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Answers in Search of a Question: Fast Track to the Super Bowl (The Sequel)

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"We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself." -- Lloyd Alexander.

In ASQ: The Fast Track to the Super Bowl, I addressed the changing trend of how quickly coaches are getting their teams to the Super Bowl. This discussion was prompted by a comment in a thread about how coaches have to get their teams to the Super Bowl quickly, or risk not getting there at all. I walked into that topic with absolutely no idea of what the history would tell me. I chose, at that time, for simplicity's sake to restrict my research to the coaches who had won the Super Bowl. In this article, I'm going to bring in the coaches who got to the Super Bowl, but failed to win it.

There have been 44 Super Bowls played; that's 88 Head Coaching slots. Remarkably enough, only 47 coaches have filled these slots. In the last article, we took brief look at the 27 who have won the big dance. This means that there were 20 coaches who got their team to the Super Bowl, but failed to win it. More about all of this after the fold.

In the first installment of this look at coaches and the Super Bowl, I found that they broke down very naturally into four groups: 1966-1969, 1970-1980, 1981-1991, and 1992-2009. Within those groups, it could be seen that the average time a coach had been with a team before winning the Super Bowl had gradually declined. It was also noted that during those same periods, the average tenure of a coach with a team also declined. Finally, it was noted that the teams which had multiple Super Bowl wins, by and large, had coaches with lengthy tenures with that team. The following tables break down the coaches who have been to the Super Bowl. I chose to include the Super Bowl winners for comparison purposes. The column "Seasons w/Team" refers to the number of seasons the coach had been with that particular team prior to the Super Bowl appearance, including the season that led to that appearance. This is an important distinction to make since some coaches worked with more than a single team. Numbers in parentheses indicate the number of Super Bowl appearances.

Era #1: 1966-1969
Super Bowl
Winning Coach
Seasons w/Team
Losing Coach
Seasons w/Team
I
Vince Lombardi, Green Bay
8
Hank Stram, Kansas City
7
II
Vince Lombardi, Green Bay (2)
9
John Rauch, Oakland
2
III
Weeb Ewbank, NY Jets
6
Don Shula, Baltimore Colts
6
IV
Hank Stram, Kansas City (2)
10
Bud Grant, Minnesota
3


This period covered four Super Bowls. That's eight coach slots, but only 6 coaches got their teams to the SB. The average tenure of the winning coaches was 8.25 years. By comparison, the average tenure of the losing coaches was 4.5 years. In three of the four SBs the longer tenured coach won. No coach got his team to the SB without having been with that team for 2 or more years. No coach with less than 6 years with his team won the SB. There were no coaches in their first year with their team. Coaches in their 2nd or 3rd year were a combined 0-2 in the SB. Coaches with 6-8 years were 2-2. Coaches with 9+ years were 2-0.


Era #2: 1970-1980

Super Bowl
Winning Coach
Seasons w/Team
Losing Coach
Seasons w/Team
V
Don McCafferty, Baltimore Colts
1
Tom Landry, Dallas
11
VI
Tom Landry, Dallas (2)
12
Don Shula, Miami (2)
2
VII
Don Shula, Miami (3)
3
George Allen, Washington
2
VIII
Don Shula, Miami (4)
4
Bud Grant, Minnesota (2)
7
IX
Chuck Knoll, Pittsburgh
6
Bud Grant, Minnesota (3)
8
X
Chuck Knoll, Pittsburgh (2)
7
Tom Landry, Dallas (3)
16
XI
John Madden, Oakland
8
Bud Grant, Minnesota (4)
10
XII
Tom Landry, Dallas (4)
18
Red Miller, Denver
1
XIII
Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh (3)
10
Tom Landry, Dallas (5)
19
XIV
Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh (4)
11
Ray Malavasi, LA Rams
2
XV
Tom Flores, Oakland
2
Dick Vermeil, Philadelphia
5


This time period saw eleven SBs played. The 22 coach slots were filled by just 11 coaches. Tom Landry accounted for 5 of the 22 slots. Bud Grant and Chuck Noll had 4 each. Don Shula accounted for 3. Thus we can see that 16 out of the 22 coaching slots were filled by just 4 coaches. The average tenure of the winning coaches was 7.5 years. The average tenure of the losing coaches was 7.5 years. Oddly enough, only 4 of the SBs were won by the longer tenured coach. Having said that, however, it has to be noted that Don Shula -- who lost in his 2nd season with Miami, then won in his 3rd and 4th seasons with them, had logged 7 years as the coach of the Baltimore Colts, prior to taking over the Dolphins. It can also be argued that McCafferty's win over Landry should come as no surprise, since McCafferty had inherited a team that had played in SB III, just 2 years before, while Landry's Cowboys were appearing in that game for the first time. First year coaches (McCafferty, Miller) went 1-1. Second year coaches went 1-3. The sole third & fourth year coach went 2-0 -- but again, that's deceptive since it was Shula's 3rd & 4th SB appearances, and his 10th season as an HC. Coaches with 6+ years with their teams went a combined 7-6.


