By Larry Bisagni
Happy 80th birthday, Joe Jackson Gibbs. Or should I say, happy birthday to the GOAT.
Oh yes, I said it.
I can see eyes rolling in Boston. I can hear the long, drawn-out sighs in Dallas. The clenched teeth in Pittsburgh, the nostrils flaring in San Francisco, and even the gasps from Green Bay, Wisconsin.
I’ll say it again.
Joe Gibbs is the greatest head coach the NFL has ever seen.
Rather than focus on the also-rans and pretty good coaches, I’ll limit this to the ten coaches from the NFL-100 team. We have to have a cutoff list somewhere, so with all respect to Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren, Mike Tomlin, and Jimmy Johnson, they didn’t make the final cut.
The NFL-100 all-time head coaches are, in alphabetical order (and number of titles):
Bill Belichick: 6
Paul Brown: 7
Joe Gibbs: 3
George Halas: 8
Curly Lambeau: 6
Tom Landry: 2
Vince Lombardi: 5
Chuck Noll: 4
Don Shula: 2 (okay, 3 if you count the pre-merger, but his Baltimore Colts team lost to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III)
Bill Walsh: 3
I cannot emphasize or underscore how much respect I have for each of these men and their unbelievable bodies of work. Now, let’s peel the onion back a layer further.
I’ve painfully eliminated every coach before the modern era for a number of reasons. First of all, the game has changed so dramatically since Johnny Unitas essentially brought forth the modern passing game, and it’s worth noting that George Halas, Curly Lambeau, and at the end of his career, Paul Brown, couldn’t be fired regardless of their records – they founded and/or owned their teams.
That leaves Belichick, Gibbs, Landry, Lombardi, Noll, Shula, and Walsh.
The differentiator for me boils down to one fundamental difference between Joe Gibbs and every other icon on this list.
Of the seven remaining coaches, there are 25 world championships.
22 of the titles were won by quarterbacks enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Three were not.
That would be Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien.
All of them earned their rings under Joe Gibbs.
Yes, the six other head coaches remaining won nothing without a Hall of Fame quarterback. Nada. Niente.
Gibbs won three.
With three different quarterbacks.
On three totally different teams.
It’s really time to revisit this argument. We are oftentimes lulled into thinking that the latest is the greatest, but the sample size of what Belichick has been able to do without Tom Brady is not only very measurable but has been brought to light once again. Bill Belichick, yes, he of six rings, is 55-64 (.462) in games where Brady is not the quarterback. In fact, he has won just one playoff game without Brady. Folks, that’s pedestrian. Oh, and claiming this season is an off-season because of Covid? Fine. But keep in mind that the whiz kid offensive coordinator who the late, great (equally deserving of the Hall of Fame) Jack Kent Cooke plucked out of San Diego as his head coach had to keep two locker rooms together during player strikes when they could have easily become fractured. His 1987 replacements were guys that were able to beat Landry’s Cowboys, that not only had many players who crossed the picket lines, but suited up two future Hall of Famers in Randy White and Tony Dorsett.
Speaking of Landry, he was 6-8 in the playoffs without Roger Staubach, and lost in his only playoff appearance against Gibbs. All five of Lombardi’s titles came with HOFer Bart Starr under center. Noll was 2-2 in the playoffs without Terry Bradshaw, and never cracked the 10-win threshold in a season that he didn’t have the Blonde Bomber. Don Shula had the luxury of having two Hall of Fame signal-callers, but while scored a pair of rings with Bob Griese at the helm, he couldn’t make it to the top of the mountain with Dan Marino, who is one of the 10 best to ever line up behind center. Bill Walsh had Joe Montana, who for my money is still 1a or 1b alongside Brady. The next interception Montana throws in the Super Bowl will be the first one he’s thrown in the Super Bowl. In other words, quarterbacks in the modern game make or break franchises.
But not with Gibbs.
It’s safe to say that his three passers (Theismann, Williams, and Rypien) were all good-to-very-good quarterbacks, but none of them are close to Canton. You could argue that Williams had a Hall of Fame career smashed out of him in Tampa and running those crazy USFL run-and-shoot offenses, and 1983 regular-season MVP Theismann was one or two more deep playoff runs away before his career tragically ended, but those are subjects for another column.
Gibbs not only captured his rings with non-HOF quarterbacks, but did so when there was no question as to which division and which conference was the toughest. I don’t hold Belichick accountable for the incompetence of the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins for the past 20 years, but Gibbs had to get past Landry, Parcells, and Jimmy Johnson just to get out of his division, as well as a formidable opponent in Buddy Ryan. That’s five rings right there, and a case could easily be made for Buddy Ryan as the greatest defensive coordinator ever. Everyone immediately thinks of the ‘85 Bears, and rightfully so, but Ryan was the mastermind of the Purple People Eaters of the 1970s, and as the Jets DC, they held Shula’s unbeatable Baltimore Colts to just a meaningless touchdown at the end of Super Bowl III. Couple that with knowing that Bill Walsh and Montana were lurking in and around the NFC Championship every year, and that’s before getting to the ultimate goal.
A few more tidbits to add… Gibbs was undefeated against Landry, Walsh, and Shula in the playoffs when it counted. He never lost a game against Noll. Bless Dan Reeves and Marv Levy; they’re lucky that Gibbs didn’t have a little bit of Jimmy Johnson in him. For his last two Super Bowl appearances, Lord only knows what kind of numbers his Redskins (as they were known at the time) could have tallied. Both Super Bowl XXII and XXVI were over at halftime. There’s no doubt in my mind that Williams and company could’ve dropped 70 on the Denver Broncos, and the Buffalo Bills were down 37-10 when Gibbs called off Rypien and the rest of that team, which was named by USA Today as the greatest team ever. Cary Conklin actually finished the game.
Gibbs always credits his players and the passionate Washington fan base. The soft-spoken, “I’m just a physical education major, that’s ballroom dancing and handball” Gibbs simply rolled up his sleeves and not only outworked everyone. More importantly, he did it better than anyone before or since.
The last playoff game the Washington franchise won? That would be 2005-06. I’ll give you three guesses who the coach was, and the first two don’t count.
Oh, and before we forget: Gibbs also dabbled in something called NASCAR, and won five more Cups there as well.
You either can lead people or you can’t. Nobody is close to achieving what Joe Gibbs was able to do in multiple sports at the most elite levels.
Happy 80th, Coach. There will never be another.