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Coaching records in close games

Now just hold on. I never said you are what your record in close games says you are.

Which coaches have the best records in close games? That’s a complicated question that either means everything or nothing, depending on whom you ask. But putting aside what it means, what are the actual results?

I defined a close game as one where a team was trailing or leading by three points entering the 4th quarter since 1940.1

The table below shows the coaching records in close games for all coaches who were head coaches in at least 20 close games. You can use the search box below to search for any individual coach. Note that coaches who coached prior to 1940 are included, but only their performances in games beginning in 1940 are listed below.

Coach1st YrLast YrGWLTWin%Sort2
Chuck Knox1973199470462310.6640.997
Sean Payton200620112317600.7390.989
Dan Reeves1981200378492900.6280.988
Buck Shaw194619602718720.7040.986
John Madden1969197833221010.6820.982
Marv Levy1978199753341900.6420.98
Bill Belichick1991201152331900.6350.973
Bill Cowher1992200658362200.6210.966
George Allen1966197740241330.6380.964
Vince Lombardi195919692717820.6670.962
Bud Grant1967198564372430.6020.951
Lou Saban1960197641251510.6220.941
Chuck Noll1969199181473310.5860.94
Mike Ditka1982199944271700.6140.932
Don Shula1963199595544010.5740.925
Tom Landry1960198885483520.5760.922
Blanton Collier196319702213720.6360.905
John Fox2002201138231500.6050.9
Andy Reid1999201152302110.5870.894
Joe Gibbs1981200755322300.5820.886
Jim Mora1986200159342500.5760.877
Mike Sherman2000200526161000.6150.876
Marty Schottenheimer1984200659332510.5680.851
Tony Dungy1996200849282100.5710.839
Buddy Parker1949196446251920.5650.814
Dennis Green1992200644251900.5680.814
Lovie Smith2004201131181300.5810.811
Red Miller197719802012800.60.808
Ted Marchibroda1975199848272100.5630.804
Jimmy Johnson1989199935201500.5710.797
Mike Holmgren1992200856312500.5540.786
Steve Mariucci1997200526151100.5770.779
Bobby Ross1992200026151100.5770.779
Sid Gillman1955197446241930.5540.774
Dom Capers1995200536201600.5560.744
Jim Fassel1997200326141110.5580.721
Mike Holovak19611976209740.550.685
Bum Phillips1975198545242100.5330.671
Lindy Infante1988199722121000.5450.661
John Robinson1983199122121000.5450.661
Ron Meyer1982199124131100.5420.655
Jeff Fisher1994201077403700.5190.633
Hank Stram1960197738181640.5260.632
George Halas1920196742201840.5240.625
Ray Perkins1979199021111000.5240.584
Mike McCarthy2006201129151400.5170.572
Marvin Lewis2003201132161510.5160.57
Jack Pardee1975199439201900.5130.563
Tom Flores1979199447242300.5110.557
Mike Shanahan1988201159302900.5080.551
Tom Coughlin1995201163323100.5080.55
Raymond Berry1984198922111100.50.5
Dick Vermeil1976200552262600.50.5
George Seifert1989200134171700.50.5
Brian Billick1999200730151500.50.5
Steve Owen1931195335151550.50.5
Herman Edwards2001200828141400.50.5
Wayne Fontes1988199626131300.50.5
Greasy Neale19411950219930.50.5
Art Shell1989200628141400.50.5
Bill Parcells1983200682404110.4940.456
Don Coryell1973198636171810.4860.434
Bill Walsh1979198833161700.4850.432
Curly Lambeau1921195324111210.4790.419
Allie Sherman1961196824101130.4790.416
Marion Campbell1974198926121400.4620.351
Gary Kubiak2006201124111300.4580.345
Buddy Ryan198619952191110.4520.332
Sam Wyche1984199543202300.4650.326
Paul Brown1946197562273140.4680.301
Joe Kuharich1952196831141700.4520.298
Sam Rutigliano1978198423101300.4350.271
Weeb Ewbank1954197366293430.4620.266
Joe Walton198319892191200.4290.262
Jack Del Rio2003201136162000.4440.256
Forrest Gregg1975198732141800.4380.243
Jerry Glanville1985199328121600.4290.229
Jon Gruden1998200843192400.4420.226
Ray Malavasi1966198224101400.4170.212
Monte Clark1976198431131800.4190.189
Dave Wannstedt1993200442182400.4290.18
George Wilson1957196928101530.4110.163
Dick Nolan1968198035142010.4140.155
Dennis Erickson1995200426101600.3850.124
Butch Davis200120042071300.350.095
Wade Phillips1985201034132100.3820.088
Norv Turner1994201153213110.4060.084
Bruce Coslet1990200030111900.3670.075
John McKay1976198437142300.3780.072
Norm Van Brocklin1961197440142420.3750.054
Dick Jauron1999200934122200.3530.045
Leeman Bennett1977198630102000.3330.035
Dan Henning198319912371600.3040.032
Bart Starr197519832891900.3210.031
Tommy Prothro197119782872010.2680.006

