Do Defensive Coaches Win Super Bowls?

Jeff Zelevansky

Conventional wisdom says that "defense wins championships," but does that wisdom hold true for defensive coaches who become NFL head coaches?

Phil Emery is no slouch when it comes to the search process for a new head coach for the Bears. Still, it seems strange that his search has almost completely overlooked defensive coordinators and assistants. If the goal is to win championships, why not continue building towards a defensively-led Monster of the Midway? That approach was one win away from bringing home the Lombardi in 2006.

Emery can look at the data as well as anyone, however. Consider this chart listing the background of every Super Bowl-winning head coach. Let's start with a look at the early Super Bowl era. Here are the coaches who won the first fifteen Super Bowls and their respective coaching backgrounds:

Name Defense? Offense? Special Teams?
Lombardi x
Lombardi x
Ewbank x
Stram x x x
McCafferty x
Landry x
Shula x
Shula x
Noll x
Noll x
Madden x
Landry x
Noll x
Noll x
Flores x

After an opening run of dominance by offensive head coaches, the Championship game was dominated by defense - ten of the first fifteen Super Bowls were won by coaches with a background as a defensive position coach or coordinator.

Since that early era, however, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Consider the winning head coaches of the last seventeen Super Bowls:

Name
Defense?
Offense?
Special Teams?
Switzer

x

Holmgren

x

Shanahan

x

Shanahan

x

Vermeil

x
x
Billick
x

Belichick
x x
x
Gruden
x

Belichick
x x
x
Belichick
x x
x
Cowher
x
x
Dungy
x

Coughlin
x

Tomlin
x x
Payton
x
McCarthy
x
Coughlin
x

In these most recent Super Bowls, only two have been won by head coaches without experience as an offensive position coach or coordinator. I would give credit to one - Bill Cowher - for proving true the old saying about defense. The other defense-minded head coach to win a Super Bowl this century, Tony Dungy, won it all behind Payton Manning and only an assist by the defense.

It's true that many of these supposedly offense-minded head coaches - Brian Billick and John Gruden, among others - put together teams that were defensive powerhouses. With a knowledge of how to run an NFL offense, however, coaches like these were able to get enough out of their offenses to avoid having their Super Bowl hopes Grossman-ed away from them. In other words, while the defenses might have won the championships, the offenses were able to do enough to not lose them.

By focusing his search on offensive coaches, Phil Emery is primed to bring the Bears into the 21st century of the NFL. Defense still matters, but when it comes to the choice of a head coach, it's offense that wins Super Bowls.

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