Mike and Tom take a look at historical Super Bowl Champions by seed and by DVOA, asking the question: What changed in 2000?
04 Aug 2010
In Late July, Doug Farrar and Mike Tanier revived their never-ending Hall of Fame argument. This year’s focus: The Coaches.
Mike: Don Coryell passed away recently, and in previous emails we disagreed on his HOF worthiness. Why don’t you start by giving the case for him?
Doug: We’re talking about one of the truly great schematic architects of his era, and I would compare him to Mike Holmgren in this way: though Sid Gillman is rightfully regarded as the father of the “vertical spacing offense” (what might be called the true West Coast Offense), Coryell was that offense’s most skilled disciple and evangelist. Holmgren has been, in my opinion, the Coryell to Bill Walsh’s Gillman – the most talented and effective acolyte.
To a greater or lesser degree, Coryell has his name stamped on the three-digit numbered route system, H-backs, single-back sets, the I-formation, tight ends breaking records out of the slot/flex positions, multi-purpose backs who lead the league in total yards, and the expanded route tree. He took the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers from nothingness to near-Super Bowl contention, and that was a pretty neat trick in both cases. I know that his postseason record has kept him out of the Hall of Fame so far, but I would argue that his schematic influence puts him in on a no-matter-what basis. Three decades after he ran his offense in San Diego, Norv Turner is doing pretty much the same thing. Add in the Dallas and Washington offenses that had a lock on the Lombardi trophy in the late 1980s and early 1990s whenever the 49ers didn’t, and it’s a pretty impressive legacy.
Mike: Here's my problem: Don Coryell seems to have invented everything. It sounds like Sid Gillman, Al Davis, George Allen and these other legends were sitting around a table saying, "gee, I have no idea what plays to call." Then Coryell would visit from San Diego State, draw a few plays on the chalk board, and all of them would shout "Eureka!"
Then, Bill Walsh, John Madden, and Joe Gibbs would stumble around trying not to trip over footballs, but once Coryell showed them that the ball should be thrown forward, they all smacked their heads and started coaching.
Yes, I am being glib. But my point is that when I read the quotes about Coryell, everyone is gushing about how many brilliant innovations he made. And I know he made some. But I am reading quotes by players and friends who want to plug Coryell to join them in the Hall of Fame. They can't talk about his championships. So they talk about his innovations.
Go back and watch some old Chargers footage from the late 1970s or early 1980s. You would expect to see them running some wild four-receiver, empty-backfield stuff, based on what is sometimes said of Coryell. They didn't. They ran a two-back set. They handed off to the fullback a lot. It was a 1970s offense with more motion and passing. It looks a lot more like what Ted Marchibroda was running with the Colts and Eagles at the same time than like anything Norv Turner or anyone else runs now. I have quotes about Coryell using a lot of three-receiver sets, but he didn't start using them until later in the 1980s, when a lot of coaches used them. Joe Gibbs and his staff innovated single-back offense, not Coryell.
Long story short, I think he was a great offensive coach, but he was two years ahead of his time, not ten, and he gets far too much love from the more successful guys who came before and after him.
Doug: Oh, sure – people are gilding the lily because their great friend isn’t where he should be. I totally get that. But at the same time, Mike Martz has said, flat out, that the Greatest Show on Turf was cribbed from Coryell. Vermeil said the same thing. When was the last time you saw Mike Martz give someone else credit for an offensive innovation?
I would say that he was more of an innovator than an inventor. It’s a fine but important line. Gillman, who ran the offense upon which Coryell’s were built, had Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe in the backfield, so Gillman wasn’t going nuts with the four-wide all the time, either. They ran almost as much as they passed in a lot of those early AFL seasons. It wasn’t as much about how often they did the more dynamic things – it was the effect of it when they did, especially in the eras in which they did it. You know how conservative the offenses of the time were. I don’t think his influence is greatly overstated, but I do think that his inability as a head coach to help accelerate the defensive performance of his teams was a problem. If you want to bury your head in the playbook 24-7, go be a coordinator. His job as the head coach was to be an overseer, and that’s where I’d ding him more than anything.
