NFL history proves one of the greatest ways to turn a team around is by bringing a new head coach and quarterback together in the same year. Join them at the hip, and hope they do great things together.
Some of the best teams in the league right now have followed that plan, including the New England Patriots, New York Giants and New Orleans Saints, though none of them have done it the way two current teams are trying.
The Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins are trying to get their turnaround started in the 2012 season. They both have rookie head coaches (Chuck Pagano and Joe Philbin) and used a first-round draft pick on a quarterback (Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill).
Of course, these franchises are essentially trying to replace legends like Peyton Manning and Dan Marino, so there is a little added pressure to the rookies.
In the Super Bowl era, these are the 31st and 32nd times a team hired a first-time NFL head coach and used a first-round pick on a quarterback. It clearly does not work out every time, but we will take a look at them all (see table for list).
Overall, I found 80 cases in the Super Bowl era of a team acquiring a new head coach and quarterback in the same season. This is not a 100 percent comprehensive list, but it will certainly provide enough examples to study.
The pre-Super Bowl era was tougher to analyze, though special mention for Otto Graham and Paul Brown in Cleveland. Whether it was the AAFC in 1946 or the NFL in 1950, those two were always together and never missed a championship game.
Breaking Down the Pairs by Type
Before getting into the tiers of success, here is a summary of the different types of pairings.
I broke each down by looking at the head coach and noting how many NFL head coaching jobs he has had. Then I looked at how they acquired the quarterback. The three options were the draft (noting the round and selection number), trade or free agency.
Obviously the coach’s experience is important, and even more so the value of draft pick used on the quarterback.
Situations involving an interim coach from the year before being promoted to head coach were not used, since that is not the same as hiring someone new. This is why you will not see the 1995 Houston Oilers (Jeff Fisher/Steve McNair) or 2011 Minnesota Vikings (Leslie Frazier/Christian Ponder).
The record only includes the quarterback’s regular-season record as a starter in games under that head coach. If a coach was fired during the season, those games were not included. Half wins and losses are merely a result of ties.
The results say this is far more likely to happen with a first-time head coach, as was the case in 58 of the 80 examples. Also, 39 of the 45 drafted quarterbacks were taken in the first round.
The Pagano/Luck and Philbin/Tannehill type of pairing is by far the most common with 32 examples, with the next-closest type being a first-time head coach with a quarterback acquired via trade (13 examples).
Do not read too closely into the records, especially for the rows with few cases. Even for the second-time head coach with any quarterback (.563), that record is largely inflated by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s 124-35 record. Without the outlier of all outliers, it is .517, or right in the ballpark with the first-time coaches who are .527 collectively.
Besides, Belichick probably thought he was going to be paired up with Drew Bledsoe long-term when he took the job. But things happened, and there arguably has not been a more successful pairing.
The Most Successful Pairings
We start with the best of the bunch, including three active pairings, and these are all going to be a subjective ranking that takes into account draft status and long-term success.
If you are a fan of Indianapolis or Miami, this is exactly where you want to show up one day, though the odds are stacked against you.
These are the long-term successful pairings. Leaders of teams that likely won at least one Super Bowl or at least made it to the big game.
Only nine out of 80 make this list—seven different Super Bowl champions, while Reid/McNabb (0-1) and Levy/Kelly (0-4) got that far. Levy is a debatable inclusion, as he came to Buffalo in 1986 when Kelly did after the USFL folded, and Levy became the interim head coach during the last seven games of the season.
Jim McMahon looks out of place with the rest of these quarterbacks, but when he was in the lineup, Chicago rarely lost, going 46-15 (.754) in the regular season and winning Super Bowl XX.
As great as the offense has been in New Orleans with Sean Payton and Drew Brees, they would have to go at least 62-2 in their next four full seasons together to match where Brady and Belichick are in record through 159 games. And they are not finished yet.
Belichick and Brady would be the undisputed best had it not been for the pairing of Tom Coughlin/Eli Manning winning the last two Super Bowl matchups.
Moderate Success Pairings
The next 20 pairings are those that had a decent amount of success, have been pretty good, but not quite great. That means no championships or elite records from this bunch.
