May 28, 2024

This article will ask the question: How long should it take a quarterback-coach tandem to win a championship? What’s a reasonable waiting period?

As we seek to answer this question, there’s one (somewhat) significant historical trend that we ought to consider: There has never been a quarterback and head coach tandem to win their first Super Bowl more than five years after they came together.

Every quarterback-coach combination that has ever won a Super Bowl has won a title within their first five seasons together. The average number of seasons that a quarterback-coach tandem is paired before winning their first championship together is 2.64 seasons.

That provokes the question: Is it guaranteed that something will never happen just because that thing has not yet ever happened?

 

They Haven’t Won, So They’ll Never Win?

Many observers might be tempted to presume that any quarterback-coach tandem that has not yet won a title within their first seasons will never win a title.

Many others may even conclude that if any quarterback-coach combo has not yet won a title within their first five seasons, then the team’s owner should definitely make a move, either firing the coach or acquiring a new quarterback.

But are these fair conclusions?

For instance, when the 2023 NFL season opens this fall, the Buffalo Bills will be going into their sixth season with Sean McDermott as head coach and Josh Allen as their starting quarterback.

The tandem of McDermott and Allen has not even made a Super Bowl appearance in its first five years. Is it reasonable to conclude that the McDermott-Allen combo will never win a Super Bowl? Should Bills owner fire McDermott? Or trade Allen? Or both?

The answer certainly isn’t cut and dry. It’s, well, complicated. But maybe the historical data can be helpful as we ponder these types if situations.

 

What Does the Data Say?

This table shows the 36 quarterback-coach combination that have won a Super Bowl championship since the NFL-AFL merger, along with the season in which each combination won their first title together.

(Note: This data reflects the quarterback’s first season as the team’s primary/starting quarterback, not necessarily their first actual season with the team/coach).

 

Season Team QB-Coach Combo Year
1970 Colts Unitas-McCafferty 1st
1971 Cowboys Staubach-Landry 3rd
1972 Dolphins Griese-Shula 3rd
1974 Steelers Bradshaw-Noll 5th
1976 Raiders Stabler-Madden* 4th
1980 Raiders Plunkett-Flores 2nd
1981 49ers Montana-Walsh 3rd
1982 Redskins Theismann-Gibbs 2nd
1985 Bears McMahon-Ditka 4th
1986 Giants Simms-Parcells 4th
1987 Redskins Williams-Gibbs 2nd
1989 49ers Montana-Seifert 1st
1990 Giants Hostetler-Parcells** 1st
1991 Redskins Rypien-Gibbs^ 3rd
1992 Cowboys Aikman-Johnson 4th
1994 49ers Young-Seifert^^ 4th
1995 Cowboys Aikman-Switzer 2nd
1996 Packers Favre-Holmgren 5th
1997 Broncos Elway-Shanahan 3rd
1999 Rams Warner-Vermeil 1st
2000 Ravens Dilfer-Billick 1st
2001 Patriots Brady-Belichick 1st
2002 Buccaneers Johnson-Gruden 1st
2005 Steelers Roethlisberger-Cowher 2nd
2006 Colts Manning-Dungy 5th
2007 Giants Manning-Coughlin 4th
2008 Steelers Roethlisberger-Tomlin 2nd
2009 Saints Brees-Payton 4th
2010 Packers Rodgers-McCarthy 5th
2012 Ravens Flacco-Harbaugh 5th
2013 Seahawks Wilson-Carroll 2nd
2015 Broncos Manning-Kubiak 1st
2017 Eagles Foles-Pederson 1st
2019 Chiefs Mahomes-Reid 2nd
2020 Buccaneers Brady-Arians 1st
2021 Rams Stafford-McVay 1st

 

Three of the most legendary quarterback-coach tandems of the early Super Bowl era were Staubach-Landry, Griese-Shula, and Montana-Walsh. They all won their first Super Bowl title in their third season.

The benchmark of three seasons seems to be normative (to some extent). As previously mentioned, since the NFL-AFL merger, the number of seasons together that it took for quarterback-coach tandems to win their first Super Bowl title has been an average of 2.64 seasons.

 

*Footnote: Stabler-Madden

The table above states that Ken Stabler and John Madden won their first Super Bowl title together in their 4th season. But to be more specific, it was Stabler’s 4th season as the starting quarterback of the Raiders. However, technically speaking, Stabler-Madden won the title in Stabler’s 7th season.

Stabler was drafted by the Raiders in 1968, one year before they hired John Madden. But, instead of playing for the Raiders, Stabler played minor league football during the 1968 and 1969 seasons. He finally joined the Raiders in 1970. Stabler was the Raiders’ back-up QB for 3 seasons (1970-1972) and only played in two games. But he then became the Raiders’ starter in 1973.

The Raiders won the Super Bowl in 1976, in Stabler’s 7th season on the roster, but in Stabler’s 4th season as the Raiders’ primary QB.

