Mission impossible: Duplicating Super Bowl success
A dozen great coaches have tried to recreate Super Bowl glory with another team. All have fallen short of winning another title. Two died while trying.
That’s crucial to consider as the NFL firing season for coaches nears – specifically in North and South Florida, where head coaches Jack Del Rio and Tony Sparano appear to be goners. There is talk in both Jacksonville and Miami that the next coaches will be “star-power” guys with proven résumés such as Super Bowl-winning coaches Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden.
If it’s possible to give billionaire owners such as Wayne Weaver of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins advice on how to run their teams, there is only one conclusion to draw about hiring a coach who has won a Super Bowl.
It’s tempting to hire Bill Parcells or Jimmy Johnson or even Mike Ditka. Clearly, it will sell tickets. But if history is the prime indicator, it will produce nothing of any real meaning. None of the 12 men (Parcells, Johnson, Ditka, Mike Holmgren, Don McCafferty, Joe Gibbs(notes), Mike Shanahan, Hank Stram, Dick Vermeil, George Seifert, Tom Flores and even Vince Lombardi) who have tried have won a Super Bowl title with a second team. I’m including Gibbs in this group since he had an 11-year gap between his first and second stint with the Redskins.
In fact, the group as a whole doesn’t even have a winning record, and Holmgren and Parcells are the only coaches in that dozen who have returned to the Super Bowl.
“If you did a really thorough study of it, I think the first thing you would ask is whether those coaches were ever able to find another quarterback – and there are some other issues,” Holmgren said. “But that’s surprising.”
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NFL historians will note that the underappreciated Weeb Ewbank did win titles with both the Baltimore Colts and the New York Jets. However, his NFL championships with the Colts in 1958 and 1959 came before the Super Bowl era, before the incarnation of the AFL, and at a time when the NFL had only 12 teams. As historic as Ewbank’s achievement is, the challenge was not nearly the same as today.
With that in mind, consider this breakdown of how the aforementioned 12 coaches combined to do with the teams they eventually led to Super Bowl victories:
Total seasons coached: 104
Regular-season record: 1,002-554-16
Postseason record: 93-38
Super Bowl appearances: 23
Super Bowl championships: 20
Overall winning percentage: 63.7
Here’s how those 12 coaches did their second time – or, in Parcells’ case, second, third and fourth:
Total seasons coached: 49
Regular-season record: 365-397-3
Postseason record: 10-17
Super Bowl appearances: 2
Super Bowl titles: 0
Overall winning percentage: 47.7
Of course, some of the evidence is skewed. For instance, both Lombardi and McCafferty died after only one season with their second teams. Shanahan hasn’t completed his second season with the Washington Redskins but is already on his third quarterback.
Of the other nine, Parcells, Holmgren, Johnson and Vermeil did reasonably well. Parcells and Holmgren led the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, respectively, to Super Bowl appearances. Still, all four fell short of their previous success despite a combine 29 years of chances with those other teams.
Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, was mediocre in his second stint in Washington.
Worse, there have been some guys who were failures. There was Ditka’s cartoonish stint with the New Orleans Saints, including his famous trade of an entire draft (and more) for Ricky Williams(notes) – whereupon Ditka joked that he was going to take the rest of the draft off and go golfing. Likewise, Hank Stram flopped in the Crescent City.
Tom Flores and George Seifert each won two Super Bowls in California’s Bay Area. When they went elsewhere, their success (and reputations) took severe hits. Neither has ever gotten any serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
What are the reasons for the futility? It’s a daunting question, considering the fact that Major League Baseball’s Tony La Russa is on the verge of another World Series title. He and Sparky Anderson both won MLB titles with two different teams. Likewise, Alex Hannum, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley have each won NBA titles with separate teams. In fact, La Russa, Anderson, Jackson and Riley all did it at the same time their NFL counterparts were flailing with the task.
