There is no player-coach relationship in sports so essential as the relationship between an NFL quarterback and his head coach.
It is the case for many reasons, but mostly because the buck often stops on either of those individuals' desk when things go awry on a football field. The destinies of a head coach and his quarterback are often intertwined, as a bad coach can mess up a good quarterback and a bad quarterback can easily get a good coach fired.
The relationship needs to work functionally as well. The QB is the extension of the head coach out on the field—both in terms of execution and emotion. Ask most head coaches and I'm sure they'd tell you that they would love to be out on the field, leading their team. With a good relationship with their quarterback, in many ways they are.
There simply is no comparison in every other major sport. College coaches can chew up and spit out quarterbacks as much as they want, so long as they have another prospect in the pipeline. In the NBA, superstar players are at a premium, and the relationship can often skew heavily toward the player. Pitchers and managers barely even have to get along in baseball. Heck, when you see a guy and half the time he's yanking you off the mound, who would?
Seriously, though, there's a bit of all those relationships rolled up into what goes on between an NFL quarterback and his head coach. Throw in some boxer-trainer metaphors and some golfer-caddie similes while you're at it, and you might start to get close to the importance of the chemistry here.
Longtime NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels explained the relationship to Bleacher Report:
"In healthy relationships between a quarterback and a head coach, there’s an understanding of what the group is trying to accomplish...how we talk about the team, how we talk to the media, etc...I think a lot of quarterbacks meet regularly with the head coach, and other positions don't have that."
It's no coincidence that many of the best quarterbacks of all time have a great head coach beside them.
Joe Montana and Steve Young had Bill Walsh. Dan Marino had Don Shula. Dan Fouts had Don Coryell. Johnny Unitas had Weeb Ewbank. Bart Starr had Vince Lombardi. Brett Favre had Mike Holmgren. Roger Staubach had Tom Landry. Peyton Manning had Tony Dungy. Tom Brady has Bill Belichick. Drew Brees has Sean Payton.
Chad Henne has Gus Bradley? OK, maybe not.
John Branch, writing at the time for the New York Times, helped quantify the nature of those relationships:
The Pro Football Hall of Fame showcases the tight bond. Unofficially, coaches and quarterbacks are often inducted as pairs. It is rare to have a Hall of Fame coach without a Hall of Fame quarterback.
Fifteen coaches of the past 50 years have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Thirteen of them had a Hall of Fame quarterback.
It's interesting that many of those top head coaches with great quarterbacks weren't necessarily naturally offensive-minded individuals.
|Top Quarterback-Coach Combos|
|Wins||QB||Coach||Coach's Previous Positions|
|136||Tom Brady||Bill Belichick||Defensive Coordinator, Secondary, Some minor offensive positional|
|116||Dan Marino||Don Shula||Defensive Coordinator|
|107||Terry Bradshaw||Chuck Noll||Defensive Coordinator, Secondary|
|99||Jim Kelly||Marv Levy||Special Teams|
|92||Donovan McNabb||Andy Reid||Quarterbacks, Offensive Line|
Now, mind you, that's just the top five, and the rest of the list has names like Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren, but also defensive-minded names like Tony Dungy and Tom Landry. So the relationship between head coach and quarterback doesn't have to be based on Xs and Os—it just has to be strong. Rosenfels did mention, however, that there's more of a silent understanding when the head coach knows what the quarterback is going through.
He mentioned New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin as a coach who appreciates this relationship:
"When I was in New York, Coughlin took the quarterbacks every Saturday morning and went through situations that had happened around the league…two-minute drills, when to call timeouts, going for it on fourth down, etc....I thought that was a great way to build a relationship with Eli."
Of course, those are situations when the relationship works out. Sometimes things get horribly dysfunctional in a hurry. In recent memory, at least, there's no better example than that of Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano and his former quarterback, Josh Freeman (now backup for the Minnesota Vikings).
Freeman wasn't Schiano's "guy." He'd been selected in 2009 by first-year general manager Mark Dominik for first-year head coach Raheem Morris. Freeman was, in every sense, Morris' guy. Morris, a young coach by NFL standards, was a players' coach. He would hang out with the Buccaneers players in social settings and pal around with them in ways that would make Belichick cringe.
If that seems like the polar opposite of everything you know about Schiano, you are correct.
If you're wondering if maybe Schiano's heavy-handed tactics were considered a huge positive after Morris' buddy-buddy routine, you would also be correct.
To say that Freeman bristled under Schiano's thumb would be an understatement. Almost immediately, there were rumors that Freeman was in Schiano's doghouse, and Freeman went from being a leader on the team to a problem child. It was no surprise when Tampa Bay finally cut ties with Freeman. Now, Schiano has "his" guy—at least temporarily—in Mike Glennon (though both may be in their positions temporarily).
In terms of unhealthy quarterback-head coach relationships, Rosenfels mentioned his rookie season in Washington, where Marty Schottenheimer and Jeff George didn't see eye to eye because of the differences in their schematic backgrounds. George was released just a few games into the 2001 season.
When the QB-coach relationship works, however, it's magic.
New England Patriots beat writer Christopher Price, writing for WEEI, explained one of the reasons the dynamic is so beneficial:
In a league that’s so quick to change -- quarterbacks, offenses, schemes and coaches -- even a couple of years together can go a long way. Before practice on Wednesday, Brady said having the chance to operate in the same system for such an extended period is “great for a quarterback.”
“There are certain plays in our offense that I’ve literally run thousands of times,” he said. “You make a lot of mistakes over the course of those plays, and you learn from them and hopefully you don’t make them again. It’s great for a quarterback to have that continuity with coaching, and obviously the terminology of the plays. It’s been a huge benefit.”
Consistency is an underrated part of NFL success. This year, due to injuries and some other factors, long-term powerhouses like the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons are down. However, because of the consistency between the head coaches and quarterbacks (not to mention front offices), it's impossible to count those teams out for long.
That consistency can't happen, though, without trust. Trust is next to impossible unless the two parties have proven themselves trustworthy. In the NFL, that means both talent and work ethic. So while it may seem pedantic to even lay out there, the formula is simple but elusive: Find the right people and keep them together.
Knee-jerk reactions are almost never good in any situation, but consistently operating under a "what have you done for me lately" mindset in the NFL can have disastrous long-term effects for a franchise. Don't believe me—just look at the Oakland Raiders under Al Davis, the Detroit Lions under Matt Millen, or the post-expansion Cleveland Browns.
For a positive example, consider long-time Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and his head coach Andy Reid. Together, the pair went to numerous NFC Championship Games and had a shot at Super Bowl glory. After years of never getting over the hump, however, McNabb and the Eagles parted ways. Neither McNabb nor Reid have come close to the success they had together. (Although, admittedly, Reid is having a pretty good first season in Kansas City with Alex Smith.)
Simply put, I don't believe either would have had the success they did without each other. The argument could be made that guys like Dan Marino and Don Shula would've been just fine without one another. However, it was the long-term consistency and strong relationship of McNabb and Reid that created a success greater than the sum of its parts.
While I typically hate "sports as war" analogies, permit me this one: If the head coach is the five-star general in charge of the war campaign, the quarterback needs to be his most trusted field leader. When the two are in lockstep, with a united goal, the rest of the team follows. When there's friction, it becomes that much more difficult to reach the proverbial mountaintop.