Posted January 17, 2014

Eight in the Box: Greatest coach-QB combos in pro football history

AFC East, Eight in the Box, New England Patriots, NFL Playoffs
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are one of the best duos in history. Where do they rank all-time? (Simon Bruty/SI)

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, two of the most decorated quarterbacks in NFL history, duel Sunday with an AFC championship on the line.

Manning is on his second team, having taken the Indianapolis Colts to great heights under the stoic watch of head coach Tony Dungy. Meanwhile, Brady’s career has run hand-in-hand with that of Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick.

Where does that Brady-Belichick pairing rank in the pantheon of great quarterback-coach combinations? Narrowing down the list is close to an impossible task, given the long line of famous duos throughout pro football’s history. As evidenced by the “Honorable Mention” category below, no fewer than a dozen more coach-QB combos had arguments for inclusion among the eight greatest ever.

But the Eight in the Box format bends for no man (or, in this case, men). So, here is how the best of the best rank:

Honorable mentions (in no particular order): George Halas and Sid Luckman, Bears; George Seifert and Steve Young, 49ers; ; Joe Gibbs and Joe Theismann, Redskins; Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning, Colts; Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, Packers; Mike Shanahan and John Elway, Broncos; Sean Payton and Drew Brees, Saints; Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman, Cowboys; Marv Levy and Jim Kelly, Bills; John Madden and Ken Stabler, Raiders; Bill Parcells and Phil Simms, Giants; Bud Grant and Fran Tarkenton, Vikings.

8. Weeb Ewbank and Johnny Unitas, Colts: At least in his own time, Unitas may have been the finest quarterback the NFL had ever seen. His numbers have since been lapped as the league has trended more and more toward pass-heavy offenses, but Unitas, a 1979 Hall of Fame inductee, finished his career with 118 regular-season wins, more than 40,000 yards passing, 10 Pro Bowl nods and more than 300 total touchdowns.

Perhaps Ewbank slips below the radar in comparison to other great coaches — he was, after all, just 130-129-7 in his career and the Colts fired him after 1963. However, he made it to the Hall himself, thanks in no small part to the back-to-back NFL titles he and Unitas claimed in 1958-59. The first of those two went down in history as the so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played,” in which Baltimore upended the New York Giants in overtime.

7. Paul Brown and Otto Graham, Browns: It’s a touch difficult to put the simultaneous successes of Brown and Graham into proper context when compared with others on this list — their first four seasons together (1946-49) resulted in championships in the old All-American Football League, playing against a mix of short-lived franchises and those that would join Cleveland in a jump to the NFL.

Of course, the Brown-Graham duo hardly slowed down once it moved on from the defunct AAFL. Cleveland went to the NFL championship game in each of its first six seasons in the league and captured three titles, before Graham called it a career after the 1955 campaign.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame 10 years later, two classes before Brown joined him. Brown, fired by Cleveland owner Art Modell in a shocking turn of events, actually returned to coaching after entering the Hall — he jumped back on the sideline with a Cincinnati franchise he helped form.

6. Tom Landry and Roger Staubach, Cowboys: Without Landry and Staubach the Cowboys may never have become “America’s Team.” They certainly would not have dominated the 1970s the way that they did, in capturing two Super Bowls and four NFC crowns (the Cowboys won a fifth NFC title during that time, with Craig Morton at quarterback).

Landry took over in Dallas in 1960 (with an 0-11-1 first season) but could not get his team over the top until Staubach debuted in 1969 — five years after he was drafted. Staubach, who played his college ball at Navy, first had to complete his military commitments before jumping to the NFL. He won the starting gig in his fourth season with the Cowboys by posting a 10-0 regular-season record in that role. Staubach then threw two TD passes and was named Super Bowl MVP to cap off that season, launching the Cowboys on an historic run of success.

5. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, Steelers: Sure, Bradshaw completed just nine passes in each of his first two Super Bowl appearances. He still won each of those games — part of four championships that this duo won overall while together with the Steelers from 1970 to ’83. Noll actually arrived in Pittsburgh one year prior to Bradshaw, when he produced a 1-13 record in 1969.

The Steelers then finished under .500 in 1970 and ’71. Had that stretch occurred in the modern-day NFL, Noll likely would have been searching for another job and Bradshaw, with a 6:24 TD-to-INT differential in his rookie season and a 13:22 mark the next year, might have been relegated to backup duties somewhere.

But Pittsburgh stayed the course. The results repaid the franchise in kind. Noll and Bradshaw won 107 regular-season games together — third-most in NFL history for a coach-QB combo.

4. Don Shula and Dan Marino, Dolphins: There is no question that Marino had one of the most incredible careers of any NFL quarterback, and he produced a few seasons unlike any seen before he arrived in Miami — 5,000 yards passing in 1984, 600 pass attempts in 1986, 40-plus touchdowns each of those years.

