What makes an NFL coach underrated?
Is it being outshined by fellow greats in their era?
Has history forgotten their accomplishments because they never won the big game?
Was their prime in the sport so long ago that we don’t have many tangible references to recollect their greatness?
In an effort to compile some of the most underrated coaches of all time, many criteria were factored into the selection process.
This list isn’t a definitive ranking but an attempt to shed light on some coaches who deserve more acknowledgment for their accomplishments.
The order of the rankings isn’t about greatness, it’s about how underrated they are compared to where they should be.
No. 20: Blanton Collier
Paul Brown’s replacement in Cleveland, Blanton Collier had monstrous shoes to fill after Brown won three NFL Championships and four AAFC titles during his 17 years in Cleveland.
Collier continued Brown’s success and won the 1964 NFL Championship with Cleveland.
He made the playoffs five times in eight years and never finished below .500 in any season.
With a winning percentage of .691, Collier ranks seventh all-time.
— mnmanofhour (@mnmanofhour) March 6, 2020
Most of the obscure names with the most success in NFL history coached in the 1920s and 1930s, but Collier coached at the start of the modern NFL.
Yet, most people outside of Cleveland likely don’t know much about Collier.
They skip right through those eight years and likely just assumed Paul Brown was still the coach in 1964.
Collier’s 76-34-2 record makes him the second-most successful coach in Cleveland history behind Brown.
That might not say much looking at the Browns of the past 20 years but the franchise had consistent success until they headed for Baltimore in 1996.
Blanton Collier played a key role in the Browns’ success in the 1960s.
No. 19: Mike Shanahan
When looking at Mike Shanahan’s .552 winning percentage over 20 years, it’s easy to think it wasn’t anything special.
Shanahan’s underrated legacy isn’t fully cemented in his performance as a coach.
His impact on the game at large and the dominant coaches in the game today add to why he’s such an underrated coach.
Mike’s son, Kyle, Matt LaFleur, Sean McVay, Anthony Lynn, and Raheem Morris were all head coaches in the NFL in 2020.
Sean McVay & Matt LeFleur both learned under Mike Shanahan
The #Jets are bringing the west coast Shanahan style offense to New York with Mike LeFleur. A Quarterback friendly system
— 𝙅𝙀𝙏𝙎 𝙈𝙀𝘿𝙄𝘼🛫 (@NYJets_Media) January 16, 2021
All five come from Shanahan’s coaching tree.
Two, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, have appeared in the Super Bowl and another, Matt LaFleur, has made the NFC Championship Game in his first two seasons as a head coach.
Over his 20 years in coaching, Shanahan developed the minds who have ushered in the offensive philosophies and schemes of the current NFL.
We can’t fully discount Shanahan’s legacy for winning football games either.
He won back-to-back Super Bowls in Denver with John Elway then took the Broncos to four more playoff appearances after Elway retired.
No. 18: Hank Stram
Stram deserves as much credit for his innovations to the game of football as he does his coaching ability.
Before merging with the NFL, Stram was the most successful coach in AFL history, winning two championships and 87 games.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) January 3, 2016
Stram was recruited to coach the Dallas Texans in 1960 and moved with the team to Kansas City, where they changed their name to the Chiefs.
During his career, Stram never had any coordinators assist him while coaching.
This allowed Stram to control every facet of his job and the results led to consistent success.
In Super Bowl IV, Stram led the Chiefs to a 23-7 win over the Vikings.
No. 17: Dick Vermeil
Across 30 seasons, Dick Vermeil coached three different NFL teams.
After coaching the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976 to 1982, Vermeil was not a head coach again for 15 years.
He had a winning record with Philadelphia and led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 1980.
Flashback: Eagles QB Ron Jaworski with head coach Dick Vermeil pic.twitter.com/QcFoDYBq4N
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) November 27, 2014
Vermeil headed to the broadcast booth after his stint with the Eagles and didn’t return to the sideline until 1997.
After two dismal seasons with the St. Louis Rams, Vermeil put together the “Greatest Show on Turf” and led the Rams to a 13-3 regular-season record.
