SAN DIEGO -- We are on the cusp of a coronation. There is a fellow among us so wonderously gifted as to ascend among the Football Deities should his team win Super Bowl XXII today. And, no, he is not the Denver quarterback.

Even before this unique season kicked off, a respected researcher, Peter Hirdt, did some serious thinking and determined that the Redskins' Joe Gibbs is the greatest coach in the history of the NFL.

The best.

Of all time.

Better than George Halas, who won more games than any other NFL coach ever but who couldn't crack this top 10. Far better than Tom Landry and Don Shula. Or Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls.

We had better be prepared for this order of NFL leaders: (2) Vince Lombardi, (1) Joe Gibbs. Hirdt says it's that way right now, and others surely will agree if the Redskins win their second Super Bowl in five years.

I'm not so sure.

Hirdt's argument is reasonable enough; his method seems as good as any in an exercise impossible to measure exactly. His standard: which coach means the most to his team?

He says Gibbs.

Hirdt arrived at this somewhat surprising conclusion this way: he measured the difference between the number of games each coach's team won against the number of games it was supposed to have won.

"Gibbs made a difference of an additional 2.20 wins per season during his first six years with the Washington Redskins," Hirdt wrote in the most recent issue of Sport Magazine.

Lombardi was second, with an average of 2.14 victories per season. John Madden (1.75) was third, Shula (1.42) sixth, George Allen (1.30) seventh and Landry (0.90) tenth.

The major problem is the highly subjective business of how many games a coach is expected to win each season. The gambling lines from Las Vegas, for instance, are only a reflection of public opinion.

Hirdt says he's "refined a system" that analyzes a team's record and patterns of improvement or deterioration over its three most recent seasons.

That determines how many games the team should have won, he says, without factoring the effect of the teams's coach into the equation. The difference between that number and the actual number of victories Hirdt attributes to the coach.

"Certainly," Hirdt admits, "our rating system leaves some room for error, though, we assure you, not so much room that we've unfairly tarnished the reputations of any false gods."

He is referring to such alleged geniuses as Bill Walsh (0.77), Paul Brown (0.55 wins per 16 games) and Sid Gillman (minus 0.03).

Of coaches active this past season, Gibbs ranks second, behind Raymond Berry of the Patriots, who was responsible for 2.29 victories per 16 games. Hirdt says Berry and the Bears' Mike Ditka (2.19) have not coached long enough for their records to be statistically valid.

Hirdt thought 100 games was the appropriate cutoff; Gibbs hit that figure precisely before this season, winning 71 games and losing 29. According to Hirdt, the Redskins were expected to win 57 of those games.

"Considering the comfortable margin of Gibbs' lead over all the coaches with at least 100 games, except Vince Lombardi," Hirdt says, "my guess is that 10 years from now, it will be a lot easier to convince the football world that Gibbs is one of the two best coaches in NFL history."


Ironically, if Hirdt had waited until after this season to compile his ratings, Gibbs very likely would have trailed Lombardi. Based on Hirdt's logic, Gibbs actually had an indifferent year at best.

Consider: the Redskins were coming off a season in which they were runnersup to the Giants in the NFC. I don't pay much attention to odds; I do imagine Washington was favored in three of the games it lost (to the Falcons, the Eagles and the Rams).

Contrary to what Gibbs insisted, the Redskins were favored in strike games against the Cardinals and Giants. Beating the Cowboys in Dallas was a significant upset.

In the playoffs, the Redskins were underdogs against the Bears, on the road, and favorites against the Vikings, at home. Probably, the only regular-season game the Redskins won that they should not have was against the Vikings in Minnesota.

This does not lower my respect for Gibbs. Long before Hirdt's analysis hit the streets, I wrote that Gibbs and his staff were the best in football and that that the Redskins needed success in this Super Bowl to be the team of the '80s.

Even then, I didn't think Gibbs should top the all-time list. I don't think six years is long enough to get a true measure of a coach. Or even seven. Ten seasons seems the proper cutoff.

That qualifies Lombardi, who coached nine years with the Packers and one with the Redskins. I make Lombardi second on my all-time list just now, behind . . .

Tom Landry.

I think Landry is the most creative coach who ever stalked a sideline, I think his 21 straight non-losing seasons is astonishing, I think being with one team his entire career actually hurts Landry, and Hirdt agrees.

"To some degree," Hirdt writes, "Landry has paid the price for coaching one of the best teams in the NFL for such a long time . . . It's tough to squeeze a few more victories out of teams expected to lose only four or five games to begin with."

Hirdt also admits that there were six-year periods in which Landry, Lombardi, Shula, Madden and Allen surpassed Gibbs. "Gibbs' standing is no fluke," Hirdt says.

No argument here.

I just think he needs a bit more seasoning. A touch more gray around the temples. Let's see what the numbers say three years down the line.