The winningest coaches in NFL history

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 22, 2008



The Cold, Hard Football Facts crew breaks down lists with the same bloodthirsty passion of a hammer-wielding Viking horde storming a Norman castle.
 
The bloodlust serves us well, because we are locked in mortal combat with the NFL itself over the topic of the league's all-time winningest coaches.
 
But rest assured, fans of the facts, the most powerful sports league on the planet will submit to our overwhelming firepower, much like Lindisfarne capitulating to a band of wild-eyed, fact-filled Norsemen of analysis.
 
We know they will submit because, well, the NFL is wrong. And – it kinda goes without saying – the Cold, Hard Football Facts are right. To paraphrase the mighty Zeppelin, we are their statistical overlords.
 
It turns out, we're the only resource on Planet Pigskin that has an accurate list of the winningest coaches in NFL  history.
 
The "official" records from the NFL are plagued by curious math and suspect formulas. In some cases, folks, they don't even do the arithmetic right. Well, that's the Elias Sport Bureau for ya, isn't it? But we don't want to bother you with the details of why the "official" list is such a mess. (But if you're interested, and in the service of your confidence, check out our full disclosure of the NFL/Elias's problems on this topic at the bottom of the piece.)
 
Suffice it to say, the list of winningest coaches is important because it tells us a lot that contemporary football fans will find useful, such as:
  • Colts-Patriots may be the best rivalry in NFL history
  • The Lombardi Trophy is pretty much the perfect name
  • Dallas will never win a Super Bowl with Wade Phillips at the helm; and
  • Paul Brown is the alpha and omega of modern NFL coaching
Here's the list of winningest coaches. This list doesn't necessarily mean these are the best coaches, folks. So temper the angry e-mails. What is indisputable is that these are the coaches with the top 30 winning percentages of all time.
 
It's followed by our Viking-like breakdown of the list and what it tells us about the game today as we head into the 2008 season.
 
NFL COACHES WITH THE BEST WINNING PERCENTAGE
(min. 100 games, combined regular season and postseason, at start of 2008 season; active coaches in italics)
 
Coach
Record
Pct.
Titles
1
Vince Lombardi
105-35-6
.740
5
2
John Madden
112-39-7
.731
1
3
George Allen
118-54-6
.684
0
4
Blanton Collier
79-38-2
.672
1
5
George Halas
324-151-31
.671
6
6
Don Shula
347-173-6
.665
2
7
Ray Flaherty
82-41-5
.660
2
8
George Seifert
124-67
.649
2
9
Tony Dungy
136-74
.648
1
10
Joe Gibbs
171-101
.629
3
11
Bill Belichick
142-85
.626
3
12
Curly Lambeau
229-134-22
.623
6
13
Bill Cowher
161-99-1
.619
1
14
Bill Walsh
102-63-1
.617
3
15
Paul Brown*
170-108-6
.609
3
16
Andy Reid
96-62
.608
0
17
Mike Holmgren
170-110
.6071
1
18
Bud Grant
168-108-5
.6068
0
19
Mike Shanahan
146-95
.606
2
20
Tom Landry
270-178
.601
2
21
Potsy Clark
65-42-12
.597
1
22
Marty Schottenheimer
205-139-1
.5957
0
22
Greasy Neale
66-44-5
.5957
2
24
Steve Owen
153-108-17
.5809
2
25
Buddy Parker
107-76-9
.5807
2
26
Mike Sherman
59-43
 .578
0
27
Hank Stram
136-100-10
.573
2**
28
Chuck Noll
209-156-1
.572
4
29
Jimmy Conzelman
88-64-17
.571
1
30
Wade Phillips
61-46
.570
0
Ties included in winning percentage; they count has half a win and as a full game when calculating winning percentage.
 
* Includes only Paul Brown's NFL career. He was also a remarkable 52-4-3 (including playoffs) with four championships in his four years in the AAFC, giving him a career record of 222-112-9 (.660) and an unmatched seven pro football championships.
 
** Hank Stram won one AFL title and one Super Bowl. All other championships on the list are NFL/Super Bowl championships.
 
THIS LIST OF WINNINGEST COACHES TELLS US THAT:
 
1. Coaching is another reason why Colts-Patriots is one of history's great rivalries
The epic-osity of the Indy-New England rivalry this century is well-trod territory by this patriotic Paul Revere of pigskin, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, not to mention lesser football authorities.
 
Indy-New England always seems to have a direct impact on the Super Bowl and there's never been a QB rivalry in which two future Hall of Famers battled each other so often in such important games in both the regular season and postseason. (Starr-Unitas never met in the postseason, for example, while Marino-Montana rarely ever faced each other, period, a total of four times; Brady-Manning meet each other for the 10th time this season.)
 
Add to the Colts-Patriots hype "the best coaches of their time" and you truly have one of the great rivalries ever.
 
