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