Mike: I think my problem with the Coryell Hall of Fame argument is that it becomes too much of an "argument," rather than a simple resume. We have to span 50 years of NFL history and give him all of these little pieces of credit for things he created, helped to create, or was in the room for the creation of. We have to give him credit for the 1980s Redskins, the 1990s Cowboys (whose on-field offense looked totally different), the Greatest Show (which looked different from either of them). We have to rewrite NFL history a little to make it seem like mid-1970s Cardinals (who finished 9th, 7th, and 8th in points in their best years) were somehow power brokers, and that the 1979-82 Chargers were the only team that was doing anything innovative on offense in that era. Oh yeah, and we have to wedge him between Gillman, Allen, and Al Davis in the 1960s, even though he was just a college coach at the time. If he had real Hall of Fame credentials, we wouldn't have to call in favors from the 1999 Rams and 2009 Chargers.
Coryell does pass one important test for me, though: he's famous. He's probably the only coach who is famous purely for x's and o's.
Doug: Well, that’s the problem with matching up NFL history and actual strategy – things get filmier and filmier the further you go back, because professional football doesn’t have the bit-by-bit history that baseball does. I recently read a pretty lengthy treatise of the history of zone blocking in pro football in which Vince Lombardi was mentioned only tangentially. That was a “HUH?!?!?” moment for me. I’ve been researching ancient NFL history for different reasons over the last few months, and God, it’s hard to know what to believe at times. You do have to fill in some blanks, and you do have to take the word of people who worked with him and were influenced by him. And that’s where you have to separate actual coach-to-coach influence from pure hagiography. It’s going to have to be subjective to a degree, and we’re going to have to decide how much of those wonderful references we want to believe. Given the number and sheer success of the people who were saying these things about Coryell before he died, I may put a bit more behind that than you do, though I absolutely understand your reluctance to do so.
Mike: I always thought Marty was a great coach and an unfairly maligned one. That said, I don’t think he belongs in the Hall of Fame, because I think you have to judge coaches on their championships, or at least their near-misses, and the guy never reached the Super Bowl. Just to be clear, I think there are two standards at work. When hiring a coach or evaluating him during his career, you judge him on what he’s capable of doing, and you recognize that things like the Fumble and The Drive were out of his control. When selecting a coach for the Hall of Fame, you ratchet the standard up and ask what he did. And no, that’s not always fair.
Doug: I support Marty more than most, but I would disagree that the two AFC Championship losses to the Broncos were beyond his control. As great as Elway was, the other team has to back off defensively, and that’s what happened in both cases. Maybe he was an accessory after the fact. I also think that he had a tendency to over-motivate; at a certain point, you have to stop with the “There’s a gleam!” stuff and figure out a way to beat an offense that is more dynamic than yours. But the 200 wins thing is tough to overlook. In the last Hall of Fame piece we did, we talked a lot about “stat collectors”, and I don’t think he was one when it comes to wins. He has 10 or more wins in half of his 20 full seasons, and just two losing seasons overall. Had he even gone to one Super Bowl with those Browns teams, or somehow gotten over the hump with the Chiefs or Chargers (the Chiefs were the winningest team of the 1990s, by the way), we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. That’s where I start dissecting the randomness of the postseason. There are certain coaches whose s**t doesn’t work in the playoffs, to paraphrase Mr. Beane. And if you’re going to put them in the Hall of Fame despite that, they had better be either a) supreme motivators or b) ultimate tacticians. That puts Marty in a gray area, because I don’t know that he was either one. He’s just sitting there as the only coach with 200 wins not already in the Hall (there have been six in NFL history), and it isn’t as if wins are any easier to come by now than in any other era. Maybe he can get in as the only coach to be fired after posting a 14-2 record.
Mike: All I can think of now is The Drive, The Fumble, Marlon McCree, the weird fourth down decision, and wonder: how did this guy go a whole career and not somehow wind up in Philadelphia?
Mike: I have a hard time separating the Dungy aura from his actual accomplishments. I am certain he’s going into the Hall of Fame, because of the aura, and because his status as the first black coach to win a Super Bowl has to count for something. I’m not overwhelmed by his resume, but I just don’t want to vote against him.
Doug: What’s interesting to me about Dungy is the comments of guys like Warren Sapp after the fact – the Buccaneers players who “grew up” in the NFL with him as their mentor. They felt that there was a double standard for offense and defense; that the defense was expected to perform at an all-time level and that the offense was supposed to be just good enough to win. Of course, that standard switched when he went to Indianapolis because he had a murderously competitive quarterback, a coaching staff that could design a dynamic offense (I’ll take Tom Moore and Howard Mudd over Mike Shula, thanks), and a brilliant personnel executive who was building a potential dynasty. With guys like Dungy, who are so low-key on a personal level and tend to hand off many schematic responsibilities, I wonder how much the players buy in. They’re not going to play for Dungy because they’re afraid of his response; they’re probably more afraid of Manning or Polian. But do they love and respect him enough to play for him? I think his players did, to whatever degree they could, and that’s one reason he’ll get in. The historic factor is important, as is the fact that he’s seen as such an ambassador of the game, as is (to a much lesser degree) his involvement in the Steel Curtain defense. I’m not overwhelmingly in his corner, but it won’t drive me nuts when he goes in.
