All in all, it has been a Lousy year for gods in the NFL. Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry, who has been to five Super Bowls, and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who has been to four, both are an unheavenly 2-8. Worse, nobody is fainting from shock. Landry has lost 22 of his last 30 nonstrike games, and Noll is only .500 (65-65) since his last trip to the Big Bowl, in January 1980. It looks as if he'll miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, and Landry, for the third. Another Hall of Fame name, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, is 5-5 and seemingly headed for a third consecutive non-playoff finish.
What's the world coming to when 64% of those responding to a recent Dallas Times Herald poll want Landry's hat on a plate, and the guy in New Orleans is being made a saint by the folks on Bourbon Street? Or when Dolphin fans are grumbling about a Shula defense that has finished 26th, 26th and 23rd the past three years and are saying, "Why can't our team be more like Buffalo's?" Or when Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback of Noll's finest teams, says, "Someone is not doing a very good job, and that someone is Chuck Noll," and down the river Cincinnati's Sam Wyche is suddenly looking like a genius.
Shula, Landry and Noll rank 1, 2, 3, respectively, in career wins among active NFL coaches. They are 2, 3 and 5 in victories among NFL coaches dead or alive. They've been to 14 Super Bowls and won eight. Landry, 64, the only coach Dallas has ever had, is in his 29th season with the Cowboys. Noll, 56, is in his 20th with the Steelers. Shula, 58, is in his 19th with the Dolphins, after having coached the Baltimore Colts for seven. All three were winning NFL games before Mike Shanahan, the Los Angeles Raider coach, got his learner's permit. One hundred ninety-seven NFL head coaches have come and gone since Landry was hired. Maybe the story isn't how these guys finally let things slip, but how in creation they kept it together so long.
Fans in Texas really got to whispering after Dallas blew a 20-point lead against the Philadelphia Eagles three weeks ago. With two minutes left and the Cowboys ahead by six, Dallas faced third-and-two on what Landry thought was the Philly 30. So he called a pass to get his team within field goal range. But on the play, quarterback Steve Pelluer was called for intentional grounding, which put Dallas out of field goal range. In fact, the Cowboys had been on the 23, and a simple dive would have set up the boot. After Dallas punted, the Eagles went 85 yards to get the win. Ugh.
November 14, 1988
Is Landry ready for a rocker? He has always butchered names—Gary Hogenbloom, for one—and he continues to call the Los Angeles Raiders the Oakland Raiders. "Ah," says Cowboy general manager Tex Schramm. "I remember, even at the height of his success, he'd look around on the sideline and yell for a player who had been gone for three years." But at least he used to know where the line of scrimmage was.
Landry is still in great condition—he rides an exercise bike 20 minutes a day and lifts weights every other day—and he still works long hours, taking game films home and watching them until midnight and then rising at six. "I work 65 hours a week," his secretary, Barbara Goodman, told The Dallas Morning News, "and I barely keep up with him."
No, what Landry-lynchers should gripe about isn't that he lost track of the line of scrimmage, but that his defense allowed the Eagles to march 85 yards in two minutes. And that this season's 2-8 start is the Cowboys' worst since 1960, their first year. And that Herschel Walker seems to be one name Landry completely forgets when Dallas gets near the goal line. Walker has only one rushing touchdown this year, while Pelluer has thrown four goal-line or end-zone interceptions.
In Pittsburgh, they're calling the Steelers the Torn Curtain, and Noll, who refused to be interviewed for this article, is getting ripped. Even his own quarterback, Bubby Brister, lit him up two weeks ago during a Q-and-A session at a banquet. Brister said the Steeler offense was so predictable that "we may as well punt on first down and get it over with." He questioned Noll's refusal to use the shotgun and then threw in: "Anybody who can rush the passer, call the stadium—we need help quick."
Brister now says he was just trying for laughs, but the truth was there for anyone to see: Pittsburgh stinks. In a 34-14 drubbing at home by the Houston Oilers on Oct. 16, the Steelers had two punts blocked (their 1988 total now stands at five) and jumped offside seven times, three of them in a row. In 10 games this year Pittsburgh has rushed for more than 100 yards only five times.
