Vince Lombardi is one of the greatest NFL coaches of all time. In the eyes of many, he is the indisputable best. After all, his name is engraved on the Super Bowl trophy for a reason.
But there’s a strong case for another head coach being the best. He even spent the same amount of years serving as head coach. Crucially, he turned around a team in even worse shape than the struggling Green Bay Packers Lombardi transformed into an NFL championship squad.
Who else could compete with the great Vince Lombardi? Of course, we’re talking about the offensive mastermind himself, Bill Walsh.
How Bill Walsh worked his way into his first head-coaching job
Walsh began his coaching career as a grad student, serving as an assistant coach with the San Jose State Spartans. He bounced between high school and college-level assignments for a few years until 1966. This was when he landed his first NFL job, with the Oakland Raiders.
As the Raiders’ running backs coach, Walsh developed a take on Sid Gillman’s “passing attack” offensive philosophy. He continued the passing attack style when he became head coach for the semi-professional San Jose Apaches in 1967.
The title looked nice but didn’t pay particularly well compared to the amount of time it ate up. Frustrated, Walsh considered leaving football entirely and becoming a lawyer. Thankfully, this didn’t happen.
A timely job offer brought Walsh to the Cincinnati Bengals as an assistant coach. This is where Walsh modified the passing attack approach, adding more reliance on short passes. This was the beginning of the offensive style that turned Walsh into one of the most sought-after offensive minds in the game.
The birth of the West Coast Offense
Walsh spent eight years as an assistant coach for the Bengals. His success leading the offense with his innovative style led to increasing clashes with head coach Paul Brown. Once Brown left the team, Walsh was snubbed by the front office for the head coaching position.
Rumors spread that Brown blackballed Walsh over the bad blood from their time together. In light of this, Walsh gave up on pushing for head coach and took whatever football jobs he could find.
He spent a year with the San Diego Chargers and found a college-level head coaching job with Stanford for two years. Then, finally, the job offer that would define his reputation arrived.
Bill Walsh: the 49ers years
When Walsh finally got the job he’d wanted, he wasn’t in the best position for success. In 1979, the San Francisco 49ers were a complete mess from top to bottom. The seemingly hopeless franchise had just wrapped a 2-14 trainwreck of a season, and they’d won just 31 of their previous 86 games.
But Walsh and the West Coast Offense presented a new process. By 1981, one of the worst NFL teams had turned into a Super Bowl championship team. They also won in 1984 and 1988. After that third and final win, an exhausted Walsh felt alienated from his family. So he decided to retire on top.
Over here in 2019, tweaks of Walsh’s offensive program are still used. It’s a stark contrast to the era-specific power sweep program pioneered by the great Vince Lombardi, which is obsolete at professional-level play.
NFL luminaries make the case for Walsh’s greatness
Walsh’s coaching style got results that easily place him in the all-time greatest conversation. His calm, measured attitude toward his players was an anomaly in the league. This likely obscured how stressed he often was as he tried to win at all costs.
NFL great Jerry Rice told ESPN how Walsh’s subtle signals were often enough to get the team in hustle mode. “I know they called him a genius for his play calling, but really it was the way he carried himself,” Rice said.
“If you stepped on that practice field and you didn’t practice well, then you could tell by his body language, ‘Hey, we better pick it up. If we don’t pick it up right now, we’re probably going to start practice all over again.'”
The greatest vote of confidence in Walsh’s talents comes from former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. When USA Today asked for his opinion on Walsh’s incredible career, DeBartolo immediately theorized how much more winning he could’ve done.
“[Walsh’s replacement] George Seifert was a good coach,” DeBartolo said. “But I’m not sure that team needed a coach. If Walsh had stayed, he could have won six or seven Super Bowls.”
Regardless, his legacy echoes through the modern game. This is why Walsh may just be the greatest NFL coach of all time.
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