Mike: When reading Nate Dunlevy’s book Blue Blood, I was reminded of how Dungy’s low-key approach was considered something revolutionary when he took over the Bucs, and then the Colts. We all expected brimstone guys, and a lot of people, from fans to reporters to execs, assumed that a low-key, procedure-oriented guy couldn’t motivate a team. Dungy showed that it was not only possible, but really preferable in an age when millionaire athletes are going to roll their eyes at a tough-guy sermon coming from somebody who isn’t Bill Parcells or Mike Singletary. I think Dungy’s demeanor counts as an “innovation” that has shaped the game in recent years.
Mike: It’s really hard to distance yourself from success or failure when judging recent guys. I keep thinking of the 2008 Seahawks, and of the 2006 and 2007 teams that just hung around and won the division because it was the NFC West, and I say “no way.” But of course his overall record is much better than that. Overall, I would pass on Holmgren, and I would take Dungy over Holmgren because of the historic element. Holmgren would get more “architect of a team” points if those 1990s Packers had done better in the playoffs.
Doug: As much as I compared him to Coryell in the Coryell argument, Holmgren’s influence wasn’t schematic in the same sense – Walsh had that thing so dialed in after all those years in Cincinnati, the guys who learned it from him moved things around a bit but didn’t really put their names on anything specific.
The Super Bowl-winning team he coached was his to a great degree on offense, but Ron Wolf and Fritz Shurmur deserve as much credit, and Wolf probably deserves more. He loses points for being an absolutely horrible GM in Seattle – the Seahawks didn’t really spark up until he agreed to be demoted and was able to focus exclusively on coaching. Had he won Super Bowl XL, we’re telling a different tale, but he didn’t. He is one of four coaches to win a Super Bowl with one team and lose with another – Bill Parcells, Don Shula, and Dick Vermeil are the others. I have a great deal of respect for Holmgren, but I would not, under any circumstances, put him in the Parcells/Shula class. Vermeil seems to be a pretty good comp.
Had Tim Ruskell not turned out to be a chubbier version of Vinny Cerrato, Holmgren might have gotten another shot at the ring. But he didn’t, even though I think 2007 featured his career-best coaching job. Like Vermeil, I think he’s on the precipice.
Doug: With Knox, I think you have to look at VORC (Value Over Replaced Coach) to a degree. When he came to the Rams, they went from 7.0 to 12.1 Expected Wins in his first season. In Buffalo, from 2.4 to 6.5. In Seattle, from 6.5 (prorated for strike year) to 8.1. Even in his return to L.A., which was more ceremonial than anything else, he upped that team from 3.7 to 6.1. That’s not the best metric, but we’re unfortunately talking about pre-DVOA here. He didn’t have Hall-of-Famers all over his rosters; he seemed to like above-average veterans on the wrong end of the age curve and he had the ability to motivate mediocre athletes beyond their limitations.
That said, we’re back to the Martyball discussion – when your offensive schemes handcuff your teams and prevent you from even getting to a Super Bowl, is the fact that under most coaches, you wouldn’t even be there from a talent perspective make up for it? In Knox’s case, I’d take a page from his own playbooks and err on the side of caution.
Mike: I think Knox and Schottenheimer fall pretty neatly into the same category. Some guys just have a piece of NFL history to call their own, but they don't have Hall of Fame credentials. The enshrinement, for better or worse, goes to the winners of those epic playoff battles.
Doug: I would basically agree, though the 200 wins metric makes Marty harder to exclude.
Doug: Growing up in Denver as I did, I am soooo conflicted on Reeves. Yes, he coached three different Broncos teams to Super Bowls, but I find it difficult to get past the fact that he went out of his way to antagonize his best player. The relationship with Elway, the Tommy Maddox draft pick, the fact that Elway was almost dealt to the Redskins … I don’t know. I may need an objective voice on Reeves’ career accomplishments before I can continue.
