Latest Does Not Equal Greatest

Al Michaels, unarguably a great announcer, made a curious comment during the Patriots divisional playoff win against the Ravens. Michaels suggested, in an off-hand comment, that Patriots coach Bill Belichick is probably the greatest coach in NFL history.

Perhaps Michaels offered that opinion on the fly without having looked very deeply into the matter. It’s worth noting that Michaels has watched just about all of NFL history for the past 40+ years, and his voice carries some weight. Nor is he alone in that opinion; you’ll hear and see more proclamations on Belichick’s lofty status should he win Sunday’s game. But it’s equally possible that Michaels and others are simply falling prey to a fallacy that affects many sports commentators these days: the idea that today’s participants are–almost automatically–the best of all time.

The DFR: FootballMichaels will call this Sunday’s Super Bowl, so he will have an up close view of the game that may or may not cement Belichick’s legacy. Certainly, if Team Floating Demon Head beat the Seahawks, Belichick will move up the rankings of NFL coaches. But will he make it all the way to the top of the list? Given the subjectivity of such a ranking, it’s hard to say–but there will still be good reasons, even including a fourth Super Bowl victory for Belichick, to see him as a notch below a few other coaches in NFL history.

Who was better than Belichick? There are several candidates for the title of G.O.A.T. coach.

We all want to believe that we are watching the greatest ever. Nobody wants to believe that he lives in a lesser era. But…we can never get a definitive answer to the question, “Who is better?”

One who springs immediately to mind, though he rarely gets the credit he deserves, is Chuck Noll. Belichick’s fourth Super Bowl victory, whenever it comes, will only match–not exceed–Noll’s victories in the big game–and Noll never lost one. His four victories came within a six year span; it took Belichick seven years just to reach four Super Bowls. Noll’s stature is diminished because his later career with the Steelers featured only one losing conference championship appearance (one of four playoff appearance for the Steelers post-1979).

A better choice to trump Belichick would probably be Tom Landry. After a sputtering start in his first six years with the then-expansion Dallas Cowboys, Landry reeled off 18 consecutive winning seasons, a span that included five Super Bowl appearances (with two wins in the big game). That’s how you get to be a Texas-sized legend.

Or perhaps we should look to the obvious choice, the all-time leader in wins, Don Shula. Shula did not just rack up regular season wins (including 22 winning seasons in a 23 year span–and in the only non-winning season, his team was .500); he too guided his teams to six Super Bowls, winning two of them. Like Belichick, Shula reached the Super Bowl early in his run (with both the Colts and the Dolphins); then, unlike others mentioned here, Shula managed to get back to the ultimate game later in his career. (There seems to be a “success penalty” that afflicts great NFL coaches later in their careers, after having won their early championships. Read more on that subject in this companion post.  Given his longevity and accomplishments, it’s hard to rank Shula below Belichick.

Of course, there’s always football’s patron saint, Vince Lombardi. In a relatively short career (ten seasons), Lombardi never had a losing record and won five NFL championships in a seven year span, including the first two Super Bowls. And then Lombardi died before he had a chance to struggle later in his career. That’s probably why he has long been deified as the NFL’s greatest coach ever, at least until the “Belichick as G.O.A.T” talk began.

It’s understandable that people would fall victim to the “latest is greatest” fallacy. Athletes today are indisputably bigger, stronger, and faster than their predecessors. In the games in our minds, when we match up today’s stars against yesterday’s legends, we can be forgiven for assuming the current crop of athletes would beat the earlier generation.

But it ain’t necessarily so. Athleticism is not everything; knowing how to play the game counts, too. Games are often won or lost based on what you know, not what you can do. That difference is the bread and butter for coaches. Indeed, knowing the game is just about all a coach brings to the job; surely, comparisons between coaches of different generations should be more valid than the same judgements made between earlier and later players. Isn’t it valid, then, to declare Belichick better than his predecessors, given his record?

Perhaps. But the comparison involves more than just the won-loss numbers. Belichick has won 14 consecutive division titles. Does that result from his genius, or does it spring more from the weakness of the AFC East? Think about the clown show that was Rex Ryan’s Jets these last several years, or how hopeless things were in Buffalo before this past season’s 9-7 record. How much of an advantage has Belichick had knowing, going into each season for more than a decade, that all his team had to do was not pratfall and they would be in the playoffs? What similar advantages, or disadvantages, did Landry or Shula or Noll face when compiling their records, and how do they compare with Belichick’s context? It’s impossible to know.

And then there’s the cheating. Even if the Deflation Crisis is much ado about nothing, Belichick violated league rules when he spied on other teams; the NFL has officially acknowledged that transgression (and punished him for it). Did those other coaches achieve their success via nefarious tactics? Maybe…but we don’t know that, don’t have evidence of that, and the NFL never punished any of them for such actions. Can you really give Belichick G.O.A.T. credit, knowing what we know (and think we currently know)?

The bottom line is this: We all want to believe that we are watching the greatest ever. Nobody wants to believe that he lives in a lesser era. But when making the comparison between today and yesterday, we can never get a definitive answer to the question, “Who is better?” Such comparisons are doomed to remain exercises in futility. The wise fan knows this, and is satisfied with appreciating the greatness before him, rather than trying to write history on the fly. Live for today, to be sure, but remember: latest does not equal greatest.

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