According to an ESPN poll of their own NFL commentators, former Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs ranks as the 9th greatest head coach in the history of the National Football League.
There are many angles to question this poll – for instance, why are we comparing coaches who worked in the 1950s to coaches who were working 50 years later in a dramatically different sport? – but let’s bracket that.
Here’s the question – Why isn’t Joe Gibbs ranked in the top three or so?
In general, great coaches get tied to great players, and it is hard to know how much of their success is attributable to their Hall-of-Fame quarterback. Chuck Noll looked great as a head coach when he had Bradshaw as his quarterback, but Noll looked average without Bradshaw – Noll won 14 playoff games in 13 years will Bradshaw under center, and 2 playoff games in 10 years without Bradshaw. The same could be said of Bill Belichick’s poor performance in Cleveland before hooking up with Tom Brady in New England. Or of Bill Walsh, who went 6-18 with the 49ers before Joe Montana took over at quarterback.
In fact, the greatness of NFL head coaches in the Super Bowl era seems inextricably linked to the greatness of their starting quarterback in nearly every case (thus making more problematic unqualified claims about the greatness of those coaches), except with Gibbs.
Here’s the list of coaches who won more than one Super Bowl.
- Chuck Noll, 4
- Joe Gibbs, 3
- Bill Belichick, 3
- Bill Walsh, 3
- Tom Flores, 2
- Bill Parcells, 2
- George Seifert, 2
- Mike Shanahan, 2
- Don Shula, 2
- Jimmy Johnson, 2
- Tom Landry, 2
- Vince Lombardi, 2
Here’s the list of head coaches who won a Super Bowl starting a different quarterback than they started in the first Super Bowl win:
- Joe Gibbs
- Bill Parcells
- George Seifert
Here’s the list of head coaches who won three Super Bowls with three different QBs:
- Joe Gibbs
Gibbs also has the best postseason winning percentage of all coaches who went to the playoffs 8 or more times. He is ranked third in postseason win percentage of all coaches who went to the playoffs more than 5 times, behind only Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi – coaches who went to the playoffs fewer times than Gibbs.*
I believe that what makes Gibbs great also hurts his legacy. Unlike Belichick/Brady, Noll/Bradshaw, Walsh/Montana, Gibbs’ legacy is not connected to a very-high-profile quarterback. The high-profile quarterback helps your reputation. When commentators and fans think of Montana, they also think of Walsh. When they see Bradshaw on a pregame show, they think of Noll and those great teams. But Gibbs won Super Bowls with two positively obscure quarterbacks and one mid-tier quarterback. That makes Gibbs the best ever; and also makes his accomplishment less noticed, and more vulnerable to the passage of time.