We think about the greatest coach-quarterback duos in NFL history, and we think about championships.
Paul Brown and Otto Graham won seven — four in the AAFL and three in the NFL — with the Cleveland Browns. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the modern standard with six Super Bowl wins for the New England Patriots. By bringing five championships to the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr renamed the city “Titletown.” Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, with a little help from the other side of the ball, claimed four Super Bowls for the Pittsburgh Steelers. George Halas and Sid Luckman won four Chicago Bears championships and might have won more if not for World War II. The Bill Walsh-Joe Montana connection with the San Francisco 49ers produced three.
We should think about more than championships, though. We should think about symbiosis.
We should think about Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.
The duo could win a third championship Sunday by leading the Kansas City Chiefs past the 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII. And their partnership is as special as any.
Where do Travis Kelce and George Kittle fit in among the great NFL tight ends?
Superficially, they are an odd couple.
The coach has the mustache of a walrus; the QB gets his hair cut in a mohawk reminiscent of an exotic bird. A sneaker collection lines Mahomes’ closet, whereas Reid has wall-to-wall Hawaiian shirts. Mahomes can rage; Reid is placid like Lake Tahoe.
Yet seven years into their union, they have complemented each other as well as a coach and quarterback can.
Mahomes is a devotee of ketchup. Reid professes his love of cheeseburgers. Of course they go together well.
In their beginnings, Reid was taken aback by how much Mahomes wanted to be taught. It was uncommon. And Reid was the ideal teacher to help him achieve his goals.
“They have genuine respect for one another,” says Bob LaMonte, Reid’s longtime agent. “(Mahomes) looks to Andy like a guru.”
Reid calls Mahomes at random times to discuss plays, including at 4 a.m. And Mahomes doesn’t mind. The two meet privately in Reid’s office every Friday before a game. It’s Mahomes’ favorite time of the week.
Mahomes speaks as if speed reading aloud. Reid talks like he walks: slowly and usually without going far. But they both process their chalkboard like Max Born and Robert Oppenheimer processed theirs. Reid has said he feels challenged by Mahomes because his aptitude for the game is “ridiculous.” The same adjective would apply to Reid’s.
There is a warmth between Mahomes and Reid that could not be contrived. When Mahomes became a first-time father, he says Reid gave him diaper-changing tips. Like an old couple, they sometimes finish each other’s sentences. Mahomes has said he wants to win Super Bowls for his coach.
During the Pro Bowl after the 2021 season, NFL Films recorded Mahomes talking to Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby about Reid.
“He’s super cool,” Mahomes said. “It’s almost like your uncle, you know what I mean? He’s like cool, cool, cool, but you can’t … disappoint him because he’ll get mad at you. But he’s going to give you your freedom to do what you want to do.”
Beyond warmth, there is trust. Mahomes is honest with Reid when he doesn’t like one of his ideas. And Reid says he appreciates it.
Other coaches and their quarterbacks blow kisses to one another in front of cameras. Then they reveal honest thoughts in hushed voices behind closed doors. The coach-quarterback relationship is not organically harmonious, as each needs someone to blame for everything that doesn’t work, and often, it’s the other.
Many highly successful coach-quarterback duos could have benefited from couples counseling.
Brown and Graham won 81 percent of their games, but they seemed to succeed despite each other as much as because of each other. After Graham called plays for the first four or five years of his career (as all quarterbacks of the day did), Brown decided to take over. It angered Graham, who then became known as “Mechanical Otto.”
Brown benched Graham late in his career because he thought he was scrambling too much, then berated him on the sideline. “I could have strangled him,” Graham said.
Will the Chiefs give Kadarius Toney a chance at redemption in the Super Bowl?
Tension between coaches and quarterbacks usually is more cloaked. Take the case of Belichick and Brady, who never appeared in television commercials together haggling over “nuggies” like Reid and Mahomes. Their successes led to both being called the greatest. But for a long time, the calculating Belichick did not compliment his quarterback as glowingly as most everyone else did.
Those who have studied Belichick understand he thinks of praise as poison. He readily feeds compliments to upcoming opponents but is reticent to acknowledge even obvious excellence among his own. Gisele Bundchen, Brady’s ex-wife, once said Brady just wanted to feel appreciated and have fun.
The coach and quarterback squabbled about Brady’s contracts and his personal trainer’s access to the team facilities. It didn’t help that Belichick was the Patriots’ de facto general manager.
The Patriots duo was chummy compared with Noll and Bradshaw. Why Noll drafted him remains a mystery to Bradshaw.
“He scared me to death,” Bradshaw said in an HBO interview. “I wasn’t his kind of quarterback, and he wasn’t my kind of coach. Taking me out of the game (and then) putting me back in a game would devastate me. Grab me, yell at me, devastated. Made me stand up in a chair while he chewed my ass out in front of the team. Destroyed me.”
The Tom Landry-Roger Staubach partnership with the Dallas Cowboys produced two championships and a record of 85-29, but the amiability of Reid-Mahomes was missing. Landry rarely congratulated Staubach when returning to the sideline after making a big play, as he did others. In the book “God’s Coach,” Skip Bayless wrote that the two “didn’t have any real dialogue” until the night before each game, even though Landry was the offensive game planner.
Landry elevated Staubach with a cutting-edge system that included pre-snap motions and the shotgun formation, but he would have preferred a pocket passer to the scrambler Staubach was. Staubach openly questioned some of Landry’s strategies and was irritated when Landry wouldn’t allow him to call plays.