Era #3: 1981-1991

Super Bowl
Winning Coach
Seasons w/Team
Losing Coach
Seasons w/Team
XVI
Bill Walsh, San Francisco
3
Forrest Gregg, Cincinnati
2
XVII
Joe Gibbs, Washington
2
Don Shula, Miami (5)
13
XVIII
Tom Flores, Oakland (2)
5
Joe Gibbs, Washington (2)
3
XIX
Bill Walsh, San Francisco (2)
6
Don Shula, Miami (6)
15
XX
Mike Ditka, Chicago
4
Raymond Berry, New England
1
XXI
Bill Parcells, NY Giants
4
Dan Reeves, Denver
6
XXII
Joe Gibbs, Washington (3)
7
Dan Reeves, Denver (2)
7
XXIII
Bill Walsh, San Francisco (3)
10
Sam Wyche, Cincinnati
5
XXIV
George Seifert, San Francisco
1
Dan Reeves, Denver (3)
9
XXV
Bill Parcells, NY Giants (2)
8
Marv Levy, Buffalo
4
XXVI
Joe Gibbs, Washington (4)
11
Marv Levy, Buffalo (2)
5


The third of the SB eras again covered 11 SBs, or 22 coaching slots. This time, twelve different coaches brought their teams to the big game. Gibbs accounted for 4 of the slots. Walsh and Reeves each took 3 spots. Shula, Parcells and Levy each claimed 2. Thus, we can see that 16 of the 22 coaching slots were taken by 6 coaches. In other words, half of the coaches accounted for 73% of the coaching slots during this time period. The average tenure of the winning coaches was 5.5 years. In an interesting shift, the average tenure of the losing coaches was 6.3 years. In 6 of the 11 SBs, the longer tenured coach won. It should be noted, however, that two things skew our perception of this period: (1)Don Shula appearing twice, in his 13th & 15th seasons, significantly raised the average tenure of the losing coaches. The other coaches during this period ranged between 2 and 9 years. First year coaches (Seifert, Berry) went 1-1. It must be noted that Seifert took over a 49ers team that had won the SB the previous year under Bill Walsh. Second and third year coaches also went 1-1, respectively.


Era #4: 1992-2009

Super Bowl
Winning Coach
Seasons w/Team
Losing Coach
Seasons w/Team
XXVII
Jimmy Johnson, Dallas
4
Marv Levy, Buffalo (3)
6
XXVIII
Jimmy Johnson, Dallas
5
Marv Levy, Buffalo (4)
7
XXIX
George Seifert, San Francisco (2)
6
Bobby Ross, San Diego
3
XXX
Barry Switzer, Dallas
2
Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh
4
XXXI
Mike Holmgren, Green Bay
5
Bill Parcells, New England (3)
4
XXXII
Mike Shanahan, Denver
3
Mike Holmgren, Green Bay (2)
6
XXXIII
Mike Shanahan, Denver (2)
4
Dan Reeves, Atlanta (4)
2
XXXIV
Dick Vermeil, St Louis Rams (2)
3
Jeff Fisher, Tennessee
5
XXXV
Brian Billick, Baltimore Ravens
2
Jim Fassel, NY Giants
4
XXXVI
Bill Belichick, New England
2
Mike Martz, St Louis Rams
2
XXXVII
Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay
1
Bill Callahan, Oakland
1
XXXVIII
Bill Belichick, New England (2)
4
John Fox, Carolina
2
XXXIX
Bill Belichick, New England (3)
5
Andy Reid, Philadelphia
6
XL
Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh (2)
14
Mike Holmgren, Seattle
7
XLI
Tony Dungy, Indianapolis
5
Lovie Smith, Chicago
3
XLII
Tom Coughlin, NY Giants
4
Bill Belichick, New England (4)
8
XLIII
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh
2
Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona
2
XLIV
Sean Payton, New Orleans
4
Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis
1


The most recent of the SB eras covered 18 SBs. This means that there were 36 coaching slots available. This was the most diversified grouping of coaches with 28 different coaches participating. Belichick had the most appearances with 4. Holmgren logged 3, while Johnson, Levy, Cowher and Shanahan each accounted for 2. Thus, 42% of the coaching slots were filled by 6 coaches. The average tenure of the winning coaches was 4.2 years. The average tenure of the losing coaches was 4.1 years. In only 7 of the 18 SBs, do we see a longer tenured coach defeating a coach with a shorter tenure. This seems to bear out the concept that originally started this discussion and it's predecessor -- that coaches need to get to the SB quickly, or risk not getting there at all.

