You get the feeling that had Don Shula still been coaching in the 2010s, he’d have adopted the spread offense and his teams would have used run-pass options as well as anyone else.
Shula died at the age of 90, and at the heart of his legacy was longevity. He is still the NFL’s all-time leader in wins. He was a head coach for 33 years, and had just two losing seasons.
You’ll hear a coach talk about an identity. A coach’s ego is often tied to his system. Shula’s identity was his players.
You can’t last from 1963 to 1995 — with winning records in his first and last seasons — without reinventing yourself. And nobody reinvented himself more often, and with a more wide-ranging resume of success, than Shula.
Don Shula won in different ways
In 1972 and 1973, the Miami Dolphins went 6-0 in the playoffs and won two Super Bowls. Here were the passing attempts in each of those six games for Shula’s quarterbacks: 13, 16, 11, 18, 6, 7. In those games, the Dolphins had a quarterback pass for over 100 yards just once. In winning the AFC championship game and Super Bowl VIII, Bob Griese’s combined stats were 9-of-13 for 107 yards and no touchdowns.
Considering those were Shula’s two Super Bowl championship teams, you’d think he would coach that way the rest of his career. It’s human nature: You have great success with something, you stick with it.
Then Shula drafted Dan Marino in 1983. Under Shula’s watch, Marino threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns, setting records that stood for a long time. It’s still one of the most iconic seasons in NFL history. Miami won the AFC and moved on to Super Bowl XIX, losing to a great San Francisco 49ers team there.
The coach who won two Super Bowls with his teams averaging fewer than 12 passing attempts per game in the postseason was the same coach who oversaw the great Marino average 36.5 attempts per game from 1984-86. Marino was first-team All-Pro all three seasons.
“I've been accused of being a conservative, ‘grind'em-out’ kind of coach, because that was the style of my teams in 1972-73,” Shula told The New York Times Magazine in 1985. “But I point out that when I was at Baltimore, and Johnny Unitas was my quarterback, we used to have a wide-open, explosive passing attack.
“And when I came down to Miami, I didn't try to jam the Unitas style down the throat of Bob Griese, who was a different kind of quarterback, nor did I try to force the Griese style on Marino when he came along.”
That seems so simple. Get the most out of your best players. But there are plenty of coaches who are inflexible with their schemes. Shula wouldn’t have been great for more than three decades if he didn’t adjust.
Shula kept changing his approach
Shula had a simple philosophy: Put players in the best position to succeed. He had that approach even when he was 33 years old, taking over the Baltimore Colts with an established star quarterback in Unitas.
“What he did in his first year,” Unitas told the Hartford Courant in 1993, “which was very smart of him, was not to come in with a new system and force everybody to change. [Shula] made the adjustment to the offense we had.”
In 1968, with Earl Morrall at quarterback, the Colts rode a great defense to a 13-1 record. That team was one of the most dominant in NFL history but is best known for being upset by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
In the early 1970s, with a trio of great running backs, the Dolphins won consecutive titles barely passing the ball. When the game was changing in the 1980s, Marino landed with Shula and became the NFL’s all-time leading passer. Marino and Shula were together for 13 seasons and had one losing record.
Shula was constantly evolving.
“To me, that's what coaching is all about,” Shula told the Hartford Courant. “It's getting the most out of the players you have, not trying to jam your system down their throat. The quarterbacks position is a perfect example. Unitas had his own style. Bob Griese was very different from Unitas, and Dan Marino, they were all different players and different personalities. You have to try to adjust to get the most out of their talents.”
“Society changes and Don changed with it,” Griese told The Sporting News in 1996. “But I would have to think that things might have been a little more fun for him before life got more complex. One of his gifts, though, was he never looked back and worried about the past. He was always moving on, looking at the future and how he could win.”
Shula’s Hall of Fame legacy can be summed up in many ways: the record number of wins, two Super Bowl titles, having a winning season in his first and 33rd seasons as a head coach. But all of that can be traced back to Shula making sure his teams focused on the players, not his scheme or style. That’s the sign of a great coach, and not many were greater than Shula.
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