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Teasing out “Elite” head coaches of the past 20 years

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Los Angeles Rams v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Over the course of the last week, there have been several lively discussions on Hogs Haven on the importance of elite quarterback performance on the ability of NFL teams to achieve the highest level of success. To an extent, that connection is a foregone conclusion in the minds of most football fans. One of the vexxing questions that often comes up in those discussions though is: What’s different about non-elite quarterbacks that make it to the Super Bowl?

For the sake of this article, I’m going to posit that a significant piece of that puzzle is elite head coaching. But what’s a clear cut way for us to identify elite head coaches? I’d like to offer the following: Head coaches who have lead teams to the Super Bowl - though not necessarily to a win in the big game - without a quarterback who has ever won an MVP award.

This is not a perfect approach, obviously, as it cuts out future Hall of Famers like Bill Belichick, who only ever won a Super Bowl with 3-time MVP Tom Brady. My point here is not to say that the coaches like Belichick are not elite - I think that he is - but to unearth those who appear to have bucked the conventional model on the back of a QB who likely would have had a far lower ceiling elsewhere.

But what about a coach like Joe Gibbs, who won the Super Bowl (and lost another) with one-time MVP Joe Theismann? He would qualify as “elite” under this model, as he won the Super Bowl twice with non-MVPs Doug Williams and Mark Rypien. For the purposes here, however, Gibbs won’t be included as I’m only looking back 20 or so years.

So, without further ado, let’s kick off the thought exercise.


Bill Belichick vs. Mike Martz - Belichick won with Brady, so he’s out for the purposes of this piece. Martz is not elite, by virtue of having lost with 2-time MVP Kurt Warner.


Jon Gruden vs. Bill Callahan - Gruden won with Brad Johnson, who never received an MVP award, while Callahan’s QB, Rich Gannon, won the MVP in 2002. Gruden goes into the elite bin, Callahan does not, which proves to be an early test for the efficacy of this tool.


Bill Belichick vs. John Fox - Fox got to the Super Bowl with definite non-MVP Jake Delhomme, so we’ll place him in the elite mix.


Bill Belichick vs. Andy Reid - Reid’s QB here, Donovan McNabb, was never an MVP, so he goes into the elite category, which I suspect nearly everyone would be comfortable with. Reid would, of course, go on to later win a Super Bowl with 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes.


Bill Cowher vs. Mike Holmgren - Cowher would take two non-MVPs, Neil O’Donnell and Ben Roethlisberger to Super Bowls, and would win this one. He meets the elite criteria. Holmgren’s team was led by non-MVP Matt Hasselbeck, and he also won an earlier Super Bowl with 3-time MVP Brett Favre. He’s elite.


Tony Dungy vs. Lovie Smith - Dungy, with 5-time MVP Peyton Manning leading his team, won this one. Lovie Smith, with non-MVP, Rex Grossman, lost the game, but checks in as elite, which poses a bit of a conundrum.


Tom Coughlin vs. Bill Belichick - Coughlin won this Super Bowl, and another, with non-MVP Eli Manning. That puts him solidly in the elite category.


Mike Tomlin vs. Ken Whisenhunt - Tomlin won this Super Bowl with non-MVP Ben Roethlisberger, Whisenhunt lost it with former MVP Kurt Warner. Tomlin goes into the elite bin.


Sean Payton vs. Jim Caldwell - Payton would win this Super Bowl with non-MVP Drew Brees, while Caldwell lost it with 5-time MVP Peyton Manning. Payton makes the cut.


Mike McCarthy vs. Mike Tomlin - Tomlin lost this one with Big Ben, but he’s already crossed the elite threshold. The fact that McCarthy won this with 3-time MVP Aaron Rodgers and falls out of the elite conversation seems like a vindication of the model.


Tom Coughlin vs. Bill Belichick - We’ve already established Coughlin as elite. This second appearance bolsters it.


John Harbaugh vs. Jim Harbaugh - In the battle of the Harbaughs, John won the game, but both come out as elites, riding on the backs of non-MVPs Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick.


Pete Carroll vs. John Fox - Carroll’s team, led by non-MVP Russell Wilson, won the game. Fox’s, led by 5-time MVP Peyton Manning, lost. Fox, however, retains elite status from his earlier appearance. Carroll advances to elite.


Bill Belichick vs. Pete Carroll - We’ve already established Carroll as elite, and he’s back.


Gary Kubiak vs. Ron Rivera - Kubiak won this game with Peyton Manning, disqualifying him from consideration. Rivera lost it with 2015 NFL MVP, Cam Newton, eliminating him as well.


Bill Belichick vs. Dan Quinn - Quinn lost this game in spectacular fashion with 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan.


Doug Pederson vs. Bill Belichick - Pederson won this Super Bowl with back-up and non-MVP Nick Foles, in one of the more surprising Super Bowl upsets ever. He checks the elite box.


Bill Belichick vs. Sean McVay - McVay made it to the Super Bowl, and lost, with non-MVP Jared Goff. He’s one game away from going back this year.


Andy Reid vs. Kyle Shanahan - We’ve already established Reid as elite, and he affirmed it with a win in this Super Bowl. Shanahan crosses the elite threshold with non-MVP Jimmy Garoppolo. Either he or McVay will be there again this year.


Bruce Arians vs. Andy Reid - Arians won this one with 3-time NFL MVP Tom Brady, which eliminates him from contention. Reid simply shored up his elite status, even in a loss here.

First Cut Elites

So, looking at the past 20 years, our “elite” coaches, by the definition above are:

  • Jon Gruden
  • John Fox
  • Andy Reid
  • Bill Cowher
  • Mike Holmgren
  • Lovie Smith
  • Tom Coughlin
  • Mike Tomlin
  • Sean Payton
  • John Harbaugh
  • Jim Harbaugh
  • Pete Carroll
  • Doug Pederson
  • Sean McVay
  • Kyle Shanahan

If we pare it down further, just to Super Bowl winning coaches who met the criteria we get:

  • Jon Gruden
  • Bill Cowher
  • Tom Coughlin
  • Mike Tomlin
  • Sean Payton
  • John Harbaugh
  • Pete Carroll
  • Doug Pederson

Of the coaches eliminated in this second filter, several still have shots to earn the title, McVay, Shanahan, and Jim Harbaugh (if he comes back to the NFL). I’d be curious about your thoughts as to who was improperly included, and who might have been improperly excluded from this list, as well as additional filters that could potentially be applied to refine the definition.


What do you think, is this a useful lens through which to view coaching prowess?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    (32 votes)
  • 33%
    Yes, with refinement.
    (75 votes)
  • 38%
    (86 votes)
  • 14%
    Would you please stop writing these?
    (32 votes)
225 votes total Vote Now

An earlier version of this article incorrectly had Dick Vermeil leading the 2001 Rams. He actually led the 1999 Rams to Super Bowl victory. Vermeil advanced to that Super Bowl with 2-time MVP Kurt Warner, but he also led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 1980, on the back of non-MVP Ron Jaworski. By the criteria set out, he meets the “elite” threshold, but he’s outside the window of this analysis.