AFC South: Chuck Noll

ESPN.com’s large-scale “Greatest Coaches in NFL History” project includes a rating of the top 20 coaches of all-time.

And No. 20 made his biggest mark with the Indianapolis Colts: Tony Dungy.

He did excellent work with the Colts, culminating in the team’s Super Bowl XLI title won on Feb. 4, 2007.

I admire Dungy a great deal, and remember one conversation I had with him about his coaching style. As calm and measured as he was, I wondered if a periodic explosion could ever have a super-sized effect on his team.

He said no. He played for Chuck Noll as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he always appreciated that Noll wasn’t a yeller. Dungy loved the calm explanations he got about mistakes he made and things he may have done wrong. And he strived to offer the same sort of coaching to his players -- every time.

I was also struck by a section about Dungy in a book I read in the last year: “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

He detailed how Dungy thought he could prompt change with the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he became their head coach in 1996.

Before that, Dungy explained his intended approach four times to owners looking for a head coach. Four times owners passed.

Wrote Duhigg:
Part of the problem was Dungy’s coaching philosophy. In his job interviews, he would patiently explain his belief that the key to winning was changing players habits. He wanted to get players to stop making so many decisions during a game, he said. He wanted them to react automatically, habitually. If he could instill the right habits, his team would win. Period.

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy would explain. “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

How, the owners would ask, are you going to create those new habits?

Oh no, he wasn’t going to create new habits, Dungy would answer. Players spent their lives building the habits that got them to the NFL. No athlete is going to abandon those patterns simply because some new coach says to.

So rather than creating new habits, Dungy was going to change players’ old ones. And the secret to changing old habits was using what was already insider players’ heads. Habits are a three-step loop -- the cure, the routine, and the reward -- but Dungy only wanted to attack the middle step, the routine. He knew from experience that it was easier to convince someone to adopt a new behavior if there was something familiar at the beginning and the end.

It took some time for Dungy to break through to the Bucs. He got one big indication things were starting to turn late in that first season.

In a 25-17 win over San Diego, Dungy saw some altered habits key an upset. Pass pressure for Regan Upshaw prompted Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries to force a pass to a rookie tight end, Brian Roche. Tampa Bay safety John Lynch had moved to his spot and was waiting for his cue. Lynch avoided the temptation to improvise, stayed patient and was ready to pounce on Humphries forced throw. The interception return positioned the Bucs for a touchdown that turned the game.

Dungy and Lynch walked off the field together after the game. Lynch told Dungy something was different.

“We’re starting to believe,” Dungy told him.

Coaches hoping to get a head job in the NFL would be wise to read Duhigg’s book and study and emulate Dungy’s philosophy of habit change.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The Colts had Jim Caldwell in place ahead of time and expect a seamless transition into the post-Tony Dungy era.

It looks like a sound plan.

 
  AP Photo/Michael Conroy
  Jim Caldwell has big shoes to fill in Indianapolis, but many in his position have been successful before.

But popular wisdom says you don't want to be the guy to replace the guy. It's the replacement's replacement, the theory follows, who gains the distance necessary from a legendary name to be able to succeed.

For many, the thought of replacing a popular and successful coach brings back memories of some infamous NFL names.

Former Minnesota coach Les Steckel is still remembered for a 3-13 year in 1984 that wound up being a sabbatical season for Bud Grant. Ray Handley replaced Bill Parcells for the Giants in 1991 and went 14-18 in two seasons. Richie Petitbon replaced Joe Gibbs in 1993 and flamed out with a 4-12 season.

Are you familiar with Phil Bengtson or Paul Wiggin? Me neither.

Bengtson followed up Vince Lombardi in Green Bay and managed three third-place finishes. Wiggin was 11-24 in two-and-a-half seasons following Hank Stram in Kansas City.

But none of that is reason for Colts devotees to fear the dawn of the Caldwell era as he replaces a potential Hall of Famer who takes a .668 winning percentage with him into retirement.

Thanks to some help from Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information, we can take a detailed look at how the successors to the winningest coaches have fared.

While there were some strikeouts, the history is hardly a horror story. Two successors won multiple Super Bowls, two more were playoff regulars and another is leading his team into the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

So here's a run through how things have panned out after big-time winning coaches stepped away or were removed. These are the top 10 coaches with the best winning percentages in the Super Bowl era (minimum 100 games coached since the 1966 season):

 
  Andy Hayt/Getty Images
  Tom Flores did very well as John Madden's successor, winning two Super Bowls for the Silver-and-Black.

1) John Madden, .759 (Raiders)

Tom Flores replaced Madden in 1979 and Flores went 91-56 in nine seasons, leading the Raiders to wins in Super Bowl XV and XVII.

2) George Allen, .712 (Rams and Redskins)

Jack Pardee replaced Allen in Washington, and Pardee was 24-24 in three seasons (1978-80). Joe Gibbs replaced Pardee and won 140 games from 1981-92 and three Super Bowls.

