The best second-chance coaching tenures in NFL history
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The best second-chance coaching tenures in NFL history

As coach-needy NFL teams scour the market annually, retread options often surface. Some of the best seasons in league history came at the direction of coaches whose first coaching stints ended badly. Here are the best second-chance coaching tenures in NFL history. While not every coach's second job qualifies as a true second chance, several types of circumstances allowed teams to enjoy success with a retread leader.

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25. Wade Phillips

Wade Phillips
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A self-admitted "lousy" head coach, Phillips is better known for being one of the best defensive coordinators ever. The affable instructor is a bit hard on himself as a head coach. After the Broncos replaced him with Mike Shanahan in 1995, Phillips did not finish a full season under .500. He was at the controls for the Bills' Doug Flutie-led spurt in the late 1990s, and while his controversial benching of Flutie for the "Music City Miracle" game lives on, Phillips went 29-19 in Buffalo and 34-22 in Dallas. The Cowboys earned home-field advantage in Phillips' first season (2007) and won a playoff game two years later. 

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24. Jack Pardee

Jack Pardee
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Pardee was at the controls of the Run and Shoot Oilers, whom he guided to four playoff berths in four full seasons on the job. This was Pardee's third coaching gig. After three Bears years, he led Washington to a 10-win season in 1979. He spent the 1980s in pass-crazed systems, first with the USFL's Houston Gamblers and then with the Houston Cougars. This gave way to another NFL try in 1990. In addition to Warren Moon's early-'90s dominance, Pardee's Oilers fielded three top-10 defenses. They were notoriously unreliable in the playoff, however. Three straight January collapses -- one towering over the others -- preceded his firing.

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23. George Allen

George Allen
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Run out of Los Angeles after the 1970 season, Allen resurfaced in Washington. Comically obsessed with veterans, Allen never made a first-round pick while running his second team. From 1972-77, Washington did not make a pick in the first three rounds. Allen's "Over the Hill Gang," however, did make the playoffs five times in Allen's seven seasons. The 1972 team, behind NFL MVP Larry Brown, voyaged to Super Bowl VII. Those two playoff wins were Allen's only such conquests with the Rams or Washington. After the Rams rehired Allen in 1977, owner Carroll Rosenbloom fired him after two preseason games.

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22. John Fox

John Fox
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Although overshadowed by Peyton Manning, the ex-Panthers HC stabilized a Broncos franchise reeling from its Josh McDaniels error. Fox green-lit an offense overhaul midway through the 2011 season, upon promoting Tim Tebow, and oversaw a defense that made "Tebowmania" possible. He faded into the background when Manning arrived the following year, but the legendary quarterback twice had top-five defenses backing him (2012, '14). The Broncos' 2013 defense helped the team rout the Patriots in the AFC title game. Fired despite going 46-18 in Denver, Fox did not enjoy success without Manning in Chicago.

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21. Paul Brown

Paul Brown
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After Art Modell fired Brown in 1963, the Cleveland franchise's namesake trekked across Ohio to start a new team. Brown dressed the Bengals up like the Browns and made them an AFC contender quickly. In his eight seasons, Brown's Bengals made the playoffs thrice. While the Bengals ran into better teams once there, they did edge the Steelers for the 1973 AFC Central crown. After losing would-be franchise QB Greg Cook to an early-career injury, Brown and assistant Bill Walsh formed what became the West Coast Offense. The Bengals' coach-owner dropped "coach" from his job title after the 1975 season.

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20. Dan Reeves

Dan Reeves

Clashing with John Elway at the end of his Denver tenure, Reeves had moments in New York and Atlanta. After two wayward early-1990s seasons, the 1993 Giants were a clutch Emmitt Smith effort away from home-field advantage. Reeves' Big Apple run quickly cratered after the Giants cut Phil Simms in 1994, however. In Atlanta, Reeves turned a 3-13 team into a 14-2 Super Bowl-bound squad in two years. Elway bested his former coach in Super Bowl XXXIII, but Reeves' team ruined a potential all-time Vikings-Broncos matchup. Reeves' two Coach of the Year honors came after his Denver exit, and his 190 wins ranks 10th all time.

