Don Shula, the NFL's all-time leader in head coaching wins, passed away Monday and in the immediate aftermath, the sports world has honored the long-time coach with kind words and sentimental stories.
Shula collected a whopping 328 career wins in the regular season over 33 years on the job. But that's not even the half of it. Shula's first 15 seasons as an NFL head coach came when the standard was to play 14 games in the regular season. By the time the league made the 16 game season official in 1978, Shula had accumulated 154 wins. With a record of 154-51-5 throughout the course of his career under a 14 game schedule, Shula's win percentage (0.745) would have been good for an additional 22 wins if the league had played 16 games instead.
Never the less, 328 regular-season wins in 33 years is mind-boggling. Think about it. Envision your team going 10-6 for 33 consecutive seasons and along the way winning two Super Bowls (plus an NFL championship) and appearing in six total championship games. That's Don Shula's career in a nutshell with just two losing seasons over that time and four more years of .500 football.
He was excellence personified. But who among the NFL's current coaches will withstand the test of time and see a chance to challenge Shula's all-time number?
The most obvious answer is the Patriots' Bill Belichick, who has done the hard part: found staying power in today's game. After a five year stint and a 46-44 record with the Browns, Belichick has spent the last two decades commandeering perhaps the greatest dynasty football has ever seen. He currently sports 273 career wins and trails Shula's record by 55 victories.
But even Belichick has his limitations.
He's 68 years old and for the first time in 20 years will experience life as an NFL head coach without arguably the greatest quarterback of all time on his side. New England's roster is another year older, its salary cap situation is complicated and it doesn't have a firm answer at quarterback. The Patriots will make headway on chipping away at Shula's record this season, but will they continue their torrid pace of rolling up double-digit wins?
Belichick's squad has won 11-plus games 16 times over the last 19 seasons; the other three times saw them win 10 games twice and nine games once. And Belichick is still five consecutive 11-win seasons away from Shula, a feat that would make him 73 at the time of tying Shula's record.
George Halas retired at 72. Paul Brown called it a career at 67. Tom Landry at 64. Shula himself retired at 65. Belichick would need to outlast all of them to ensure he lands the record, but he appears to have some time. One bad season, however, may throw ice on the pursuit of the top spot. Belichick doesn't have a year to waste as he enters the twilight of his career at an older age than many of the greats he's already bested in the win column.
Who else might be able to give Shula a run?
- Saints’ Sean Payton has coached 13 years and logged 131 career wins at 56 years of age. He's got the pace; but to coach another 20 years to put him into Shula's territory feels optimistic, considering he'd have to coach until he's 76. And for all of Payton's successes, he's already got twice as many losing seasons (four) through 13 years as Shula had (two) in 33.
- Chiefs’ Andy Reid has coached 21 years and is on Shula's win per season rate as well. He holds 207 victories and earned his first Super Bowl title earlier this year courtesy of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. With Mahomes in place, Kansas City figures to be a dynamo for the foreseeable future. Could Reid make a run? He needs 121 wins (more than 12 wins per season for the next decade) and at 61 years old, it is difficult to envision Reid coaching that long, especially since he finally checked the last remaining box on his resume: the elusive Vince Lombardi Trophy.
- Ravens’ John Harbaugh seems to have hope as well, but he wouldn't be halfway to 328 wins for another three to four seasons if all goes well. With 118 wins currently over 12 seasons, Harbaugh is looking at another two decades of coaching if he were to sniff the all-time figure. That would mean Harbaugh, who is 57, would need to churn out wins at an incredible rate all throughout his 60s with the Ravens; it's too big of a forecast to embrace this early in his career.
Perhaps the best chance we'll see for a coach to challenge Shula's record will still come from AFC North, however.
Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, at just 47 years old, boasts 133 wins. He's got 15 more wins than Harbaugh and yet is 10 years younger. Shula's win total at 47 years of age? 154. Shula was 47 years old when the league switched to a 16 game schedule in 1978. Belichick? 36 wins. He coached his first season in New England when he was 48 years old.
Yet Tomlin sits with 13 seasons of tenure and 133 wins to his name while coaching for one of the most stable franchises in NFL history. The Steelers have had three head coaches since the Richard Nixon administration. With Tomlin never enduring a losing season in 13 years atop Pittsburgh’s organization (including an abysmal 2019 season that saw the team lose quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after two games), it is hard to envision how bad things would have to get in order to see the Steelers relieve Tomlin from his post.
If you're looking for the biggest threat to Shula's win record in the here and now? It's Belichick. He's on the doorstep but will need his coaching more than ever to survive the mass exodus from Foxborough, Massachusetts, over the last two years. But in the long run, Tomlin may be the bigger threat, considering he's got nearly a 100 win head start on Belichick at his current age.
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