Great coaches without great quarterbacks?

June, 2, 2013
6/02/13
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video Jim from Albany, Ore., had no beefs with the "Greatest Coaches" ballot I submitted for the ESPN project. He did question the project itself, however.

"It seems to me that a coach becomes 'great' only after he has a 'great' quarterback," Jim wrote in the NFC West mailbag. "The coaches at the very top of the list might be exceptions, but let's look at some of the others."

The way Jim sees things, Bill Belichick struggled in Cleveland before he had Tom Brady in New England. Mike Shanahan struggled without John Elway. Mike Holmgren was considered a great coach in Green Bay, but he had Brett Favre. Tom Landry struggled after Roger Staubach retired. Tom Coughlin was fired by Jacksonville, but once he had Eli Manning, he became a great coach. Tony Dungy became great when he had Peyton Manning. Bill Walsh was innovative, of course, but he also had Joe Montana and Steve Young.

"The voting is a fun exercise and I don't mean to dismiss the importance of a coach," Jim writes. "Some are certainly much better than others and some are great, but I think people are overlooking the role that a franchise quarterback plays in how 'great' a coach is considered to be."

There is no doubt quarterbacks make a tremendous difference. Head coaches sometimes play leading roles in acquiring and developing quarterbacks. Let's take a quick run through the coaches Jim mentioned in search of added perspective:
  • Belichick: We could say the Patriots lucked into Brady in the sixth round, but Belichick was ultimately responsible for drafting him and then sticking with him after Drew Bledsoe's return to health. Also, the Patriots had an 11-5 record when Matt Cassel was their primary quarterback in 2008.
  • Shanahan: Shanahan deserves credit for getting the most from an aging Elway. The Broncos had six winning seasons, one losing season and one 8-8 season in the eight years immediately following Elway's retirement. The post-Elway Broncos went 91-69 under Shanahan overall. That works out to a .569 winning percentage in Denver after Elway. Bill Parcells was at .570 for his entire career.
  • Holmgren: Even if we give Favre credit for the Packers' success in Green Bay, we still must account for Holmgren's winning with Matt Hasselbeck and a more run-oriented offense in Seattle. Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick in Green Bay. Holmgren traded for him and eventually won with him. Hasselbeck went to three Pro Bowls. Holmgren didn't luck into Hasselbeck. He helped develop him.
  • Landry: The Cowboys enjoyed their greatest postseason success under Landry when Staubach was the quarterback through the 1970s. However, the Cowboys were 31-10 under Landry in the three seasons before Staubach arrived. They were 21-6-1 in Staubach's first two seasons even though Staubach started only three of those games, posting a 2-1 record in his starts. Dallas went 24-8 in its first two seasons after Staubach retired. The Cowboys posted five winning records in their first six seasons of the post-Staubach era, going 61-28 over that span.
  • Coughlin: Manning wasn't all that great for much of Coughlin's early run with the Giants. Players such as Michael Strahan have credited Coughlin for adapting his gruff personal style in a manner that allowed the Giants to become a championship team. That could be entirely true, or it could be convenient narrative. We can't really know. However, although the Giants might not have won titles without Manning, we can't ignore the role their defense played in defeating Brady's Patriots following the 2007 season in particular. They didn't win disproportionately because of their quarterback.
  • Dungy: I listed Dungy 20th on my ballot because he won with two completely different types of teams. However, I also think a case can be made that the Colts should have enjoyed greater playoff success during the Peyton Manning years. Ultimately, I point to the success Tampa Bay enjoyed beginning in 1997 with a team built to some degree in Dungy's defensive image. The Buccaneers went 48-32 in their final five seasons under Dungy. That franchise was floundering previously.

I left off Walsh because Jim wasn't challenging his credentials as a great coach. Hopefully, the information above provides some context. I do think it's tough knowing to what degree a coach has facilitated his team's success. We're left to look at success over time, plus whatever contributions a coach seemed to make in terms of strategy, team building, etc.

Joe Gibbs gets credit for winning three Super Bowls with three quarterbacks, none of them Hall of Famers. It's not as if Gibbs had horrible quarterbacks, however. Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien were both two-time Pro Bowl selections. Doug Williams obviously had talent. He was a first-round draft choice, after all.

Perhaps we'll find ways in the future to better measure a coach's contributions. Right now, there's a lot we do not know beyond the results on the field.

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