Bryan Frye once chronicled the NFL’s passing kings: that is, the career leaders in passing touchdowns throughout every year in NFL history. There are ten men who have been the career leader in touchdown passes, but only eight (soon to be nine) men who can say that they, at one point, had the most losses of any head coach in pro football history. Let’s begin in the natural place: the beginning.
Ted Nesser (1920-1921): 14 career losses
Nesser was the head coach of the Columbus Panhandles in the inaugural 1920 season of the APFA, the predecessor to the NFL. The Panhandles lost their first five games, and finished the season with the most losses in the league. The next year, Nesser’s Panhandles again led the league in losses (8), before the team moved on without him for the 1922 season. Nesser was a great player — he made the PFRA’s Hall of Very Good — but was 37 by the time he came to the Panhandles as player/coach.
Jim Thorpe (1922-1925): 25 career losses
Yes, that Jim Thorpe took over from Nesser as the career leader in losses. Thorpe also coached in 1920, and by the end of the ’22 season, he was at 15 career losses. He held the title of losing coach in pro football history for four more years — even though he was done coaching after ’23 — finishing his career with 25 losses.
Carl Storck (1926-1928): 26 career losses
Probably the last name on the list you won’t recognize, Storck coached the Dayton Triangles from 1922 to 1926. He had a winning record his first year, but went just 4-23-4 the rest of his career. In his last game as a head coach, in 1926, he finally passed Thorpe for most career losses.
George Halas (1929): 31 career losses
Halas was an instant success as a coach, leading the Decatur Staleys (the predecessor to the Bears) to a 10-1-2 record in 1920. In fact, he had just 22 career losses after finishing his 9th season as a head coach in 1928. A 9-loss season in 1929 caused him to pass Storck, but Halas only held on to this record (for the time being) for one season.
Jimmy Conzelman (1930-1931): 32 career losses
Conzelman, who is in the Hall of Fame and won NFL titles with two different franchises, passed Halas in 1930 when he lost his 32nd game. That was it for Conzelman for 10 years, before he came back to coach the Cardinals. But Halas briefly left coaching (but remained the Bears owner) at this time, allowing Conzelman to hold on to the record in 1931. That was until…
Curly Lambeau (1932-1964): 132 career losses
Yeah, you’ve probably heard of him. In 1931, Lambeau won his third straight NFL title, but he also had been coaching the Packers since 1921. As a result, a 10-3-1 season in 1932 was enough to give him 33 career losses. In fact, he finished the ’32 season with a 93-33-15 record, so Lambeau holding this record was purely a reflection of his longevity. Lambeau retired in 1953 — like another famous Packers coach, he finished his career with the Redskins — with a 226-132-22 record. But for the final 20 or so years of his coaching career, and another 11 years thereafter, he was also the losingest coach in NFL history. That is, until….
George Halas (1965-1986): 148 career losses
Halas finally passed him to retake the crown in 1965. But let’s take a moment to consider how impressive Halas’ record was: as of 1965, his career mark was 306-135-28, which is 171 games above .500. He finished his career two years later at 170 games above .500; Don Shula is at 172 games above .500 for his career, and the third-place coach in this category is Bill Belichick, at +118 through 12 games in 2016. Halas coached 497 games, the most in league history. This record would have been unbreakable, but once the league moved from 12 to 14 to 16 games, that finally allowed a new coach to overtake the Bears legend.
Tom Landry (1987-2002): 162 career losses
Landry coached the Cowboys for 29 years, beginning as the first head coach in Dallas history. By 1987, the good times were over: at 62 years of age, Landry just had his first losing season since 1964. That’s mind-blowing: for 21 years, Landry’s Cowboys did not have a losing record. But the legendary coach picked up his 162nd loss in 1987, and had two more losing seasons before being fired. Landry finished his career with 162 losses, a mark that seemed tough to beat. And while it lasted for 25 years, one of his former players finally passed him.
Dan Reeves (2003-2015): 165 career losses
Reeves played for the Cowboys for eight seasons, from 1965 to 1972. Here’s a good way to win a bar bet: did you know that Dallas scored just one offensive touchdown in the Ice Bowl, and it came via a 50-yard pass from Reeves to Lance Rentzel? Reeves had an uneven coaching history: his tenure with the Broncos was remembered for both the successes (three Super Bowl appearances) and his inability to get the most out of John Elway. Reeves went 110-73-1 (.601) with the Broncos over a dozen seasons. From there he went to New York, but was a disappointment, finishing with a 31-33 record and only one playoff appearance in his first season. When he went to Atlanta in 1997, expectations were low, but in 1998, he guided the team to a 14-2 record and a Super Bowl appearance. Things were never quite so rosy again in Atlanta, other than one Mike Vick-ignited run in 2002. Reeves was fired late in the 2003 season, but by then, he had already passed Landry for the most losses in history.
Jeff Fisher (2016): 164 – and counting – career losses
Fisher is one loss away from tying Reeves; if Los Angeles loses on Sunday to the Falcons, Fisher can set the record on national TV against the Seahawks on Thursday Night Football in eight days. Fisher, currently with a 0.513 winning percentage, is still above .500, but will likely finish his career with a worse mark than Reeves (0.535), to say nothing of Landry, Halas, or Lambeau. What a time to be alive.