Under the Headset  

 

Tom Brady, Bill Belichick display value of QB-coach combo

They didn't stop the game or take out a full-page ad in any newspaper, but another NFL record fell Sunday.

When Tom Brady threw his second scoring strike Sunday, a dink to Shane Vereen that went for 9 yards in the New England Patriots' comeback win over the Houston Texans, it marked his 353rd career passing touchdown -- all of which came with Bill Belichick as his coach. That broke the record of TD passes from a quarterback-coach combo, previously held by Dan Marino and Don Shula at 352.

Of course, Belichick and Brady were already the winningest coach-quarterback tandem in history, having played more games together than any other duo, too. Their success speaks volumes about the value of a solid coach-QB combination. Here are the five winningest combos of all time:

Coach/Quarterback Team Years Games W-L-T Winning percentage
Bill Belichick/Tom Brady New England Patriots 2001-present 187 145-42 .775
Don Shula/Dan Marino Miami Dolphins 1983-1995 184 116-68 .630
Chuck Noll/Terry Bradshaw Pittsburgh Steelers 1970-1983 158 107-51 .677
Marv Levy/Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills 1986-1996 151 99-52 .656
Hank Stram/Len Dawson Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs 1962-1974 152 92-52-8 .605

 

Belichick and Brady are still active, of course, but the other eight men on that list are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Each of those coaches were winners, innovators and unquestionably great. But consider their records without their marquee quarterbacks: Belichick, Noll, Levy and Stram all fall under .500 without Brady, Bradshaw, Kelly and Dawson, respectively. The amazing Shula was 212-88 without Marino, but he had two other Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese) playing for him.

(In case you're wondering, Otto Graham and Paul Brown had a sterling 57-13-1 record together in Graham's six NFL campaigns, but their first four seasons together -- when the Cleveland Browns went 47-4-3 -- aren't counted in official NFL records.)

What the statistics underscore is one very clear truth that perhaps is not emphasized enough: You can talk about building from the offensive and defensive lines, or establishing the defense first, or taking the best athlete available in the draft, but the first priority for any new coach is to find his quarterback, make sure he's got the right one and then stick with him. There is precious little leeway. If your initial QB doesn't flourish, you might get a second shot, but then again, you might not. While general managers often get the opportunity to hire at least two different coaches, the head coach often doesn't get a chance to draft or sign a second starting quarterback if the first one doesn't pan out.

Those judgments routinely make the difference in careers. In the 2008 NFL Draft, Mike Smith's Atlanta Falcons selected Matt Ryan, while John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens took Joe Flacco. Tony Sparano's Miami Dolphins, drafting before either of the aforementioned teams (and everyone else, for that matter), took Jake Long with the No. 1 overall pick. The left tackle is now playing elsewhere, and Sparano has long since lost that job.

Great coaches without quality quarterbacks tend to be a lot less accomplished. The examples are legion:

» Mike McCarthy is as fine a coach and play-caller as there is in the NFL, but his system doesn't work nearly as well when Aaron Rodgers isn't running it, as evidenced by the Green Bay Packers' 0-4-1 record since the quarterback broke his collarbone during the opening drive in Week 9.

» John Fox is a proven head coach who compiled a 73-71 mark at his first stop in Carolina, taking the team to Super Bowl XXXVIII, but he never logged back-to-back winning seasons with the Panthers, and eventually was fired. Since coming to Denver, he's gone 31-13 -- and is 23-5 with Peyton Manning.

» What's the first thing Sean Payton did when he got to New Orleans? Went out and acquired a quarterback (Drew Brees). What's the first thing Andy Reid did when he got to Kansas City? Went out and acquired a quarterback (Alex Smith). It's so much easier to build a coherent, durable system when you have the right quarterback there from Day 1.

» The New York Jets have used first- and second-round draft choices on quarterbacks during the Rex Ryan tenure, and they have Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith to show for it. The jury's still out on whether those were just bad choices or good players who simply haven't been developed well in the Jets' system. Either way, time is running out.

» Mike Shanahan went 43-16 with John Elway in Denver, but he is just barely over .500 without him. Now the coach is trying to establish a rapport with Robert Griffin III in Washington. The criticism of Shanahan last year was that he leaned on RGIII too much, putting him in danger with designed runs too often. Fresh off major knee surgery, Griffin is running less this year and looks, to many eyes, like a different quarterback -- one who shouldn't have pushed himself to get out on the field quite so quickly. But Shanahan felt Griffin provided his best -- and perhaps only -- chance to have a winning season. I don't know if Shanahan will go down with the ship in Washington, but I'm pretty sure he'll sleep better at night knowing he stuck by RGIII as opposed to destabilizing his team by vacillating between RGIII and Kirk Cousins.

» Finally, the situation is much different in Philadelphia, where Chip Kelly is in his first year and free to experiment. He has bounced between options, but seems now to have settled on Nick Foles -- 19 touchdown passes without an interception can help clear up the matter, for sure. But the jury is still out: Has Foles made the inconsistent offense work in the past month? Or has Kelly adapted his offense to Foles? The Eagles need to use what remains of their season to decide if Foles is a quarterback to build the team around or a placeholder until the right QB shows up.

In the end, Belichick and Brady have found what every coach-quarterback combo strives for: mutual respect, an agreed-upon set of core principles, a flexible working relationship that allows them to roll with the punches (exemplified by the way Brady has adjusted to his makeshift receiving corps this year) and the shared institutional memory to know how the other will react to any situation.

Of course, that bedrock stability doesn't always come, and then you have to improvise.

In the coaching community, few men are more respected than Joe Gibbs. He won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks -- Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien -- none of whom were Hall of Famers. Still, it's a lot easier to have one guy you can stick with for a prolonged period of time. Even Gibbs would agree with that. Shula had three Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but somehow fashioned a better record with the likes of Earl Morrall, Don Strock and David Woodley than he did with Unitas, Griese and Marino. That's brilliant, nearly miraculous coaching.

The rest of us are looking for a franchise quarterback we can rely on for a decade or more.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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