A huge chunk of the credit there lies with Shula, who adapted his offensive philosophy to fit his superstar out of Pittsburgh. The only downside: After reaching the Super Bowl in Marino’s first season as the full-time starter, 1984, neither Shula nor Marino ever made it back.

By comparison, Shula’s Dolphins won three AFC titles, two Super Bowls and completed a perfect season with Hall of Famer Bob Griese at the helm. Does that coach-QB combo deserve this spot on the list instead?

3. Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr, Packers: The results speak for themselves. In nine years together with the Packers, Lombardi and Starr combined for three NFL championships and two Super Bowl titles. Starr’s four Pro Bowl selections (1960-62 and 1966) also all came under Lombardi’s watch, with both coach and QB en route to the Hall of Fame.

The Packers’ worst record in Lombardi’s tenure: 7-5 in 1959, his first season in Green Bay. Starr started five games that season — he finished 4-1 — with Lamar McHan earning the nod in the Packers’ seven other outings. In fact, Starr did not start every game of a season until 1961, which just happened to be the year Lombardi captured his first NFL championship after posting an 11-3 mark during the regular season.

2. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick: Hate them both, if you must, but there is little dispute over their place in NFL history. Together, Brady and Belichick have won three Super Bowls and five AFC titles — and sit one win away from adding to the latter total, with a shot to claim a fourth championship. Both are sure-fire bets to land in the Hall of Fame somewhere down the road.

They came to New England the same year, 2000 — Brady as a sixth-round draft pick; Belichick several seasons after completing an unsuccessful run as Cleveland’s head coach. Happenstance (i.e. a Drew Bledsoe injury) unexpectedly forced Brady into the starting lineup the next season, and he promptly led the Patriots to a stunning Super Bowl win. Brady and Belichick then went back-to-back in 2003 and ’04.

Brady currently sits seventh on the NFL’s all-time passing yardage list, though he should pass Warren Moon and John Elway next season. He’s also fifth in the career passing touchdowns rankings. And Belichick sits seventh in coaching wins, one shy of 200 total.

Together, Brady and Belichick have combined for 148 regular-season wins, most of any coach-QB combo ever. Shula and Marino previously held that honor at 116.

1. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, 49ers: One of the most revolutionary minds in football history paired with arguably the sport’s greatest-ever quarterback. The surprise here is not that the 49ers won three Super Bowl championships during this duo’s nine seasons together; it’s that they won only three Super Bowls.

Walsh’s first season with the 49ers came in 1979 — the same year that the franchise selected Montana in Round 3 of the NFL draft. Montana made just one start that season, as the 49ers slumped to a 2-14 mark. They finished 6-10 the next year, before Montana took charge of the starting job in ’81. And from there, he and Walsh helped make each other into legends.

Montana helped deliver a Vince Lombardi trophy in his first year as the No. 1 guy, then repeated the feat in 1984 and ’88. The 1988 title was Walsh’s swan song — the father of the West Coast offense retired after claiming the championship.

The Montana era in San Francisco ended shortly thereafter, with the transition to Steve Young beginning in earnest when Montana suffered a devastating elbow injury in the 1990 NFC championship game. He made just one more appearance for the 49ers, in 1992 after sitting out the ’91 season, before finishing his career in Kansas City.

43 comments
6marK6
6marK6

Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, Steelers at #5? Are you smoking crack? Four for four on Super Bowls!!!

JimBowski
JimBowski

One thing no one mentions is the draft and schedule disadvantages the Pats face---very low 1st round choices and tough schedule as better the record the tougher the schedule

phinsxiii1
phinsxiii1

I would have said Shula and Griese as well, but most of the wins in the undefeated year were with the backup QB.  But they did win the big game together.

JubJub
JubJub

Shula and Marino have absolutely no business being on this list. That's just dumb.

T-Ray
T-Ray

Shula and Marino should be replaced on the list, indeed, by Shula (again) and Griese, as the duo won far more titles and produced the only undefeated season in NFL history. The only con against this feat is that it was accomplished with journeyman Earl Morrall under center for a big part of the 1972 regular season, as Griese only came back for the Super Bowl.

True, there may never have been a better journeyman QB than Morrall. But again, that shows how good a coach Shula was and how great these Dolphins were at the beginning of the 70's, the era when Shula really cemented his place in the HOF. The Marino years were bonuses...

effeweall
effeweall

the true legendary pairing is belecheck and his video camera,  d has been top 15 since, but without his crystal ball, the only magic he has is brady's ability to audible.

