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Don Shula’s best years came during the NFL’s greatest era

SB Nation logo SB Nation 5/5/2020 Anthony Defeo
Don Shula et al. standing in front of a crowd

I don’t expect very many people to read this. Let’s face, it’s not exactly about the Steelers, their backup quarterback situation or anything that happened less than five minutes ago.

That’s fair. After all, I’m guessing the 1940s—and the influential people and events of that decade—weren’t too important to those living in the 1970s.

But I feel as if it’s important to talk about. What? Not what, really, but who. I’m referring to Don Shula, the legendary head coach who passed away on Monday at the age of 90.

Shula coached two teams over a 33-year period—the Colts and Dolphins—and when he finally retired after the 1995 season, he was the winningest head coach in the history of the NFL, with a regular season record of 328-156-6. Of course, he wouldn’t have been able to compile such a regular season record without having enormous success in the postseason—including back-to-back Super Bowl championships following the 1972 and 1973 regular seasons as the Dolphins head coach, as well as an NFL championship in 1968 as Baltimore’s main man on the sidelines.

That’s right, the Colts were actually the NFL Champions in 1968, an accomplishment that was considered way more prestigious in those days than that trophy awarded to the winner of the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.

The prestige of that event would forever change two weeks after Baltimore destroyed the Browns, 34-0, when the underdog Jets knocked off Shula’s heavily-favored Colts team, 16-7, in a world championship game now being called the Super Bowl—Super Bowl III, to be precise.

As I said, Shula went on to even greater success in the 1970s—and got that Super Bowl monkey off of his back—by leading Miami to two-straight Super Bowl titles in the early-’70s—including a 17-0 perfect season in 1972. Shula was the only coach to pull off such a feat in the modern era. He was also the last. That was 48 years ago. Many coaches have aimed for perfection since 1972, but they’ve all failed. Not only did Shula succeed, he went for it. He demanded his players get it. He kept them focused for all 14 regular season games and three postseason match-ups. That 17-0 season was considered Shula’s greatest accomplishment. That’s the thing people usually bring up first when mentioning his legacy.

Do they ever talk about him as the greatest head coach of all time? Not all that often. But that’s okay, because they don’t usually say that about Chuck Noll or Tom Landry, either.

If you ask most people who the greatest head coach of all-time is, it’s either Vince Lombardi or Bill Belichick. Fair enough. Lombardi’s Packers dominated the 1960s by winning five NFL Championships and the first two Super Bowls. Heck, the Super Bowl trophy is named The Lombardi Trophy. As for Belichick, he actually owns the most Lombardi trophies, thanks to leading the Patriots to six Super Bowl titles between 2001-2018.

It’s hard to argue with those legacies. It’s hard to vote against either in any poll.

But it’s easier to be remembered when you dominated an era.

It’s much harder when the era you coached in was golden.

The bulk of Shula’s coaching career took place during the golden era of professional football. In addition to that perfect season and those back-to-back titles, did you know Shula was the first head coach to lead his team to three-straight Super Bowls? The Cowboys beat up on the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI, following the 1971 season.

That early-’70s success may be easy to forget, due to the Steelers dynasty that included four Super Bowl titles in six years between 1974-1979.

Miami may have actually been the first and only team to win three-straight Super Bowls. Unfortunately, John Madden, Ken Stabler and the Sea of Hands 1974 divisional playoff loss to the Raiders got in the way. As for those legendary Oakland teams of the ‘70s? The Steelers prevented them from building their Silver and Black dynasty until the ‘80s.

What about those Dallas teams of the late-’60s through the early-80s? Their collection of talent was so impressive, they could have easily been the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL. Unfortunately for them, the Packers, Colts, Steelers, Vikings, Rams and 49ers had a little something to say about that.

Noll was actually the standard-bearer for Super Bowl success for many years, until Belichick finally tied him with four in 2014.

I’m not sure if people actually realized that. I do know there was never a call to change the name of the Super Bowl trophy to The Noll Trophy.

Why? Like Shula, Landry and even 49ers coach Bill Walsh, Noll’s era was the golden one.

Perhaps Shula would have won a few more titles in the 1980s, if not for Joe Gibbs, John Riggins, Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Walsh, the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers.

It’s hard for anyone to be remembered as the best when their competition for that title is just as worthy of the honor.

That’s the kind of competition Shula went up against during his career, and the fact that he emerged as the winningest head coach of all time says a lot.

Was Don Shula the greatest head coach of all time? Impossible to say, but he was at his best during the greatest era in NFL history.

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