The NFL’s Success Penalty

This post is an adjunct to this week’s commentary, Latest Does Not Equal Greatest.

In that article, I noted that there seems to be a “success penalty” imposed upon NFL coaches once they achieve glory–i.e., winning the Super Bowl. In examining the record book, we find a few definite trends among championship coaches. Here’s a table that includes all coaches with multiple Super Bowl victories, along with selected coaches who won several conference championships:

Coach Years Coached SB Victories First SB Season† Post SB Seasons
Chuck Noll 23 4 6th 12
Bill Belichick 20 3 7th 10*
Joe Gibbs 16 3 2nd 5
Bill Walsh 10 3 3rd 0
Don Shula 33 2 6th 22*
Tom Landry 29 2 11th 11*
Bill Parcells 19 2 4th 11*
Mike Shanahan 20 2 5th 14
Tom Flores 12 2 2nd 7
George Seifert 11 2 1st 5
Jimmy Johnson 9 2 4th 4
Tom Coughlin 19 2 12th 3
Vince Lombardi 10 2 3rdº 1
Mike Holmgren 17 1 5th 12*
Marv Levy 17 0 10th (4)
Dan Reeves 23 0 6th (5)
Bud Grant 18 0 3rd (8)

*Reached but did not win subsequent Super Bowl
†Season coach first reached SB, whether won or not
ºSeason of first NFL (pre-SB) championship
Numbers in parentheses are seasons after last losing SB appearance

What stands out in the above numbers?

  • Victories in games marked with roman numerals tend to come early in a coach’s career. Most reached the ultimate game within their first five years. Only three of the coaches listed had to wait as long as a decade to reach the Super Bowl. (In Coughlin’s case, the first several seasons were spent with the Jaguars. With Landry, he was building the Cowboys from scratch, having taken over as first head coach of an expansion team.)
  • If a coach wins the big game more than once, the wins tend to be bunched within a short time frame. Makes sense: if you’ve got a great team, you have a chance to win multiple times with the same players. And, of course, it’s difficult to put together a great team, and more difficult still to do it twice or more.
  • For even the greatest coaches, there tends to be a drought after the last Super Bowl victory until the old ball coach finally decides to hang it up (or has that decision made for him). Shula is anomalous given the spread in years between his first and last Super Bowl appearances (15 years between, noninclusive). Belichick’s 13 seasons between his first and this year’s Super Bowl is the closest match, and one of the strongest arguments in his favor in the G.O.A.T. debate.

And what can we take away from these figures regarding this Sunday’s game? If Belichick and Team Floating Demon Head win the game, it will mark a major accomplishment and confirm that Belichick has bucked some serious history–possibly enough to validate the claims of his supporters. Certainly, it will cement his position as one of the three or four best coaches in the game’s history.

If, however, Pete Carroll and his Seahawks make it back to back championships (as I suspect they will), then the message is simple: enjoy it while you can Seattle fans. Because the record shows that it is unlikely that Carroll’s success will continue much longer, at least as far as championships goes. NFL, as it turns out, really does stand for “not for long”–even for its top coaches.


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