Guest columnist: Ranking the coaches most worthy of Canton consideration
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Each weekend this offseason a guest columnist weighs in with thoughts on the NFL – past, present or future. Today it’s historian Ken Crippen, president of the Pro Football Researchers Association, who evaluates the best and brightest coaches – including assistants – worthy of Hall-of-Fame consideration).
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is undecided what it should do with future senior, contributor and coaching candidates, though some persons believe it could split them evenly (one senior, one contributor and one coach) for the next five years.
I disagree with that tactic.
There are far too many qualified seniors and far too few Hall-of-Fame worthy contributor and coaching candidates to do that for an extended period of time. Personally, I would have two seniors every year going forward.
As far as coaches and contributors, I suggest alternate years -- with one candidate a year switching between contributors and coaches (a new category) … and only for a short period of time. There simply aren’t enough candidates to make this permanent.
For 2021, I personally would like to see Lavvie Dilweg and Al Wistert (finalists for the Centennial class) put up as nominees. For a contributor, I would put forth former NFL director of officiating Art McNally. As for the coaches, there are a few choices that I think should be considered. But I believe that if you create a separate coaches’ category, you should include assistant coaches.
And so I will
Here, then, are some of the head-coach-and-assistant-coaching candidates that should be considered. I will list them in alphabetical order so as to not offend anyone … yet. That comes later when I rank the candidates.
With his recent passing, Bugel’s career has been re-examined by the media. However, within coaching circles, his accomplishments are well known. As offensive coordinator, offensive-line coach and assistant head coach with Washington, he helped the team win two Super Bowls in three appearances and elevated its offensive line -- “The Hogs” -- to a household name.
Other than his two stints in Washington (1981-89 and 2004-09), he also spent time with the Detroit Lions (1975-76), Houston Oilers (1977-80), Phoenix Cardinals (1990-93), Oakland Raiders (1995-97) and San Diego Chargers (1998-2001).
In 2002, he was named as one of the 80 Greatest Redskins of all time. In 2018, he was honored by the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) with the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award for lifetime achievement as an assistant coach.
Inventor of the high-flying “Air Coryell” passing attack, he put his passing offense on top of the league for six straight seasons. As a head coach, he won five division titles and made the playoffs six times. In 1974, the PFWA awarded him the NFC Coach of the Year. He won it again in 1979, but this time for AFC Coach of the Year.
He was head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1973-77 and head coach of the San Diego Chargers from 1978-1986. Over that time, he amassed a 111-83-1 record, not including playoffs.
His head-coaching tree includes the likes of Hall-of-Famer Joe Gibbs, as well as Gunther Cunningham, Jim Mora and Jack Pardee.
Crennel has coached in the NFL in various capacities for 37 years. From special teams coach to defensive-line coach to defensive coordinator to head coach, Crennel left his mark on the league. As an assistant coach, he helped his team to five Super Bowl championships.
With stints under several coaches, including Hall-of-Famer Bill Parcells and future Hall-of-Famer Bill Belichick, Crennel was with the New York Giants from 1981-92, the New England Patriots from 1993-96 and again from 2001-04, the New York Jets from 1997-99, the Kansas City Chiefs from 2010-12 and the Houston Texans from 2014-present. As a head coach, Crennel was with the Cleveland Browns from 2005-08.
In 2003, he was named Assistant Coach of the Year by the PFWA. He was honored by the same organization this year with the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman award for lifetime achievement as an assistant coach.
Flores has several “firsts” in his career. He was the first Hispanic starting quarterback in pro football. He was the first Hispanic head coach in NFL history. He was the first minority head coach in the NFL to win a Super Bowl. He was the first head coach to take a wildcard team to a Super Bowl victory (Super Bowl XV). And he and Mike Ditka are the only persons to win Super Bowls as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
Ditka is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Flores won two Super Bowls as a head coach, one as an assistant coach, and one as a player. He had an 8-3 record in the playoffs as a head coach. He was also named AFC Coach of the Year by the PFWA in 1982.
Jim Johnson was a master defensive coordinator known for concealing his blitzing strategies and punishing opposing offenses.
“He changed the game from a defensive mindset and what defenses could do,” said quarterback Peyton Manning, a Hall-of-Fame candidate in 2021.
