Presenting the 40 Greatest Coaches in NFL History — Ranked Into Seven Tiers
Now that you’ve seen the hard numbers about which coaches have amassed the most total success and which coaches were the best on a per-year basis, it’s important to put those distinct numbers into a greater context.
Unlike players, coaches can be in the league for three or four decades. Thus, longevity or total success, although incredibly important to a coach’s legacy, can ultimately be undermined by many subpar seasons. Because of this, we came up with another formula that works in conjunction with the formula that created these two unique Top 40 all-time lists. It balances the two lists to create one, true, master list.
As far as the “formula” that came up with these tiers, well, we’re actually going to keep it to ourselves. We think these tiers are much more rewarding when individual coaches aren’t ranked, but instead grouped with their closest peers. Presenting the top tier below is more rewarding than ranking them 1-4, in our opinion.
You came here to see how 100 years of NFL football can be broken down through ranking the most successful coaches the game has ever seen. So we might as well start with the best of the best right?
Note: All coaches in these seven tiers are listed in alphabetical order
Tier One (Rankings 1-4):
Bill Belichick (active), Paul Brown, George Halas and Vince Lombardi.
There’s an unmistakable aura surrounding these four names. And for good reason, they’re the Mount Rushmore of the NFL’s all-time head coaches.
This is not our opinion, our formula has classified these four gentlemen as the undisputed “Tier One” of all-time professional football coaches. These men’s careers have the strongest combination of total success and success per season (which for us answers the question as who was the best ever). Quick, someone find a mountain for their fabled faces to be chiseled.
Now let’s ignore what we said about not ranking these four coaches amongst each other and dive into the cases for each of these four coaches as the true “GOAT.”
The easy argument for George Halas as the best ever coach is that he had more total success than any coach in NFL history. Yes, he coached for 40 seasons, but he still had success at an incredible rate. Amazingly, he suffered just six losing seasons despite boasting a tenure that stretched from 1920-1967 (aka the league’s formation all the way into the Super Bowl Era).
It’s likely that no coach ever amasses a higher career point total in this formula. Six World Championships mean something and they’re still tied for the most in NFL history. He is also currently the second-winningest coach in NFL history. No person is more synonymous with a franchise as much as Halas is with the Bears. Not to mention, there would likely be no NFL without the efforts and success of the “Papa Bear.” Is there anything more to say?
The case for Paul Brown being the best ever is incredibly strong as he led the Browns to four consecutive AAFC Championships and then three NFL Championships. He has the most professional championships in football history (seven) as his Browns dominated two leagues. Plus, he’s ranked in the top four in total success and success per year. And remember, Browns’ AAFC accomplishments were awarded only 80% of what NFL accomplishments garner so its not like his legacy is falsely propped up here.
If 100% of his AAFC accomplishments were awarded, he’d be ranked second in both success and success per year, which would arguably make him the greatest coach of all-time. Even if you take away his AAFC accomplishments he’s still likely in the conversation for best ever coach. Football changed forever when Brown instituted his style of coaching. The man was utterly brilliant, while also a brutal perfectionist.
The same can be said for Bill Belichick. Amazingly, he’s ranked top three in both categories, and has the chance to continually rise (or fall, if he doesn’t sustain his success without Tom Brady). But it’s worth nothing that “The Hoodie” is the only one of these four head coaches to coach exclusively in the Super Bowl Era. Belichick is, inarguably, the greatest coach of the Super Bowl Era and we’d entertain an argument that he’s the greatest coach of all-time; he has the most playoff wins in NFL history.
Out of respect for his accomplishments, and our admiration for his creation of the fabled “Patriot Way,” we won’t mention any of the multiple, documented cheating scandals that surround his team. Although there are those out there that will always say they should accompany any talk of his legacy. Either way, Six Super Bowl rings don’t lie. And then factor in three other Super Bowl appearances, too. To win those rings and make that many title games in a 32 team league with a salary cap that’s designed for parity? It’s legendary.