He culminated the 1999 season by defeating the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.
After the win, Vermeil walked away from coaching again, only to be pulled back to it in 2001 with the Kansas City Chiefs.
He posted two winning seasons in Kansas City over five years and retired for good in 2005.
The long hiatus creates a major “What If?” for Vermeil’s career but his accomplishments in Philadelphia are largely forgotten when reflecting on his legacy.
No. 16: John Harbaugh
While his brother makes more headlines, John Harbaugh has consistently led the Baltimore Ravens since 2008.
The Ravens have only one losing season in Harbaugh’s tenure.
His 11 playoff wins tie for 10th-most all-time and his .620 win percentage is sixth-most among active head coaches.
In 2012, Harbaugh defeated his brother, Jim, in Super Bowl XLVII.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) April 21, 2014
After making the playoffs in his first five seasons as head coach, Harbaugh hit a rough stretch with his teams hovering around .500 before making the playoffs three straight years from 2018 to 2020.
He’d likely get mentioned as an afterthought in conversations about the best coaches in the game today, but he deserves acknowledgment for how consistently he’s been successful in Baltimore.
No.15: Bill Cowher
Following in the shadow of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher carried the Pittsburgh Steelers’ consistent success that started in the 1970s through the 1990s and early 2000s.
In 15 seasons in Pittsburgh, Cowher had a winning record 11 times and made the playoffs 10 times.
After losing to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, Cowher returned to the big game in 2005 and defeated the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
— Blitzburgh ✨ (@RenegadeBlitz) February 26, 2020
At 49 years old, Cowher retired early and made his way into the studio as an analyst.
Rumors swirled for several years that he would return to coaching but he hasn’t returned to the field.
The youth of Cowher at the start of his career get overlooked in hindsight.
He took the Steelers job at 35 years old and produced a better career win percentage (.623) than his predecessor Noll (.566).
Despite an average playoff record, Cowher continued the Steelers’ decades of consistency and rightfully earned his spot in Canton.
No. 14: Marty Schottenheimer
In 21 years of coaching, Marty Schottenheimer only posted a losing record twice.
His career exuded longevity and produced the 31st-highest winning percentage (.613) of all-time.
The continued playoff woes are clearly noted and exactly why Schottenheimer has become underrated for his coaching ability.
Five wins in 13 playoff appearances is a rough statistic to defend but one game each season can’t take away his 200 career regular-season wins.
Former NFL HC Marty Schottenheimer has passed away at the age of 77, after a battle with Alzheimer’s…
He coached the Browns, Chiefs, Washington, and the Chargers.
He coached 14 seasons before he had a losing record, and is one of 7 HCs with 200 career reg. season wins
— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) February 9, 2021
Schottenheimer was a consistent face in the NFL for two decades and had immense success outside of his playoff woes.
His teams ended up on the wrong end of several heartbreaking playoff losses that defined his career early and haunted him throughout.
From “The Drive” and “The Fumble” in Cleveland to Steve Bono‘s three interceptions for the Chiefs in the 1995 Divisional Round against the Colts, Schottenheimer’s teams found ways to lose in dramatic fashion.
The high profile of his losses amplifies the narrative that he couldn’t win when it mattered.
Let’s remove those heartbreakers and appreciate Schotty’s ability to elevate teams to sustained success.
No 13: Mike Tomlin
Not many current coaches deserve a spot on this list but Mike Tomlin’s success with the Steelers is impressive.
While his career isn’t complete, Tomlin has 14-straight seasons above .500, a 2008 Super Bowl, and a 2011 Super Bowl appearance.
He’s transitioned the Steelers from a ground and pound defensive powerhouse to a spread attack offensive weapon.
The Rooney Rule legacy
"Here we are 10 years later and Mike Tomlin is a Super Bowl winning HC"
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) April 14, 2017
In recent years, he’s kept a locker room together that included a variety of personalities, and willed a highly undermanned team to an 8-8 record in 2019.
He’s taken his team to the playoffs nine times and has an even 8-8 playoff record.
Tomlin became the Steelers coach at 35 years old and continued the team’s success of holding onto successful coaches for a decade-plus.