As for Shula, the road isn't so rough right now, but the next patch of highway looks precarious. The Dolphins have won only two of their last 13 games against AFC East rivals and are 0-4 against them this season—and they have four intradivision games in a row coming up. While neither Landry nor Noll has a star quarterback, Shula is blessed with maybe the best, Dan Marino, but the Dolphins' defense is so bad that Marino continues to write masterpieces in invisible ink. Against the New York Jets three weeks ago, he threw for 521 yards—the second-highest total in league history—and lost.
Of course, to all of this the legends say, So what? "It means the NFL draft system works," says Landry. "The timing is about right for all three of us—all of us are a little short on personnel." Shula echoes Landry: "This happens to every franchise. It shows the system works." In other words, Pete's Parity doesn't know from legends. Landry and Shula have a point. Buffalo, New Orleans and Cincinnati were all gutter-dwellers, and now they're riding high.
While the legends may believe they're victims of an inevitable down cycle, their critics cite other factors. One trouble with being a legend is that nobody will say no to you. Before the 1986 season Schramm hired Paul Hackett, one of the NFL's bright young offensive thinkers, away from the San Francisco 49ers, but Landry pays less and less attention to Hackett. The first year, he spoke to Hackett during games via headphones. The next year by telephone. This year seldom if at all.
Shula has taken heat for naming his 29-year-old son, David, assistant head coach. Former Miami offensive tackle Greg Koch, who's now with the Minnesota Vikings, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that Dolphin players resented the young Shula's rank and that "he should understand he wouldn't be where he is if it weren't for who he is." Such statements outrage Don. "I think all that is very unfair," he says. "David helped us get to two Super Bowls."
Another criticism leveled at the legends is that the game has passed them by. Noll, for instance, was the last head coach in the NFL to name a special-teams coach. Until two years ago he was Pittsburgh's special-teams coach. And while the rest of the league is into using human moving vans for offensive linemen, Noll still relies on quick, small men in his famous, sophisticated trap-blocking scheme. Problem is, sophisticated traps worked on those unsophisticated defenses of the 1970s but haven't been so hot since.
"We can all outgrow our usefulness," says former Steeler defensive end Dwight White. "It's possible to get caught up in a time warp. If you're trying to do the same thing you used to do and you don't have the same personnel, maybe you're missing the boat."
Landry finally came around to wall, or area, blocking two years ago, when Walker arrived—"We just haven't perfected it yet," Landry says—but he's still married to the same motion offense he installed in 1961. What's more, he hasn't backed off much from his fossilized flex defense. "Why should I?" he says. "It's one of our best defenses."
The legends' admirers don't buy the game-has-passed-them-by theory. "The game hasn't passed anybody by," former Steeler linebacker Jack Ham told The Pittsburgh Press. "I look at the Redskins in the Super Bowl, and they must have run 'Countergap' 42 times.... It's talent. You have more talent, you're going to win more games."
Schramm: "We don't have Staubach. We don't have Meredith. Neither does Noll. It's pretty damn simple. People like these coaches don't suddenly lose their capabilities."
Let's say the legends can still coach, they just don't have the talent. But take a look: What the Steelers, Cowboys and Dolphins don't have that such winning franchises as the Saints, the Bills, the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants do is a general manager who has a free hand to decide which players the team signs. "It's simple," says Washington coach Joe Gibbs of his relationship with general manager Bobby Beathard. "Bobby decides who comes to training camp. I decide who leaves training camp."
Acquiring players has become too complicated and too demanding for someone to do as well as to coach, yet each of the three legends maintains final say over personnel decisions. Since 1974, Noll has drafted only three players who've made the Pro Bowl. He has never traded up in a draft. He didn't take a single player from the USFL and rarely signs men off the waiver wire.