The abominable, but complex Vince Lombardi surpassed the 100 point mark in just 10 years as a coach and he’s, dramatically, the most successful coach on a per-year basis in NFL history. He’ll likely never be surpassed in that department. We’d actually guarantee that. His five World Championships–including the first two Super Bowls–came in a seven year window. For reference, it took Belichick 16 years from his first championship to win his fifth (what a slacker). It’s the most dominant coaching stretch in NFL history and it came after he inherited a 1-10 team.
To date, no dynasty has had such a density of greatness. Lombardi, called “The Pope” by some, still boasts the only three-peat in modern NFL history and he never coached a team to a losing season. He has the second-highest winning percentage in NFL history (minimum 10 seasons) and the highest postseason winning percentage. Plus, his caring and progressive mindset toward race helped push the game of football, and culture as a whole, forward. The Super Bowl Trophy, the prize every coach and team strives for every year, bears his name. Whether it’s “What the hell’s going on out here” or “Seal here, and a seal here and we run the ball… in the alley” or “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” his words will live on forever.
Which of these four resumes is the most impressive to you?
Halas is, by far, the greatest coach in terms of total success. Lombardi is the greatest coach, by far, in terms of success per season. Brown is the greatest coach, by far, when it comes to being highly ranked in both total success and success per seasons (when including 100% of his AAFC accomplishments). Belichick is the greatest coach, by far, in the Super Bowl and Salary Cap Eras, when it’s arguably harder to win. So which is the best between them? For once we didn’t seek to answer that specific question.
Any one of these four coaches could be considered the very best to ever walk an NFL sideline. And nearly the same can be said of the next two men listed in Tier Two. Perhaps some may argue they should be included with these four legends.
Who do you believe to be the greatest head coach in NFL history? Does seeing each coach’s total greatness and greatness per year on display changed your mind at all, or has it simply reinforced your prior beliefs? Let us hear your thoughts using #NFLCoachMtRushmore and maybe we can have a little debate.
But the fun doesn’t end with Tier One, so onward we go!
Tier Two (Rankings 5-6):
Don Shula and Bill Walsh.
This is a pretty exclusive tier, no doubt.
A very convincing argument could be made that both Shula and Walsh should belong with the four men in Tier One. However Walsh’s “total success” point total keeps him from being with the elite four coaches above. Shula’s points per season number just slightly keeps him out of Tier One. Another championship from either would have possibly propelled them to Tier One, but we can’t change history.
Don Shula is the winningest coach in NFL history. Not only that, he paired his top-end success with sustained excellence. He’s currently top eight in both categories we ranked on Page 1 and he won championships with multiple franchises (First the Baltimore Colts and then the Miami Dolphins). He’s the only man in top two tiers to boast that claim. Plus, four times he was named AP Coach of the Year, the most of any coach in NFL history.
His ’72 Dolphins remain the only undefeated team in NFL history to this day. He coached three Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino and Bob Griese. As you can see, his resume is as strong as it is unique. He passed away recently, on May 4th, 2020. RIP, coach. Also, according to his former player Dick Anderson, Shula referred to Bill Belichick as “Belicheat.” So there’s that. We believe the whole of the story deserves to be told.
To this day, Bill Walsh is arguably the most influential coach in NFL history. His “West Coast Offense” is still widely used in the NFL and he’s rightly credited with building the offense, philosophy and culture of the 49ers team that went on to win two more championships after he retired. It should be noted that the dynasty he built came after he inherited a 2-14 team.
To transform the way a sport is played is the essence of impactful. His coaching tree is, perhaps, the most impressive the game of football has ever seen. Andy Reid, Mike Tomlin, Ron Rivera and Jon Harbaugh are all head coaches in the NFL today; all are branches on Walsh’s ever-growing tree. “The Genius” indeed.
Tier Three (Rankings 7-11):
Joe Gibbs, Curly Lambeau, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Steve Owen.
These six coaches are right in the mix of best coaches of all-time, albeit just beneath the top two tiers. The truly iconic coaches in “Tier Three” of our all-time coaching countdown just goes to demonstrate the vastness, and depth of success, of NFL history.
Steve Owen is one of the most underrated coaches in NFL history, clearly, as most people haven’t even heard of him. But look at his career of work, it’s astonishing! Two World Championships and eight conference championships for the New York Giant. At one point, his offensive coordinator was Vince Lombardi and his defensive coordinator was Tom Landry. I mean, come on.