Indy's Tony Dungy boasts the best winning percentage of any active coach (.648) and stands at No. 9 all-time.
 
Bill Belichick is No. 2 among active coaches (.629) and No. 11 all-time, right behind Joe Gibbs. Belichick will leap into the Top 10 all time with a 3-0 start in 2008.
 
Oh, by the way, the Patriots visit the Colts in Week 9.
 
2. It wasn't always gravy, glory and "genius" for Bill Belichick
Belichick is among the winningest coaches in history. But through his first 100 games as a head coach, he was a mere 42-58 (including playoffs).
 
Those first 100 games brought us, conveniently enough, to the end of Week 2 of the 2001 season.
 
But then something changed by Week 3, as if someone had flipped a switch on Belichick's career. Since that day, since that 42-58 start, Belichick is a dizzying 100-27 (.787) as an NFL head coach.
 
But what was it? What seismic event shook the foundations of NFL history in the space of one week? What changed by Week 3 of 2001 that was different from Week 2 of 2001? What inspired the single greatest turnabout in a coach's legacy in the history of football?
 
Hmmmm?!?! (Picture grimacing face for added effect.)
 
We'll figure it all out and get back to you with more on this subject soon.
 
3. Lombardi sits on our list right where he belongs
If you go by only regular-season numbers, John Madden is tops all time with a remarkable 103-32-7 (.750) record.(Actually, the NFL offers an imaginary number, listing Madden's career record as .759, which is correct only if you use the league's archaic calculations. But in either case, he's No. 1 in the regular season.)
 
But if we include postseason success, the names and numbers tumble into place perfectly and all is right with the world: Vince Lombardi leads all coaches in NFL history, with a combined regular-season and postseason record of 105-35-6 (.740).
 
The difference is that Lombardi was a near perfect 9-1 in the postseason with, of course, five NFL championships.
 
For all his regular-season success, Madden was just 9-7 in the postseason with one NFL championship.
 
Of course, Madden went on to a long, successful career in football broadcasting which has overshadowed his coaching success to following generations. Lombardi had the decency to die young and leave a good-looking corpse of a legacy. The .740 winning percentage merely adds to its luster.
 
4. The Curse of Doug Flutie works in mysterious ways
The Curse of Doug Flutie is one of those Cold, Hard Football Facts maxims that generate so much evidence no matter which way we turn that it's no longer just a theory. At the very least, it has more legitimacy than Area 51 conspiracies and socialist economic theory.
 
Evidence of the Curse of Flutie arises, for example, on this list of the top coaches of all time.
 
This is hard to believe, folks, but Dallas coach Wade Phillips chimes in with one of the best winning percentages of all time, a .570 mark that slips him into the No. 30 spot the tiniest micro-fraction imaginable ahead of his larger-than-life Dallas predecessor, Bill Parcells (.5699).
 
Phillips, in case you forgot, is the guy who inexplicably benched Buffalo starter Flutie before the 1999 playoffs.
 
He also boasts a rare distinction: he's 0-4 in the playoffs. In fact, he's the only coach on the list of winningest coaches of all time without a single measly playoff victory to his credit.
 
For those familiar with the Curse of Flutie, those zero playoff wins are pretty funny.
 
They're not as funny as the Music City Miracle. Not as funny as the fact that the Phillips was the defensive coordinator for two highly touted San Diego teams that enbarrassed themselves at home in the playoffs with losses to inferior teams (Jets in 2004, Patriots in 2006). They're also not as funny as the fact that Phillips brought the No. 1 seed into the NFC playoffs last year and got bounced at home in the first round. They're not as funny as the fact that the Bills are yet to match the 10-win season they had under Flutie in 1999 or that the Bills have never been back to the playoffs since. And they're definitely not as funny as the fact that Flutie produced the last perfect passer rating (158.3) by a Bills quarterback in his very last game in a Buffalo uniform, just to rub some salt in the cursed wound.
 
Not as funny as all the mishaps and gaffes that have plagued the Bills, Phillips and any team that employs him since the day he benched Flutie.
 
But let's face it: Phillips' zero playoff victories are pretty funny just the same.
 
5. The Paul Brown coaching tree lives and reigns forever and ever
Ten of the top 30 coaches of all time are disciples of the Paul Brown School of coaching. One other is Brown himself. So that's 11 of 30, and that's a pretty astounding rate.
 
For modern football fans not familiar with the Paul Brown School, there's an easy way to figure out who's in it. If you know of the Bill Walsh School and all its modern descendants (George Seifert, Andy Reid, Mike Holmgren, etc.), then you know the contemporary members of the Paul Brown School.
 
For all the credit given to Walsh for his  influence over the modern coaching ranks, was merely a conduit between te mastermind Brown and today's coaches. 
 
