On Sunday, Bill Belichick accomplished something that has been done by just three other coaches in the history of the NFL: He recorded his 250th career win (including playoffs).
While it might be easy to take Belichick's ongoing wizardry as coach of the New England Patriots for granted, his entry into a club that includes Don Shula (347 wins, most in history), George Halas (324 wins) and Tom Landry (270 wins) is a good opportunity to take stock of just where he stands when compared to the all-time greats.
In my years working in and around the NFL, I've seen a lot of coaches come through. Below are the five best, in my eyes, to ever stalk the sidelines.
First, a note: I tried to take into account not just overall success but also the different challenges that faced coaches in different eras. For instance, while legendary Chicago Bears coach George Halas won a lot and did a ton to advance the NFL in its formative years, he didn't have to wrestle with the salary cap and free agency, and the game he knew was not nearly as complex as it is today -- which is why, as great as he was, he didn't make the top five, which are listed below in reverse order.
Also considered: Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, Bud Grant, Curly Lambeau, John Madden, Chuck Noll, Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves, Mike Shanahan, Marty Schottenheimer.
5) Bill Walsh
Career record (including playoffs): 102-63-1.
Known for popularizing the West Coast Offense in San Francisco, Walsh was an offensive innovator à la Sid Gillman and Don Coryell. Walsh excelled at creating mismatches and keeping opponents off-balance with surprise play calls. He did a good job of self-scouting and relied on extensive game planning to keep things unpredictable. Think of the drive that led to "The Catch," which, as a member of the Cowboys' front office at the time, I will always remember. Before Dwight Clark caught that famous touchdown pass to help San Francisco beat the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC title game, Walsh crossed us up by going to the run several times, which went against the grain in that late-game situation. Some guys just know how to call plays, and Walsh was one of those guys.
Of course, Walsh had a knack for developing quarterbacks, producing not one but two Hall of Fame signal callers (Joe Montana and Steve Young) in his 10-year career. But he seemed to appreciate every contributor on his roster: I was close to Walsh, and I still cherish the letter he sent thanking me for cutting two of the players -- Mike Walter and Mike Wilson -- who ended up being a part of his Super Bowl dynasty in San Francisco.
4) Tom Landry
Career record (including playoffs): 270-178-6.
Landry -- who had an engineering degree and flew bombers in World War II -- was, most of all, an innovator. He refined the 4-3 defense, he brought back the shotgun offense and he'd have his offensive players shifting to disguise the formation. He made hay with two tight ends well before Belichick did the same in New England. Landry really innovated for players. When we added Bob Hayes, for example, Landry brought the quick screen into the mix. Creativity was a big strength of his. He could also coach any position on the field -- he could show the kicker how to kick, the punter how to punt or the quarterback how to backpedal.
He wasn't a big rah-rah guy. He knew that, while an excitable coach can easily get his guys hyped up to win a game or two, it's very difficult to sustain season-long success that way. Instead Landry relied on preparation and the respect of his players to win. His players had a great deal of faith in him, not because he was some great motivator, but because they knew he would coach them correctly.
3) Vince Lombardi
Career record (including playoffs): 105-35-6.
When he was hired in 1959, Lombardi took over a Packers team that hadn't recorded a winning season since 1947 -- and he probably saved the franchise for Green Bay, winning 50 games and two NFL championships in his first five years there. He captured five titles in total, including, of course, Super Bowls I and II. As a coach, Lombardi was more of a teacher and developer of players than an Xs-and-Os genius. By today's standards, Lombardi's game plans were extremely vanilla. There were no exotic schemes or multiple formations; everybody knew you'd see play-action on third-and-1, while he lived off of the power sweep with Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor and the halfback option with Hornung. His defense was a straight 4-3 with little blitzing, though he would take the opportunity to blitz when it presented itself.
So if everyone knew what was coming, how did the Packers have so much success? Simple: Lombardi was a great leader who knew how to get his team to execute his plan to perfection. He just got the Packers to outperform everyone and play mistake-free football. Little wonder that when he spoke at league meetings, everybody sat in attention and listened.
2) Don Shula
Career record (including playoffs): 347-173-6.
Shula's strength as a coach was that he was tough but flexible. Witness how he led the Dolphins to a perfect season in 1972 behind a fierce running game -- with Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris -- then pivoted to accommodate quarterback Dan Marino in the 1980s. And he succeeded despite ownership that did not, to put it mildly, like to spend money. It's very hard to win in that kind of situation, but "Shoes" won more than anyone else in history.
He was also part of the Competition Committee. Former Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm told me Shula brought many new ideas to the table. Shula even championed proposals that made things more difficult for his own team if it meant improving the league, which shows you what kind of person he is. This is a quality, quality guy, one that I'm lucky to have known.
1) Bill Belichick
Career record (including playoffs): 250-124.
One person who is no longer with the Patriots organization told me that no one works harder or is more knowledgeable than Belichick. He's creative and forward-thinking; you see some of the draft choices he makes, it's almost like he's thinking about what he's going to do two or three years down the road. He's very innovative and does a great job forecasting the future and setting trends. At the same time, he's a student of the game who appreciates its history -- just ask him about Landry.
Lest you think Belichick's success is owed to Tom Brady, consider that the Patriots' winning percentage without Brady since Brady became the starter in 2001 (.684) is better than any other team's winning percentage in that span. Also think of how he coached up Malcolm Butler ahead of Super Bowl XLIX, prepping him in practice for the exact play on which Butler snagged his game-clinching interception. The bottom line is, Belichick is just a very, very intelligent guy with incredible focus. He's 64 years old and has four rings as a head coach -- to still be as focused as he is today is really something.