Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Series

One of the downsides of Blogger software is that tagged articles appear in reverse order of publication, which can make for awkward reading for a chronological series.

Hence Steel Curtain Rising is publishing a header article to promote our Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh series, published in the spring and summer of 2008.

You can read all of the articles by scrolling down and then back up, or simply click on the links below, each of which has links bringing you back to this page and to the next article in the series.

Enjoy.

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh, Part I – The Emperor vs. the Genius

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh, Part II – By the Numbers

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh, Part III – Sizing Up Two Talent Evaluators

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh, Part IV – What Makes A Legacy?

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh, Part IV – Noll and Bill Walsh, Head to Head

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Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – Head to Head

[The final post an a series analyzing the legacies of Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh.]

The 49ers owned the 1980’s. The Steelers were slightly over .500 during the decade.

Critics argue that the Steelers struggles in the 80’s prove that Chuck Noll won in the 70’s “only because he had the players.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Talent deficiencies, not coaching deficiencies, lay at the root of the Steelers woes in the 80’s. If Noll is largely responsibility for that drop in talent, then he wins praise for his ability to coach that talent.

What other coach could win playoff games with the likes of Mark Malone and Bubby Brister?
Dynasty vs. Dynasty

Comparing dynasties from different eras is fun but futile. Think of Steelers of the 70’s vs. the 49er’s of the 80’s debate. The Pittsburgh Steelers were superior, but proving that is impossible.

Players from different eras have training methods and their relative athletic abilities vary too much. Many Steelers from the 70’s took off seson jobs just to make ends meet. In the 80’s, that was no longer necessary.

Fortunately, hypotheticals are unnecessary when it comes to evaluating pure coaching talent.

Both Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh coached during the 80’s. In fact, the two men squared off on opposing sidelines three times, and the results are revealing:

  • 1981 49er’s beat Steelers 17-14
  • 1984 Steelers beat 49ers 20-17
  • 1987 Steelers beat 49ers 30-17

Chuck Noll’s 1981 Steelers team still had loads of Super Bowl veterans. And if many of these men were past their primes, many others were still playing at a pretty high level. The 1981 squad was Walsh’s first Super Bowl team, so credit Bill Walsh’s coaching for that win.

Fair enough, but Chuck Noll deserves far more credit for the his victories in the next two meetings.

joe montana, 1984 49ers, steelers 49ers history, mark malone, chuck noll, bill walsh

Joe Montana dominated in the 1980’s, but he couldn’t beat Chuck Noll and Mark Malone; Photo Credit: Men’s Fitness

Joe Montana and Bill Walsh vs. Mark Malone and Chuck Noll

When the two teams played in 1984, only a handful of Super Bowl veterans remained. Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie manned the backfield. Greenwood, Holmes, Greene, and White had given way to the likes of Keith Willis, Keith Gray, and Edmund Nelson. David Little and Bryan Hinkle occupied spots once taken by Lambert and Ham. And of course, Mark Malone stood under center.

Despite a vastly inferior roster, Noll and the Steelers carried the day, handing the 15-1 Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49er’s their only loss.

A similar scene repeated itself on opening day 1987, when only Dwayne Woodruff, John Stalworth, and Mike Webster remained from the glory years. This was a 49ers team that not only had Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, but also Michael Carter, Roger Craig, and of course, Jerry Rice.

Malone was still the Steelers signal caller. In fact, he started all 12 non-strike games despite a 46.5 passer rating (no misprint, that’s forty six point five.)

Yet once again, the duo of Noll and Malone prevailed over the tandem of Walsh and Montana.

One Victory Might Equal “On Any Given Sunday,” but What About Two…?

The “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon might explain one victory, but winning two out of three? Indeed, the ballyhooed “West Coast Offense” never managed more than 17 points against in three tries against Chuck Noll’s defenses.

When it came facing off on opposing sidelines, the most important measure by far, Noll holds a small, but significant edge over Walsh.

So Who Was Better, Noll or Walsh?

When all is said and done, there’s a compelling case for Chuck Noll. He won more games and more championships. He also vanquished Walsh twice, and with Steeler teams that whose talent was far inferior to their 49er counterparts. There’s a reason why we call him the Emperor.

Ultimately, the answer comes down to what you decide.

But in the spirit of the blogsphere, I’ll close this series of posts with a question.