Despite having the NFL’s most famous stadium named after him, Curly Lambeau probably doesn’t get the credit he’s due as an all-time coach either. He was more than just a figurehead in Green Bay, he helped build a championship culture that helped sustain the NFL. His six NFL World Championships match Halas and Belichick for most all-time.
Lambeau and Owen are the only two coaches in this tier to surpass the 100 Point plateau.
Noll, Gibbs and Landry are some of the most iconic names in NFL history. Each are synonymous with their respective franchise. Chuck Noll, called “The Emperor Chaz” by announcer Myron Cope, had the best dynasty of the three coaches in Pittsburgh while he built the Steelers into a worldwide brand. Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks in Washington, a feat that no other coach has has matched. Whereas Tom Landry helped turn Dallas into “America’s Team” while he invented the revolutionary 4-3 defense. All three definitely deserve their spot in Tier Three and were, at least, knocking on the door of Tier Two.
If you want to create a clean “Top 10 Coaches in NFL History” these are the 11 guys to pull from. We won’t do that, though, as we like the mystery and debate. Which coach is the odd man out for you if creating a Top 10 all-time?
Either way, the names listed in Tiers One through Three are, without doubt, the biggest names in NFL coaching history. But there’s still some momentous names in Tiers Four and Five.
Tier Four (Rankings 12-17):
Guy Chamberlin, Ray Flaherty, Mike Holmgren, John Madden, Bill Parcels and Hank Stram.
The two biggest legends on this list are the man with the video game empire and “The Big Tuna.” Of course we’re talking about Madden and Parcels. John Madden was more of quality of quantity in terms of his success. In a decade in Oakland he won a Super Bowl and didn’t have a single losing season. In this tier, he has the highest points per season success. Bill Parcels won two Super Bowls, made it to a Super Bowl with two different franchises and boasted a wining record while coaching four separate franchises.
Hank Stram coached the Kansas City Chiefs, representing the AFL in the first ever Super Bowl. He’d later win Super Bowl IV. Guy Chamberlin and Ray Flaherty are two older names in NFL lore. The former coached Canton, with great success, in the 1920s and the latter coached Washington in the ’30s and ’40s winning two World Championships. Both had enough points to be ranked in the all-time success list, but didn’t coach enough seasons in the NFL to be considered for the points per season list. Still, their overall accomplishments land them in Tier Four. Had they coached longer in the NFL, perhaps they’d be ranked on a higher tier. Still, their accomplishments shouldn’t fade into nothingness. They made a difference.
Some people may be surprised to see Mike Holmgren in this tier, ahead of some Hall of Fame coaches, but he certainly deserves his position. I mean, he has one less point in total success than Parcels and a higher average of success per era than Parcels. Would you believe it? But just look at his resume again, it’s all right there. Put this man in the damn hall of fame!
Tier Five (Rankings 18-23):
Tony Dungy, Bud Grant, Jimmy Johnson, Andy Reid (active), Mike Shanahan and George Seifert.
Rounding out the 22 best coaches in NFL history (for now) are a respectable collection of names. Tony Dungy was the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl in NFL history in Indy and had numerous winning seasons with both the Buccaneers and the Colts. His impact on pro football will forever live on. The venerable Minnesota coach, Bud Grant, won an NFL title, but never a Super Bowl. His Vikings lost four Super Bowls. Unlike Marv Levy of the Buffalo Bills (who also lost four Super Bowls without winning one), Grant had enough success to still top the 50 point mark for his career. That’s a credit to his career as a whole.
Both Jimmy Johnson and George Seifert won two Super Bowls with dynastically-minded teams in the late-80s and early-90s. Johnson led the Cowboys and Seifert the 49ers. Some may argue that they were blessed with such great collections of talent that their accomplishments aren’t quite as impressive as some other coaches, but we don’t necessarily think that to be true. However the team that Seifert inherited was quite stacked.
