By now the Super Bowl's been beaten to death, so why write about that? Instead, in keeping with the historic spirit of the day, it's time for another All-Time-Best list. This time how about the all-time best NFL QB/coach combo? Silly, as are all superlative rankings, but ultimately isn't this sort of thing what all real sports fans live for? Besides, it lets me write something about the Patriots, though not exactly what I'd had in mind. And the Super Bowl notwithstanding, it's probably a little early to consider Flacco/Harbaugh or Kaepernick/Harbaugh anyway, so it's a topic that won't go stale in a day.
The game has changed over the years. The stats for quarterbacks have gone through the roof recently. It's not because they're better. It's largely because the rules let them be better. Rules dictate strategy to a high degree. When the blocking rules and the chuck rules changed some 35 years ago, it took a while for the league to catch on, but catch on it did. Why did Dan Marino throw for so many yards? He had more time and more open receivers than his predecessors of a decade earlier (plus, he was pretty good). Why do current quarterbacks outdo Marino on a weekly basis? Because they're better? You get the drift. These things can be taken into account.
We can name some of the combos that come to mind right off the bat, starting from when the quarterback was also a safety. Despite the presence of such 1920s supermen as Paddy Driscoll in Chicago (who once, in an age of multiple roles, drop-kicked a field goal from 55 yards), none went on a title tear in the league's first full decade. Even Paddy spent half his time with the Staleys/Bears, and half with the crosstown Cardinals. It was a turbulent formative decade without enough stability (or passing) to truly produce a QB/coach combo, despite three consecutive titles by the Canton-Canton-Cleveland Bulldogs of legend. They ran the ball. Our quest begins in the 1930s.
Arnie Herber/Curly Lambeau
Coming off a title in 1929, the Packers got two more right away with the arrival of Herber. It was still a running game, but he liked to throw. When Don Hutson joined the team in the mid-30s, he turned Herber loose and the Pack became the league's first bombs-away offense. Sharing time with the younger Cecil Isbell late in the decade, Arnie finally decided it was time to call it quits after 11 seasons. But before he did, the tandem of him and Lambeau (with help of course from Hutson) had produced unheard-of passing numbers, 6 trips to the championship game, and 4 titles. Not bad.
Sid Luckman/George Halas
Whether George Halas was more of a churl, more of an owner or more of a coach is a topic for conjecture, but nobody had a bigger influence on the NFL for many decades. Sid Luckman, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn and a graduate of Columbia, hardly seems to fit today's demographic mold for a football player, but the Ivy League was among the best in the 1930s and so was Sid. In the 7 seasons spanning 1940 through 1946, Luckman and Halas took the Bears to 5 title games, winning 4 times. Sid's service in the Merchant Marine likely had something to do with the Bears' absence in 1944 and 1945. And as for Halas' coaching, a little-known fact about the Bears' 1940 73-0 title game massacre of Sammy Baugh's Redskins is that Luckman threw only 6 times, the Skin defense being confounded by Halas' clever exploitation of the new man-in-motion rule.
Otto Graham/Paul Brown
With the end of WWII came big changes in football. Coaches, fresh from wartime think tanks for battle planning, brought new ideas to the game. The platoon system (separate offensive/defensive players) became established, and the football sprouted wings like never before. It was a new time, and the Browns were a new team in a new league, the AAFC. They dominated it for all 4 years, then went to the NFL and stunningly beat Norm Van Brocklin's mighty Rams to win the title. They would attend five more NFL title games and win two more, losing once to the Rams and twice to Bobby Layne's powerful Lions. In ten seasons, the pair of Graham and Brown redefined the way football was played and coached, winning 7 titles between their two leagues and attending every title game for 10 straight seasons. Graham was derided by some in his day for being the only QB not to call his own plays, with Brown using 'shuttling guards' to bring them in. Even that was a portent of things to come.
John Unitas/Weeb Ewbank
Despite having only two titles under their combined belt, the combo of Ewbank and Unitas won the first two "television titles" and shot football into a blaze of publicity previously unknown. Unitas was considered the best at his position for most of his career despite the presence of other greats, and the Colts contended each season, having the misfortune to play in the same division as the evenly-matched but somehow unbeatable Packers. Unitas would win another title at the end of his career, and Ewbank would famously coach the Jets to a Super Bowl win over Unitas' Colts in 1969.