3) Tom Landry, .674 (Cowboys)

Jimmy Johnson replaced Landry in 1989 and Johnson won back to back Super Bowls in the 1992 and 1993 seasons. Johnson was 51-37 from 1989-93. [Corrected from earlier when I gave him credit for the one Barry Switzer won in 1994.]

4) Don Shula, .672 (Colts and Dolphins)

Like Landry, Shula was replaced by Johnson. In four seasons (1996-99), Johnson was 38-31 and 2-3 in the postseason. Since Shula, Miami has had six different head coaches.

5) Tony Dungy, .668 (Buccaneers and Colts)

Replaced by Caldwell this week.

6) George Seifert, .648 (49ers and Panthers)

Seifert did some replacing himself, following Bil Walsh. Steve Mariucci replaced Seifert in San Francisco in 1997, and Mariucci got the Niners to the NFC Championship in his first season. In six seasons, Mariucci made the playoffs four times. Since Mariucci left, the 49ers have had three different head coaches.

7) Bill Cowher, .623 (Steelers)

Mike Tomlin replaced Cowher in 2007. In his second season, Tomlin is preparing the Steelers to host Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game.

8-T) Joe Gibbs, .621 (Redskins)

Petitbon was a dud.

8-T) Bud Grant, .621 (Vikings)

Returned for another season after Steckel bombed, then saw Jerry Burns go 55-46 from 1986-91.

10) Bill Belichick .616 (Browns and Patriots)

When he finishes his term in New England, he'll leave a tough headset to fill.

And here's one from outside the top 10: a succession scenario the Colts would be thrilled to mimic.

Bill Walsh, .609 (49ers) -- Replaced by Seifert in 1989, Seifert went on to win two Super Bowls in his first six seasons. He won at least 10 games in all eight of his seasons and only missed the playoffs once. Like Caldwell, Seifert inherited a pretty good quarterback situation, getting two years of Joe Montana and six with Steve Young.

 
  David Boss/US Presswire
  Blanton Collier replaced the legendary Paul Brown, and never had a losing season.

As I couldn't stop asking, here are the succession stories of some other Hall of Fame coaches:

  • Paul Brown -- Blanton Collier was in Cleveland from 1963-70, and didn't have a losing season, going 76-34-2.
  • Weeb Eubank -- Charley Winner took over the Jets in 1974 and went 9-14 and didn't last two seasons. He was let go after nine games in 1975.
  • George Halas -- Following the 1967 season in Chicago when Halas left the Bears' post for the final time, he was replaced by Jim Dooley, who was 16 games under .500 (20-36) from 1968-71.
  • Marv Levy -- Was replaced by Wade Phillips in 1998, and Phillips went 29-19 in three seasons, losing two playoff games.
  • Chuck Noll -- Bill Cowher took over in 1992 and went 149-90-1 in 15 seasons, reaching two Super Bowls and winning one.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Tony Dungy is a patient man who's been dealt with patiently.

So it is difficult for him to watch so much turnover in the ranks of his coaching brethren.

He was asked Wednesday about the news of four coaches fired since the regular season ended, and it brought him to a nice story about Mean Joe Greene.

"It's all about Super Bowls now," he said. "If you feel like you have a Super Bowl team and you don't go to the Super Bowl, then making changes seems like the way to go. Continuity says a lot and does a lot. Joe Greene told me a story when I first got with the Steelers. Joe had been there, came in 1969, they weren't winning, it was Coach [Chuck] Noll's first year, and they're making progress, winning a game or two more, but still not there. He's watching the Miamis and the Oaklands at that time. He went into Coach Noll's office and said he was finished and packed his car up, packed his stuff out of his locker and left. Lionel Taylor was an assistant coach and Lionel went and got him and talked him into coming back. Two weeks later they put Franco [Harris] in the lineup -- Franco was a rookie -- and the rest is history. Joe told me, 'I almost quit that close to something special.' Patience is hard. It's hard, and people can't always see that they are close, that they are making progress when you don't have the wins. The easiest thing to do is be impatient and change for change's sake, but it's not always the best."

Dungy went on to talk about how grateful he is for the continuity he's enjoyed in his career as a coach.

"I know coaches in this business that have moved a lot and been different places," he said. "We have moved, most of the time, by choice, and we've been able to stay places six or seven years. That's pretty unusual. I'm thankful for that all the time. I wish [the business] was different, but we kind of know that's the profession we have when you sign up for it. I got fired after three playoff years [in Tampa Bay], so it's not necessarily not having success. If you don't do what everybody thinks you should do, you have to make a change. Owners like Dan Rooney, guys who stay the course and understand that change for change's sake isn't always the way to go, are a dying breed. I'm thankful that I've worked for Dan and [Tampa Bay's] Malcolm Glazer and Jim Irsay. It has been a blessing."

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