Andy Reid, one of the most likable coaches in NFL history, is the second-highest ranked active coach on this list, behind Belichick. Over the coming years Reid has a chance to jump up a tier or two, with Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback in Kansas City. We will have to see, but he’s got the right quarterback to do so. It was great to see him finally win a Super Bowl in the 2019 season though and he wouldn’t be ranked here without that win.
One of the best coaches of the 1990s, Mike Shanahan, won back-to-back Super Bowls for the Denver Broncos. Time will tell if his son will join him on this all-time list in a couple decades?
Tier Six (Rankings 24-30):
Tom Coughlin, Bill Cowher, Weeb Ewbank, Tom Flores, Greasy Neale, Buddy Parker and Mike Tomlin (active).
And there’s your Top 30 coaches in NFL history.
We won’t dive into each of these seven NFL coaches, but these men sure have won a hell of a lot of games. They’re right on the periphery of true all-time coaching greatness. Still, their accomplishments in this league won’t ever be forgotten.
The rationale for their location on this tier, and not ranked more-highly, is because of the success of the coaches in the tiers above them. Success is finite in the NFL after all. However they’re included in this all-time countdown and they’re not on the bottom rung of the ladder, so they deserve some credit there.
This tier has a few Hall of Fame inductees and, in our opinion (based on the numbers), Mike Tomlin is easily heading toward the Hall of Fame if he continues his success for another decade.
Okay, so as you can see below we technically went up to 43 coaches, instead of 40. But it’s our list, and the numbers just worked out this way. These following guys are all deserving of their placement on this all-time list.
Tier Seven (Rankings 31-43):
George Allen, Pete Carroll (active), Blanton Collier, Jimmy Conzelman, Sid Gillman, John Harbaugh (active), Marv Levy, Mike McCarthy (active), Sean Payton (active), Marty Schottenheimer, Dan Reeves, Buck Shaw and Dick Vermeil.
Again, we’re not going to go over the resumes of these thirteen gentlemen, but they have done enough to be included in this all-time NFL coaching countdown. It’s impressive they’re here, no doubt, and a couple of the active coaches have a chance to climb into more impressive tiers in the coming years.
It’s really interesting to us that Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton are literally tied in total points and points per year. We expect them to climb this list of tiers at the same rate. Which do you think will end their career with a higher all-time score?
We will not ever create more tiers, instead we will simply add future coaches (or active coaches that find more success) to these already established tiers. Perhaps in ten years we’ll have a Top 45 or Top 50 list.
Just three active NFL head coaches made the all-time Top 30 list and just seven made the all-time Top 40. All other coaches in NFL history fall beneath the men in a hypothetical “Tier Eight.”
That is how exclusive these seven tiers are for all-time NFL coaches, we only focused on the very best of the best in NFL history. Isn’t NFL history fascinating? Which tier has your favorite collection of coaches?
Lets break things down a little more, eh?
The NFL merged with the AFL in 1970, exactly 50 seasons into the league’s history. It’s a clean break for the NFL, so lets take a look at the elite coaches from each era (first 50 years and second 50 years).
Mount Rushmore of the NFL’s Pre-Merger Era:
Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi and Don Shula.
You’ll notice Shula jumps onto the mountain, edging out Curly Lambeau. It’s nice to see such a legend rewarded for his unbelievable success.
Mount Rushmore of the NFL’s Post-Merger Era:
Bill Belichick, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry and Bill Walsh.
Obviously Joe Gibbs has a pretty legitimate claim to be on the NFL’s post-merger list, but hey, there are only four spots available. We’d take the NFL’s pre-merger collection of head coaches as the better foursome, but we’re welcome to disagreement on that front. The ingenuity of the coaches on this mountain cannot be overstated.
Which four NFL Head Coaches will be on the NFL’s Mount Rushmore for the Third 50 Year Era (The Post COVID-19 Era, perhaps).
It’s an interesting thing to ponder. Of course, it’s likely that the next legendary NFL coach isn’t even in the league yet. We can’t wait to find out.
Other Notable Head Coaches in NFL History:
Here are some names you were certainly expecting to find on this all-time list. No, we didn’t run every single head coach in NFL history through this formula, but these were the most notable names that came to mind (yes, with an obvious slant to recent coaches).