Johnson’s defenses ranked first in sacks, second in third-down efficiency, second in red-zone percentage and fourth in fewest points allowed from the years 2000-07 when the Philadelphia Eagles went to four straight conference championship games (2001-2004).
In 2001, his defense did not allow more than 21 points in any contest until a 29-24 loss to the St. Louis Rams in the NFC championship game.
Johnson was defensive coordinator for the Oklahoma Outlaws in 1984 and the Jacksonville Bulls in 1985. Both teams were in the United States Football League (we’re talking about the Pro Football Hall of Fame, not the NFL Hall of Fame). Johnson was an assistant coach with the St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals from 1986-93, the Indianapolis Colts from 1994-97, the Seattle Seahawks in 1998 and the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2008.
In 2016, he was honored by the PFWA with the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman award for lifetime achievement as an assistant coach. He was inducted into the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame in 2011.
In his 37 years in the NFL, Phillips’ defenses ranked in the Top 10 in yardage 19 times, Top 10 in points 12 times, Top 10 in takeaways 12 times, Top 10 in rushing yards 15 times and Top 10 in passing yards 14 times.
Phillips spent time as an assistant or head coach with the following teams: Houston Oilers (1976-80), New Orleans Saints (1981-85), Philadelphia Eagles (1986-88), Denver Broncos (1989-94 and 2015-16), Buffalo Bills (1995-2000), Atlanta Falcons (2002-03), San Diego Chargers (2004-06), Dallas Cowboys (2007-10), Houston Texans (2011-13) and Los Angeles Rams (2017-19).
Phillips is the only two-time winner of the PFWA’s Assistant Coach of the Year award (2011 and 2015). In 2016, he was honored by the PFWA with the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman award for lifetime achievement as an assistant coach.
An innovator on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, Shaughnessy left his mark on pro football. With the three-receiver set, the 5-3-3 defense and his use of unique defensive coverages and blitz schemes, Shaughnessy had a Top Five defense in yards five times and Top Five defense in points four times in his 12 years with the Chicago Bears.
Shaughnessy was head coach of the Los Angeles Rams from 1948-1949 and defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears from 1951-1962.
OTHERS TO BE CONSIDERED (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER):
Bud Carson (I had a tough time between Carson and Wade Phillips for my top spots), Gunther Cunningham and Buddy Parker.
Of the coaches mentioned, my top five would be (in order):
1. Tom Flores – When you look at his winning percentage, his playoff record and his Super Bowl victories, Flores stands alone. He, George Seifert, Mike Shanahan and Tom Coughlin are head coaches who won two Super Bowls and are not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When you look at the totality of his pro football career (player, assistant coach and head coach), there is no question that Flores belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2. Clark Shaughnessy – His innovative offensive and defensive techniques helped propel his teams to success. However, a lot of that success can be linked to his role as advisor to a team instead of coach of the team. That makes this one tricky. Is he a more suited for a contributor candidate or a coaching candidate? I decided to put him in as a coach. Even if he contributed as an advisor to a team and not in an official coaching capacity, he is influencing schemes. Regardless, he belongs in Canton.
3. Don Coryell – While an innovator in the league, his lack of playoff success pushes him a little farther down the list in the eyes of selectors. It’s the same reason that hurts Marty Schottenheimer’s Hall-of-Fame chances, although it hurts Schottenheimer more because of expectations for his teams in the playoffs. However, I disagree with limiting Coryell’s and Schottenheimer’s chances due to their playoff records. Coryell belongs in the Hall of Fame for his overall accomplishments.
4. Jim Johnson – He was an innovator with his defensive schemes and truly made it difficult for opposing offenses. To me, he is the first assistant coach that should be inducted (unless you count Dick LeBeau).
5. Wade Phillips – Behind Johnson, Phillips should be considered for his assistant coaching prowess. His head-coaching record in the playoffs is going to work against him with selectors, but he did experience success during the regular season. However, his accomplishments as an assistant coach should be what gets him into Canton.
Honorable Mention: Joe Bugel – His success as an offensive-line coach cannot be questioned. He needs to be honored for his accomplishments in propelling his offenses to success.
Coaches have always been put behind players when it comes to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is time the selectors took a hard look at head coaches and assistant coaches that deserve to be immortalized in Canton.
Ken Crippen is the president of the Professional Football Researchers Association, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to preserving and promoting this history of professional football.