We have three active pairings who have had a lot of success in the last three or four seasons. The Ravens and Jets have lost a pair of AFC championship games, while the Falcons under Matt Ryan/Mike Smith have had a winning record the last four seasons (but an 0-3 playoff record).
In fact, few or no playoff wins were a common theme for this group.
Thinking he could have won a championship with him in St. Louis, Dick Vermeil gave Trent Green another shot in 2001 with a trade to the Kansas City Chiefs. What followed was a very prolific offense for the five seasons together, but just a record of 0-1 in the postseason.
This list includes two of the all-time great single-season turnarounds in NFL history, which just so happen to involve the inspiration for this retrospective: the Colts and Dolphins.
First it was Peyton Manning and Jim Mora going from 3-13 in their rookie season of 1998 to 13-3 in 1999.
The 10-win turnaround set an NFL record that was matched by Tony Sparano and Chad Pennington in 2008, when the Dolphins unleashed the Wildcat and turned a 1-15 2007 season into 11-5 and the AFC East title.
However, neither was able to win a playoff game together, and both Sparano and Pennington are out of Miami. Mora was out of Indianapolis after four seasons and retired 0-6 in the postseason.
That’s twice as bad as Marvin Lewis’ 0-3 playoff record in Cincinnati, with two of those losses coming during the Carson Palmer era.
Jim Haslett and Aaron Brooks brought New Orleans the playoff win Mora never did in the 2000 season. It did not get much better afterwards, however. Same can be said for Dave Wannstedt and Jay Fiedler in Miami, who picked up the Dolphins’ most recent playoff win in their first year together, which came against the Manning/Mora Colts, bringing us full circle.
But this list may be marked best by the seven Super Bowl losers:
- Dan Reeves managed to get Atlanta to a Super Bowl in 1998 with Chris Chandler having a fantastic season. However, he was clobbered by former quarterback John Elway and the Denver Broncos.
- Bill Parcells rode Drew Bledsoe’s arm to a Super Bowl appearance in 1996 before moving on again.
- Even Bobby Ross and Stan Humphries somehow managed a Super Bowl loss in the 1994 season.
- Sam Wyche and Boomer Esiason were one stop away from beating the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII. That one win would make Bengals fans forget about their mediocre 54-53 record together.
- Red Miller had a fantastic 12-2 rookie season with veteran Craig Morton at quarterback in 1977, but Denver was demolished 27-10 in the Super Bowl by Dallas.
- Despite having Sonny Jurgensen, the sly George Allen traded for Billy Kilmer in 1971. A year later, behind Kilmer, Washington reached their first Super Bowl, losing to the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
- As a couple of CFL-ers, Bud Grant and Joe Kapp joined the Vikings in 1967, and by 1969 Kapp was in the Pro Bowl, leading Minnesota to a 12-1 record in 13 starts. However, Kansas City embarrassed the Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
The Average or One-Year Wonder Pairings
Instead of just using three groups, I wanted to make note of 12 pairings that were not exactly terrible, but also were not that good. You could also consider this the “one-year wonder” group for many of the examples.
Talk about one-and-done; look at the case of the 2000 New York Jets. They promoted Bill Belichick to head coach, but after one day as coach, he shockingly resigned and took the New England job instead.
The Jets then chose linebackers coach Al Groh as their next head coach, and he drafted Chad Pennington in the first round of the 2000 draft. Pennington rode the bench all year, Groh’s Jets went 9-7 under Vinny Testaverde, and he was off to the University of Virginia to coach college football without ever giving Pennington a start.
Here are eight cases of one-year wonders:
- While Matt Cassel struggled under Todd Haley in 2009 and 2011, Kansas City went 10-6 and won the AFC West in between. Of course the Ravens destroyed them at home, 30-7, and now Haley is in Pittsburgh.
- Josh Freeman led Raheem Morris’ Buccaneers to a 10-6 record in 2010, but after a 4-2 start last year, Tampa Bay ended on a 10-game losing streak, and Morris was fired.
- Nick Saban’s first year saw him use veteran Gus Frerotte at quarterback, who was let go after going 9-6 as a starter in 2005. Then Saban destroyed his NFL career by favoring Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees in free agency.
- Joe Gibbs removed Steve Spurrier’s trash on his return to Washington, replacing Patrick Ramsey with veteran Mark Brunell as the starter. They made the playoffs in 2005, but Brunell was only 3-6 in each of the other two seasons with Gibbs.
