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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3 thoughts on “Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh – Head to Head

  1. C’mon, it’s not even close — Noll with the immortal Mark Malone vs. Walsh and the 49ers with Montana and Rice in their dynastic prime in ’87. And the Steelers come out and destroy them — that game wasn’t even as close as the score indicated, it was 30-10 before SF got that last garbage-time TD. Funny, I don’t think they were playing under “70s rules” that game, Mr. Walsh. Chuck Noll simply owned Bill Walsh.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    I agree. Noll’s two victories over Walsh speak volumes about his ability to coach. Indeed, they were the inspiration for this entire series.

  3. This was a de facto Best-of-Three series between both coaches. Game 1 in Three Rivers, Game 2 at Candlestick, and Game 3 (“if necessary” which it was) back at Three Rivers.

    Yes, in ’81, there were plenty of ’70s studs still on the roster with enough still playing at an elite level. But they were YET another year older, and at the moment they were overall mediocre, even lesser than they were in 1980, en route to a second-straight non-playoff-berth. They finish the year 8-8 yet still play the 13-3 Champs-to-be real close!

    Each game in this series, the Steelers fielded a medicare or slightly better squad as San Fran, in each case, was championship caliber. Yet Noll wins the Series! If you already didn’t place Noll ahead of Walsh to begin with, then this Series ought to serve as the final ‘tie-breaker’.

    Like Lombardi not having a chance to coach yet another decade, whether with Washington or staying at Green Bay, we also never got to see Walsh coach on through the ’90s. Perhaps Vince and Bill still excel and win more Rings in each scenario. But we’ll simply never, ever know for sure.

    And though I opine that Walsh most-likely repeats had he stayed another year, maybe (just maybe) Walsh was, indeed, “spent” by the time ’88 ended; worn out by his all-season-long turbulence with Eddie D. Maybe a different voice, personality is what was needed for San Fran to achieve that repeat in ’89 (maybe Seifert the only one who could have done it, like Bob Lemon instead of Billy Martin in ’78).

    As for Chuck…he DID stay on another decade! Twelve more seasons, to be exact. He indeed hung around as more and more of his ’70s studs left. Suffered his share of non-playoff years along with several losing ones.

    But still showing Landry who was “Boss” on that MNF opener at Big D in ’82 followed by beating defending AFC-champ, Cincy, for the first time in three years (maybe – maybe not – the STRIKE was what killed possible momentum to win ‘One for the Thumb” that very year), starting off 9-2 in ’83 en route to a division title w/out Bradshaw (his “last hurrah” at Shea notwithstanding) along with losing Gabe ‘Senor Sack’ Rivera, making it to the AFC Championship Game in ’84 – again without Bradshaw who was now gone for good – and ALSO losing Lambert, the Forever-Esteemed…1989 Campaign (who I could have started on – just kidding), and fielding the #1 defense and one game shy of winning the division in 1990 now without Tom Moore…

    …yeah, the Emperor did all right!

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