Wade, we would have won if you guys didn't blow us out the first three quarters.

Generally speaking, I think this list jives with what a lot of people would have guessed. Vince Lombardi and Marv Levy and Bill Belichick look good, while Norv Turner, Bruce Coslet and Wade Phillips look bad. Of course, that just begs the question: do we think think those men in the latter group are not great head coaches because they failed in close games, or is it that because they lost in close games that we now think that they’re overmatched as first in command?

  1. Originally, I looked at all games that were within one score, but that proven to be even more unfair to the trailing teams. Teams trailing by one score entering the 4th quarter have won only 30% of all games since 1940. Conversely, teams trailing by 3 points have won 39% of the time. []
  2. What is this table sorted by? It's always difficult sorting a list with a large variance in the number of games coached. I used the binomial distribution to compute the likelihood that a fair coin would achieve such results. For example, Sean Payton went 17-6 in close games. There is only a 1.1% chance an unweighted coin would achieve 17 or more successes out of 23 flips. []
  • Richie

    I’m not sure how much this tells us. The coaches at the top are guys who won a lot of regular season games. Generally, that means they were coaching good teams (either because they had good players or because they coached up their players to be good). So good teams are more likely to be able to win the close games.

    How about a comparison between these coaches records in close games and their record in non-close games?

  • Chase Stuart

    On twitter, someone recommended I break it out by records in games where the team was winning by 3 or less, tied, or losing by 3 or less. That’s probably a good idea, and not that hard. I can also incorporate your suggestion in a future post.

  • Wintermute

    Chase, congratulations on the new site. I just heard about it on The Audible (you should go on that show!).

    Regarding this post, I was going to make the exact comment that Richie the first poster made. We need to see how many games Sean Peyton wins and then see how many close-games Sean Peyton wins. That will tell us if some coaches have some innate ability to not blink when the pressure is at maximum versus coaches who just had good teams that won no matter what the situation was. I wonder if there is a coach that was saddled with lousy players, had a poor record, yet was a great coach if the game was close. Hmm.

  • Chase Stuart


    While interesting to look at, I’m pretty sure the answers won’t be legitimate. Great teams are great because of how they do in non-close games, not because of how they do in close-games (in terms of predictive performance). Sean Payton has won 65% of his games, and 74% of his close-games. If he won only 50% of his regular games, I don’t think the takeaway is that he’s “more awesome” in close games than before, but rather, that he’s simply just a worse coach (subject to the usual caveats concerning how a coach’s record reflects his ability as a coach).

  • wsk

    very interesting.
    but much like quarterback comebacks–good freaking quarterbacks don’t trail going into the fourth quarter.
    good baseball teams aren’t generally behind after seven.
    rallying to win is a slightly weighted bi-distro for them.
    good teams lead; bad coaches & quarterbacks are losing into the last period.