Of the 18 players Landry has drafted in the first three rounds since 1983, only four are starters. Shula's No. 1 draft choices of late have been particularly sour. Among them are such nonstars as linebacker Jackie Shipp ('84), running back Lorenzo Hampton ('85) and defensive end Eric Kumerow ('88). To be fair, John Offerdahl, a second-rounder in '86, and Troy Stradford, fourth-rounder in '87, became AFC Rookies of the Year.
Nonetheless, if Shula had had an autonomous general manager, would he have traded the rights to Anthony Carter for linebacker Robin Sendlein, who's now organizing youth athletic programs for the city of Las Vegas? Would he have traded up in the 1987 draft to get wideout Scott Schwedes, who has yet to catch his first NFL pass? Would he have drafted 227-pound linebacker Jay Brophy—who lasted two seasons before being released—in the second round in 1984?
Giving a general manager power means giving up control, and Noll, Shula and Landry are nothing if not control coaches. Landry, for instance, is his own offensive coordinator. The legends like to control their players' heads as well. 'The media cover everything today, no matter how minute," says Koch. "Players don't like to be embarrassed in public. The drill-sergeant type is on the way out."
Noll's heavy hand, according to Bradshaw, has caused an 18-year rift between them. The perception was that Nell nurtured Bradshaw through the rough early years in Pittsburgh. "Bull," says Bradshaw. "He didn't nurture me through anything. He virtually destroyed me. For five years he played with me like a yo-yo. I was a country boy, and he didn't like it. I didn't study like Johnny Unitas. I was silly and I was immature, I know that. He humiliated me in public. I hated everything about Chuck Noll in my early years."
The two came to suffer one another during the Steelers' glory years, but when Bradshaw's elbow was hurting near the end of his career, Noll announced, "Maybe it's time Mr. Bradshaw got on with his life's work." To this day, that remark galls Bradshaw. "I thought, Why am I being treated like this?" he says. "All I wanted at the end was a kind word. I won't let him forget it. I didn't want to go out with this [imitating Noll's voice], 'Maybe it's time Mr. Bradshaw got on with his life's work.' Well, Mr. Noll, maybe now it's time you get on with yours."
Raider owner Al Davis might agree with Bradshaw. Davis thinks no coach should stay on for more than 10 years because they wear out. History concurs. Since 1932, when the NFL first held a postseason championship game, George Halas won four NFL titles in his first 11 seasons at the helm of the Chicago Bears but only one in his last 19. Curly Lam-beau of the Packers, Chicago Cardinals and Redskins won two in his first eight years but only one in his final 14. Steve Owen of the Giants won two in his first seven years but none in his last 15. The coach of the NFL champion has been, on average, in his eighth year. The average age of the winning Super Bowl coach has been 47.3.
Is it a young man's game? Dick Vermeil of the Eagles burned out at 40, John Madden of the Raiders at 42 with an ulcer. Landry has rebuilt the Cowboys before, but he has never tried it at 64. "It takes a lot of youth to rebuild." says Bradshaw. Only one coach in league history has won a championship after having served 12 consecutive seasons with one team—Landry in his 18th.
Nobody is saying Landry and Noll will be fired soon—though if Bum Bright succeeds in selling the Cowboys, a new owner might have his own ideas as to who should coach the team—and Shula is certainly secure in his job. And don't count on any of them quitting. "You work seven days in a row, sleep at the office three nights a week, work 27 weekends in a row." says Bud Grant, one of the rare coaches to walk away while still on top. "You don't see anybody, hardly read anything. You put some gas in your car, maybe get your hair cut, but that's about it. It's all you know. So guys want to coach as long as they can."
Says Bradshaw, "When you're a player and can't win anymore, they let you go—right then and there. But legendary coaches stay on forever. Everyone says to Noll, 'You're the best thing that's ever happened to Pittsburgh.' But for three of the last five years he's had a losing record. Someone had better get it in gear."
O.K., say you do get the legends to hang up their golden whistles. What then? Who then? Said Cowboy defensive back Everson Walls recently, "From all these people who want to fire Landry, I want to know one thing: Who's going to replace him? It's like replacing Vince Lombardi. I guarantee you that 10 years from now everybody will be saying, 'Yeah, but this guy is no Tom Landry.' "