Is Bill Belichick the greatest coach in NFL history?
Suffice to say he is in the discussion.
“Greatest” is a relative term. The game changes, the rules change and the players change, making it difficult to quantify accomplishments from one era to the next.
But there is one constant – coaches and quarterbacks have always been judged by their rings. So Belichick finds himself in the discussion with two other coaches for that “greatest” moniker, Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi.
Brown coached the Cleveland Browns to 10 consecutive championship games, winning seven of them. Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers to six championship games in a span of 10 seasons, winning five of them. Their successes came during an era when there were no playoffs – just a championship game. Only two teams qualified for the playoffs each season – the best team in the East versus the best team from the West.
In his 19 seasons with the Patriots, Belichick has won 16 AFC East titles, nine AFC championships and six Lombardi Trophies. That’s one more championship than Lombardi, one fewer than Brown. Lombardi won 74 percent of his games (96-34-6), Brown 67 percent (213-104-9) in his 25 seasons and Belichick 68 percent (261-123) in 24 seasons.
All three coaches won their championships with one quarterback – Brown with Hall of Famer Otto Graham at Cleveland, Lombardi with Hall of Famer Bart Starr at Green Bay and Belichick with Tom Brady at New England.
Brown fielded his first team in the inaugural season of the All-America Football Conference in 1946, so he built his roster from scratch. But Brown had coached many of those players from his previous head coaching stops – Massillon High School, Ohio State and the Great Lakes Bluejackets, a military team during the war years. Among them were Hall of Famers Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley and Bill Willis. Little wonder Brown took his team to the first of their 10 consecutive title games that season.
Lombardi arrived in Green Bay in 1959 and inherited a roster that already included six players destined for the Hall of Fame – Starr, halfback Paul Hornung, fullback Jim Taylor, tackle Forrest Gregg, guard Jerry Kramer and middle linebacker Ray Nitschke. Little wonder the Packers were playing for their first world title in Lombardi’s second season.
Belichick arrived in New England in 2000 and inherited a roster with one player destined for Canton – cornerback Ty Law. So the cornerpieces of a dynasty that would stretch for 18 years were players handpicked by Belichick – Brady in 2000, Richard Seymour in 2001, Deion Branch in 2002, Vince Wilfork in 2004, Stephen Gostkowski in 2006, Matthew Slater in 2008, Julian Edelman in 2009, Rob Gronkowski in 2010 and Dont’a Hightower in 2012.
Belichick also carved out his coaching legacy in the salary-cap era, which prevented NFL teams from keeping all of their best players. Free agency over the years cost the Patriots veteran Pro Bowlers Law, Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest, Asante Samuel, Wilfork and Nate Solder. So there was a constant roster churn that was never a concern for Brown and Lombardi.
But Belichick also carved out his legacy during an era when the NFL stacked the rules to favor the quarterback, receivers, passing game and offense. So having the game’s best quarterback over the last two decades has certainly benefitted Belichick.
But there’s one difference between Brown, Lombardi and Belichick in this “greatest” debate. Belichick is still writing his resume. Brown and Lombardi are finished and have busts in Canton. Belichick is not. So right now, he remains in the debate of the greatest coach of all time. When Belichick’s finished, though, there may not be a debate.