By DJ Gallo
The Houston Texans just threw millions of dollars at Bill O’Brien. The Buccaneers did the same to Lovie Smith.
What a waste of money.
Coaches don’t win in the NFL. Quarterbacks do.
Of the six coaches who were fired at the end of this season, each of them had quarterbacks with a quarterback rating placing them in the bottom half of the league. Last year, when eight teams fired their head coach, seven of those teams had quarterbacks with ratings in the bottom half and none were rated in the top ten.
Bad quarterbacks make bad coaches. Bad quarterbacks get coaches fired.
Mike Shanahan is apparently an idiot now. A guy who the game has passed by. Turn on your TV. That’s the narrative. But he sure was a “genius” when he coached in Denver and had John Elway, huh? And if he was still in Denver now, chances are he wouldn’t be 3-13 like he was in Washington this year. No, he’d be the guy zeroing in on another Super Bowl title chance with the help of Peyton Manning, primed to secure his spot as one of the greatest coaches in the history of football.
We’ve seen it before with – and without — Manning. In 2009 and 2010, Jim Caldwell’s Colts went 24-8. “This guy can coach!” In 2011, with the same exact team (except no Manning), Caldwell’s team went 2-14. Yikes. “This guy is a bum!”
Without a star quarterback, NFL coaches have little more than some timeouts and challenge flags to throw at the oncoming freight train that is their inevitable demise.
Let’s take the case of the coach who is thought to be the preeminent mind in all of professional football.
Bill Belichick himself was 36-44 in five years with the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to 1995. He was then fired because having five years to build a winner, only to go 36-44 – and 5-11 in his final season – is simply a failure and deserves a dismissal. This wasn’t one-and-done like Rob Chudzinksi in Cleveland. The Browns gave Belichick five years and he didn’t get it done. End of story.
But In 2000 Belichick was fortunate enough to get a second shot as an NFL head coach with the Patriots. His team went 5-11, good for last place in the AFC East and the franchise’s first losing season in five years.
Just one season later he won his first of three Super Bowls. So what happened between 1995 and 2001? Or 2000 and 2001? When the calendar flipped to the new millennium, did Belichick suddenly and magically become a football super-genius, the likes of which has never been seen? Or was it that his team went from being quarterbacked by the likes of Mike Tomczak, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe to a future Hall of Famer in Tom Brady?
That’s not good coaching, that’s good fortune.
Ah, but Belichick at least had the genius to draft Tom Brady when so many other teams passed on him!
That’s a nice tale that Patriots fans tell themselves around the fire, but if the Patriots were so sure that Brady was going to be a star, why wait to pick him in the 6th Round, 199th overall? Those are 198 huge risks to take at losing a legend, no? The year before taking Brady, the Patriots drafted Kansas State quarterback Michael Bishop 227th overall. Was the Bishop pick not some sort of ingenious scheme to reel in a superstar late in the draft? Because if it was, it failed miserably. No, Belichick got lucky by hitting on Brady and he’s continued to reap the benefits ever since.
Nick Saban, the man seen as the other coaching genius of our time, went 15-17 in two seasons with the Dolphins. His starting quarterbacks over that time? Gus Frerotte, Sage Rosenfels, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper and Cleo Lemon. Yeah.
This isn’t to say head coaches don’t play an important role and should get no credit in building a winner. Belichick no doubt nurtured a young Brady and made sure he wasn’t overburdened before he was completely comfortable as an NFL quarterback. He also helped build a solid New England defense to support Brady. And, heck, Saban may very well be a genius to have gone 15-17 in the NFL with those horrible quarterbacks.
A truly incompetent coach can still be dealt a great hand and manage to somehow set the whole poker room on fire. (A Rich Kotitie-coached Patriots wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl in 2001, 2003 and 2004, for example. In fact, the franchise probably would have folded.)
But a star quarterback is the key. As annoying as it is to hear announcers go on and on (and on and on) about quarterbacks – hi, Jon Gruden! – there’s no team success in the NFL without a star quarterback.
Joe Flacco doesn’t normally play like a top-tier quarterback, but he played like a superstar for one month last year and the Ravens won a Super Bowl. That wasn’t a coincidence. John Harbaugh didn’t pull him aside last January and say: “Hey, Joe. Maybe you should be awesome for a few weeks. That’s my coaching tip to you.” Harbaugh coached as he always did and Flacco made plays. Flacco won Harbaugh a Super Bowl, not the other way around.
See Eli Manning and the Giants. Is Tom Coughlin a good NFL coach? Sure. And he has two Super Bowl titles because every few years Eli steps in something and the Giants win a championship. Other than that, they are inconsistent. Because Eli is inconsistent. Tom Coughlin is as consistent as they come. You can literally set your watch to him because all his meetings start exactly on time. But as Eli goes, so go the Giants. Not Coughlin. Eli. And if Eli chucks another 27 interceptions next year, Coughlin will be out of a job.
Belichick’s coaching tree is more of a rotten shrub than a tree. Belichick clones Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels went a combined 72-119 as NFL head coaches with zero playoff victories. Why? Because when they left Belichick, they also left Brady. What they found were not Brady clones, but quarterbacks such as Derek Anderson, Charlie Frye, Chad Pennington and Kyle Orton. And if the Belichick Tree’s latest bud, Bill O’Brien, doesn’t get a star quarterback to replace Matt Schaub and Case Keenum in Houston, he’ll be the next branch to rot off and fall to the ground.
Take a look at the coaches enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Names like Walsh and Noll and Landry. They didn’t get there with scrubs. You’ll find their quarterbacks in the same building in Canton.
A great quarterback is the ultimate job security for an NFL coach.
Peyton Manning hasn’t seen his head coach lose his job since 2001. Drew Brees has never had a head coach get fired in his career. Same with Brady. The Packers have had the same coach since Aaron Rodgers became the starter. Ben Roethlisberger has never had a head coach get fired.
So congratulations to O’Brien and Smith. And to whomever will be hired by Washington, Detroit, Minnesota and Cleveland. Here’s a quick free tip for all of you: get a star quarterback. Nothing else you do will really matter without one. Then, once that is achieved, just sit back and claim your “coaching genius” accolades. Just be sure to thank your quarterback when you’re inducted into Canton.
DJ Gallo is the founder of SportsPickle.com and has written for ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, The Onion and Comedy Central. He has appeared on SportsCenter, ESPNews, and G4 and is a frequent radio guest and published author. Follow him on Twitter at @DJGalloEtc, @sportspickle and @thatdjgallo.