Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – Talent Evaluators

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Emperor vs. the Genius, introduced this series of posts that compares Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh. Part I, Noll vs. Walsh – By the Numbers, looked at the two men’s records. This section analyses how the two men stack up as talent evaluators.

On the surface this might seem like an easy win for Noll.

After all, Noll had the final word in the draft room, and nine of his players have been enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. In fact Donnie Shell and L.C. Greenwood should but don’t get serious consideration simply because many voters feel there are “too many Steelers,” in Canton.

Bill Walsh has five players to date, counting Jerry Rice.

Six of Noll’s players landed on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team, whereas Walsh is represented by three.

Had Noll retired in 1980, this post would simply declare him the winner end here. Alas, it is not so simple.

Noll of course knew how to evaluate talent, the man picked a Hall of Famer in each of his first four drafts, and one of his Super Bowl teams was comprised of players that had never played for another team.

Chinks in the Emperor’s Armor

But analysis of Noll’s record also reveals some serious flaws.

When Noll joined the Steelers, the NFL draft was held almost immediately after the Super Bowl (in fact, as Dan Rooney recounts, Noll selected Joe Greene two days after taking the job in 1969.)

In his 1993 book Dawn of a New Steel Age, Ed Bouchette explains that the Steelers circumvented this short time-frame by having Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley do the scouting and assembling the draft boards with Noll making the picks based on their conclusions.

In 1977, the NFL moved the draft from January to March/April, to give teams more time to prepare. While extra time might have seemed like a blessing for the Steelers, it ultimately gave Noll the opportunity to micro-manage the scouting process.

As Art Rooney, Jr. explains in Ruadnaid, Noll insisted on involving his assistants more deeply in the scouting process, and some of those assistant coaches were not up to the job.

The Steelers drafting took a nose dive as a result. Pittsburgh closed the 70’s taking first round picks such as Ron Johnson and Greg Hawthorne and began the 80’s with picks like Mark Malone, Keith Gray, and Walter Abercrombie.

At first blush, it might appear that the Steelers simply suffered from picking late. But picks like Darryl Sims and John Reinstra show that better draft position did not lead to improved results.

Bill Walsh, Master Talent Evaluator

Bill Walsh, like Chuck Noll, had to build his team from the ground up. And the record shows that he did it faster than Noll, winning a Super Bowl in his third season. It’s also a huge credit Bill Walsh that he continued stocking his teams with Pro Bowl quality talent, despite high draft picks, placing no less that 44 Pro Bowl appearances by his players during his tenure.

One might reasonably argue that just as Shell and Greenwood Hall of Fame prospects suffer from the “too many Steelers syndrome,” perhaps some of the 49’s of the 80’s are unjustly discarded as being “products of the system.”

Picking Assistant Coaches

Any analysis of talent evaluation skills must also consider coaching choices.

Noll stocked his early staffs with top-caliber coaches, like Bud Carson, George Perles, Woody Widenhofer, Dan Radakovich, Tom Moore and Dick Hoak. Of the entire group, only Carson became an NFL head coach, compiling an 11-13-1 mark in Cleveland between 1989 and 1990.

When these men left Pittsburgh for other opportunities, Noll rarely selected replacements of equal mettle.

Dawn of a New Steel Age is again instructive, where Ed Bouchette contrasts Noll’s approach to evaluating players and assistant coaches. Noll he explained, obsessed over a potential draft pick, always seeking additional data, but his method of selecting assistant coaches was almost haphazard in comparison.

The extent and the depth of “the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree” is often exaggerated, but Walsh clearly knew how to pick lieutenants.

Not only did Walsh disciples spread forth and multiply through the NFL coaching ranks, many succeeded in making names for themselves. To take an extremely conservative sample, three Walsh protégées, George Siefret, Dennis Green, and Mike Holmgren, passed the elusive 100 win mark, made 5 Super Bowl appearances, and hold 3 Super Bowl Rings.

When all is said and done, both Noll and Walsh had a keen eye for talent, but Walsh’s was perhaps a little sharper.

Edge: Walsh.

Click here to read Part IV of the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh Series, click here to return to the main article.

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