There are several reasons:
• Quarterback – As Holmgren alluded, getting a quarterback is a significant issue. Holmgren traded for Matt Hasselbeck(notes) in Seattle, Parcells drafted Drew Bledsoe in New England and Johnson had Dan Marino in the final years of the Hall of Famer’s career in Miami. Other coaches got good quarterbacks as well, such as Vermeil getting Trent Green(notes), but none ever got a truly elite player.
“A lot of people ask me why did I leave Green Bay when I had Brett Favre(notes) in his prime? And you have to wonder if anyone now would leave with a guy who’s going that hot,” Holmgren said. “Would Mike McCarthy leave now that he has Aaron Rodgers(notes) really going? I had my reasons for leaving and I was able to get Hasselbeck, but that’s a huge key.”
• Assistant coaches – There are more limits now with coaches being able to take assistants from one team to another. Having stability within a coaching staff is crucial.
“The more guys you have who understand you, who understand the system and who understand each other, the easier it is to make a transition,” Holmgren said. “If you can avoid reteaching a lot of coaches, you’ve simplified a lot of things.
• Personnel – Many coaches take on too much responsibility the second time around. Or as Parcells once famously said when he and Patriots owner Bob Kraft were about to split: “If I’m going to be asked to cook the meal, I’d like to be able to pick the groceries.”
However, that desire was once counterbalanced by the attitude of former New York Giants general manager George Young. The late Young picked the players when Parcells won two Super Bowls with the Giants. When Parcells quit and it became apparent he would resurface with another team because he wanted control over personnel, Young often warned people that it wouldn’t turn out well for Parcells.
In Seattle, Holmgren had final authority over personnel but he also had executive Ted Thompson (now the general manager in Green Bay) running the personnel department. That’s likely one of the reasons that Holmgren was able to have a relatively successful 10-year run with the Seahawks.
“Ted was so good at running the personnel, I could just step in and make a final decision and not have to worry about a lot of the stuff that went into it,” Holmgren said. “We didn’t get into a lot of arguments about it. We would have a discussion and I would have to make a final judgment, but it was never a big problem.”
Other places have not been so smooth. In New Orleans, Ditka took over quickly and turned the roster into a joke.
“Ditka had no clue how to run a team,” a former Saints executive said. “He didn’t even really understand how you put a roster together in the offseason. I can’t even begin to tell you how crazy it was at times. It was chaos.”
“What coaches forget a lot of time is that there has to be a balanced view between building the roster and trying to win the next day,” said Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian. “You have a coach and a GM for a reason and they have to work together … besides just the philosophical part of it, the jobs are just too big for one person to do both really effectively.”
Some have, but never for an extended time. Johnson built the Cowboys into an eventual three-time champion in the 1990s with his extensive knowledge of personnel from the collegiate level (he had just come from being the University of Miami head coach). While Johnson picked a lot of good players when he was in Miami (Jason Taylor(notes), Zach Thomas(notes), Patrick Surtain(notes) and Sam Madison(notes) were his best picks), his success wasn’t nearly as strong.
• Dealing with pressure – For some, the pressure, even the self-induced portion, is too great. In 1996, Johnson took over in Miami, a job he coveted from the time he coached the Hurricanes. Shortly after taking the Dolphins job, he pronounced that he would have them in the Super Bowl within four years. By the end of the 1998 season, Johnson had the Dolphins in the playoffs for a second straight season, but they were blown out by the Broncos.
He quit after that season, only to be talked into coming back for one more year by owner Wayne Huizenga. However, Johnson progressively lost the fire in coaching, even before the 1999 season – once notably having the staff take a day off during training camp and then often leaving the office by 6 p.m. to let assistant Dave Wannstedt run the meetings. Johnson was even day-trading at times while at work.
“When it didn’t happen as fast as Jimmy thought it was going to happen, I think he lost interest,” said former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman.
That problem is accentuated by the fact that the coach now becomes the centerpiece of the organization in many cases. Rather than being a cog in the process and taking players who are drafted, the coach becomes the solution to everything.
“It’s the old notion that players play and coaches coach,” Polian said. “There’s a balance between the two jobs and you have to have good people in both areas. If you make one of them bigger, it wipes out the balance.”
And ultimately, it wipes out any chance for success.
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