Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Breaking Down ESPN's Greatest NFL Coaches

One of the great innovators in NFL history, Chuck Noll won a record four Lombardi trophies.

By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

In a year that would have seen Vince Lombardi turn 100, ESPN decided to unveil its list of the 20 greatest coaches in NFL history. Aside from being a great conversation piece, it is simply a testament to the immense popularity of the NFL.

In the midst of an epic NBA Finals, an "original six" Stanley Cup, majors season in tennis and golf and baseball season, the fact that a list of long since retired football coaches is getting this kind of attention should tell you what America's sport truly is.

The Top-5: Strategic Pioneers Underrated

Here is ESPN's Top Five

1. Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers
2. Bill Walsh, San Francisco 49ers
3. Don Shula, Baltimore Colts/Miami Dolphins
4. George Halas, Chicago Bears
5. Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh Steelers

With all due respect to No. 4 George Halas (2nd most wins in NFL history, six NFL championships, a pioneer for the league in the early years) and Don Shula (Most wins in NFL history and only perfect season in the Super Bowl era) neither of those guys should be ranked ahead of Chuck Noll.

Look, I'll admit that I'm a total Pittsburgh homer, but there are only two coaches I would think about putting ahead of Noll, and that's because those guys changed the way the game is played as much as he did.

Let's look at Noll's resume:
Only coach to win four Super Bowls, only coach to go back-to-back multiple times, architect of the greatest defenses in NFL history (Also constructed Don Shula's defenses in Baltimore as defensive coordinator, and laid the groundwork for Miami's legendary "No Name" defense during their undefeated 1972 season), popularized the Cover 2 and 4-3 "under" alignment, took a 1-15 team and turned it into arguably the greatest dynasty in league history, assembled the greatest draft class in NFL history (Pittsburgh's 1974 draft included a record four Hall of Fame players in receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, center Mike Webster and linebacker Jack Lambert).

That's a pretty darn good resume, and that doesn't even include making Terry Bradshaw look good.

When you compare it to Halas, who I would argue is more significant as an owner,  The Papa Bear has him in total championships (6), wins and years coached. Halas coached 40 years, and guess how? He was the owner. As for the six championships, that's impressive, but he began coaching in 1920 when there were only 14 teams in the league (With names like the Muncie Flyers and Dayton Triangles). So, I think it's safe to say winning titles was a little easier back then.

As for Shula, again, great resume, but he coached in a comparable era and had half the championships of Noll. The fact that he coached 10 years longer than Noll and had the good fortune of coaching two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Bob Griese and Dan Marino) explains the extra wins. As I said above, his one great innovation was laying the ground work for the Cover 2 and playing out of an "under" 4-3 alignment with his strong side tackle lined up over the center, and his defensive coordinator, Noll, came up with that.

Noll's defenses utilized physical interior defensive linemen like "Mean" Joe Greene lining up over the center and accounting for both "A Gaps," a technique still popular in the NFL known simply as a "two-gapping." Vince Wilfork of the Patriots is one of the best examples of a current "two-gap" player, but all the best defenses have one, whether it's a nose tackle or defensive end that lines up between the guard and tackle, covering the B and C gaps.

But it wasn't just along the line that Noll was a revolutionary, as he helped lead us to the modern linebacker with guys like Jack Lambert and Jack Hamm, who not only plugged holes at the line, but also played the flats and excelled in downfield pass coverage.

His Cover 2 pushed his safeties back deep to take away the long pass (Much to the chagrin of Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders), while legendary corner Mel Blount bullied receivers near the line of scrimmage. The defense was so effective that the league changed the rules so that Blount couldn't touch receivers after five yards… Then the Steelers won two more Super Bowls under the new rules. Noll simply rolled Blount up even closer to the line of scrimmage, allowing him to master "bump and run" coverage (A technique that was actually developed in the 60s, but nobody did it better than Blount).

While Halas and Shula were surely great coaches and motivators, neither of them had an innovation like Noll's defense. Heck, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl in 2002 using the exact same principles, and the best Bears defenses of the last decade were constructed the same way. Tony Dungy brought the defense with him to Indianapolis and won a title in 2006. That famed "Tampa 2" that Dungy brought back to the league should have been called the "Pittsburgh 2" because he learned it from Noll while playing for the Steelers as a defensive back in the late 70s.

Dungy also coached under Noll in Pittsburgh during the 80s.

I will give ESPN this, they did choose true innovators for their top two spots. However, I must disagree with their order. Vince Lombardi is probably the most legendary name in football history. After all, the Super Bowl trophy is named after the guy, and he won the first two Super Bowls ever.

His famed "power" running game utilized pulling lineman, and, contrary to its name, was built on speed and precision, not simply brute force. It helped his Packers teams win six championships and led to an astonishing 90% winning percentage for Lombardi in the postseason.

But I would personally pick Bill Walsh, the father of modern NFL offenses, as my choice for the greatest coach ever. Why? Well, for one thing, his "West Coast Offense" is still the standard for the league. A passing game built on precise short/intermediate routes with an accurate quarterback and a running back that can run, pass protect and catch.

His offense was the perfect answer to the Cover 2. Ok, you don't want me to throw down the field deep, so I'll just slice up the nine guys you have near the line of scrimmage with a mixture of crossing and complimentary route patterns.

The league is still trying to find a way to consistently defend Walsh's route concepts, with the "zone blitz" being a popular answer. But, as we found out when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were putting up huge numbers against teams like the Steelers and Jets that employ those defenses, if a good quarterback is making the proper reads while throwing those concepts, you simply can't stop them.

Of course, you need a great quarterback playing well to maximize this offense, so Bill Walsh built one in Notre Dame's Joe Montana. The former Irish signal caller fell to the third round because scouts didn't like his arm strength. Walsh, however, saw an accurate and intelligent field general that he could build his new offense around.

Walsh also traded for Tampa Bay quarterback Steve Young in 1987 and helped turn him from a bust into a Hall of Fame, Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Really, it's only an early NFL retirement that prevented Walsh from breaking Noll's record for Super Bowl wins. The 49ers that he largely constructed went on to win two more titles under caretaker coach George Seifert.

Oh, and you know how nearly every NFL team scripts its first 10-15 offensive plays each game to avoid situational predictability? Yeah, Walsh was the first one to do that too.

All that being said, it is hard to argue with ESPN's top-five. They're all great coaches that changed the game, and this list made for great conversation and helped bring up periods in NFL history that are rarely discussed. But, for the sake of ending this blog with some closure, here are my top five, with legendary coach Paul Brown included since, you know, a team is named after him. And, his coaching tree includes Shula, Noll and Walsh, along with legendary Colts/Jets coach Weeb Ewbank.

1. Bill Walsh, San Francisco 49ers
2. Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers
3. Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Don Shula, Baltimore Colts/Miami Dolphins
5. Paul Brown, Cleveland Browns/Cincinnati Bengals

Honorable Mention: Bill Belichick, Cleveland Browns/New England Patriots
Bill Parcells, New York Giants/New England Patriots/New York Jets/Dallas Cowboys
George Halas, Chicago Bears