. Things didn’t get any better in Johnson’s first season as the Cowboys went 1-15, but they improved to 7-9 the following season. In 1991 they went 11-5 and made it to the playoffs before losing to the Detroit Lions. The following season they won the Superbowl and repeated that feat in 1993.

Yes, they had some great players, with the likes of Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, and Michael Irvin, but it also takes a great Coach to lead his team to two Superbowl victories in a row. So what’s keeping him out of Canton? In his 5 years with the Cowboys and 4 years with the Miami Dolphins, his career record is a slightly above average 89-68. But one must admit he led his team to two incredible seasons in 1992 and 1993, and one can only wonder what could have been had he and owner Jerry Jones been able to coexist.

Mike Shanahan took over the Denver Broncos in 1995, after two seasons with the LA Raiders in 1988 and 1989. His record was 8-12 in those two seasons. In his first season with the Broncos, the team went 8-8. Not much of an improvement from their 7-9 record the year before. But in 1996 they went 13-3, before being upset in the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 1997 Shanahan led his team to a Superbowl victory over the favored GB Packers. They repeated that feat in 1998 with another Superbowl victory. It looked like he might get a chance to win his third Superbowl in 2005 when he led his Broncos to the AFC Championship game with an impressive 14-3 record, but they lost that game to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Shanahan is one of only five coaches to lead his team to two Superbowl victories in a row, but a 24-41 record in his four seasons as the Wash.Redskins head coach hurts his chances of getting into the hall.

Another coach with an only slightly better than average career record is Tom Coughlin. His overall record is 182-157. Not that impressive, but consider this. He took an expansion team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, to the AFC Championship game in just their second year in the league. Three years later, he once again led them to within one game of the Superbowl with a 15-2 record, but they were upset by the Tennessee Titans.

He took over as head coach of the NY Giants in 2004. The Giants went 4-12 the year before he got there. Four years later he led them to perhaps the greatest upset in Superbowl history when they defeated the heavily favored NE Patriots who came into the game with an 18-0 record. Four years later they again defeated the heavily favored Patriots. His postseason record with the Giants was an impressive 8-3.

Now let’s have a look at the career of Tom Flores. His overall career record was an unimpressive 105-90, which included three dismal seasons with the Seattle Seahawks where he went 14-34. Many will point to those three seasons with the Seahawks as the reason he is not in the Hall of Fame. But consider this. Hank Stram, who is in the Hall of Fame, went 7-21 in his two seasons with the N.O. Saints. Marv Levy, who is also in the Hall of Fame, went 31-42 in his five seasons with the KC Chiefs.

Flores took over an aging Oakland Raiders team in 1979. They finished the 1978 season with a very average 9-7 record. It was their worst record since 1964, and the first time they failed to reach the playoffs since 1971. In 1979, Flores first season, they again finished 9-7 and failed to reach the playoffs. There didn’t seem to be any reason to think 1980 would be any different.

Many of their best players were no longer with the team. Future Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff and Willie Brown had retired. Others who were no longer with the team were running back Clarence Davis, Guard George Buehler, defensive tackle Otis Sistrunk, linebacker Phil Villapiano, def.backs George Atkinson and Jack Tatum. Future hall of fame tight end Dave Casper was traded to the Houston Oilers, along with future hall of fame QB Ken Stabler, who was replaced by the often injured Dan Pastorini.

The Raiders began the 1980 season with a 2-3 record. In the fifth game, QB Dan Pastorini broke his leg and was replaced by former Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett. Plunkett began his career with the NE Patriots. He played well in his rookie season, but things went downhill from there. He was traded to the SF 49ers in 1976 where his struggles continued. He was sent to the Raiders in 1978.

In the game he replaced Dan Pastorini he threw five interceptions and most Raider fans were expecting a very long season. But Coach Tom Flores stuck with Plunkett and the Raiders won 9 of their next 11 regular season games. Under the leadership of Coach Flores, the Raiders then proceeded to win the wild card playoff game, the divisional playoff game, and the AFC Championship game. They were underdogs in all three of those games as they would be again in the Superbowl against a very good Philadelphia Eagles team. They easily defeated the Eagles 27-10. Three years later they won another Superbowl, easily defeating a very powerful Redskins team that went into that game with an impressive 16-2 record.

Despite a rather unimpressive career coaching record of 105-90, Tom Flores did a masterful job of taking two underdog teams to Superbowl victories, and it is my opinion that he does not get nearly the credit he deserves for that.

Whether he or the other four coaches we’ve discussed here belong in Canton, I will leave up to the voting committee. But as a comparison, let’s take a look at six other coaches, who are in the Hall of Fame, that could be considered questionable choices.

Before we get to those six coaches, I think it only fair to mention one other coach who seems to get forgotten. Mike Holmgren had an overall career coaching record of 174-122. He also led his teams to three Superbowl appearances, twice with the GB Packers and once with the Seattle Seahawks. He won one of those three, and the two he lost were close games. I believe if he had won 2 of the 3, he would be an easy choice for the Hall of Fame. However, as we have already discussed, winning two Superbowl’s does not ensure you a place in Canton.

Okay, let’s get to those other six coaches who are in the Hall. We’ll start with Marv Levy. His career NFL head coaching record was a not overly impressive 154-120. To his credit, he is the only coach in NFL history to lead his team to four Superbowl’s in a row. Unfortunately, he is also the only coach in NFL history to lose four Superbowl’s in a row.

Next, we’ll look at the NFL head coaching career of George Allen. Allen has an impressive overall record of 118-54-5, but an unimpressive record of 2-7 in post-season play. His best season as a head coach was 1972 when he took his over the hill gang Wash.Redskins to the Superbowl. They lost that game to the undefeated Miami Dolphins.

Bud Grant was a four-time Grey Cup champion in the CFL, and yes, I know it’s called the Pro Football Hall of Fame, not the NFL Hall of Fame, but let’s be honest. What you did in the CFL or USFL just isn’t going to impress many of the voters. Grant’s NFL career record is a very good 168-108-5. Like Marv Levy, he led his teams to four Superbowl appearances but lost all four times.

Weeb Ewbank won two NFL Championships in a row with the Baltimore Colts in 1958 and 1959. That, combined with a Superbowl win as NY Jets coach over his former team was enough to put him in the hall of fame. But if one wants to look at career winning percentages, Ewbank is just slightly over 500% with a 134-130-7 record.

John Madden had an astounding 112-39-7 career record as a head coach. That record, along with a Superbowl victory, was enough to ensure him a place in Canton. The one knock on him is that he lost 6 out of 7 times in AFL/AFC Championship games.

Lastly, we’ll look at the career of Hank Stram. Stram led his team to three AFL titles in 1962, 1966, and 1969. He also led his team to two Superbowls, winning Superbowl 4 over the heavily favored Minn. Vikings. Surprisingly his career record is a not overly impressive 136-100-10.

My point here is not to say that any of the aforementioned coaches don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. I just thought it would be interesting to compare these six coaches to the other six coaches who are not in the Hall of Fame.

Which of these twelve coaches should be in Canton? Which ones shouldn’t be? Let the debate begin!

MARK

I've always had a passion for sports. My favorite sport is football. I played and watched a lot of football during the 1970's (my favorite era) After graduating high school I began to compete in Olympic weightlifting. I competed from 1981-1989. I began competing in powerlifting in 2011 and currently hold some New Jersey and New York State records for my age group (50-54) This year I will be competing in the 55-59 age group and hope to break some more State records. I enjoy writing about weightlifting and football.

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