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19. Guy Chamberlin

Guy Chamberlin
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The most unusual case here, Chamberlin served as a player/coach for multiple franchises in the 1920s. After going 3-for-3 in winning NFL championships with the Canton/Cleveland Bulldogs from 1922-24, Chamberlin served in this role for the Frankford Yellow Jackets. In his second season in Pennsylvania, Chamberlin's squad won the 1926 NFL title with a 14-1 record. (No playoff format existed yet.) Frankford's 7-6 win over the Red Grange-led Bears ended up paving the way for a fourth Chamberlin title and a cozy path to the Hall of Fame.

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18. Buck Shaw

Buck Shaw
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Shaw's 49ers finished over .500 in each of the All-American Football Conference's four seasons. After five NFL seasons, however, the 49ers fired Shaw -- following the 1954 slate. But he re-emerged and notched a historic victory with the Eagles. Arriving in Philly in 1958, Shaw lifted the Eagles from a two-win team in his first year to an NFL title in 1960. More than just earning Coach of the Year honors that season, Shaw became the only coach to upend Vince Lombardi in the playoffs. Shaw and his trade-acquisition QB, Norm Van Brocklin, retired after the game. Shaw's .621 win percentage still ranks in the top 30 all time.

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17. Gary Kubiak

Gary Kubiak
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Given what has transpired in Denver since Kubiak stepped down after the 2016 season, his brief tenure has aged well. The Broncos won a Super Bowl in Kubiak's first year and went 9-7 with Trevor Siemian as their primary QB in 2016. Peyton Manning did not exactly fit in Kubiak's offense, but the head coach's stewardship proved key that season. Kubiak benching Brock Osweiler and reinserting Manning in Week 17 led to the Broncos earning home-field advantage, which was vital to his aging QB getting past the Patriots three weeks later. The ex-Texans HC enhanced his legacy considerably while working for old-friend John Elway.

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16. Jon Gruden

Jon Gruden
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This is complicated. Gruden's offensive acumen and in-your-face style lifted the Buccaneers over the top in 2002, and the team that traded him to Tampa Bay -- the Raiders -- was on the wrong end of one of the most dominant Super Bowl wins in the game's history. Gruden also won with a defense Tony Dungy and GM Rich McKay built. While Gruden led the Bucs to two more playoff berths without star QBs, poor drafts post-McKay hamstrung the franchise. The Bucs fired their Super Bowl-winning coach after seven seasons. Gruden's in-progress Raiders 2.0 act could certainly change his perception.

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15. Bill Parcells

Bill Parcells
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Parcells' Patriots tenure does not factor into this ranking; he retired from the Giants after the 1990 season. But after a falling out with Robert Kraft led the Pats to trade Parcells to the Jets, the Hall of Fame coach crafted a remarkable rebuild. He revived a Jets team that went 1-15 in 1996, improving it to 9-7 in '97 and taking the franchise to the AFC championship game a year later. A Vinny Testaverde injury spoiled the '99 team's hopes. Bill Belichick helped out in New York, but Parcells Solo elevated the Cowboys from their 21st-century low point (pre-2020) and took them to two playoff brackets from 2003-06. 

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14. Chuck Knox

Chuck Knox
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The Rams won 10 games in each of Knox's five seasons, despite QB instability, but owner Carroll Rosenbloom had little interest in retaining him in 1978. Knox went on to lead six teams to 1980s playoff brackets -- the Bills twice and the Seahawks four times. A former O-line coach, "Ground Chuck" gave the Bills their only playoff win between 1965 and 1988 -- a 1981 wild-card victory over the Jets -- an in his first Seahawks season led a 9-7 team to two postseason triumphs. Without star running back Curt Warner in 1984, Seattle won 12 games. Knox was the only coach to take the Seahawks to the playoffs until 1999. His 186 wins are 11th all time. 