 

**Footnote: Hostetler-Parcells

Jeff Hostetler was drafted by the NY Giants in 1984, but he was their 3rd-string QB behind Phil Simms and Jeff Rutledge for several seasons, including when the Giants won the Super Bowl in 1986.

For most of his career Hostetler had barely played. But in December 1990 (in Hostetler’s 7th season) he was suddenly thrust into the starting role. At the time, the Giants were one of the best teams in the NFL when Simms went down with a season-ending injury in week 14.

Hostetler started the last two regular season games and three more games in the post-season. The Giants went 5-0 in those games, including a victory over the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.

 

^Footnote: Rypien-Gibbs

Mark Rypien was drafted by the Redskins in 1986, but spent the entirety of his first two years on the Redskins’ injured reserved list due to knee and back injuries. He watched from the sidelines as the Redskins won Super Bowl XXII with quarterback Doug Williams at the helm.

In 1988, Rypien became the team’s primary back-up. He started six games that year due to Williams’ injuries and ineffectiveness. In 1989, Rypien became the Redskins’ primary starter. In 1991, they won the Super Bowl.

Technically speaking, it was Rypien’s 6th season in the NFL, but only his 4th season on the active roster and only his 3rd season as the starter.

 

^^Footnote: Young-Seifert

Steve Young’s situation is probably the most interesting. After a stellar college career, he went to the USFL for two seasons (1983-1984). He then joined the Buccaneers, one of the worst teams in the NFL at that time. He played two years there (1985-1986), but was mostly ineffective. After the 1986 season, Young was traded to the 49ers, one of the best NFL teams of the 1980s.

Young served as Joe Montana’s primary back-up for four seasons (1987-1990), including being the back-up QB for two Super Bowl victories. Young barely played during those four years.

Young eventually saw significant playing time in 1991 and 1992 after Montana went down with a serious elbow injury that took more than 16 months to heal. Young was the primary QB for 1991 and 1992, but many people still saw the 49ers as Montana’s team and assumed that Montana would return to the starting role once he returned from injury.

However, Montana never took back the starting role. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs after the 1992 season, and Young was finally named the permanent starter going into the 1993 season. Young led the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory in the 1994 season.

For the purposes of this research project, it’s fair to ask whether the 1994 season should count as Young’s 2nd season as the starter or 4th season as the starter. It made more sense to me to label the 1994 season as Young’s 4th season as the starter because he was indeed the primary starter in 1991 and 1992.

Technically speaking, the 1994 season was Young’s 8th season with the 49ers (and his 6th season with head coach George Seifert). And it was just the second season after Young was officially named the permanent starter. But it seems most accurate to label the 1994 season as being the 4th season of the Young-Seifert tandem.

 

Newer Tandems Reign

It does seem that the more successful tandems are the newer younger tandems. This table below groups the tandems by the season in which they won their first title.

 

Tandems’ Year Titles Won
1st Season 11
2nd Season 8
3rd Season 5
4th Season 7
5th Season 5

 

Nineteen of these championship quarterback-coach tandems won the Super Bowl in their first two seasons (nearly 53%), with eleven of those quarterback-coach tandems having won the Super Bowl in their first season together.

Four of those eleven first-year tandems included quarterbacks that were starters for the entire Super Bowl season with a new head coach (e.g., Unitas-McCafferty, Montana-Seifert, Johnson-Gruden, and Manning-Kubiak).

Five of those eleven first-year tandems had quarterbacks who were new to the team (or newly thrust into a starting role) with a coach that was not in his first year with that team (e.g., Warner-Vermeil, Dilfer-Billick, Brady-Belichick, Brady-Arians, and Stafford-McVay).

Two of the eleven had quarterbacks that were not the starters for most of the regular season, but were thrust into a primary starting role late in the season due to the starter’s injury (e.g., Hostetler-Parcells and Foles-Pederson).

The longest it has taken any tandem to win a Super Bowl is in their fifth season; five tandems won their first titles together in year five (e.g., Bradshaw-Noll, Favre-Holmgren, Manning-Dungy, Rodgers-McCarthy, and Flacco-Harbaugh). Only one of those tandems (Bradshaw-Noll) ever won a second title.

Four quarterbacks had several years of experience, having played for multiple previous teams, before joining the team and coach with whom they would eventually win a championship, and in each case they won a title within two years of joining the new team/coach (e.g., Jim Plunkett, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, and Nick Foles).

 

Honorable Mention: Marv Levy and Jim Kelly

The Marv Levy—Jim Kelly tandem is an interest case. (And this is not the first article I’ve written wherein Levy earned an honorable mention). Levy is obviously one of the greatest coaches in NFL history and Kelly is a Hall-of-Fame QB. They won a lot of games together. They also infamously lost four consecutive Super Bowl.

