The quarterback has always been the most important position in pro football, even in the days when the running game was dominant. Many fans don’t realize that quarterbacks called all the plays as late as the 1970s and into the early 1980s. So even if offenses weren’t quite as complex back then and great teams had excellent running games, having a field general like Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw or Roger Staubach was critical. As the NFL evolved into a more pass-happy league, an evolution that has accelerated in the last ten years with rules protecting the quarterbacks and defenseless receivers, the importance of the quarterback has only been magnified.
This reality makes the relationship between the head coach and the quarterback the most important in pro football. Look at the great teams over the years, and you see great partnerships between coach and quarterback leading to success on the field. It’s interesting to take a look back and see how these relationships took shape and see how they varied based on the situations and the personalities involved. Here are several interesting examples:
1-Bill Belichick and Tom Brady
Bill Belichick was known as a defensive genius when he took over the New England Patriots, but he was also known as a rigid coach who had a complete lack of imagination on offense as a result of his years as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Belichick wanted the quarterback to be just another position on the field as he didn’t seem to acknowledge the leadership qualities of the position. Tom Brady was a sixth round pick sitting on the bench behind Drew Bledsoe.
When Bledsoe got hurt, Belichick turned to Brady and immediately saw Brady’s talent, decision-making and leadership ability. When Bledsoe came back, Belichick decided to stay with Brady, which at the time was a controversial decision. They made it to the Super Bowl, and by then Belichick has so much confidence in Brady that he made the aggressive decision to drive down the field with little time left in the fourth quarter in a tie game against the Rams. John Madden famously said on television that the Patriots should have just run out the clock and took their chances in overtime. Instead, Brady drove the Pats down to the game-winning field goal.
Two more Super Bowls and one undefeated regular season later, this partnership between Belichick and Brady is one of the most successful in NFL history. Belichick and his offensive coaches let Brady achieve his full potential by becoming just as imaginative on offense as Belichick had been his whole career on defense. From year to year the Patriots would beat you in many different ways, and then they grabbed Randy Moss they were almost unbeatable.
2-Mike Shanahan and John Elway
John Elway is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Yet despite his heroics with “The Drive” and countless other games that he won on sheer athletic ability, Elway had never managed to win a Super Bowl. He never had a real running game, and the Denver defenses were routinely embarrassed in Super Bowls. Then Mike Shanahan arrived. Shanahan is a stubborn system guy, and since the John Elway days he’s not had nearly as much success with his arrogant attitude. But Shanahan’s system was exactly what Elway needed. Elway bought into the changes which placed more emphasis on a running game and a disciplined approach to the passing game, and the result was two Super Bowl titles.
3-Bill Walsh and Joe Montana
Bill Walsh was a system guy. He was an offensive genius who dominated the NFL with his West Coast offense, and he happened to find the perfect quarterback for his system in third-round draft pick Joe Montana. Montana was very accurate and incredibly smart, and he played the quarterback position flawlessly in this system. Of course the 49ers were loaded with talent on offense, but the natural relationship between Walsh and Montana set a standard that would be copied over and over again in the NFL. Look at Aaron Rodgers today, and you see flashes on what Walsh and Montana created thirty years ago. Rodgers and Mike McCarthy have forged a great relationship following the Brett Favre drama in Green Bay.
Of course there are exceptions that help prove the rule. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw never got along, but they managed to ride one of the best defenses in history plus a great running game to four Super Bowls, and Bradshaw thrived under pressure despite his frosty relationship with Noll. Bill Parcells was notorious for riding Phil Simms, and they had great success as well.
But there’s no doubt that the relationship between the head coach and the quarterback is usually a critical component to sustained success in the NFL. It will be interesting to see how young quarterbacks like Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford grow with their head coaches.