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Shula’s record

Posted by Doug on December 27, 2006

Back in August I reviewed the new ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia. Left on the cutting room floor was my commentary on the Foreword by Joe Theismann. In this half-page piece of work by Theismann, he lists the three records that he "think[s] will never be touched, not with the way the game is played today."

The first is Brett Favre's record for consecutive starts by a quarterback. The second is the Dolphins 17-0 season, which Theismann "guarantees" is safe. Finally he writes this:

The final record I see standing forever is Don Shula's mark of 347 career wins. No one will coach as long as Shula did. There's too much pressure, too much impatience by owners.

When I first read that I did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. For some reason Jon Gruden was the first guy to pop into my mind. Gruden has averaged 9 wins per year and he is now 43 years old. At his current rate he's almost 30 years away from the record. Obviously he's a longshot but it's not completely unthinkable.

Now play the same game with Bill Cowher. At his current clip he's 17 or 18 years away from the record, which would mean he would be 66 or 67. I'm not sure Cowher's chances of getting this record are less than, say, Tomlinson's chances of breaking Emmitt Smith's career rushing record. Tomlinson would need to maintain his current pace until he's 33 to catch Emmitt. Is 66 older for a coach than 33 is a for a running back? Possibly, but I'd argue that 10.5 wins per year is an easier pace to maintain at an advanced age than 1500 rushing yards per year is.

I understand Theismann's points about the game being different now than it was in Shula's time. But even if Cowher's relationship with the Steelers goes sour, it's not like he'll have a hard time finding work. It's not clear that he would be able to replicate the same success elsewhere, but it's also not clear that he wouldn't. And even if he only averages 9-and-a-half wins per year instead of 10-and-a-half, he could still retire with the record before or shortly after his 70th birthday.

Think of it this way: what has to happen in order for Cowher not to break the record? Roughly speaking, it would take one or both of the following (and yes, I realize they are somewhat interrelated):

1. He loses the ability to coach at his current level before age 68ish.
2. He loses the desire to coach at his current level before age 68ish.

Now, what does it take for LT to not break Emmitt's record?

1. He loses the ability to play at his current level before age 33.
2. He loses the desire to play at his current level before age 33.

I'd say that in Cowher's case, #2 is as likely as #1, or nearly so. In Tomlinson's case #1 is overwhelmingly more likely than #2. If you want to break a record, desire is the easy part; it's ability that ruins most peoples' attempts to break the all-time rushing record.

In other words, for all the major records, there are many, many people with the desire to break it, but only a few with the skill. Since the playing records are much more dependent on skill, they are in a sense safer.

That said, if you're going to name a record that will never be broken, Shula's record is one that gives you about a 99.9% chance of not looking foolish; by the time it is broken, if ever, everyone will have forgotten that you said it would never be broken. Emmitt's rushing record almost certainly will be broken before Shula's, not necessarily because it's a more difficult feat to match, but because running back careers are shorter than coaching careers, and therefore a whole lot more guys will have the chance to give it a shot. Right now, Cowher is probably the best shot to break Shula's record; a running back who is a high school senior right now could break Emmitt's record before that. Adrian Peterson's son could surpass Emmitt before a guy like Eric Mangini challenges Shula's record.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 27th, 2006 at 6:56 pm and is filed under General, History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.