The first thing that struck me in doing this research was the relatively small number of coaches who have actually made it to a Super Bowl. Only 47 coaches have taken their team to the SB. Forty-seven coaches to fill 88 coaching slots. What's even more remarkable, is that 62 out of the 88 slots have been filled by just 19 coaches. The following table can be found at wikipedia.org (though I added the coaches with just a single SB appearance; bold indicates a SB win):

Coach
SB Record
Super Bowls
Team(s)
Don Shula
2-4
III, VI, VII, VIII, XVII, XIX
Baltimore Colts, Miami Dolphins
Tom Landry
2-3
V, VI, X, XII, XIII
Dallas Cowboys
Bud Grant
0-4
IV, VIII, IX, XI
Minnesota Vikings
Chuck Knoll
4-0
IX, X, XIII, XIV
Pittsburgh Steelers
Joe Gibbs
3-1
XVII, XVIII, XXII, XXVI
Washington Redskins
Marv Levy
0-4
XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII
Buffalo Bills
Dan Reeves
0-4
XXI, XXII, XXIV, XXXIII
Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons
Bill Belichick
3-1
XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLII
New England Patriots
Bill Walsh
3-0
XVI, XIX, XXIII
San Francisco 49ers
Bill Parcells
2-1
XXI, XXV, XXXI
New York Giants, New England Patriots
Mike Holmgren
1-2
XXXI, XXXII, XL
Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks
Vince Lombardi
2-0
I, II
Green Bay Packers
Hank Stram
1-1
I, IV
Kansas City Chiefs
Tom Flores
2-0
XV, XVIII
Oakland Raiders
Jimmy Johnson
2-0
XXVII, XXVIII
Dallas Cowboys
George Seifert
2-0
XXIV, XXIX
San Francisco 49ers
Mike Shanahan
2-0
XXXII, XXXIII
Denver Broncos
Dick Vermeil
1-1
XV, XXXIV
Philadelphia Eagles, St Louis Rams
Bill Cowher
1-1
XXX, XL
Pittsburgh Steelers
John Rauch
0-1
II
Oakland Raider
Weeb Ewbank
1-0
III
New York Jets
Don McCafferty
1-0
V
Baltimore Colts
George Allen
0-1
VII
Washington Redskins
John Madden
1-0
XI
Oakland Raider
Red Miller
0-1
XII
Denver Broncos
Ray Malavasi
0-1
XIV
Los Angeles Rams
Forrest Gregg
0-1
XVI
Cincinnati Bengals
Mike Ditka
1-0
XX
Chicago Bears
Raymond Berry
0-1
XX
New England Patriots
Sam Wyche
0-1
XXIII
Cincinnati Bengals
Bobby Ross
0-1
XXXIX
San Diego Chargers
Barry Switzer
1-0
XXX
Dallas Cowboys
Jeff Fisher
0-1
XXIV
Tennessee Titans
Jim Fassel
0-1
XXV
New York Giants
Mike Martz
0-1
XXXVI
St Louis Rams
Jon Gruden
1-0
XXXVII
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
John Fox
0-1
XXXVIII
Carolina Panthers
Andy Reid
0-1
XXXIX
Philadelphia Eagles
Tony Dungy
1-0
XLI
Indianapolis Colts
Lovie Smith
0-1
XLI
Chicago Bears
Tom Coughlin
1-0
XLII
New York Giants
Mike Tomlin
1-0
XLIII
Pittsburgh Steelers
Ken Whisenhunt
0-1
XLIII
Arizona Cardinals
Sean Payton
1-0
XLIV
New Orleans Saints
Jim Caldwell
0-1
XLIV
Indianpolis Colts
Brian Billick
1-0
XXXV
Baltimore Raven
Bill Callahan
0-1
XXXVII
Oakland Raiders


There are 28 coaches who have appeared but once in the SB. Their combined record is 11-17, a winning percentage of 39%. The other 19 coaches have a combined record of 33-27; a winning percentage of 55%. Something to think about when considering how we want our coach to structure his team. The overwhelming majority of multiple appearances by the coaches took place in the first half of the Super Bowl era. Since then, we have seen a steady pattern of declining tenures by the coaches, leading to additional pressures to reach the Super Bowl quickly.

At the same time, however, there can also be seen a pattern of building teams to endure over time. So, there is a no-brainer trend that goes against what has been happening among coaches in the NFL in the last decade: the more times you can get to the Super Bowl, the better your chances of winning it (unless your name is Bud Grant, Marv Levy or Dan Reeves).

