Don Shula coached 33 seasons in the NFL. He had two losing teams.
That’s just one remarkable feat from Shula, whose 347 wins are a record for an NFL coach. Shula, the coach of the only perfect team in NFL history, died Monday. He was 90.
Picking one Shula accomplishment over another is hard, but it’s probably safe to start with his 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Don Shula guides perfect 1972 Dolphins
The Dolphins finished that season with a perfect record, the only undefeated and untied NFL champion in the league’s history. It took 35 more years before the second undefeated regular season in the Super Bowl era, when the 2007 New England Patriots did it.
The Dolphins had the first perfect season in NFL history despite needing backup quarterback Earl Morrall to start nine regular-season games and two playoff games after Hall of Fame starter Bob Griese broke his ankle. That the Dolphins kept winning with Griese sidelined is a testament to Shula’s steady leadership.
The next season, the Dolphins weren’t perfect but they were champions again. Miami went 12-2 and beat the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 in Super Bowl VIII.
Shula was a consistent winner
If there’s one criticism of Shula, it’s that he fell short more often than not in the Super Bowl.
Shula’s Baltimore Colts lost to the New York Jets in a monumental Super Bowl III upset. Shula’s Dolphins made it back to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1982 and 1984 seasons, but lost both times. Super Bowl VII and VIII were Shula’s only championships.
But Shula’s consistent winning defined him. He won 16 division titles and finished 172 games over .500 in regular-season play. He holds another NFL record with 19 playoff appearances as a head coach. His only losing seasons were a 6-8 mark in 1976 and a 6-10 mark in 1988. That’s an unbelievable stretch of consistency.
Shula also changed with the times. Shula’s great 1972 team passed just 259 times in 14 regular season games and had just 264 net passing yards in three playoff games as it relied on a great running game and a standout defense. When Shula went back to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1984 season, it was with second-year quarterback Dan Marino, who set records with 5,084 passing yards and 48 touchdowns that season.
Shula retired after 1995 season
After a blowout playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills, Shula was told to make sweeping changes to his coaching staff. He refused. That ended a legendary coaching career.
Shula’s old-school leadership was one reason he was so highly regarded long after he retired from coaching. He was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1993, the only pro coach to ever get that honor. His name was attached to a successful chain of steakhouses long after he coached his last NFL game.
Shula, who also played seven NFL seasons as a defensive back for the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
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