  • Chuck Noll and Mark Malone beat Bill Walsh and Joe Montana — twice.

Does anybody think Bill Walsh could have beaten Chuck Noll with Mark Malone as his quarterback?

* Bill Walsh himself responded to the question on the Sports Reporters once, conceding that Pittsburgh would win if 70’s rules were used, but the 49’ers would prevail if 80’s rules were used. He’s probably right.

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Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – What makes a Legacy?

An NFL coach’s success is defined by the answers to two questions: Does he win and does he win championships?

Great coaches answer both questions in the affirmative.

If that is the case, then how does a coach’s “legacy,” those contributions that go beyond simply winning, factor into the measure of his greatness?

This question is directly relevant to the Chuck Noll/Bill Walsh debate.

Both men not only won big, but they won multiple championships. But Bill Walsh’s name is always bandied about when the “greatest ever” discussions heat up, while few rarely bother to suggest Noll’s. This apparent contradiction is explained by Bill Walsh’s “legacy” and Chuck Noll’s perceived lack thereof.

What Constitutes a Coaching Legacy?

Some great coaches leave “legacies.” Men such as George Halas, Paul Brown, and Tom Landry were innovators and mentors to succeeding generations of coaches. Bill Walsh falls into this group.

Even the casual NFL fan knows that Bill Walsh is the father of the “West Coast Offense” and that he started the Bill Walsh coaching tree.

The West Coast Offense is “chink and dink” for true, Smash Mouth Football purists, but it has been used extensively and successful for almost three decades. The Bill Walsh coaching tree goes hand in hand with the West Coast Offense, as it has served as the foundation for the success of Walsh’s disciples.

Other genuinely great coaches left little in the way of a “legacy.” Consider:

  • Don Shula had the “No Name Defense” and employed what was simply know as “the system.” (His one alum of note was of course Chuck Noll). Shula won two Super Bowls, appeared in two more, and his the winningest coach in history.
  • A true legend in his own right, Vince Lombardi’s greatness was as much a function of his personality as it was anything else. He won two Super Bowls, and 3 NFL titles.
  • Joe Gibbs was a superb strategist and almost certainly the greatest coach of the modern era. He was so good at coaxing the most out of his players that he equaled Walsh’s Super Bowl total, with far less talent. Yet, despite Gibbs’ offensive genius, he left the game with nothing comparable to the “West Coast Offense.” Likewise, Gibbs pupils who’ve coached elsewhere have enjoyed nothing close to the success of Walsh’s.

Noll sits in good company with this second cadre of coaches. Noll was neither beholden to sexy schemes nor sought flashy innovations. He excelled by putting the right people in the right places, and having them execute. Likewise, he spawned little in the way coaching off spring, with the notable exception of Tony Dungy.

Perception and the Press (as it relates to Walsh and Noll)

The media’s influence on how we perceive coaching legacies is also critically important. As journalist/college professor Elliot King argues, a public figure’s personal relations with the press greatly impacts the tone of his or her media coverage. King’s argument comes from study of politics, but applies equally to sports.

In his book Double Yoi, Myron Cope recounts how Noll alienated much of the national NFL press corps at his first Super Bowl by “grudgingly [giving] short answers to the questions asked of him…. ‘Condescending’ was the adjective they hung on him. In their stories, they ripped him.”

Even after Noll’s hand was adorned with a few Super Bowl rings, the out of town press continued to mistakenly call him “Chuck Knox.” In fact, after Joe Gilliam’s death, even the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette failed to correct a story it published from a Dallas newspaper which had mistakenly refered to the coaching legend as “Chuck Knoll.”

Bill Walsh not only had excellent relations with the press, he became one of them, working on NBC’s top play-by-play team in his first few years of retirement. This long-standing relationship with the press has certainly served to amplify Walsh’s already tremendous achievements to the benefit of his image and the perception of his legacy.

Legacy vs. Legacy

Chuck Noll’s 209 total wins, 9 Hall of Famers, and four Super Bowls constitute his legacy. The lack of a legion of successful assistant coaches or a scheme tied to his name in no way diminish his accomplishments.

But Bill Walsh does have both of those things to add to his wins, Super Bowls and Hall of Famers. And rightly or wrongly, that fact is always going to be cited when his place among the coaching greats is discussed.

Edge: Bill Walsh.