LesterBallard66
LesterBallard66

Without NFL Films the Dallas Cowboys never would have become "America's Team".

thenewbohemian
thenewbohemian

Steve Young and Seifert? Young was actually pulled from the scrapheap that was the Buccaneers, not by Seifert, but by Walsh. Even though Young was Montana's backup during Walsh's entire tenure, it was Walsh that saw the gift in Steve Young and over several seasons groomed him into the QB he became under Seifert. Walsh's plan all along was to replace Montana with Young sooner than later (Montana's injury made the decision for him and the organization). Yeah, Seifert and Young MADE the magic together, but Walsh was the reason that relationship was allowed to exist.

thenewbohemian
thenewbohemian

Paul Brown and Otto Graham should be higher. It is father time that has clouded the present day's evaluation of that period, which is to typically look to the immediate past and lend smaller credence to the old days. Graham and Brown won 10 championships together. When Paul Brown started the Cleveland Browns team, he started from nothing and built those championship teams around Marion Motley and Otto Graham, Graham being the catalyst for a consistency of winning that goes unmatched to this day. The two were linked in a relationship that may be comparable to Belichick and Brady's. I'd put Brown and Graham second behind Montana and Walsh.

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

Pretty good list, but in answer to your question in #4, yes, most definately (Shula &Griese).


Hard to argue against Walsh & Montana #1 (my #3, Noll & Bradshaw #4), but I'd go Brown & Graham #2 (took NFL by storm w/3 quick titles) and Lombardi & Starr #1.  Vince was such an over-powering personality and that Bart was able to assert himself & shine w/in that relationship is quite tremendous.

Cydjim
Cydjim

Seems remiss not to have Dan Fouts and Don Coryell considering much of todays passing game are based off of Coryell's innovations and all the records they owned at the time

MartyC909
MartyC909

People seem to forget Tom Flores and Jim Plunkett won more Super Bowls for the Raiders than Madden and Stabler. Not saying they should be in the top 8, but they should get an honorable mention.

SandHills
SandHills

Well if success is measured in Super Bowl Wins, the Bradshaw/Knoll combo has to be ranked higher - to be fair I would make it a tie  for #1 with Montana/Walsh (who I would rank over Brady/Belichick only because it's assumed Walsh would have won a 4th if he remained as coach).

SamuelKitson
SamuelKitson

What about Don Coryell and Dan Fouts? They may not have the championships, but they at least deserve an honorable mention for how prolific their offense is. 

pamperofirpo
pamperofirpo

Brady/Belichick are #1 by far. It is not even close.

simzap
simzap

The stats are right there. 1)Graham/Brown, 2)Starr/Lombardi, 3) Montana/Walsh, 4)Brady/Belichich still in progress, 5)Bradshaw/Noll, 6)Luckman/Halas, of the combos who together had a long run of championships and championship games

x72
x72

0 rings since spygate.

Odin's Goat
Odin's Goat

Brady/Belichick  #1... sorry haters.

TomOatway
TomOatway

@effeweall New England is 88-24 since spygate, the best record in the NFL, but we've gotten used to morons and haters...sorry your team sucks

6marK6
6marK6

@thenewbohemian Dude, Steve Young was not a secret. He jumped to the USFL and the Bucs had his rights. Everybody knew he was a stud!

thenewbohemian
thenewbohemian

@CydjimAgree. It's a travesty leaving that duo off. It must have been an oversight because it would be difficult to defend leaving them off.

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

@Cydjim Terrific combo, D & D, but I'd go back even further in Chargers' lore to the great Sid Gilman as father of "today's (high-octane) passing game," w/ Hadl & Alworth.

JubJub
JubJub

The only problem with your point is that Bradshaw really sucks. The Steelers would have won six Super Bowls if someone like Staubach was at the helm.

Your point about Walsh is completely valid. Only Walsh stopped Walsh from winning more.

maca13
maca13

@SandHills LC Greenwood, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount - those Steelers were built on defense. Besides Ronnie Lott most people can't name one defender from the Montana/Walsh Super Bowl teams. Bradshaw/Knoll are right where they should be. 

SandHills
SandHills

@pamperofirpo 


Minus one ring or of course - win one more SB ring and you'll join the 4 Ring Club.....

again I am giving Walsh credit on the assumption he would have won a fourth SB with Montana.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

@Odin's GoatApparently not with everyone.  Read the article.  As a consolation prize they do win for the 00's.

SDCardsFan64
SDCardsFan64

And Ryan Braun didn't hit any more home runs after he was caught.....

JPM
JPM

@LesterBallard66@JPM  

Landry and Staubach won 84 games in 10 years, and two SB titles.  Pales in comparison to Belichick-Brady, with 148 wins in 13 years, plus three Lobardi trophies.  Still, not too shabby.

thenewbohemian
thenewbohemian

@LesterBallard66@JPMTex Schramm had much to do with it. And Staubach as the image of the All-American guy had something to do with it. The moral gentleman who served country, family and religion. The image of Tom Landry in the fedora had something to do with it. The public viewd his as a galant-type figure, a commanding presence that reflected American values. It's a lot more complicated than that.