Friday, May 23, 2014

Weeb Ewbank is a Pillar of the NFL: One of the Greatest Coaches in NFL History

Weeb Ewbank is one of the coaches who is often overlooked in discussions about the greatest coaches in NFL history.  I believe there are two reasons for this.

One, when Ewbank won his Championships he had two superstar quarterbacks in Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.  Two, his overall NFL record was 134-130-7.  The criteria used in our book  Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Won Three or More Championships to rate the top coaches was pure and simple--results.  Ewbank won two championships with the Colts--1958 and 1959, and he won with the Jets in 1969 (for the 1968 season). There are only ten coaches to win three or more championships and Weeb Ewbank is one of the them.

Oddly enough, in ESPN's Greatest Coaches in NFL History, Ewbank is not even in the top 20! 

Ewbank signed Johnny Unitas to play in 1956 after the Steelers let him go.  The Steelers are often blamed mercilessly for this, but Unitas was a tall skinny kid who had been overlooked by many other football teams.

Ewbank had just taken over the reigns of the Colts in 1954 -- they were essentially a new team.  The 1953 Colts had replaced the Dallas Texans expansion team that folded after one season. Of the 39 players on the 1953 Colts, Ewbank kept only 19 for 1954.  He had to build from the ground-up. Building an expansion team takes time and it also adds many losses to a coach's career record. 

Once he had Unitas, at least a big part of Ewbank's offense was in good hands.  Working with Unitas must have been a joy in some ways.  He was not only committed to becoming the best, but he was one of those players who had high expectations for his teammates and would work hard with them to help them achieve.  But by the same token, Unitas would not have been an easy man to manage if you were a coach who had a large ego.  But to his credit, Ewbank was results driven and patient.  He didn't seem to mind that Unitas would be the  larger than life figure for the Colts.  Johnny U. was the archetype quarterback, the hardest working man on the field with tremendous leadership qualities. 

Ewbank had to build up what was essentially an expansion team and it took three miserable years for his team to become respectable. In Ewbank's fourth year, the Colts notched a 7-5 season.  In 1958 and 1959, the Colts were the best of the best--the NFL Champions.  Three decent seasons (6-6, 8-6, and 7-7) followed in part because Unitas's interceptions jumped way up, but it also had something to do with the Colts defense that was in need of rebuilding.  Ewbank was fired, but he was welcomed in New York where another new team needed to built from the ground up.

The American League New York Titans football team that began in 1960 was a financial flop and a syndicate of five men purchased the team, changed the name, and hired Weeb Ewbank as coach and general manager. Ewbank was able to pick up some players he knew from his days with the Colts, but he relied mostly on the draft to build a winning team in New York.  His first Jets' season was 1963.  The Jets building process would take a little longer than the Colts although the Jets managed a respectable record before Ewbank's arrival. In Ewbank's third season, Jets President Sonny Werblin signed Joe Namath in New York fashion--Namath received big money and a big car to boot--a Lincoln Continental.  In 1968, the Jets won the Super Bowl and thus the championship.

And although Namath certainly  had much to do with the success of the team, he could be inconsistent.  But it was a tough defense and a ball control conservative offense that would win the day for the Jets in Super Bowl III.  The Jets had a good 10-4 season in 1969, but a tight budget and aging stars helped make the next four seasons half mediocre and half bad.  Namath had more than his share of injuries, but not enough to cause the team to replace him.

When Ewbank retired from Coaching after the 1973 season, the Jets limped along until their next winning season in 1981.  Competing in New York was not easy for the franchise then and is not easy for the Jets now.

Weeb Ewbank had worked for two organizations who were struggling right from the start.  He was able to develop a championship program at each one.  He won three championships and he was an exceptional team-builder.  Weeb Ewbank was one of the greatest coaches in NFL history and he was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 1978.

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