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13. Lou Saban

Lou Saban
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Fired midway through his second Patriots season in the upstart AFL, Saban exacted revenge in Buffalo. Saban landed another gig in 1962 and ended up coaching the Bills to back-to-back championships -- their only two titles in 61 years. The Bills halted the Chargers' would-be dynasty, knocking off the Bolts in the 1964 and '65 AFL title games -- each by at least two scores. The Bills beat the Pats to enter the '64 title game, and they shut out the Chargers in '65 -- American pro football's most recent championship blanking. Saban returned to the Bills in the '70s, overseeing O.J. Simpson's 2,000-yard season.

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12. Don Coryell

Don Coryell
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A Coryell-ownership dispute led the Cardinals to trade the coach's rights to the Chargers in 1978 -- in a rare midseason coach arrival. The '78 Bolts went 8-4, an insane accomplishment given the circumstances, and Coryell revolutionized San Diego's offense in the years that followed. "Air Coryell" turned Dan Fouts into a Hall of Famer and remains one of the great offenses in NFL history. The Chargers led the NFL in offense five times in Coryell's eight-plus-year tenure and won arguably the greatest playoff game ever (the "Epic in Miami"). Those teams fell short of a Super Bowl, but Coryell's impact lives on decades later.

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11. Weeb Ewbank

Weeb Ewbank
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Once a Paul Brown assistant in Cleveland, Ewbank won two championships with the Colts. But the team axed him after the 1962 season. In 1963, the renamed Jets hired him. Johnny Unitas' former coach soon coached another future Hall of Fame passer. He and 1965 No. 1 overall pick Joe Namath teamed up to give the Jets their lone championship -- a 16-7 Super Bowl III masterpiece over a dominant Colts defense in pro football's defining upset -- and legitimize the AFL. The duo only returned to one more playoff bracket, however, and Ewbank's final four years did not produce a winning season. 

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10. Sid Gillman

Sid Gillman
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The Chargers' apex occurred decades ago, when Gillman took them to five AFL championship games. Ousted after five Rams seasons in 1960, Gillman brought aerial innovations to the AFL. One of the passing game's forefathers, Gillman helped turn wideout Lance Alworth into a Hall of Famer and used his innovations to reach championship games with three QBs -- Jack Kemp, Tobin Rote and John Hadl. With Rote in 1963, the Chargers dismantled the Boston Patriots 51-10 to win the AFL crown. Gillman's early-'70s Oilers stop did not go as well, but he helped change football with the Chargers.

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9. Tony Dungy

Tony Dungy
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Yes, Dungy coached the most decorated quarterback ever. But the ex-Buccaneers coach gave his passing prodigy stability and defensive chops. After a loaded 2005 Colts team suffered an ugly Round 2 upset, the '06 Colts defense struggled in the regular season. But the Dungy-helmed unit emerged as a force in the playoffs, shutting down three of its four opponents en route to a Super Bowl title. The 2007 Colts ranked first defensively. Under Dungy, the Colts -- who infamously missed the playoffs under Jim Mora in 2001 -- won at least 12 games from 2003-08, carrying the measured leader to the Hall of Fame.

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8. Marty Schottenheimer

Marty Schottenheimer
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A dispute over the Browns' staff led to Schottenheimer to Kansas City in 1989. Though his playoff shortcomings persisted, Schottenheimer led the Chiefs to seven postseason berths in 10 years. Five different QBs started for those teams in the playoffs, but Marty's teams backed the myriad passers with vaunted defenses. After a short Washington stay, "Martyball" was reborn behind LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. The 2006 Chargers went 14-2 despite their Drew Brees-to-Philip Rivers transition, but a ghastly Patriots upset led to the hard-luck coach's firing. Schottenheimer's 200 wins (eighth all time) are by far the most by a non-champion coach.

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7. Marv Levy

Marv Levy
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The Chiefs ended Levy's five-year run after the 1982 strike-shortened season. His timing proved better in Buffalo. Taking over the Bills midway through the 1986 season, Levy benefited from the USFL folding and Jim Kelly reporting to the team that held his NFL rights. After two- and four-win Bills seasons in 1985 and '86, the duo authored a uniquely consistent stretch into the mid-1990s. Yes, the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls. Only two other teams have ever played in three straight. Buffalo's K-Gun offense ruled the AFC for years, and Levy's seven 10-win seasons cleared a Canton path after his 1998 retirement. 

