A bad coach can risk the development of a good quarterback as much as a bad quarterback can get a good coach fired
Tom Brady (left) and coach Bill Belichick won six Super Bowls together at the New England Patriots (Getty Images)
It is no coincidence that many of the all-time great quarterbacks have had a brilliant head coach on their sideline.
The relationship between an NFL head coach and starting quarterback is perhaps the most essential, delicate and symbiotic in all of sports.
After all, they are the only individuals in the sport that have their overall record attached to their name.
Former head coach Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, told Sports Illustrated: “Without question, it’s the most important relationship on the team.
“The quarterback is under tremendous stress. He’s being threatened, and if he doesn’t get full support around him or doesn’t have confidence in the person calling the plays, he’s going to crumble”.
Simply put, there is no comparison in any other major sport. In the NBA, superstars dominate the game given the more compact nature of basketball, so elite players have more standing in the relationship – evidenced by LeBron James’ role following his return to Cleveland.
However, things are different in the NFL. There’s a whole other level of responsibility that gets attributed to either individual when it goes wrong.
The future of a head coach at a franchise is often directly related to the quarterback’s performance, and a bad coach can risk the development of a good quarterback as much as a bad quarterback can get a good coach fired.
The relationship needs to work effectively on the field more than anything else, as the quarterback is often regarded as the physical extension of the head coach on the field – emotionally and in terms of execution.
Former New York Times writer John Branch helped to explain the nature of the relationship between head coach and quarterback through the Hall of Fame.
He said: “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.”
Belichick and Brady during their time together at the Patriots (Getty Images)
The formula doesn’t always work – but when the quarterback and head coach’s relationship is fruitful, it produces the stuff of sporting nirvana. The best combinations win championships: Joe Montana and Bill Walsh; Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman; Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy are just a few examples that spring to mind.
The best example, though, is the duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Over two decades, the two became the greatest quarterback-head coach partnership in NFL history as they generated the best winning percentage of any duo, claiming 17 division titles, nine conference championships and six Super Bowls.
Brady’s talent, mind for preparation and willingness to be coached allowed Belichick to refine his scheme and perfectly tailor the quarterback. Before Brady arrived in New England in 2000, Belichick had not experienced the tremendous success he later became accustomed to.
Patriots beat writer Christopher Price once said that for Brady, working with the same system of coaches for years was great for his development. He ran certain plays thousands of times, learning from each snap to benefit from the continuity afforded to him in New England.
On Mike Krzyzewski’s Sirius XM show, Belichick echoed that same sentiment and suggested that their mutual love for the sport enabled them to grow and learn together.
The Patriots head coach said: “I think Tom and I have spent a lot of time building that philosophy, understanding what we’re each thinking in certain situations.
“When they come up, he can anticipate what I want to do and I can anticipate what he’d like to do.”
While every relationship is unique, earning the signal-caller’s trust and encouraging him is crucial for a coach. Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians, known as ‘the quarterback whisperer’, told the Tampa Bay Times: “It has to be about trust.
“Peyton [Manning] needed a volume of information to play. Ben [Roethlisberger], that was the worst thing. I let him call plays then take the no-huddle and run with it.
Ben Roethlisberger with coach Bruce Arians in 2011 (Getty Images)
“Don’t tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what you want to see. It’s so much easier when you take a rookie and mould him than to take a Carson Palmer who’s got three kids and has been in the league 12 years. But you’ve still got to build that trust.”
The relationship cannot be so familiar that the quarterback doesn’t take his coach seriously. In New England, nobody was criticised during film sessions more than Tom Brady – and he allowed it to happen as he understood that new players would buy into the culture if their star player tolerated criticism in front of the entire locker room.
However, this relationship is not always perfectly balanced. While the likes of Aikman and Drew Brees have been coached by some of the very best to ever do it, many more talented players have not been quite so fortunate.
Archie Manning is an example of how a lack of continuity can derail a quarterback’s path to the top. He played for 14 seasons in New Orleans, and was developed by eight head coaches and 11 offensive coordinators. The constant need to adapt to new schemes and playbooks held Manning back.
Hiring and firing is part of the game, but falling into that structure and mindset can hamper a franchise for years – with the Cleveland Browns being the best example of that in recent memory.
Ultimately, each of these coaches and quarterbacks would not have found the same success they did without the other. Andy Reid is just one example of the evolution of the relationship, as he found success with Donovan McNabb before struggling for longer than he should have done before he landed Patrick Mahomes in 2018.
Sure, great individuals will be remembered fondly – but a successful partnership between quarterback and head coach becomes the stuff of legend.