NFL – Five Most Innovative Coaches of All Time

09 Aug

In an earlier football “list” post, I named my choices for the top 5 NFL head coaches of all time. This list is a bit different – my choices for the five most innovative head coaches of all time. Any of these could easily be included in the “top five” also, and would probably complete my top ten list. Here are the NFL’s five most innovative head coaches of all time, again, in no particular order:

1. Sid Gillman –  Gillman is considered the “Father of the Modern Passing Game”  as he first coached the high-scoring Los Angeles Rams teams in the 1950s, then expanded his legend as an offensive genius as head coach of the high-powered Los Angeles / San Diego Chargers in the American Football League. Gillman perfected the downfield passing game with the Chargers, and is mostly responsible for developing Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth. Gillman also was a pioneer of using film study to develop game plans, and came up with the AFL’s  innovation of putting players’ names on the backs of their jerseys.

2. Paul Brown – Brown is one of the biggest innovators of all time in the NFL, and is responsible for not only coaching but founding two different franchises – the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. He is credited with bringing many innovations to the game, including employing a year-round coaching staff, classroom training for players, creating playbooks, inventing the facemask and the draw play. The Browns started out in the old All America Football Conference in 1945, and when the AAFC merged with the established NFL in 1950, he led them to an upset win over the Eagles in the championship game in their first year in the league.

3. Tom Landry – Landry took over the expansion Dallas Cowboys in 1960 and built them into “America’s Team”, one of the best NFL organizations of all time. He coached the ‘Boys to 20 consecutive winning seasons, and as a defensive mastermind invented the 4-3 defensive alignment, utilizing a middle linebacker, which is commonly used today. His “flex” defense in Dallas was a variation of the 4-3 that gave players the freedom to flow to the ball, a tactic meant to counter Vince Lombardi’s “run to daylight” offensive philosophy. Landry also introduced the tactic of using “keys” to read what offenses were doing. Offensively, he popularized the use of shifts and motion to disguise plays, and brought the “shotgun” formation out of mothballs to help the quarterback read the defense on passing plays, another innovation widely used today. He was among the first coaches to employ strength and conditioning and quality control coaches.

4. Hank Stram – Stram, like Gillman, made his mark in the AFL, and introduced many innovations to the game, including using the I – formation and double tight end offenses, both of which are common in today’s game. He had a close relationship with University of Florida coach Ray Graves, and due to that association was the first pro coach to use Gatorade on the sidelines to keep his team hydrated. Stram was ahead of the rest of pro football in scouring the small black colleges for talent, in a time when unwritten “quotas” still existed on team rosters, and found gems such as Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell and Otis Taylor.

5. Bill Walsh – a disciple of both Gillman and Paul Brown, Walsh made his own mark on pro football as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, where he developed and perfected the “West Coast” offense that is popular in the game today. He was a perfectionist who believed in total organization, and popularized the “scripting” of the first 10-15 plays of a game, another innovation widely used today. Nicknamed “The Genius”, Walsh’s cerebral style of coaching wasn’t always popular with old school football people, but you can’t argue with the success he had.


Leave a Reply

  1. Louise

    August 9, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    All great coaches. Terrific blog.

  2. Bernardo Estain

    April 19, 2013 at 5:51 am

    I normally don’t comment on things like this; however I felt compelled to because your content was so unique and researched – Keep it coming!