Ranking the 12 Best Head Coaches in NFL History

Vince Lombardi's statue overlooks Lambeau Field.

Vince Lombardi is the namesake of the NFL’s Super Bowl trophy | Karen Bleier/Getty Images

Thanks to parity and hard salary-cap rules, few jobs are more tough and pressure-packed than coaching in the NFL. Gone are the days (for the most part) of coaches staying with one franchise for a decade or more; in are the days of the modern NFL landscape where coaches are regularly fired after just one or two seasons on the job. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult for head coaches to last long enough to be considered one of the all-time greats.

For this list, we only accounted for coaches and coaching statistics that occurred after the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, which we felt leveled the playing field. Unfortunately, this means we had to exclude guys like Vince Lombardi, George Halas, Curly Lambeau, and Paul Brown. A handful of current head coaches do have a chance to enter the discussion of the best head coaches in NFL history (only one current coach made this list).

Guys like Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints, Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks all have a chance to earn NFL legend status. But none of them are there quite yet. Here is our ranking (in descending order) the 12 best head coaches in NFL history since the (AFL/NFL merger).

12. Bill Cowher

Bill Cowher stands on the sidelines and listens to his headset.

Bill Cowher spent his entire NFL head-coaching career with the Pittsburgh Steelers | Dan Beineke/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 149
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .623
  • Postseason Wins: 12
  • Conference Titles: 2
  • Super Bowl Titles: 1

In 1992, Bill Cowher took over as the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ head coach as a 35-year-old Marty Schottenheimer disciple. When it was all said and done, Cowher spent 15 years on the job (the only head-coaching gig of his career) and put together a Hall of Fame-caliber resume. His name still comes up for job openings from time to time, but the now-59-year-old seems content with his job as an NFL analyst on CBS.

11. Mike Holmgren

Mike Holmgren points at his players after winning the Super Bowl.

Mike Holmgren ended a lengthy title drought for the Green Bay Packers | Rick Stewart/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 161
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .592
  • Postseason Wins: 13
  • Conference Titles: 3
  • Super Bowl Titles: 1

Mike Holmgren landed the Green Bay Packers’ head-coaching job after proving to be one of the top offensive minds during his time as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers. During his time with the Packers, Holmgren guided quarterback Brett Favre to three NFL MVP awards in addition to hiring and mentoring six assistant coaches, who went on to land head-coaching jobs down the road. More importantly, he led the Packers to a Super Bowl title in 1996, ending the franchise’s almost 30-year title drought.

Following his stint in Green Bay, Holmgren was the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks from 19992008. He quickly turned the Seahawks into a competitive team, guiding them to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history in 2005.

10. Tom Coughlin

Tom Coughlin stands on the sidelines and watches his players.

Tom Coughlin found success in one of the toughest sports regions in the country | Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 170
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .531
  • Postseason Wins: 12
  • Conference Titles: 2
  • Super Bowl Titles: 2

Tom Coughlin is one of the best head coaches who also found a great deal of success with two different NFL franchises. He was the first coach in franchise history for the Jacksonville Jaguars, a job he held for eight seasons. During that time, he led the Jags to four postseason appearances and one trip to the AFC Championship Game.

After Jacksonville fired him, Coughlin signed on with the New York Giants. For those who don’t know, the Giants’ job is one of the more heavily scrutinized and pressure-packed head-coaching jobs in all of American professional sports. In his 12 years with the G-Men, Coughlin guided the franchise to two Super Bowl titles, five postseason appearances, and 102 regular-season wins. Expect to see Coughlin inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the near future.

9. Mike Shanahan

Mike Shanahan directs the Denver Broncos via his headset.

Mike Shanahan had a dominant run with the Denver Broncos | Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 170
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .552
  • Postseason Wins: 8
  • Conference Titles: 2
  • Super Bowl Titles: 2

Mike Shanahan’s legacy is somewhat tainted due to his less-than-stellar time as the head coach of the Washington Redskins. But when it comes down to it, the future Hall of Famer made this list based almost entirely on his immensely successful run with the Denver Broncos.

In 14 years as the head coach of the Broncos, Shanahan won 138 regular-season games and two Super Bowl titles, making seven postseason appearances total. On top of that, he earned the nickname “Mastermind” after proving to be one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game. He is the chief architect of the dominant zone-blocking scheme that eventually produced seven different 1,000-yard running backs during his time in Denver.

8. John Madden

John Madden speaks during a pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

John Madden was hugely successful during his stint as an NFL head coach | Robert B. Stanton/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 91
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .746
  • Postseason Wins: 8
  • Conference Titles: 1
  • Super Bowl Titles: 1

Had John Madden not abruptly retired from coaching at the young age of 42, he may have gone down as one of the top two or three best head coaches in NFL history. In his 10 seasons (nine of which came post-merger) as Oakland’s head coach, Madden never had a losing season. His teams made the postseason seven times; he led the Raiders to a win in Super Bowl XI; and he posted the second-highest career winning percentage in NFL history (minimum of 50 games).

Madden went on to become a legendary broadcaster and cult hero for his role in developing the Madden Football video game franchise. He is already a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

7. Bill Parcells

Bill Parcells looks up at the scoreboard from the sidelines.