Mike: Well, you have 190 wins, three AFC championships, an NFC championship. The biggest knocks on Reeves are a) that the Broncos won Super Bowls after he left and b) he had a bunch of lousy years with the Giants, and most of his Falcons career was forgettable. If you are trying to Bud Grant or Marv Levy your way into the Hall of Fame by losing Super Bowls, you have to be able to argue that you took teams as far as they could go. There's evidence that the Broncos could have gone further.
Doug: That’s pretty much where I stand. He had a lot of personnel control, and his teams tended to come up lacking in key moments.
Doug: Master motivator, no doubt. Knowledgeable football guy, without question. But I have difficulty separating his specific coaching accomplishments from the ridiculous talent he had on those teams, especially on defense. How much of what the Steelers did under Cowher was Cowher, and how much was Blitzburgh and Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers and Ken Whisenhunt and that outstanding front office? Does the tail wag the dog? I’m not trying to discount his achievements at all, but it seems that we’re having the same discussion about a lot of the coaches on the bottom half of the Top 15 career wins list: How much was due directly to their efforts?
Mike: It's odd how slippery that argument gets. Does Cowher get credit for "developing" Capers and "discovering" Whisenhunt? Or do they get credit for making him look good? It's the problem I have with the Coryell argument, when we start parceling out a team's wins among all the assistants and guys who came before and after. From a head coach, I want wins and championships, and when it comes to the Hall of Fame, I am not sure I care who your coordinators were.
Doug: I actually care a lot, due to what I call the Jim Lee Howell Rule. Howell went 53-27-4 in seven hears as the head coach of the New York Giants from 1954 through 1960, and nobody gives a damn. Why? As you well know, for most of that time, his offensive coordinator was Vince Lombardi and his defensive coordinator was Tom Landry. Assistants should matter when discussing the HoF credentials of head coaches, and they should also be considered far more often on their own, though that’s a different argument.
Mike: I know Howell's story well. He always made it a point of giving Lombardi and Landry credit. That was one unusual circumstance, 50 years ago. I don't think Capers and Whisenhunt are Landry and Lombardi.
Doug: Of course not, but in the same way supporting casts should be considered when talking about player accomplishments, I think that the level of assistant coach talent should be considered to some degree. I just don’t know what degree that is.
Mike: Cowher gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that the media loves him. I think the same resume, with a less dynamic personality, doesn't get much Hall of Fame attention.
Doug: To be a bit more specific about him, how much do you think he had to do with the Super Bowl years? He doesn’t fit our list of coaches who won a Super Bowl with one team and lost with another, but it was the same franchise with two teams a decade apart. If he was the primary guy, his cache goes up quite a few ticks.
Mike: I think he had a lot to do with the Steelers' success. He was the administrator/organizer/motivator/final decision maker. And I think it was a unique accomplishment, in our era, to stay with one team for so long. If he was just some figurehead who made speeches and looked cool on the sidelines, the Steelers would have replaced him with Capers, or Mike Mularkey, or someone else who went through their system.
Doug: I can buy into that. Is he a bit ahead of Marty/Knox and just behind Holmgren/Vermeil? Actually, screw it. I’m changing my mind. I want Marty in there. I don’t feel safe in an America where a guy with 200 career wins doesn’t get in the Hall of Fame. And it wasn’t as if he was napping through his final years like Connie Mack – the man went out on a 14-2 record. Make it so!
Doug: Anyway, since we’ve talked about assistants, and Dick LeBeau is going in this year (finally!), I’d be interested in your take on a) assistants and coordinators getting into the Hall, and b) the assistants and coordinators who would make your list. Since I’m thinking you’re a bit less behind this idea than I am, I’d be interested in starting with your take; then I can fill in the blanks where I think they may be. First of all, would you vote LeBeau in solely on his accomplishments as a coordinator?
Mike: I wouldn't vote LeBeau in as an assistant coach.
My general theory is that there are some professions that just aren't tracks to the Hall of Fame. Director of Scouting, for example. Or all-purpose special teamer. In baseball, middle reliever, or pitching coach, or utility infielder. Some of the jobs I just mentioned are incredibly important, but they are organizational jobs, infrastructure jobs. Like offensive and defensive coordinator.
I know how big their contributions are, but the moment they signed on as "assistants," I feel like they sacrifice most of the glory to the organization and to the head coach. Now again, I am not saying they shouldn't be appreciated, shouldn't be well paid, but when it comes time to enshrine someone in a Hall of Fame, I think it's weird to talk about a "legendary assistant".
