I had to be reminded that Don Shula coached the Baltimore Colts once upon a time. It started before the Super Bowl era. And his most-known accomplishment there was losing to Joe Namath’s side-burned and overrated ass. And really, Shula’s legacy will be that he was “there.” Much like a baseball season. Comforting in its routine for 33 years, 26 of them in Miami.
The funny thing is that even though Shula’s 26 seasons only included two Super Bowl wins, and they were in his third and fourth seasons in Miami, he took the Dolphins’ relevancy with him. Since his departure after the 1995 season, the Dolphins haven’t seen an AFC Championship game, nor more than 11 wins in a season, and just seven playoff appearances in 26 seasons, including two in the last 18 seasons. Have the Dolphins even been “there?” Does any NFL fan think about them outside of the week when your team is playing them? You forget they even exist. Perhaps Shula and the Dolphins even being “there” is an accomplishment in itself.
Shula has two records that are likely to never be broken. That’s up to Bill Belichick. Belichick is 55 regular-season wins behind Shula’s 328, which if he were willing to stick around for another seven or eight seasons, he could get. That would involve him coaching until he’s around 75, but then again it’s hard to picture what the fuck else Belichick would do with his time (at some point he’ll age past other people’s wives, you’d assume). That would also see him pass Shula’s 33 years as coach, second behind George Halas. But as Halas owned the team, it was a little tricky to see him getting fired or being replaced. If Belichick turns down those opportunities, then Shula will stand alone. Belichick doesn’t need it of course, as his legacy is cemented by things more important than longevity.
That’s the thing about longevity. Sometimes, a lot of times, it’s a mark of true excellence that you get to stick around. Other times, it’s because no one could think of anything else. Shula feels like he’s in the middle of that somewhere.
Shula’s main accomplishment was the undefeated season of ’72, which to fans who weren’t even born then have learned to become significantly annoyed by (Dear Murder Hornets, please target Mercury Morris). The undefeated Dolphins feel like more a statistical anomaly than some grand accomplishment. They didn’t redefine the game in any way. Their only discernible trait is that they were pretty boring and just happened to not lose a game. They didn’t throttle people like the ’85 Bears. They didn’t have a three-ring offense like the ’07 Patriots. They didn’t change the way offense was played like the ’80s Niners or how teams were built like the ’90s Cowboys. Teams have won more than their 17 combined games (’84 Niners.’85 Bears, ’07 Patriots). But because they didn’t happen to have a really bad day, we’ve been putting up with them ever since.
Shula was able to keep the Dolphins’ job for another 23 years, only winning the Super Bowl the year after perfection. Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was holding that job for so long without claiming the main prize again. On the other side, in those 23 years, Shula’s teams only finished below .500 twice. Again, he and the Dolphins were just there, without making too much of a fuss or hogging the hors d’oeuvres or throwing up on the bartender.
It’s in how you define it. Most coaches would murder most of their family for that kind of consistency in the regular season (most coaches would murder their family for interrupting film study on Christmas morning, to be fair). But these days it’s either you won the thing or you didn’t.
Shula was provided the biggest tool you need to win a Super Bowl, and that’s a historic quarterback. He and Dan Marino only managed one Super Bowl appearance, where they got brained by the far more interesting Niners in Super Bowl XIX. Given the one-off nature of football, perhaps you could run those seasons over again in a parallel universe and the Dolphins would get the one game they needed. Maybe they’d get a rematch with the ‘85 Bears in the Super Bowl (after ending Chicago’s perfect bid one Monday night late that season) instead of coughing up a hairball against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Maybe Jim Kelly or Joe Montana could have had an off-day. But they didn’t, and here we are. Or perhaps Shula could have bothered to construct a defense that was more than kindergarten recess. Either or.
What we know is that no coach after Belichick and Shula will coach for over 25 years and win 300+ games. The job is too stressful, the owners and fans and media too demanding. Returning 10 wins every year is good, but it’s not good enough after not too long. Football is no different than other sports in that fashion. The list of coaches who go from championship to grabbing moving boxes at the office in less than five years is getting longer quickly. No one will ever be allowed to wander around trying to find the bathroom again for anything close to 22 years again like Shula was.
Don Shula’s legacy is that he was good enough for a long time. A time when it was just assumed if you were good enough for a long enough time, eventually things would break your way. He’ll probably be the last in the NFL. That’s something. What it is, I have no idea. Much like Shula.