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6. Tom Coughlin

Tom Coughlin
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Coughlin not only changed the Giants, but his stylistic coaching alterations led to two of the greatest playoff runs in NFL history. Unapologetically fiery in Jacksonville, Coughlin brought that shtick to New York in 2004. A minor mellowing led to improved player relationships, and the Giants stunned the sports world by pulling off four playoff upsets and winning Super Bowl XLII. Coughlin's regular-season Giants record (102-90) sits secondary to the eight victories in the winters of 2008 and 2012, when the Giants beat some of this era's best teams. After a 4-12 2003 season, Coughlin transformed a storied franchise.

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5. Pete Carroll

Pete Carroll
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Carroll's initial post-Jets act -- replacing Bill Parcells in New England -- was moderately successful (two playoff berths in three years). His third act changed the Seahawks' trajectory. They are 108-63-1 since Carroll's 2010 arrival. He and John Schneider's early drafts produced the 2010s' best team -- the 2013 Seahawks -- and the Legion of Boom secondary enabled the Seahawks to become the first modern-era team to lead the NFL in scoring defense in four straight seasons. The Seahawks have transitioned to a Russell Wilson-anchored team, and despite losing most of the Super Bowl core, they remain a playoff mainstay. 

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4. Andy Reid

Andy Reid
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Eight years into his rebound job, Reid has used the Chiefs gig to substantially elevate his stature. The ex-Eagles boss has become a no-doubt Hall of Famer, and he made a long-suffering franchise the NFL's premier squad. The Chiefs went 2-14 in 2012; under Reid in 2013, they finished 11-5. Reid has morphed from a West Coast Offense-based coach to a malleable offensive maestro during his Kansas City stay, and for all Patrick Mahomes has done for Reid, the 22nd-year coach running the show has aided the MVP considerably. Reid will move into the top five in career wins next season, one he may enter with two Super Bowl rings.

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3. Mike Shanahan

Mike Shanahan
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Shanahan enjoyed two stints as a Broncos assistant. In between: an ugly Raiders HC stop. His second-chance gig changed John Elway's career and pushed a franchise over the top. Shanahan installed a relentless zone-blocking scheme, and after Terrell Davis gave Elway a long-sought-after ground weapon, that rushing attack churned out six 1,000-yard rushers over the next 12 seasons. The Broncos upset the Packers in 1997, unleashed a better team on the Falcons (and ex-Shanahan boss Dan Reeves) a year later and made four post-Elway playoff berths under Shanahan. And his RG3-rebooted offense led to a glowing outlier season in Washington.

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2. Don Shula

Don Shula
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The winningest coach ever made the Colts pay for letting him leave in 1970. While the Colts received a first-round pick after the breakup, everything changed for the Dolphins. Shula transformed a three-win team into a dynasty, with Miami making the next five playoff brackets and winning two Super Bowls. Shula's 1973 team was even better than the 1972 17-0 squad, and he also reached a Super Bowl (XVII, with David Woodley at the helm) in between Bob Griese and Dan Marino's careers. Shula coached the NFL's top run game in the '70s and a record-setting pass attack in the '80s, retiring after one of sports' greatest coaching tenures.

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1. Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick
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Fired by the Browns (er, the Ravens) in 1996, Belichick has created a vast gulf between he and his peers 20 years into his second-chance gig. Spurning the Jets as Bill Parcells' would-be successor, Belichick maneuvered his way to New England in 2000. He is the only head coach with more than four Super Bowl wins. While Tom Brady receives deserved credit for the six Lombardis, Belichick outfitted the historic QB find with reliable defensive backing nearly every year. The Pats' 16 (!) top-10 defenses from 2001-19 allowed Brady's ring count to climb while his rivals' tallies stagnated. The third-winningest coach ever, Belichick provides an unrivaled advantage.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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