With his Super Bowl win nearly 13 years ago, it’s easier to understand why the hot young coaches and legends of the game have overshadowed him.
He has the third-highest winning percentage (.650) of all active coaches and continues to find ways to keep his team in contention year after year.
No. 12: George Allen
A measure of consistency in his era, George Allen holds the fourth-highest winning percentage all-time.
He started coaching as the modern NFL formed in 1966 and spent 12 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and Washington.
While he never won a Super Bowl, Allen posted an above .500 winning percentage in every season of his coaching career and finished with a .712 win percentage.
Hall of Fame coach George Allen was born OTD in 1918. Hall of Fame Enshrinement Class of 2002. Never had a losing season during his tenure as a head coach in the @NFL (12 total seasons between @RamsNFL & @Redskins). pic.twitter.com/r8yJF4GmOV
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) April 29, 2018
His best season came in 1972 when he led Washington to the Super Bowl and lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
One area that Allen gets dinged is his lack of success in the playoffs.
The 1972 season was the only time across seven playoff appearances that his team won a game.
He had a similar career to how Andy Reid was viewed before he won the Super Bowl with the Chiefs in 2019.
Not many people mention Allen among one of the great coaches but his regular-season consistency slots him into a Hall of Fame tier.
No. 11: Tony Dungy
Great players can downgrade the legacy of their coach because of their individual dominance.
Look at the debates that broke out when Tom Brady left Bill Belichick for Tampa Bay.
Tony Dungy lives in the shadow of Peyton Manning when it comes to his coaching career.
After decent success for six years in Tampa, Dungy joined the Indianapolis Colts and posted the best regular-season record in the league during his seven years in Indy.
Dungy and the Colts won Super Bowl XLI in a historic contest that was the first time two minority coaches went against each other in the Super Bowl.
On this date in 2007, Tony Dungy became the first black coach to win the Super Bowl, beating Lovie Smith and the Bears.
Smith and Dungy were the first black head coaches in the 41-year history of the Super Bowl. pic.twitter.com/w397Qh5Kd9
— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) February 4, 2021
The fact Dungy coached in the same conference as Belichick’s Patriots likely impact his overall ranking because the Colts would probably have two more Super Bowl appearances if not for New England.
Still, Dungy’s overall record stacks up among the best ever as he ranks 14th in win percentage (.668) all-time.
Additionally, Dungy deserves credit for his role in creating the Tampa 2 defense with Monte Kiffin while coaching the Buccaneers.
Coaching one of the all-time greats and playing against one led to Dungy being one of the league’s most underrated coaches in history.
No. 10: Paul Brown
With seven championship wins, the most of all-time, it almost doesn’t make sense how Paul Brown could be underrated.
Maybe it’s his first four championships coming in the AAFC post World War II that downplay his greatness.
It could be the 20-year struggle of the team that bears his name in Cleveland that makes it hard for the media to reflect on his greatness.
Today in Sports History: 1945 – Paul Brown agrees to coach the Cleveland entry into the new All-american Football Conference. The team would be christened the Browns, named after the coach.@NFL@Browns @PigskinDispatch @jfgsports pic.twitter.com/f8AuxXurq7
— Historically Speaking (@HistoricallySp2) February 8, 2021
Brown coached in Cleveland for 17 seasons and only had one losing record.
As the league became more competitive, Brown won back-to-back championships in 1954 and 1955.
After being unceremoniously fired by Art Modell in 1962, Brown played a role in founding the Cincinnati Bengals and became their coach in 1968.
He didn’t have the same success as in Cleveland but posted an 11-3 record in his final season with the Bengals in 1975.
No. 9: Guy Chamberlin
I’d bet a good amount of money that most people reading this have never heard of Guy Chamberlin.
The fact he started coaching nearly 100 years ago is a good excuse to be unaware of him.
In only six seasons as an NFL coach, Chamberlin posted the best winning percentage (.784) in league history.
Hall of Famer Guy Chamberlin was born OTD in 1894. Chamberlin was a durable two-way player and served as a player-coach for 6 seasons. pic.twitter.com/cWWoolZZtD
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) January 16, 2017
As head coach of the Canton Bulldogs, he didn’t lose a game, posting a 21-0-3 record.