Before we jump into that list, we’d like to acknowledge Jim Thorpe as one of the NFL’s pioneers and one of the NFL’s first coaches (1920-1923 coaching three different Ohio based NFL teams). The NFL was named the AFPA in 1920-21, it’s first two years in existence. In 1922-23 specifically he coached, played and starred for the Oorang Indians, the NFL’s only team comprised entirely of Native Americans (with men from at least 10 different tribes from around the country). Thorpe never won an NFL championship as a coach (or a player) but his impact is immensely felt nonetheless.
Alright, onto the notable coaches were missed the cut to be included in the above lists. And yes, “notable” is a very subjective term.
You’ll notice both a few Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted head coaches and active head coaches in the following list… along with some others. These men are listed in ascending order of points and greatness (the lower on the list the better, obviously).
We’ll call these coaches the “Honorable Mentions”
Ron Rivera: 2 Points (active, 2010s)
Bruce Arians: 3 Points (active, 2010s)
Marvin Lewis: 4 Points (2000s)
Norv Turner: 5 Points (2000s)
Dan Quinn: 5 Points (active, 2010s)
Jeff Fisher: 6 Points (2000s)
Jack Pardee: 6 Points (1990s)
Lovie Smith: 8 Points (2000s)
Bill O’Brien: 8 Points (active, 2010s)
Jim Mora: 8 Points (1990s)
Jason Garrett: 9 Points (2010s)
Mike Zimmer: 9 Points (active, 2010s)
Don Coryell: 10 Points (1970s)
Dennis Green: 13 Points (1990s)
Wally Lemm: 14 Points (1960s, AFL)
John Fox: 14 Points (2010s)
Jim Caldwell: 14 Points (2010s)
Chuck Knox: 18 Points (1980s)
Jon Gruden: 19 Points (active, 2000s)
Don McCafferty: 20 Points (1970s)
Allie Sherman: 20 Points (1960s)
Barry Switzer: 21 Points (1990s)
Gary Kubiak: 21 Points (2010s)
Lou Saban: 23 Points (1960s, AFL)
Doug Peterson: 24 Points (active, 2010s)
Brian Billick: 24 Points (2000s)
Potsy Clark: 25 Points (1930s)
Mike Ditka: 27 Points (1980s)
Dick Vermeil: 28 Points (1990s)
Marv Levy: 32 Points (1990s) – Ranked 42nd in NFL history
As you can see, there’s some very notable names on this list that just couldn’t quite make the cut. But we felt we should still list them for the fans to see how their careers fit in with one another contextually. Still, it seems as though 30 Career Points is a pretty good cut-off as a coach “worthy to be remembered.”
Had Marv Levy won just one or two of those four straight Super Bowl appearances with the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s, his legacy would be all the bigger. He’d potentially be a Top 30 or even a Top 20 coach in NFL history. That’s how delicate history is; it’s incredible how history can change in the outcome of just one game.
Full disclosure, there are many head coaches in NFL history with careers that would result in a negative career score using this formula. But for fun, the only coaches I actually ran through the formula who actually had a negative score are Rex Ryan and Sam Wyche. Ryan had a score of -2 Career Points (2010s) in eight years as a head coach. Wyche has -3 Career Points (1980s) in 12 career years and both averaged -0.25 Points Per Year. Take that however you’d like, but I figured I should include it. Not ahead by much, Herm Edwards, Bum Phillips and Sam Rutigliano all came out with career scores of zero. We just found that interesting.
Again, there are other coaches from throughout NFL history that could have been “honorable mentions” but at a certain point, you have to call it, right?
What Hitting Certain Plateaus Mean:
What’s important to remember is that if a coach hits the 40 Point Plateau, in terms of career success, they likely join the “Tier Six” grouping. And there are many active coaches trying to hit that plateau. If a coach hits the 50 Point Plateau they almost automatically enter a new threshold and approach “Tier Five” in all-time coaches. Realistically, a coach needs to hit the 60 Point Plateau to hit the “Tier Four” mark.
