Ranking the Top 5 Head Coaches in Buffalo Bills History


  • Marv Levy is the greatest head coach in Buffalo Bills history, taking the team to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s.
  • Lou Saban stands out as the only Bills head coach to lead the franchise to a championship.
  • Sean McDermott’s career in Buffalo has gotten off to a terrific start.

The Buffalo Bills have gained a reputation as a tragic franchise, one that, even at its height, has been plagued by failures.

The Bills were a strong team in the AFL but haven’t won a championship in the Super Bowl era, famously losing four consecutive title games in the early 1990s. Still, a franchise isn’t defined solely by its championships or lack thereof.

The Bills have had several successful coaching tenures, including double-digit win totals, postseason appearances, and Coach of the Year awards. Here’s a look at the five Bills head coaches who rise above the rest. With their football acumen and leadership, they elevated the organization in a way that others couldn’t.


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1 Marv Levy

Levy is one of the greatest NFL coaches to never win a championship

Marv Levy
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

The obsession with championship rings that has permeated the NFL has unfairly tarnished Marv Levy’s legacy. Of course, his failure to win the big game has changed the perception of his coaching career, but losing four consecutive Super Bowls obviously requires a team to make four straight Super Bowls.

Behind an offense led by Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas and a defense anchored by Bruce Smith, Levy’s Bills became the powerhouse of the AFC and made mincemeat of their opponents in the early 1990s.

During the team’s four Super Bowl runs from 1990 to 1993, Buffalo went 49-15 in the regular season and 9-4 in the playoffs. Levy is considered the greatest coach in Bills history by almost every metric.

He ranks first in regular season (112) and postseason (11) wins and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Levy spent the first five years of his head coaching career with the Kansas City Chiefs, but most remember him for his work on Buffalo’s sideline.

2 Lou Saban

Saban won multiple titles with Buffalo

Lou Saban
Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY Sports

Lou Saban is the only coach in Bills history to be remembered as a champion.

Saban coached the Bills to back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 and was named AFL Coach of the Year in 1965. He adopted a utilitarian approach and understood how different players were meant to be used. This, paired with Saban’s emphasis on technique, made him a successful coach.

After abruptly leaving the Bills in 1966 to take the head job at the University of Maryland, Saban returned to the pros in 1967 with the Denver Broncos, with whom he greatly struggled, going 20-42-3.

He then returned to Buffalo in 1972 and posted three consecutive winning seasons. Saban went 68-45-4 in his nine years in Buffalo and is responsible for both of the franchise’s championships. What eluded Saban during his career was stability.

He held numerous head coaching jobs at the professional and collegiate levels but was often fired or left on his own before his vision had a chance to play out. In total, he was a head coach for 20 different teams, yet his only major championships came with Buffalo.

3 Sean McDermott

McDermott’s tenure has been very successful so far

Bills HC Sean McDermott on the sidelines during a game.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Since taking over in 2017, Sean McDermott has turned the Bills into a consistent postseason team. He’s already second in franchise history in regular season and postseason wins, and his .640 winning percentage ranks first among Bills coaches.

The Bills have made the playoffs in six of McDermott’s seven seasons, with the only exception being 2018, Josh Allen’s year. Buffalo has won 10 or more games in five straight seasons and won the AFC East four consecutive times. Whereas many of the game’s top coaches today excel on the offensive side of the ball, McDermott is a defensive mind who is in charge of game management.

While he occasionally comes under fire for a questionable fourth-down decision or poor clock management, McDermott mostly gets the job done. As Josh Allen approaches his 30th birthday, there is growing pressure on the Bills to win in the postseason.

McDermott is only 5-6 in the playoffs, and Buffalo hasn’t reached the AFC Championship Game since 2020. It will be up to McDermott and his revamped roster to do what previous Bills teams could not. Otherwise, his job stability may be questioned.

4 Chuck Knox

Knox was better known for his work outside of Buffalo

Chuck Knox
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Chuck Knox is the only coach in league history to win NFL Coach of the Year for three separate organizations, doing so for the Bills, the Los Angeles Rams, and the Seattle Seahawks.

With Buffalo, Knox went 37-36 in five seasons, his worst record for a single team during his coaching career. Nevertheless, there were some bright spots. The Bills went 11-5 in 1980, which earned Knox his second Coach of the Year nod.

Buffalo then followed up with 10 wins in 1981 and a playoff victory. The Bills went 4-5 in the 1982 strike-shortened campaign, and Knox left for Seattle the next season. One of his strengths as a coach was his attention to detail, specifically with run blocking. His offensive lines were always technically sound and displayed excellent fundamentals.

This provided a strong foundation for all of his offenses and explains why he won division titles with three different teams. Perhaps the best way to understand Knox’s impact is to view the Buffalo teams that immediately preceded and followed him. The Bills went 5-23 in the two years before Knox was hired and 16-48 in the four seasons after his departure.

5 Wade Phillips

Phillips’ loyalty resulted in a premature firing

Wade Phillips Buffalo Bills
Rick Stewart/Stringer/Getty Images

Defensive guru Wade Phillips only coached for three seasons in Buffalo, but during that time, he compiled enough wins (29) to put him in the top five in franchise history and posted the third-highest win percentage behind only Levy and McDermott.

Phillips was hired after Levy walked away from coaching in 1998, and following the greatest coach in franchise history came with its share of challenges. However, he succeeded early on and made the playoffs in his first two seasons.

While it seemed that Phillips had built up some job security, he was fired after the 2000 season. Buffalo went 8-8, which wouldn’t normally be considered a fireable offense, but things reached a tipping point when Phillips refused to fire his special teams coach, Ronnie Jones.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson instructed Phillips to do so, and after the head coach made it clear they were a package deal, Buffalo’s ownership made the decision to let them both go.

This loyalty and trust in his staff is a prime example of why Phillips was so well respected by his peers. He went on to coach for the Dallas Cowboys and was also an interim head coach for the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans following his run in Buffalo.

He is currently the head coach of the San Antonio Brahmas in the UFL and hasn’t coached in the NFL in any capacity since the 2019 season.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless stated otherwise.


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