Bill Parcells took four different NFL franchises to the postseason | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 172
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .569
  • Postseason Wins: 11
  • Conference Titles: 3
  • Super Bowl Titles: 2

Bill Parcells’ polarizing personality combined with his success as a head coach made him an undisputed NFL legend. The 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee is one of just six NFL coaches to lead two different franchises to Super Bowl appearances, and he is the only coach in NFL history to lead four different franchises to the postseason and three different franchises to conference championship games.

6. Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh speaks to media during a press conference.

Bill Walsh was one of the best head coaches in NFL history | John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 92
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .609
  • Postseason Wins: 10
  • Conference Titles: 3
  • Super Bowl Titles: 3

One could easily argue that Bill Walsh is the best and most innovative offensive mind the game of football has ever seen. He is the brains behind the West Coast offense that revolutionized the NFL, and he is the man who built the framework for the San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the ’80s and ’90s.

In total, Walsh won 92 regular-season games, 10 postseason games, six division titles, and three Super Bowl titles in 10 seasons as an NFL head coach. What is equally impressive, though, is the 1993 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee’s ridiculously deep coaching tree.

5. Joe Gibbs

Joe Gibbs walks along the sidelines and watches warmups.

Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowl titles with the Washington Redskins | Greg Fiume/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 154
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .621
  • Postseason Wins: 17
  • Conference Titles: 4
  • Super Bowl Titles: 3

What Joe Gibbs accomplished throughout his time as the head coach of the Washington Redskins (particularly during his first stint) was truly remarkable. He won three Super Bowl titles with three different starting quarterbacks (Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien).

In addition to having nine seasons with double-digit regular-season win totals, Gibbs won 17 postseason games. He also earned credit for inventing several now commonly used offensive formations (trips, single-back, and double/triple tight end sets). He joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

4. Chuck Noll

  • Regular Season Wins: 192
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .587
  • Postseason Wins: 16
  • Conference Titles: 4
  • Super Bowl Titles: 4

The Steelers were one of the least successful franchises in NFL history when Chuck Noll took their head-coaching job in 1969. All they have done since hiring the 1993 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee is go on to win more Super Bowls (six) than every other team in the league.

Four of Pittsburgh’s Lombardi Trophies came under Noll’s guidance (tied for the most Super Bowl wins by a head coach in NFL history) — something we can attribute to the legendary coach’s outstanding eye for finding talent in the NFL draft. He is responsible for drafting Hall of Fame players such as Joe Green, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, and Mike Webster. Without Noll, the Steelers wouldn’t be the dominant force they are today.

3. Tom Landry

Tom Landry solemnly looks across the field.

The Dallas Cowboys became America’s Team under Tom Landry | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 183
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .654
  • Postseason Wins: 19
  • Conference Titles: 5
  • Super Bowl Titles: 2

To this day, current Dallas Cowboys owner/General Manager Jerry Jones regrets firing Tom Landry when he did (it was Jones’s first move after purchasing the team from Bum Bright). The move ultimately worked out (Jimmy Johnson, Landry’s replacement led the team to two Super Bowl titles). However, it was still an unceremonious exit for one of the best head coaches the NFL has ever seen.

During his 29-year stint (19 of which came post-merger) as the Cowboys head coach, Landry won five NFC titles and two Super Bowls, and missed the playoffs only five times from 1970-1988. Football fans will remember him for his iconic fedora hat as well as being the creator of the 4-3 defensive scheme. The 1990 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee was also one of the first football coaches to hire a strength and conditioning staff. It was under his watch that the Cowboys became “America’s Team.”

2. Don Shula

Don Shula speaks during a media conference.

Don Shula is still the winningest coach in NFL history | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 257
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .659
  • Postseason Wins: 19
  • Conference Titles: 6
  • Super Bowl Titles: 2

From 197095, Don Shula won 257 regular-season games, 19 postseason games, six conferences titles, and two Super Bowl titles as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He currently holds the NFL record for the most career wins (both pre- and post-merger) by a head coach, and had only two losing seasons in his 36-year head-coaching career.

Shula is also the only head coach in league history to guide his team to a perfect record (1972 Dolphins). He is tied for the most Super Bowl appearances by a head coach in NFL history, too. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that Shula was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997 — his first year of eligibility.

1. Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick listens to reporters during the Super Bowl 51 press conference.

Bill Belichick is the best coach in NFL history … and he’s not done yet | Darren McCollester/Getty Images

  • Regular Season Wins: 237
  • Regular Season Winning Percentage: .673
  • Postseason Wins: 26
  • Conference Titles: 7
  • Super Bowl Titles: 5

Whether you love him or hate him (our guess is you hate him if you aren’t a fan of the New England Patriots), you simply cannot deny Bill Belichick’s greatness as an NFL head coach.

He’s built arguably the greatest dynasty in league history in New England; he found arguably the best player in league history in the sixth-round of the 2000 NFL Draft; he holds the NFL record for the most career playoff wins; he’s won a record seven conference titles; and he’s guided the Pats to 14 division titles in 17 seasons. With Patriots win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51, Belichick is now the sole owner of the NFL record for most Super Bowl titles (5) by a head coach in league history.

In our eyes, Belichick is already the greatest coach in NFL history. At his current rate, there will be no questioning that statement when the dust settles on his career. He will likely hold almost every significant career coaching record and earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.