Their first Super Bowl appearance came in their fifth season together, which they lost on a heart-breaking last-minute missed field goal attempt. Technically, Kelly-Levy bolster the point I’m making herein. They were not able to win a Super Bowl within their first five seasons together and they never went on to win one after that.

However, Kelly-Levy don’t exactly totally fulfill the spirit of this article. My primary sentiment (based on the data) is that if a quarterback and coach are not successful together in the first five seasons then, in all probability, they’ll never be successful together. But the Kelly-Levy tandem was quite formidable, and I think it would be unfair to call them unsuccessful simply because they never won a Super Bowl.

 

Late Stage Successes?

As I prepared this article, I was asked by a friend: “Were there any tandems that appeared and lost in the Super Bowl after their 5th season together?”

The aforementioned Kelly-Levy tandem went to the Super Bowl in their 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th seasons together. But that’s as good as it gets.

Two years before the Bills’ made their first Super Bowl appearance, Sam Wyche and Boomer Esiason took the Bengals to the Super Bowl (1988) in their 5th season together. They lost to 49ers.

Neil O’Donnell and Bill Cowher went to the Super Bowl in 1995 and lost in their 4th season together. Ten years later Cowher went back and won the Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger, who was just in his 2nd season.

Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in their 6th season together (2004), but lost to the Patriots. The McNabb-Reid tandem making it to the big game in their 6th season was the longest it has ever taken any tandem to appear in a Super Bowl.

In 2005, Andy Reid’s mentor Mike Holmgren lost in the Super Bowl with Matt Hasselbeck as his quarterback, losing to the aforementioned Roethlisberger-Cowher tandem. Holmgren-Hasselbeck were in their 5th season together.

Ten years later (2015), Cam Newton and Ron Rivera led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl in their 5th season together, losing to the Denver Broncos led by Peyton Manning and a legendary defense.

There have been some quarterback-coach tandems to enjoy some level of success later in their time together, but it seems to be quite limited.

 

Pre-Merger Era Tandems

The data we’ve examined herein thus far is from the NFL-AFL merger (1970) up to the present time. But what about before that?

Well, the NFL before the 1960s was so different that I’m not sure any data from that era is truly applicable or instructive. But when we examine that data, we see a similar trend: Great tandems are great sooner rather than later. Let’s examine the best teams and tandems from that era.

 

Legends of Title Town

In the 1960s, the Green Packers won five NFL championships (1961, 1962, 1965, 1966, and 1967) and they won the first two Super Bowls (1966 and 1967). Their quarterback was all-pro Bart Starr and their coach was, of course, the legendary Vince Lombardi.

Starr played for the Packers from 1956-1971. In Starr’s 4th season (1959) the team hired Lombardi to be the head coach. In their second season together they lost the NFL championship to the Eagles. But the Starr-Lombardi tandem won the NFL title the next season (1961), in just their 3rd season together.

 

Colts With Unitas

Johnny Unitas was a legendary quarterback for the Baltimore Colts from 1956 to 1972. He won five NFL titles, with three different head coaches.

Unitas won two NFL championships with renowned head coach Weeb Ewbank, with the first title happening in their 3rd year together (1958). Ewbank was fired after the 1962 season and replaced with soon-to-be legendary coach Don Shula. Shula and Unitas won an NFL title in 1964, just their 2nd season together.

After the 1969 season Shula left the Colts due to a contract dispute. Shula was replaced by long-time Colts assistant coach Don McCafferty. The Unitas-McCafferty tandem won the NFL title in just their first season together, which also happened to be the first Super Bowl after the NFL-AFL merger.

Five titles with three head coaches, with each championship coming within the first three years of getting a new head coach.

 

AFL Dominance: Dawson-Stram

In 1960 one the AFL’s original teams, the Dallas Texans, hired Hank Stram to be their head coach. They were mediocre in their first two seasons. But before their third season they acquired quarterback Len Dawson.

The Dawson-Stram tandem was instantly one of the most formidable quarterback-coach combinations in pro football. They won the AFL title in just their first season together (1962). After that 1962 season the Texans relocated, becoming the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs won the AFL championship again in 1966 and played in the first Super Bowl, losing to the Green Bay Packers led by the Starr-Lombardi tandem. They won the AFL title again three years later and went on to defeat the NFL champs Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. That was Dawson-Stram’s 8th season together.

 

Conclusion

As I’ve examine the data, my primary sentiment/conclusion has been that if a quarterback-coach tandem are not successful together within their first five seasons together, then it appears that they’ll never be successful together.

However, is this data truly instructive? Should this sort of historical data inform the decisions made by a team’s ownership and front office? That seems much harder to determine.

I started this article by saying that just because something has not yet ever happened, does not necessarily mean that it will never happen. But if a quarterback-coach tandem has been together for several seasons with minimal success, then it’s fair for the team’s decision-makers to seriously consider whether they have the confidence in that tandem to do something that’s never been done.