He also won four championships in his six years as a coach.
The league was in its infancy and competitive parity wasn’t in balance in the 1920s but Chamberlin was the best of his era and deserves a place on the underrated list for his accomplishments.
No. 8: Tom Flores
A Super Bowl winner as a player and as an assistant coach, Tom Flores took over as head coach of the Oakland Raiders after John Madden retired in 1979.
In his second season as head coach, Flores led the Raiders to Super Bowl XV and defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10.
His Super Bowl win made him the first minority coach to win the game’s biggest prize.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) February 7, 2021
Flores won a second Super Bowl in 1983 to prove his first wasn’t simply carrying the team Madden assembled to glory.
In nine seasons with the Raiders, Flores went 83-53 in the regular season and 8-3 in the playoffs.
After the 1987 season, Flores moved into a front-office role with the Raiders before joining the Seahawks front office the following year.
His career win percentage (.527) tarnished some when he returned to coaching in 1992 and never posted a winning record with the Seahawks.
Many only reference Flores for his firsts as a minority coach and overlook his overall body of work with five playoff appearances and two Super Bowl wins.
No. 7: Mike Holmgren
Across 17 NFL seasons, Mike Holmgren led his team to the playoffs 12 times, winning a Super Bowl and appearing in two more.
Holmgren’s first head coaching gig came in Green Bay, where he worked with Brett Favre to get the Packers to six-straight playoff appearances.
In 1996, Holmgren and the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI against New England and returned in 1997 but fell to John Elway and the Denver Broncos.
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) July 19, 2015
During the stretch, Holmgren won playoff games in five consecutive postseasons.
After making the playoffs with Green Bay in 1998, Holmgren resigned to sign an eight-year contract with the Seattle Seahawks.
He made the playoffs in his first season in Seattle and went on to make his third Super Bowl appearance in 2005.
With only two losing seasons, Holmgren provided two franchises with nearly a decade each of consistent success.
No. 6: Curly Lambeau
The longevity of Earl “Curly” Lambeau’s career and the founding of the Green Bay Packers warrants his inclusion on this list.
His namesake on the most iconic stadium in the NFL made it hard to consider him underrated.
The reason his name is on the stadium has likely been forgotten a bit over the 70 years since he last coached in the league.
Curly Lambeau is one of the 10 coaches selected to the #NFL100 All-Time Team!
— NFL (@NFL) December 14, 2019
In 33 years of coaching, Lambeau won six NFL Championships with the Green Bay Packers.
His coaching career started in 1921 as a player-coach for nine seasons with the Packers.
After moving to the full-time coach in 1930, Lambeau became the general manager of the team starting in 1936.
Lambeau has the fifth-most wins in NFL history and is tied with Don Shula for the second-longest tenure as a head coach in the league.
His accomplishments, longevity, and versatility as a player, coach, and general manager provide important context to a legacy that’s been reduced to the name on a stadium.
No. 5: Marv Levy
Only one team in the Super Bowl era has made it to the big game in four consecutive seasons: Marv Levy’s Buffalo Bills.
Infamously, the Bills lost every single Super Bowl they appeared in.
That shouldn’t take away from how impressive it is for a team to accomplish that feat.
The ability for the Bills to come back after every heartbreak is unheard of in today’s NFL.
Hall of Famer.
Forever Buffalo Bill.
HAPPY 95th BIRTHDAY, MARV LEVY! 🥳 pic.twitter.com/tRZJXUE0a3
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) August 3, 2020
Only one team, the 2018 New England Patriots, returned to the Super Bowl after losing it in the previous season since the Bills made four in a row.
Levy won 58 games, including the playoffs, in that four-year stretch from 1990 to 1994.
The Bills made the playoffs in eight of nine seasons in Levy’s career, only missing after their fourth Super Bowl loss during that stretch.
Levy’s 11 playoff wins are tied for the 10th-most ever and show how successful his teams were despite losing in the Super Bowl.
