Reeves has wins, but many blemishes

One question following the firing of Dan Reeves is whether the former Falcons coach is Canton bound.

Updated: December 12, 2003, 9:59 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Now that the fait has connected with the accompli, and that months-long rumors surrounding the fate of Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves are now a reality, let the debate commence.

The one about who should replace Reeves as coach of a franchise that has never enjoyed consecutive winning seasons? The discussion about who would be the best man to nudge rising star Michael Vick even higher into the NFL firmament? All the talk-show rhetoric on who owner Arthur Blank can market as the next savior here?

Nah, a debate over whether Reeves, a throwback coach with admirable old-school values and a much-cited resume of success, will someday be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Somewhat surprisingly, when Reeves' name is put before the Hall selection committee, probably as early as next year, it figures to generate mixed reviews. Reeves is not, despite perceptions to the contrary, a slam-dunk for Canton, Ohio. That is not to say that, after a long career as a player and coach, and even a combination of those two professions for a couple seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, he isn't deserving of favorable scrutiny.

Reeves has devoted 38 of his 59 years to the NFL, all but one of the past 39 seasons, and essentially all his adult life to the game. In and of itself, that's sufficient accomplishment to merit consideration, and it is a track record that can't be matched even by some of the head coaches whose bronzed likenesses are already ensconced in the Hall of Fame.

But this is a business, as Blank demonstrated in his Tuesday meeting with Reeves, heavy into the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mindset. And, alas, probably a prism through which Reeves might be unfairly viewed is the train-wreck of a 2003 season that evolved when the Falcons lost their best player to injury in a meaningless preseason game.

Those conspiracy theorists who hinted Wednesday that the curious timing of Reeves' exit came about because Blank feared the Falcons might win the rest of their games with Vick having returned -- and that such a streak would make it difficult to dismiss his head coach -- are ill-advised. Team and league sources told ESPN.com on Wednesday the decision that Reeves would not return in 2004 was made some weeks ago.

The timing of the Reeves-Blank summit, a meeting at which Reeves essentially forced the issue, came about because there were too many leaks that the Falcons owner already has begun the process of background inquiries on potential replacements. If you have been around the NFL for nearly four decades, you have a pipeline to the grapevine, and Reeves knew there was too much smoke surrounding his lack of a future in Atlanta that it must have been spawned by a raging inferno of back room machinations.

All-time NFL coaching wins
Name Teams Wins
Don Shula Colts, Dolphins 347
George Halas Bears 324
Tom Landry Cowboys 270
Curly Lambeau Packers, Cardinals, Redskins 229
Chuck Noll Steelers 209
Dan Reeves Broncos, Giants, Falcons 201
We digress, though, in a discussion of Reeves' credential for hall of Fame consideration.

Digest these numbers: While he was the sixth winningest coach in NFL history, with his 201 victories exceeded only by five guys already in the Hall of Fame, Reeves also had the second-most defeats in league annals. Only his mentor, Tom Landry, lost more times than did Reeves, who owns 174 defeats.

Seven times over the last nine years of his career, Reeves posted losing marks, including five of his seven campaigns here. Reeves won 52 games with the Falcons, but exactly half those victories came in two seasons, the magical 1998 Super Bowl year and the '02 season. So in his five other seasons with the Falcons, he averaged about five victories. The current season marks the fifth time in the past nine years that a Reeves-coached club posted double-digit losses.

Over 23 seasons, Reeves has compiled a .536 winning percentage. The worst percentage for any coach currently in the Hall of Fame is Weeb Ewbanks', at .507, and no one else is below .541. Chuck Knox, who turned around three different program and never garners consideration for Hall of Fame honors, has a .550 winning mark. And, of course, most of his critics will point out that Reeves never won a Super Bowl in four attempts, and that his teams were defeated by an average of 27.8 points.

The thing is, Hall of Fame selectors are subjective beings, an assemblage of 38 which is bound to few objective guidelines. George Allen was chosen for the Hall of Fame in '02 with just 12 years of tenure and only 112 victories. As is the case with Reeves, highly regarded Marv Levy never won a Super Bowl title, and he also had four tries. Ditto Bud Grant. Hank Stram won just 136 games and he is the most recent coach elected.

But Stram was an innovator. Levy took four straight teams to the title game. Allen added elements to the game that were not there before his influence began to take hold. As for Reeves, well, he wasn't the Thomas Alva Edison of the coaching profession, but he was a man not as stolid in his thinking as some have purported, and no one could ever question his knowledge of the game or his will to win.

He never won a title without John Elway, though, a guarterback who will be elected to the Hall of Fame next month. And now, with the events of Wednesday morning, Reeves won't have the chance to compete for a Super Bowl with Michael Vick, either. For a man who devoted so much to the game, it would be a shame for his career to end on such a note, with some events that were out of his control.

And so the question becomes, in some quarters, not about the coach who eventually fills Dan Reeves' shoes. It becomes about whether Dan Reeves ever gets to put his shoes on the steps of the Hall of Fame. And on that question, the jury is out.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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