Bart Starr/Vince Lombardi
The earliest combo most modern fans think of, Starr and Lombardi went to six title games in eight seasons, winning five of them (and the first two Super Bowls). Never considered the best at his position during his playing days, Starr was the ultimate 'system' quarterback nevertheless and never seemed to make a mistake. Lombardi, out of Jim Lee Howell's Giants system, became a near-instant success as a head coach. The Packers dominated the 1960s almost as much as the Browns dominated the decade following WWII and, significantly, did it all in the NFL. They had one more advantage --- with network tv established, everybody saw them.
Len Dawson/Hank Stram
They were in the AFL most of the time, but while there they won three titles and went 1-1 in the "true" Super Bowl era, when it was still an old-fashioned World Series between truly independent rival leagues. Stram's 'moving pocket' wasn't exactly scrambling, but a controlled relocation of the backfield that gave defenses fits. Dawson, the NFL reject, found his niche in Stram's potent offense. Despite their loss to Green Bay, history shows that all it proved was that nobody could beat Green Bay. Three years later the same team crushed the Vikings in the fourth (and last true) Super Bowl. Actually, in the 1967 preseason following the loss to Green Bay (which was taken quite seriously as it featured the only interleague games outside of the Super Bowl) they outclassed the Bears' first stringers 66-0. When it all was said and done they were the dominant team of the AFL in its decade of existence, edging out the Bills, Chargers, Raiders and Oilers, though they did it first as the Dallas Texans and then as the Kansas City Chiefs. When that decade and era ended, they were the best team in football, hands down.
Bob Griese/Don Shula
As a tandem their star burned briefly, but very brightly. The Fins were the first real AFL team to reach the Super Bowl following the merger, losing the first year to Dallas before winning two in a row, once with a perfect 17-0 mark. The irony of the perfect season is that Griese was injured for most of it, but still contributed by taking the reins from a faltering Earl Morrall in the playoffs and finishing the job Morrall had started.
Terry Bradshaw/Chuck Noll
The Steelers of the 1970s were seen as an NFL invader of the AFL (having recently morphed into the AFC), and as such were not popular with old AFL fandom. Nevertheless, their team's bloodline was almost pure AFC by the time they got untracked, and they proceeded to go to the Super Bowl four times in six seasons, winning every time. Bradshaw, never considered the best at his position, was easily the winningest of his age, and Noll, who never really superseded Lombardi as a legend either in the '70s or later, won Super Bowls at an unprecedented rate.
Joe Montana/Bill Walsh
The modern standard for excellence, Walsh and Montana were together for three Super Bowl wins, Montana's fourth coming under Walsh protege/puppet George Siefert. Still Walsh, a Paul Brown protege himself and earlier a student of Sid Gillman and Al Davis, was the first to successfully comprehend how to best exploit football's changing rules governing pass protection and pass defense, and Montana was the perfect choice to execute the game plan. His West Coast Offense was a modification of the Gillman/Davis long-bomb approach, altered under Brown to a short-passing juggernaut for the Bengals, and the new rules provided a perfect backdrop for his system, which changed the game.
Jim Kelly/Marv Levy
Despite having never won the big one, they are the only combo ever to go to four Super Bowls in a row. If genial Marv Levy seemed a throwback to a bygone age when football was fun, it's because he was, and his players loved it. They may have loved it a shade too much, as they became so confident in their ability to utterly turn around any game at will that it bit them on some big occasions. But Levy was a master at turning his guys loose, and Kelly was the perfect field general for the Bills' dreaded no-huddle offense in an age without wired helmets. Buffalo's defense could rise up and take the ball away seemingly on cue, and the up-tempo offense could score points in a flash. Their plays were often impossible to defend because it seemed (and may have been) that they improvised most of what they were doing as it unfolded. It was a truly unique system, and terrifically fun to watch.
Tom Brady/Bill Belichick
The modern threat to the throne of Walsh and Montana, the tandem of Brady and Belichick have actually won as many Super Bowls (and faster), and appeared in more to date (five). They have gone to seven AFC title games together in twelve seasons, and have won the AFC East all but twice, both losses coming on tiebreakers. It is a success record unrivaled in what has been labeled the Salary Cap Era, the NFL's attempt at parity. Notable in this era is Belichick's ability to drive highly volatile rosters to high levels of success year after year. Brady is often cited as the reason, though the team managed an 11-5 record without him in 2008, stunningly missing the playoffs. Their short-pass-based game has proven so prolific that the Patriots have taken offensive production to a level not seen since Norm Van Brocklin's first few seasons. Belichick is the only head coach to win three Super Bowls in four years, all with Brady.
So what to do with these contenders? Maybe just grouping them a few ways will make some sense. Maybe not. Let's try a few categories.