Most of these relationships are considerably more complicated than the offenses they were trying to execute.
The Reid-Mahomes coupling is reminiscent of Walsh-Montana, which was sublime.
Until it wasn’t.
For eight seasons, they converged with rare flair. Montana was undersized and not very athletic, and he had an average arm. But his ability to throw receivers open, his understanding of defenses and his unreasonable competitiveness were precisely what Walsh needed to launch his groundbreaking offense.
Then, in 1987, with the dynasty established, Walsh feared Montana wouldn’t overcome a back injury and traded for Steve Young. It was the affair that shook the marriage.
Reid and Mahomes are still in the honeymoon phase.
Mahomes’ record as a starter at Texas Tech was 13-15. Despite leading the country in passing in 2016, he was never a Heisman finalist, an All-American or a first-team all-conference player. Now he’s a two-time MVP and two-time Super Bowl MVP.
Reid is in the sunset of what is sure to be a Hall of Fame career. But he didn’t win a Super Bowl as a head coach until Mahomes became his starter.
Why the Chiefs are the NFL’s blueprint and the 49ers are an outlier: Sando’s Pick Six
Reid has blended well with other quarterbacks, however. In his two seasons as Brett Favre’s position coach in Green Bay, Favre won an MVP one year and led the league in passing yards the next. Donovan McNabb went to six Pro Bowls and five NFC Championship Games with Reid as his head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. Michael Vick had the best season of his career under Reid. The five years Alex Smith played for Reid were the most productive of his career.
Reid brought Mahomes to a level no one thought possible by granting him the freedom to follow his instincts — even when that means doing things every other coach in the league tells his quarterback not to do.
So we see the no-look passes, the wrong-handed throws, the falling-down heaves, the submarine pitches and the dropbacks that look like figure skaters’ short programs.
And we see something else: touchdowns. And wins.
“He doesn’t try to make you be this system quarterback or make you do what his offense wants to do,” Mahomes said in a SiriusXM interview.
The approach is unusual but reminiscent of how John Madden treated his Oakland Raiders players, specifically free-spirited quarterback Kenny “The Snake” Stabler. They were another great duo, winning Super Bowl XI.
Some of the coaches in all-time coach-quarterback pairings have been more authoritarian, however.
Lombardi took guff from no man. Except Starr.
In “When Pride Still Mattered,” author David Maraniss recounts when Starr threw a practice interception and Lombardi chewed him out in front of his teammates. The interception wasn’t Starr’s fault, so Starr confronted Lombardi. He told him he shouldn’t yell at him in front of his teammates because it undermined him as a leader. Lombardi never berated him in front of others again.
Their combined force as leaders might be unparalleled in football history.
Why the Chiefs and 49ers are staying in Lake Las Vegas, not on The Strip
Halas was a lieutenant commander in World War II, and he was a lieutenant commander of a coach: demanding, gruff and unbending. But his bond with Luckman transcended his leadership style. Halas called him “Son,” and Luckman said Halas was like a second father. Luckman was at Halas’ bedside until shortly before he died in 1983, the only non-family member allowed in the hospital during Halas’ final days. Halas wrote him a note before he died that read, “I love you with all my heart.”
It was Halas who created the vision that enabled Luckman to thrive, but he entrusted his quarterback and offense to Clark Shaughnessy, master of the T-formation. In that way, the Halas-Luckman relationship was different from Reid-Mahomes.
The modern-era comparison to Halas-Luckman is Don Shula-Bob Griese, winners of two Super Bowls together with the Miami Dolphins. Griese, who lost his father when he was 10, considered Shula a paternal figure. Shula had a defensive background and didn’t work with his quarterback the way Reid works with Mahomes, but he and Griese became lifelong friends who often met at the Gulfstream Park racetrack after Shula retired from coaching.
By the time they came together, Shula had already won an NFL championship as head coach of the Baltimore Colts. Griese had less ego than many quarterbacks and didn’t mind Shula being the face of the Dolphins.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) February 3, 2020
One of Mahomes’ predecessors with the Chiefs had a similar approach, which was one reason quarterback Len Dawson thrived with the flamboyant Hank Stram.
Their relationship began when Stram, as an assistant coach, recruited Dawson to Purdue. They spent three years together in West Lafayette before Dawson was chosen by the Steelers in the first round. After five NFL seasons, Dawson was considered a bust and thought about retiring. Stram, then the head coach of the Dallas Texans, told Dawson he’d welcome a reunion. Dawson asked for his release and headed to Dallas.
Like Reid, Stram didn’t force Dawson into his way of doing things. Because Dawson had mobility and an accurate but not powerful arm, Stram created a moving pocket. In their first season together, Dawson was named MVP of the AFL and led his team to a championship. The next season, the team became the Kansas City Chiefs and moved to the NFL. During the week before Super Bowl IV, a report linked Dawson to a federal gambling inquiry. Stram, who called him “Leonard,” supported and protected Dawson, who never forgot it.
The gambling report turned out to be nothing, the Chiefs won the game and the coach and quarterback remained bonded until Stram died in 2005.
They were each other’s presenter for their inductions to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
So now we can envision Mahomes and Reid on a stage in Canton one day, their hands heavy with rings, telling all who will listen they would not have made it there without the other.
(Top illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Michael Owens, Carmen Mandato, Jay Biggerstaff / Getty Images)