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

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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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Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Emperor vs. the Genius

When Bill Walsh passed away in September 2007, he took hs rightful place alongside departed coaching legends like Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, and Tom Landry.

When commentators rushed to assess Walsh’s place among other coaching legends, his name was rarely matched against of Chuck Noll’s.

Why?

The stock response is, “…Sure, Noll was good… but you know, Walsh made a much deeper imprint on the game….”

Bill Walsh was great by any and all measures. His legacy, in terms of game plan design and coaching cadre, is on display every Sunday for all to see, and this will continue for a long, long time.

But what is the true relation between a “legacy,” and sheer coaching greatness? To what extent can you differentiate the two? How do you separate a man’s impact on the game from his on-the field coaching ability?

These are difficult questions to answer, but if you peel away aura that accompanies “the Bill Walsh coaching tree” and the proliferation of “the West Coast Offense,” Walsh retains his greatness, but becomes much more of a mortal.

The Conventional Wisdom both inside and outside of Steelers Nation will probably always rank Walsh higher than Noll. But Steel Curtain Rising revels in challenging the conventional wisdom, and we argue that when measured as a mortal, the lofty perch the Walsh occupies doesn’t necessarily overlook Chuck Noll.

What follows is a series of posts that compare The Emperor who led the team of the ‘70’s, to “the Genius” who led the team of the 80’s. Noll vs. Walsh — By the Numbers quantifies the competition. Noll vs. Walsh – Talent Evaluation examines the mens’ respective abilities as talent evaluators. Noll vs. Walsh – What Makes a Legacy? traces the impact both men had on the sport beyond the actual games that they were involved in.

Finally, we wrap it up with Noll vs. Walsh — Head to Head. Enjoy. “By the numbers” follows immedately below, with the others scattered out throughout the blog. Enjoy, and feel free to jump into the debate in the comment section, just keep it civil.

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

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Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh — By The Numbers

Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – The Emperor vs. the Genius, introduced this series of posts that will compare Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh.

Any comparison begins with the numbers. How we interpret numbers might be subjective, but numbers themselves do not lie.

Regular Season Victories:

Bill Walsh – 92-59-1 (.603)
Chuck Noll – 193-148-1 (.566)

This is an interesting stat. Walsh does have a better winning percentage, but Noll won more games than Walsh. One hundred and one more to be exact. To give you an idea of the proportions involved, Pro Football reference lists 436 NFL head coaches. Of that number, less than thirty cracked the 100 win mark. One hundred win provides pretty wide margin. Edge: Noll.

Post Season Victories
Bill Walsh 10-4 (.714)
Chuck Noll 16-8 (.667)

Again, Walsh holds the better winning percentage, but Noll again beats him when it comes to the raw numbers. Playoff victories are a scarce commodity (ask Marty Schottenhimer). Noll’s higher playoff victory total trumps Walsh’s better winning percentage. Edge: Noll.

Playoff Appearances and Division Titles

Bill Walsh 7 playoff appearances, 6 division titles
Chuck Noll 12 playoff appearances, 9 division titles

Case is pretty clear here. Noll brought teams to the playoffs almost twice as many times as Walsh, and brought home three more division titles. To that you can add the fact that the Bengals, Browns, and Oilers of the 70’s gave the Steelers far stiffer challenges than anything the 49er’s faced from the Falcons, Saints, and Rams of the 80’s. Edge: Noll.

Super Bowls

Bill Walsh 3
Chuck Noll 4

These are the cold, hard facts. Chuck Noll brought home more hardware for the trophy case than did Bill Walsh. 49ers partisans like to argue that credit for Super Bowl XXIV rightfully belongs to Bill Walsh and not George Seifert, because the 49ers surely would have won that year had Walsh not retired. That’s not only plausible, it’s extremely likely.

Alas, as Yoda would say, overwhelming probability does not reality equal.

The fact is that is that Walsh didn’t coach four Super Bowl teams.

Chuck Noll did.

Edge: Noll.

The decision to weight total wins heavier than winning percentage is certainly debatable. But to avoid repetition, we’ll hold off discussion on that until the final section “Walsh vs. Noll, Head to Head.” In the mean time, check back in a few days for our next post: Noll vs. Walsh – Talent Evaluators, followed by Noll vs. Walsh — What Makes a Legacy?

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

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