Let me offer up three examples from the AFC -- teams that are generally touted at the beginning of each season to "have a shot." Over the last ten years, few teams have been able to match the consistency of (and please don't kick me off of MHR for daring to say this): the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. These three teams have accomplished something remarkable in the last decade:

Team
Coaches
Longest Tenure
Losing Seasons
10+ Win Seasons
Playoff Appearances
Super Bowl Appearances
Super Bowl Wins
Indianapolis
3
7 yrs
1
9
9
2
1
New England
1
10 yrs
1
8
7
4
3
Pittsburgh
2
7 yrs
1
6
6
2
2


Whether we like to admit it or not, these three teams have been doing it right. The starting point is keeping their head coach in place. Does this mean we should have keep Shanahan in place? After all, he had a long tenure with the Broncos, had won 2 SBs, shouldn't we have kept him around? Not necessarily. Let's look at the same categories for Denver over the last 10 years.

Team
Coaches
Longest Tenure
Losing Seasons
10+ Win Seasons
Playoff Appearances
Super Bowl Appearances
Super Bowl Wins
Denver
2
9
1
4
4
0
0


While a cursory glance at the Denver table could give the impression that Denver was unwise to make a coaching change, the tables do not give a complete view. Denver's playoff appearances all occurred within the first 6 years of the decade, and the Broncos have now gone 4 years without a playoff appearance. This despite having a coach who had won 2 SBs. Indianapolis, by comparison has only missed the playoffs 1 year, while New England and Pittsburgh have spread their appearances throughout the decade. For this reason, if McDaniels wants to build a foundation modeled after New England's approach -- 1 losing season, 8 10+ win seasons, 7 playoff appearance, 4 Super Bowl appearances, 2 Super Bowl wins in 10 years -- I'm good with that.

A Brief Word About Rookie Head Coaches and the Super Bowl

There have been 5 rookie head coaches who have managed to lead their teams to the SB. Two of them won the big game -- Don McCafferty (1970, Baltimore Colts, SB V), and George Seifert (1989, San Francisco 49ers, SB XXIV). McCafferty was a Baltimore assistant coach under Don Shula who was promoted to the HC position after Shula moved to Miami. He took over the team just 2 years after Baltimore had been in the Super Bowl. Seifert had been the San Francisco Defensive Coordinator the previous year when the 49ers won the Super Bowl. In essence, both of these rookie HC's inherited Super Bowl ready teams. This is not to take anything away from their accomplishments, but to simply recognize that they started the process well ahead of where many rookie coaches start out -- they knew their players and coaches, and they had teams that had the experience of having been able to get to the big dance.

Three other rookie HC's have managed to get their teams to the SB in their first year. Those coaches were: Red Miller (1977, Denver Broncos, SB XII), Bill Callahan (2002, Oakland, SB XXXVII), and Jim Caldwell (2009, Indianapolis Colts, SB XLIV). Red Miller had the hardest road in this process. The previous year he had been an assistant coach for the Boston Patriots. He inherited a 9-5 team that had never been to the playoffs in their history, a team that had only had 3 winning seasons in their entire history before Miller came on board. Callahan was promoted from the Offensive Coordinator's slot after HC Jon Gruden went to Tampa Bay. He inherited a 10-6 team that Gruden had taken to the playoffs each of the previous two years. Caldwell had been the assistant head coach for Indianapolis the previous year. He inherited a 12-4 team that had won the SB three years before, and had been in the playoffs each of the two intervening years.

A Conclusion or Three

The first thing that leapt out at me is how incredibly small the circle of SB coaches is. Even further, it was startling to discover that 70% of the possible SB coaching slots were filled by 40% of the coaches who actually made it to the championship game. This made me realize how unrealistic all of the talk about McDaniels getting us to the Super Bowl in his first year was, even after the 6-0 start. Only 5 rookie HCs have made it to the big game, which is only 11% of the coaches to make it there, and even more telling only 6% of the possible coaching slots. Further, of those 5 rookie HCs, 4 inherited playoff ready teams, and 3 of them inherited teams with SB experience.

Another thing which stood out was the interesting dynamic tension between the coaches with multiple SB appearances/wins and the growing trend in the NFL for coaches to have shorter tenures with their teams. The win now or move on attitude that has grown out of the emphasis on parity has made it hard for teams to build philosophies and strategies that endure over longer periods of time. On the average, NFL teams are changing coaches nearly as often as the United States looks at changing presidents. Only a few teams, such as Indianpolis, New England and Pittsburgh (though I'm sure there are others) have been able to more or less successfully buck this trend.

Finally, while it would be very easy to buy into the win now attitude, I find myself moving more in the direction of wanting to see a modern version of the long-tenured coaching that was dominant in the early years of the Super Bowl. I would like to see McDaniels and Company to take us down the path followed by Indianapolis and New England -- the building of a team that is consistently in the hunt for the title. For this reason, I am more than willing to allow McDaniels at least 6 years to show that he can build that kind of team.