- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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In times of parity, coaching prevails. Just look at these playoffs.
Following a season in which NFL records were established with 13 double-digit winning and 13 double-digit losing teams, it's only fitting that perhaps the greatest collection of Super Bowl coaches would meet in the same playoffs. The coaching lineup is incredible: Mike Holmgren (Seattle), Bill Parcells (Dallas), Mike Shanahan (Denver), Brian Billick (Baltimore), Bill Belichick (New England) and Dick Vermeil (Kansas City).
Combined, those six coaches have eight Super Bowl rings. And the rest of the coaching cast isn't a bunch of slouches. Mike Martz (Rams) and Jeff Fisher (Titans) have each been to a Super Bowl. Andy Reid (Philadelphia) and Tony Dungy (Tampa Bay) have been knocking on the door for the longest time. Each has been to NFC championship games, only to fall short of the Super Bowl. Reid is trying to take the Eagles to their third consecutive NFC title game.
Mike Sherman (Green Bay) and John Fox (Carolina) are the least experienced in this group of modern-day legends, but they have earned some credibility. Sherman has taken the Packers to three consecutive postseasons. Fox has coached like a seasoned veteran in turning a one-win Panthers team from 2001 into a playoff squad two years later.
In other words, none of the coaches have much of an advantage over each other.
"I think there's an advantage to having been to the playoffs before and played in championship games and Super Bowls and things like that," Holmgren said. "I've always said the intensity level and the awareness and how you have to approach games changes when you get into the playoffs. As hard as you work during the regular season -- and everybody works hard -- it's just different in the playoffs. It's sudden death."
The maneuvering of the past couple of weeks illustrated these coaches knew what they were doing. Shanahan rested some of his starters against the Packers to get a fresh Broncos offense ready for the Colts. Billick used Jamal Lewis' near record-setting running numbers to keep his defense and offense sharp in the season finale.
Vermeil cleaned up some problems with his run defense against the Bears. Belichick managed to complete a 14-2 season that earned the Pats home-field advantage without adding to his team's injury total. And Holmgren got his team to play one of its best games to beat the 49ers on the road to make the playoffs.
"We had the sudden-death aspect of it last week," Holmgren said. "We played in our first playoff game last week. So we're one game ahead of where we were prior to that. But I'm sure experience and the number of guys you've had be in situations like that helps."
Playoffs as rich in coaching as this are rare. It happened in 1998 when Parcells, then with the Jets, battled Shanahan's Broncos and Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins. The Dolphins ran out of gas against the Broncos in the divisional round, and the Broncos beat the Jets to advance to the Super Bowl, winning a second title for John Elway.
This year's crop of coaching greats may match some years in the 1970s when Chuck Noll's Steelers, Don Shula's Dolphins and John Madden's Raiders regularly battled each other. But the 1970s were a different time. There was no salary cap. Teams could stay together longer and try to take runs at dynasties.
Now, even the best of franchises may make the playoffs in three of four years but can't dominate. In fact, Super Bowl rings can become a curse.
Expectations can sometimes be too high. Look at the Broncos. At midseason, the Denver press was writing off the Broncos and Shanahan. Danny Kanell was filling in for an injured Jake Plummer, and the Broncos were left for dead.
Shanahan pulled the team together and got to 10 wins. Now, because he's a two-time Super Bowl winner, expectations are high. But critics still remind him of his playoff record after Elway's retirement.
"I don't look at it from that concept ," Shanahan said. "There were guys named Terrell Davis, Gary Zimmerman, Steve Atwater, Howard Griffith -- a bunch of players that were a part of those championships. So yeah, we have some high expectations, and any time you fall short of those expectations it is disappointing.
"We have an opportunity right here to do something, and hopefully we can take advantage of it. Those years and those Super Bowls, we were quite lucky. We didn't lose very many players during that stretch. I think we lost one player in four years. That is kind of unusual there, too. So you have to be a little bit fortunate at the same time."
Parity may create future playoffs similar to these because it's becoming more and more impossible for Super Bowl teams to repeat. That gives more teams and more coaches the chance to earn rings. If anything, Parcells' success this year means teams in search of replacements will place a priority on coaches with previous experience.
Looking at the numbers closely, you can understand why. Seven coaches lost their jobs in the past week. Of the 25 remaining coaches, only five -- that's right, five -- have career losing records as a head coach. Which explains why Jim Fassell, 58-53 with the Giants, has been contacted by six of the seven teams. It explains why Arizona and Washington are recruiting Dennis Green hard and why Tom Coughlin is high on the Giants' list.
Winning is everything, and coaches with winning pasts are dangerous. Just ask Sherman, who has to worry about the Seahawks and Holmgren's experience even though his Packers are in their third consecutive playoff year.
"Obviously it's a tremendous factor in regards to preparation and mindset and the pitfalls that could occur," Sherman said. "Mike has seen it all and has been there so many times -- not just with the Packers. We did it there in Seattle and then he did it with the 49ers (as an assistant). He has seen a ton of playoff games and knows what it takes to win them and what to avoid in order not to lose them."
Home-field advantage will play a factor, not just because of the fans but because of the coaches who have the advantages. Fox is the only coach making his playoff debut, while eight of the other 11 have posted winning records -- Parcells 11-6, Holmgren 9-6, Shanahan 7-2, Vermeil 6-4, Fisher 4-3, Belichick 4-1, Billick 5-1 and Reid 4-3. The only ones without winning playoff records are Martz 2-2, Dungy 2-5 and Sherman 1-2.
Being outcoached may be impossible in these playoffs. There are too many good coaches.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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