Was Don Shula the best NFL coach ever?
If you only go through rings, probably not. Shula was 2 for 6 in Super Bowls. Bill Belichick won six, Chuck Noll won four. Vince Lombardi won the first two Super Bowls – that’s why the trophy bears his name – and won three NFL championships in the years before that game was invented. George Halas won six titles, although five in the leather helmet era, and Paul Brown won seven, but only three in the NFL.
But championships, although the ultimate goal, aren’t the only thing and the end of everything a man is worth.
Shula, who died on Monday At age 90 he won more head coach games than anyone in professional football history: 328-156-6 in the regular season over 33 seasons with the Colts and Dolphins, 347-173-6 including the postseason.
He remains the coach of the NFL’s only unbeaten champion, the 17-0 Dolphins of 1972, who completed their flawless season by defeating Washington at the Coliseum, 14-7, even delivering comic relief when kicker Garo Yepremian attempted a pass throw after a shot for a field goal has been blocked. (The keyword is being tried here.)
An overlooked tidbit about the perfect season of Don Shula and the dolphins.
If Garo Yepremian had scored his field goal instead of blocking the stairs, the final score would not have been 14-7.
It would have been 17-0 …
As in 17-0-0. pic.twitter.com/9MP0GUMql5
– Tom Harrington (@cbctom) May 4, 2020
Shula’s outsized influence on the game was most visible in Miami, where only two of the 26 teams he coached finished under .500, and where the dolphins – 15-39-2 under George Wilson in their first four years of existence – became viable. when Shula arrived in 1970.
But Shula felt that his impact on the game went beyond the wins and trophies and players he coached, including Hall of Fame quarterbacks Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and Dan Marino, and 12 other players captured in Canton.
“I want them to say he won within the rules,” Shula said, as told by Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald on Monday. “That he had players who were proud to play by the rules. And that his teams played an exciting brand of football, wide open football, which made it exciting for the fans.
“I want them to say that his players loved it, the coaches love it, the fans love it and I loved it – when we won. I want them to say we did a good job. Always the right way. ‘
Shula was hired by the then Baltimore Colts in 1963 at the age of 33 after spending seven years in the league as a defensive back, followed by a season each as a defensive back coach in Virginia and Kentucky, a season with the Detroit Lions as a defensive coach and two support as a defensive coordinator of the lions. He inherited a group of veterans in Baltimore – he had played with Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and Gino Marchetti.
But he was 63-23 with four seasons of double digit victories in Baltimore at the end of the Packers’ 60s dynasty. In his first five years with the Dolphins – actually traded, after it was determined that Miami had messed with him and sent a first round to the Colts – the team in the regular season was 57-12-1, 8- 3 in the play offs with two Super Bowl wins.
Still, it was his third season with the Colts, 1965, that he really showed the talent. He lost Unitas to a knee injury in week 12 (of 14) and backup Gary Cuozzo to a severed shoulder in week 13. So for the season finale at the Colosseum, with at least part of the division title on the line and against a Rams team in last place, but one that already had the Fearsome Foursome from Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier, while Tom Matte walked back starting at quarterback, the game calls his wristband years before it became a trend. (The wristband is shown in the Hall of Fame).
Matte only threw the ball twice, but ran 99 yards as the Colts defeated the Rams, 20-17 to share the league title on 10-3-1 and force a one-game playoff in Green Bay the following week. By then, Shula’s men were convinced.
“I think we started to believe we could (win with Matte on quarterback), especially since Coach Shula was such a great coach,” Cuozzo recalled in a 2013 interview with Fox Sports’ Sam Sports. “He can get the best of everything.”
Judge yourself. Matte, with a more extensive playoff game plan, passed 40 yards, ran for 57 and the Colts took the Packers to overtime – at 22 degrees again the day after Christmas – before losing to Don Chandler’s field goal. Two weeks later, in the “Playoff Bowl” for runner-up winners, Matte threw for 162 yards and two touchdowns and was the game’s MVP in a Dallas rout.
Much later, Shula’s talent was immortalized by then-Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips this way: “Don Shula can beat his cock and beat you, and he can grab you and beat his cock.”
Later, Shula went to 34-year-old Earl Morrall when Unitas was injured in the 1968 season, and Morrall got the Colts to Super Bowl III (but not past Joe Namath and the New York Jets). Four years later in Miami, Griese went down with a broken leg and only dislocated in week 5. Morrall, then 38, took over and kept the perfect season going until Griese was able to return to the playoffs.
“I have always said that Unitas, Griese and Dan Marino are in the Hall of Fame and Earl in my own personal Hall of Fame,” Shula told Barry Wilner of The Associated Press last year.
Super Bowls weren’t always nice to Shula. There was Namath, and his guarantee, and the shame of being the first NFL team to lose to an AFL team in the title game. There was a loss of 24-3 to Dallas in Super Bowl VI, the year before perfection. And Shula had two cracks in it later in the ’80s, losing to Washington in Super Bowl XVII at the Rose Bowl and the 49ers in XIX at Stanford.
But by this time, he was an icon, NFL coaching royalty (and two of his heirs, David and Mike, were to join the family business).
And he had an order from start to finish. An experienced NFL writer, Michael Silver of NFL.com recalled attending a reunion of the ’72 dolphins in recent years and commented in an interview with NFL Network, ‘Don Shula was still leading everything and had full and full respect. ”
Do you think there will be a big void during that next reunion, whenever that may be?
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter
Hard to believe he’s gone. He was such a dominant force. I fully expected that he would be 100 years old. Winning was crucial to him, but winning within the rules was more important. There was only 1 perfect team in the first 100 years of the NFL, and Coach Shula is the reason! #FinsUp pic.twitter.com/yimRSpkZDO
– Larry Csonka (@ Larry_Csonka39) May 4, 2020
We remember the most winning coach in @nfl history and the only coach to lead his team to a perfect season.
– NFL Films (@NFLFilms) May 4, 2020