- Jack Del Rio used the No. 7 pick in the 2003 draft on Byron Leftwich, but it only resulted in one postseason appearance (2005) in four seasons, as David Garrard proved to be the better player.
- Dom Capers started his job with the expansion Carolina Panthers by taking Kerry Collins with the No. 5 pick in the 1995 draft. They would reach the NFC Championship in 1996, but Collins regressed and was waived in 1998.
- Hothead Jeff George may have led Atlanta to the playoffs in 1995, but an infamous dispute with coach June Jones in 1996 led to George being traded to Oakland after the season.
- Scott Hunter was just a sixth-round pick in 1971, but he managed to go 10-4 as a starter in 1972, putting Green Bay in the playoffs for coach Dan Devine. Hunter started five more games for Green Bay and had a 49.0 passer rating in 35 games with the team.
In coaching the expansion Seattle Seahawks in 1976, Jack Patera’s team signed undrafted free agent Jim Zorn, and he would eventually connect with Steve Largent on two 9-7 seasons, but never a playoff appearance in the seven years together. Call Patera a two-year wonder.
Likewise, veteran signal-caller Charley Johnson under coach John Ralston led Denver to their first two winning seasons in 1973-74, but never to the playoffs.
The Pairings That Failed
Time for the largest group, which means 34 failures. These are the ones that just never clicked, and sometimes it was only the fault of either the coach or quarterback. But often, both guys never worked in that city.
This is exactly where you do not want to end up, but it has been the most common result. It would be an even larger list if I tried including every little late-round pick or scrub free-agent backup move that a new coach just so happened to make.
We have seen some recent trades that reeked:
- Mike Shanahan was expected to get a lot out of Donovan McNabb in Washington, but the season ended with McNabb being benched for Rex Grossman. Enough said.
- Pete Carroll pulled off a bizarre trade to acquire expert clipboard-holder Charlie Whitehurst from San Diego. After four starts in Seattle, Whitehurst is right back with the Chargers.
- Josh McDaniels shocked everyone when he traded Jay Cutler for Kyle Orton, but he was looking like a genius early on. Though, after a 6-0 start, McDaniels went 5-17 and was fired.
Then you have the horrific draft picks of 2007, starting with JaMarcus Russell first overall. Lane Kiffin never got over it and was fired after five starts by Russell. That is only one more than John Beck (0-4) had in Miami during Cam Cameron’s 1-15 disaster in 2007.
If there is anything that can make an Oakland fan more depressed, it might be the fact that there was actually a brief Art Shell/Aaron Brooks era in 2006, which produced a 0-8 record.
At least Art Shell was good in his first stint with the Raiders, which came after Mike Shanahan was fired by Al Davis on his first coaching job. Shanahan did not make it work with Jay Schroeder in 1988, who was acquired via trade.
Mike Nolan tied his job security to Alex Smith with the first pick in 2005, but after getting the slow-developing Smith years, he was fired.
At least Nolan got 30 starts with his quarterback, which was 22 more than Mike Mularkey had with first-round pick J.P. Losman (1-7 in 2005). Mularkey was gone long before we had undeniable proof Losman was a huge letdown from the great 2004 quarterback class.
Dick Jauron actually survived the Cade McNown pick in 1999 by going 13-3 in 2001 without him. Chris Palmer was not so lucky, going 5-27 in his two seasons with the expansion Browns, who picked Tim Couch No. 1 overall in 1999. However, Couch was about the least of Cleveland’s problems at the time.
In the battle for Ohio’s worst, the dishonor must go to the 1992 Cincinnati Bengals for hiring David Shula and drafting David Klingler with the No. 6 pick. Klingler was 4-20 as a starter under Shula; that would be the equivalent of drafting Graham Harrell high in the draft today.
What could Mike Ditka possibly want with Heath Shuler on the 1997 New Orleans Saints? He already had Billy Joe Hobert, Danny Wuerffel and Doug Nussmeier, for crying out loud. They collectively had a 49.4 passer rating in 1997.
Was Ditka just trying to ensure he had the worst group of quarterbacks in the modern era? It took Ditka three seasons in New Orleans to match the win total of his 1985 Chicago Bears. That’s 15, but it came with 33 losses this time.