Best of the Pre-War Era
Tough one, even with only two candidates. Herber and Lambeau reinvented the game of football to a large degree, but it was regarded as much a novelty then as a turning point. They were before their time. Halas' Bears, on the other hand, were more a power team, with names like Bronco Nagurski and Bulldog Turner. The Bears won as many titles, and in fewer years. They may have won another without the intervention of World War II. But as great as Luckman and the Bears were, this is a contest of quarterbacks and coaches. Lambeau was a revolutionary coach, and Herber a perfect quarterback for that revolution. It's no coincidence that the name most people recall from those teams is Don Hutson, who caught everything that came near him. They get the nod.
Best of the Postwar Pre-Merger Era
There are only two prime contenders in this long era also, and they are Graham/Brown and Starr/Lombardi. Which was the better team is a topic for conjecture. Which was the better coach/QB tandem may not be. Yes, of the Browns' seven titles four came in the AFCC, but they were no fluke. The Packers were the ultimate example of perseverance and execution, but outside of Lombardi's pulling guards they weren't innovators. Brown was the master innovator, the man who most changed the game of pro football following his stint in military planning during the war. Almost everything he did was adopted either immediately or much later by others. And his quarterback was a superstar, on a par with contemporary greats Van Brocklin and Layne. The success contest here is pretty much a draw. But Graham and Brown's influence on the game is vastly greater.
Best of the Post-Merger Pre-Salary-Cap Era
This pretty much pits Noll and Bradshaw against Walsh and Montana. Success-wise, it clearly goes to the Steelers. But you have to dig deep to find anything that Pittsburgh contributed to football besides their own legendary title streak. Walsh and Montana, on the other hand, not only won but also redefined football with the West Coast Offense. It's probably unfair to the Steelers that the rule changes which sprung loose the Niners' offensive strategy had just come around at the end of their success story. They were well-coached and well-led on the field, and that's what this is all about, isn't it? Yes, but the Niners were also well-coached and well-led, and they also managed to lay lasting foundations for the post-rules-changes game. So they get the nod.
Best of the Salary Cap Era
Despite the presence of Shanahan and Elway, Coughlin and Manning, Cowher and Roethlisberger, Dungy and Manning, there's really only one contestant here, and that's Belichick/Brady. They're the only duo to win three Super Bowls in four years. They're the only duo to go to five Super Bowls in eleven years --- separately as well as together. Their winning record is unmatched. All in all, they've been the antidote (or poison?) for parity in the NFL in an era when it was supposed to be almost guaranteed. And they aren't done yet. Belichick has shown the league how to continually prosper in an environment meant to throttle long-term success.
Best Innovators, All-Time
That's a toughie. Everybody stands on the shoulders of who came before. Even Einstein always had huge portraits of Euclid, Newton and Faraday on his walls because he knew that without them, he and his contemporaries wouldn't have existed. That's a big promo for Herber and Lambeau, who introduced the long pass as a consistent game-changer in the 1930s. But Walsh and Montana changed things again in the 1980s for a fresh set of rules. Belichick and Brady have done it again with yet more rules changes, these primarily of the roster-affecting sort. Levy and Kelly foreshadowed the no-huddle. But the duo who introduced the most influential and lasting innovations has to be Paul Brown and Otto Graham, who transformed the game most stunningly from its pre-war form to its postwar balance of rushing and passing, revamping player positions, exploiting the platoon system, and winning consistently in the process. I give them the nod.
Most Unbeatable, All-Time
It's tough to say that Brady and Belichick are 'beatable' in any reasonable sense. It's hard also to say that about Walsh and Montana. Tougher still to say it about Brown and Graham. Noll and Bradshaw were hard to deny. Likewise Halas and Luckman. In fact, all of our combos were hard to beat in their stretch. But this one goes to Starr and Lombardi, who dominated nearly a decade with championships, winning five in six tries spanning eight years. Does that trump Brown and Graham's seven in ten tries spanning ten years? Only if you believe that the AAFC dilutes their record. This is about the NFL, so the Pack-men get the nod, even if it seems to be on a technicality.
As we read this, the latest rule changes have begun to modify the sport again --- maybe. Rules intended to protect the quarterback have sprung open the door for experimentation with college-style running quarterbacks. Is this the next big thing, or is the 'athletic' quarterback doomed to extinction, either through constant injury or perhaps through being back-burnered in favor of a new era of hypersmart no-huddle field generals, running ability being consigned to the status of a nice value-added extra? Only time will tell, just as it has separated fads from formative trends throughout the history of football.