After all, Walsh was a direct disciple of Brown. And all of these inaptly named "West Coast" offense guys are on the list of winningest coaches. They're joined there on the list of winningest coaches by old-school Paul Brown Academy graduates such as Blanton Collier, Don Shula and Chuck Noll. That's a pretty amazing school.
 
6. Several notable contemporaries are missing from the list
Miami general manager Bill Parcells is one of the biggest personalities in football and has a reputation as one of the great coaches of all time. It's a reputation he earned while leading the Giants to two Super Bowls, helping resurrect four moribund franchises, and by virtue of some of the greatest press-conference quotes the game has ever seen.
 
But when it comes to winning, Parcells just misses the cut, with a 183-138-1 record (.5699) that puts him at No. 31 all time.
 
Two recent Super Bowl winners are also fail to make the cut. Jon Gruden led Tampa to a championship in 2002. But his career record is 91-78 (.538) puts him well out of the Top 30.
 
Same for defending Super Bowl champ Tom Coughlin. He was the architect last year of one of the great postseason runs of all time and one of the great upsets in NFL history. He even orchestrated one of the greatest upsets in college football history, too. But his career record is a humble 111-95 (.539). Again, like Gruden, well out of the Top 30.
 
But he'll always have Phoenix.
 
***
 
So what's the problem with the NFL's data on coaches? (Warning: this is the boring, geeky stuff)
 
Let's set the record straight. We love the NFL Record & Fact Book, the league's official compendium of stats and data. This book is awesome. In fact, we just wrote about its awesomeness the other day.
 
And, just so you know, before the start of the season, we sprawl out on the beach with the Record & Fact Book in hand for a little light summer analysis, despite the efforts of onlookers to splash our rotund bodies with water and drag us back out to sea. We're committed to the good book.
 
But just because we love it, does not mean it's always accurate. The NFL Record & Fact Book has it flaws, mostly of a human nature.
 
The NFL's list of winningest coaches is the primary example. It appears on page 25, way up at the front of the 784-page compendium. So obviously the NFL think the legacies of its coaches are important.
 
But in many cases the numbers are just plain wrong, or the numbers have been subjected to the same kind of curious calculations we saw out of Enron. The basic problem is that the NFL (or, more specifically, its stat provider, the Elias Sports Bureau) uses three different formulas to calculate coaches' winning percentages.
  • Through 1971, the formula dismisses ties completely, basically treating tie games as if they never happened. A guy who's 60-30-10 is .667 (60/90).
  • From 1972 on, the formula includes all ties in the total of number of games, and counts them as half a win. A guy who's 60-30-10 is .650 (65/100).
  • This is the really messed up part: If a coach's career spans the 1971-72 seasons, the NFL dismisses ties through 1971 and counts them from 1972 on. If a guy's 30-15-5 through 1971, and 30-15-5 after 1971, his record would be .658 (62.5/95).

What's up with that? Same guy. Same record. Three different answers.

In our calculations, we applied to same formula to every coach. That's why we're the only resource out there that has an accurate list of coaching records. We brought these inconsistencies to the NFL's attention two years ago. They still haven't addressed the problem. The same confusing calculations still appear in the Record & Fact Book, as do the outright errors.
 
We can see changing the formula for a calculation. But naturally, you assume the league would re-calculate all the numbers once it changes the formula. But that's not what the NFL did. They changed the formula and never recalculated the answers.

You might argue that the NFL stopped counting ties when it established regular-season overtime. And it might make sense to change the formula in this instance: after all, overtime all but eliminated ties in pro football.
 
But that's not what happened. The NFL did not institute overtime until 1974, two seasons after it started counting them in winning percentage. So, basically, the two are unrelated. The NFL, or Elias (which is notoriously refuses to admit or correct mistakes) made an arbitrary decision to count ties one day and, as far as we can tell, was too lazy to recalculate everybody's records.
 
The funny part is that when ties were common, they were not counted. George Halas has had 31 of his games virtually stricken from the record books because of this decision.
 
But now that ties are virtually extinct, the NFL counts them.
 
Then there were the guys who coached in 1972 and 1973, when ties were still common and counted.
 
The worst part is that sometimes the math is flat out wrong, no matter what formula you use.
 
How else do you explain this: the NFL Record & Fact Book lists Bill Cowher's regular-season record as 149-90-1. This is accurate and confirmed by other sources. But next to those win-loss-tie numbers, it lists his winning percentage as .598. If you can explain to us how 149-90-1 equals a .598 winning percentage, you'll really be on to something. The truth is that it equals a healthy .622 winning percentage (149.5/240).
 
In any case, football data is downright barbaric compared to its more pristine counterpart of Major League Baseball data. But the NFL compounds the problem by insisting on archaic methods of calculating something as simple as winning percentage. But thankfully, you have the Cold, Hard Football Facts to set the record straight.

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