A head coach in today’s game would probably have to hit the 80 Point Plateau and sustain a high points per season average to get into the “Tier Three” grouping with some of the most iconic coaches in NFL history. Beyond that, we think it will be a very, very long time before an NFL coach makes it into the top two tiers, but as Bill Belichick proved, it is possible in the modern game.
Before we jump into specifically the active Head Coaches, lets look at the “best of the rest” of NFL coaches in terms of points or success per season. Take note that there are a few active coaches not on this all-time countdown.
Success Per Season “Honorable Mentions”
Minimum of eight years coached in the NFL for this list, thus this list will be significantly shorter than the total points list above
Ron Rivera: 0.22 Point (active 2010s)
Marvin Lewis: 0.25 Point (2000s)
Jeff Fisher: 0.27 Point (2000s)
Norv Turner: 0.33 Point (2000s)
Jim Mora: 0.53 Point (1990s)
Jack Pardee: 0.54 Point (1990s)
Don Coryell: 0.71 Point (1970s)
Love Smith: 0.72 Point (2000s)
Chuck Knox: 0.81 Point (1980s)
John Fox: 0.87 Point (2010s)
Jason Garrett: 1.0 Point (2010s)
Dennis Green: 1.0 Point (1990s)
Wally Lemm: 1.4 Points (1960s, AFL)
Lou Saban: 1.43 Points (1960s, AFL)
Jon Gruden: 1.46 Points (active, 2000s)
Mike Ditka: 1.92 Points (1980s)*
Gary Kubiak: 2.1 Points (2010s)*
Potsy Clark: 2.5 Points (1930s)*
Allie Sherman: 2.5 Points (1960s)*
Brian Billick: 2.66 Points (2000s)*
Blanton Collier: 4.5 Points (1960s)*
* These coaches didn’t hit the minimum for years coached (10 years) and total career points (28) to be included in the all-time Points Per Year ranking. But they did have a respectable averages that would have made the cut, so we figured we should take extra note of that.
What’s obvious when looking at this grouping of coaches, the 3.0 average points per year mark is the obvious cut-off as every coach who has surpassed that number is ranked in the Top 25 all-time. But it also shows you how impressive it is to even average 2.0 points per season as an NFL head coach. Many prominent names have fell beneath this mark for their careers.
We’d also take this time to mention how overrated Jon Gruden is as a head coach in the NFL. I mean, come on. Guys like Mike Zimmer, Bill O’Brien, Doug Pederson and other younger coaches will be added to this list in the coming years.
Which coach surprises you the most on these “honorable mention” lists?
Ranking Active NFL Coaches By Total Career Success:
Spoiler: It’s Belichick… and then everyone else. But you already knew that. He’s the Halas, he’s the Lombardi of this generation. He’s the head coach that people will compare the next legendary NFL coach to in twenty, thirty years.
Minimum four years coached in the NFL to be ranked here
10. Mike Zimmer: 9 Points
9. Jon Gruden: 19 Points
8. Doug Peterson: 24 Points
7. Sean Payton: 37 Points
6. Mike McCarthy: 37 Points
5. John Harbaugh: 38 Points
4. Pete Carroll: 41 Points
3. Mike Tomlin: 47 Points
2. Andy Reid: 55 Points
1. Bill Belichick: 176 Points
Yes, Bill Belichick is truly in a league of his own. Like many of the all-time greats before him, he’s inarguably far greater than his peers.
Obviously look out for Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Dan Quinn and hopefully Matt LaFleur to make the above list (or better) in the coming years, too. Other coaches will also make this list as the years pass on.
These rankings will continue to change following every single NFL season and that’s what makes it so exciting, so real. We can’t wait to see what coaches rise and fall in the next decade!
Thank you for heading into the history of the NFL’s most legendary head coaches with us. As we’ve said, NFL history is always changing, but we think it’s important to keep the past in context and not allow it to be forgotten.
The present isn’t as grand if we forget those that came before us. Some day active NFL coaches will be considered “old” or from an “old era” and will potentially be forgotten. Well, not if we can help it. We make this promise when it comes to the best head coaches in NFL history.
We’ll update this piece following the 2020 season. Who will rise and who will fall? See you then!