No. 4: John Madden
The post-career success John Madden had tended to outshine his accomplishments as a coach.
Known most for his video game franchise and love for Brett Favre, Madden’s success with the Raiders has become a secondary story in his football life.
Look at the numbers: Madden boasts the highest winning percentage (.759) for anyone who coached more than 100 games, eight playoff appearances in 10 seasons, and a Super Bowl victory.
On this date 51 years ago, Al Davis elevated a 32-year-old linebackers coach named John Madden to head coach.
The rest is history. pic.twitter.com/IjeUt1tkMP
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) February 4, 2020
He won more than 65 percent of his games in every season but one, highlighted by a 12-1-1 record in 1969 and a 13-1 record in 1976.
The Raiders won the Super Bowl after the 1976 season, capping Madden’s career of dominance in Oakland.
Madden achieved all of this in an era when the league featured some of the most highly-prominent coaches like Don Shula, Chuck Noll, and Tom Landry.
The first thought for anyone under 60 is either Madden’s color commentary in the broadcast booth or his name on a video game.
That’s unfortunate when looking at one of the most successful coaches in league history.
No. 3: George Seifert
Following up greatness is never easy in the NFL.
Seifert took over for Bill Walsh in San Francisco and immediately led the team to a Super Bowl victory.
The usual “he won with the other guy’s players” card has been played but Seifert proved he was a competent coach with the 49ers.
He never posted a losing record with the team and drubbed the San Diego Chargers, 49-26, in Super Bowl XXIX.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) April 11, 2013
Two Super Bowl wins for Seifert and a .766 win percentage in San Francisco should get him mentioned among the greatest coaches of all time.
He attempted to make a comeback in coaching with the Carolina Panthers in 1999, but he only won 16 games across three seasons.
A 1-15 record in his final season in Carolina likely caused some permanent damage to his legacy.
No. 2: Bud Grant
History is written by and about the winners.
Harold “Bud” Grant won a lot, but he never did it in the biggest game.
Four Super Bowl appearances with the Minnesota Vikings leave Grant’s success off most of the all-time lists.
In his first 10 seasons in Minnesota, Grant won 10 or more games in seven seasons with a 14-game schedule.
When the team went to three Super Bowls in four years from 1973 to 1976, the Vikings only lost 10 regular season games total.
Grant lost to some of the best coaches of all time in those three Super Bowls: Don Shula, Chuck Noll, and John Madden.
The results of one game usually define more of a legacy than they should.
All of Grant’s numbers put him in the same class as his contemporaries but losing to three of them in the big game makes him one of the most underrated coaches in NFL history.
Only person who played in both the NFL and NBA: Bud Grant.
Only person who played in the NFL and NBA and CFL: Bud Grant.
Only person who played in the NFL and NBA and CFL and coached in the NFL and CFL: Bud Grant.pic.twitter.com/ijqdLQmtPI
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) May 21, 2020
He played in the NBA with the Minneapolis Lakers, NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, and CFL with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
No. 1: Joe Gibbs
Gibbs falls into the underrated category that enough time has passed since he won Super Bowls and his name and image have become more associated with NASCAR since the early-2000s.
Most football fans likely know about the accomplishments and accolades of Joe Gibbs during his tenure in Washington.
Winning is Joe Gibbs' legacy.
He's the only coach to win a Super Bowl (3x) AND a @NASCAR Cup Series championship (5x).
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) January 31, 2020
Some younger fans probably only remember his return in 2004 that featured four sub-par years with the team.
When you dive into his success in the 1980s and early-90s, his dominance is evident.
Gibbs produced a 124-60 record in his first stint in Washington which equals Bill Belichick’s career win percentage at .673.
He won three Super Bowls and appeared in another across a 10-year period where the team only had one losing season.
Gibbs consistently gets left behind Noll, Walsh, and Lombardi in conversations of the best coaches of all time.
The argument isn’t that he’s better than any of the three, but he must be in the conversation.
Walsh and Gibbs are tied for third all-time with three Super Bowl wins each.
Almost any measure you look at Gibbs stacks up against his contemporaries and is equal or greater than all of them.