I have no problem with some "innovators exhibit" with LeBeau, Coryell, and others. When I take my kid to the bust room in Canton, I want to point and say: "Look, he threw for 40,000 yards. Look, he was the head coach for 4 Super Bowl teams. Look, he ran for 12,000 yards." Not, "Look, he sat in a press box with a headset and called plays, except when he was overruled by his boss."
Doug: Interesting. To use the baseball example, would you vote Dave Duncan in? I would. If a coach/assistant/coordinator has proven his ability to drastically improve the fortunes of his charges over an extended period of time – I’m talking about at a World Series/Super Bowl level over decades – but doesn’t have the stomach/temperament/opportunity to be a successful head coach, there’s still a great deal of value there. And I’m not sure about the idea of subverting for the greater good – Alex Gibbs comes to mind immediately as a guy who not only put his individual stamp on offensive line play, but basically comes as a whole package – this is me, this is my scheme, you’re going to benefit greatly from it, now bug off and go do linebacker cut-ups or something.
Yes, I would want to take my kid to see Joe Montana and Dick Butkus and all the super-greats. But I would also want to learn more about the guys behind the scenes. Maybe that is the function of a “wing” as opposed to a series of busts, but I still think these guys are under-represented, and that it should be an ancillary responsibility of a Hall of Fame to expose fans to sides of the game they wouldn’t know about otherwise.
Mike: I wouldn't vote Dave Duncan in because then I would look for other great pitching coaches in history. Who was Earl Weaver's pitching coach in the 70s and 80s? I bet he has a resume to match Duncan's. What about the Dodgers' coach when Koufax/Drysdale went through? Then I may have to look at batting instructors, some of whom coached dozens of future stars. Then scouts, and so on.
We can do the same thing with coordinators and position coaches. If Alex Gibbs is a Hall of Famer, there are probably dozens of other position coaches who made similar contributions, guys who modernized the techniques at all the different positions. I don't want these guys getting into the Hall of Fame over PLAYERS: exciting, hard-hitting, fast-running, imagination-capturing players.
I mean, you have a list beyond LeBeau, right? What other assistant coaches do you think deserve consideration?
Doug: Well, Duncan’s a bit different. He did it a lot longer than the average good assistant, with different teams, and was a key cog in multiple championships.
As far as NFL coordinators/position coaches, I’m putting Gibbs on the list, along with Bud Carson. Those guys I don’t even have to think about. And here’s a question for you. What’s your take on Buddy Ryan, purely as a coordinator? He built the Jets defense that turned Earl Morrall into a pumpkin in Super Bowl III, and made Tony Eason poop on himself in Super Bowl XX. Two different teams (hell, two different eras), two defensive Super Bowl wins. Take the head coaching stuff out of it, even though you’re writing a book on Philly sports icons.
Mike: Ryan's resume isn't really that different from Coryell's is it? He has a lot of defensive innovations on his resume, across 20 years. He has coaches who he influenced, like Jeff Fisher and his sons, and you can argue that much of the Saints defense was cribbed from Ryan ideas. As a head coach, he was totally one-dimensional, but he built scary defenses that took teams to the playoffs. And he was really the first celebrity coordinator, the guy who took media attention away from the head coach.
Of course, Ryan pissed off a million people, so you don't hear glowing endorsements from guys he coached with about his qualifications. And yes, getting along with your coaches and owners is a big part of the job. But I think, if we are putting coordinators in, Ryan would go in, except for the fact that he sometimes punched out his colleagues. And for the life of me, I just can't picture Buddy in the Hall of Fame, especially a boring Ryan who doesn’t make fun of the owner and punch out the offensive coordinator.
Doug: Hmmm … I may need to go back and re-calibrate my coordinator argument.
Doug: In any case, where do we stand? I have a “yay” vote on Coryell, and after further review, I’m voting Marty in on the condition that I don’t have to sit through what would probably be a three-hour induction speech. Our other four coaches seem to fall short.
Mike: I will put Tony Dungy in. I won't form a picket line if Schottenheimer, Cowher, or Coryell go in. Let's see what materializes in Cleveland: if two years from now the team is 12-4 and it's clear that Holmgren is doing a lot of good as an exec (or if he takes Mangini's job in two months), it may push him over the edge.
Doug: I remain undecided/noncommittal on Dungy and Cowher. Agreed on Holmgren – I don’t think there’s enough just yet to put him in. I don’t think he’ll take Mangini’s job in two months – but I think he will have it if there is NFL football in 2011. The man lives to coach above all.
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