Norv Turner did not survive the wrath of Al Davis when his Kerry Collins free-agency experiment failed (7-21 record). However, Turner did survive the No. 3 overall pick of Heath Shuler in 1994 when he started his head coaching career in Washington. Turner lasted until the 2000 season.
In 1997, rookie Steve Mariucci drafted Jim Druckenmiller with the 26th pick in the draft. This was seen as a successor to Steve Young, but Druckenmiller managed one start in his career and deserves mention as one of the worst quarterbacks ever taken in the first round.
Sometimes a decent quarterback is taken, but the coach does not last long enough to savor the experience. This happened twice with the Houston Oilers. First it was Dan Pastorini, drafted third in 1971, for Ed Hughes, who lasted just one season.
Over a decade later, the Oilers landed CFL-great Warren Moon for new coach Hugh Campbell, but Campbell would be gone after just two seasons.
Ray Perkins drafted Phil Simms No. 7 in 1979 with the Giants, and then Vinny Testaverde No. 1 in 1987 with the Buccaneers. But Perkins lost in both places and was just 42-75 (.359) as a head coach.
Perkins also had to watch Bill Parcells win a Super Bowl with Simms, and years later reach the AFC Championship with Testaverde and the 1998 Jets.
Steve Spurrier took Patrick Ramsey out of Tulane for his run-and-gun offense, but it was a complete failure at the NFL level. Speaking of complete failures, Spurrier was the sacrificial lamb quarterback for John McKay’s expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976. Spurrier was 0-12 as a starter.
The Colts make the list twice from when they were in Baltimore. First it was Howard Schnellenberger in 1973 when the Colts drafted Bert Jones with the No. 3 pick. Jones would become a very good quarterback, but not under Schnellenberger, who was 4-13 before being fired in 1974.
With Jones gone after the 1981 season, the Colts looked to start over. They hired Frank Kush as head coach and drafted Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter with the No. 4 pick in the 1982 draft.
Beaten for the starting job, Schlichter gambled thousands of dollars away as the Colts went 0-8-1 in the strike-shortened season. After being suspended by the league for his serious gambling problem, Schlichter returned in 1984.
With the season already out of hand, Schlichter finally started for the Colts, losing four games before Kush simply called it quits.
Finally, going back to 1966 and the expansion Miami Dolphins, coach George Wilson drafted Rick Norton with the second overall pick. Norton was a horrific quarterback, with a career passer rating of 30.0 to go along with seven touchdowns to 30 interceptions.
So it may not have been much of a surprise when the Dolphins picked Bob Griese with the No. 4 pick in the 1967 draft.
The Active Pairings
Doing the math, 75 of 80 pairings have been accounted for. Five active ones were omitted, as we do not have enough information yet.
Here is a list of all 11 active pairings.
Jim Schwartz and Matthew Stafford appear headed on the right path after last season’s playoff berth in Detroit. We should get to see what Jake Locker will do under Mike Munchak this season. Cam Newton and Ron Rivera have plenty of time to get better in Carolina.
That just leaves our two rookie situations in Indianapolis and Miami. Where will they fall one day on these lists?
We have seen that a quarterback can survive a bad coach, just as a coach can survive a bad quarterback. However, the latter is more difficult, since so much of their job security will be riding on starting that quarterback.
Just based on all the feelings and expectations surrounding the four people, this is what I would say is the safe bet.
Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano will have moderate success together in Indianapolis, but Luck will have a better NFL career than Pagano. Think of it as a Peyton Manning/Jim Mora situation again, when Peyton got better under his next coach (Tony Dungy).
Ryan Tannehill and Joe Philbin will have average success. Perhaps they'll even fail together in Miami, but Philbin will have a better NFL career than Tannehill. I have the example of Dick Jauron and Cade McNown in mind here.
Cue the angry Miami fans, but that is the beauty of the NFL. You never know when a sixth-round pick is going to join a retread coach as an all-time winner, or when that top-five pick immediately becomes a huge bust.
Should the Dolphins or Colts ascend to the NFL's elite ranks or plunge to the cellar the next few years, we will know exactly the moment it all began. It was when they started this era with a new head coach and quarterback.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer and researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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