A History of Hall of Fame QB-Coach Entanglement

Last week on PTI, Dan LeBatard mentioned an interesting stat that I had never heard before: that 13 of 14 Hall of Fame coaches had Hall of Fame QB’s play for them.  LeBatard’s point was that he thought great quarterbacks make their coaches look like geniuses, and he was none-too-subtle about the implication that coaches get too much credit.  My first thought was, of course: Entanglement, anyone? That is to say, why should he conclude that the QB’s are making their coaches look better than they are instead of the other way around?  Good QB’s help their teams win, for sure, but winning teams also make their QB’s look good.  Thus – at best – LeBatard’s stat doesn’t really imply that HoF Coaches piggyback off of their QB’s success, it implies that the Coach and QB’s successes are highly entangled.  By itself, this analysis might be enough material for a tweet, but when I went to look up these 13/14 HoF coach/QB pairs, I found the history to be a little more interesting than I expected.

First, I’m still not sure exactly which 14 HoF coaches LeBatard was talking about.  According the the official website, there are 21 people in the HoF as coaches.  From what I can tell, 6 of these (Curly Lambeau, Ray Flaherty, Earle Neale, Jimmy Conzelman, Guy Chamberlain and Steve Owen) coached before the passing era, so that leaves 15 to work with.  A good deal of George Halas’s coaching career was pre-pass as well, but he didn’t quit until 1967 – 5 years later than Paul Brown – and he coached a Hall of Fame QB anyway (Sid Luckman).  Of the 15, 14 did indeed coach HoF QB’s, at least technically.

To break the list down a little, I applied two threshold tests:  1) Did the coach win any Super Bowls (or league championships before the SB era) without their HoF QB?  And 2) In the course of his career, did the coach have more than one HoF QB?  A ‘yes’ answer to either of these questions I think precludes the stereotype of a coach piggybacking off his star player (of course, having coached 2 or more Hall of Famer’s might just mean that coach got extra lucky, but subjectively I think the proxy is fairly accurate).  Here is the list of coaches eliminated by these questions:

[table “5” not found /]
Joe Gibbs wins the outlier prize by a mile: not only did he win 3 championships “on his own,” he did it with 3 different non-HoF QB’s.  Don Shula had 3 separate eras of greatness, and I think would have been a lock for the hall even with the Griese era excluded.  George Allen never won a championship, but he never really had a HoF QB either: Jurgensen (HoF) served as Billy Kilmer (non-HoF)’s backup for the 4 years he played under Allen.  Sid Gillman had a long career, his sole AFL championship coming with the Chargers in 1963 – with Tobin Rote (non-HoF) under center.  Weeb Ewbank won 2 NFL championships in Baltimore with Johnny Unitas, and of course won the Super Bowl against Baltimore and Unitas with Joe Namath.  Finally, George Halas won championships with Pard Pearce (5’5”, non-HoF), Carl Brumbaugh (career passer rating: 34.9, non-HoF), Sid Luckman (HoF) and Billy Wade (non-HoF).  Plus, you know, he’s George Halas.
[table “1” not found /]
Though Chuck Noll won all of his championships with Terry Bradshaw (HoF), those Steel Curtain teams weren’t exactly carried by the QB position (e.g., in the 1974 championship season, Bradshaw averaged less than 100 passing yards per game).  Bill Walsh is a bit more borderline: not only did all of his championships come with Joe Montana, but Montana also won a Super Bowl without him.  However, considering Walsh’s reputation as an innovator, and especially considering his incredible coaching tree (which has won nearly half of all the Super Bowls since Walsh retired in 1989), I’m willing to give him credit for his own notoriety.  Finally, Vince Lombardi, well, you know, he’s Vince Lombardi.

Which brings us to the list of the truly entangled:
[table “4” not found /]
I waffled a little on Paul Brown, as he is generally considered an architect of the modern league (and, you know, a team is named after him), but unlike Lombardi, Walsh and Knoll, Brown’s non-Otto-Graham-entangled accomplishments are mostly unrelated to coaching.  I’m sure various arguments could be made about individual names (like, “You crazy, Tom Landry is awesome”), but the point of this list isn’t to denigrate these individuals, it’s simply to say that these are the HoF coaches whose coaching successes are the most difficult to isolate from their quarterback’s.

I don’t really want to speculate about any broader implications, both because the sample is too small to make generalizations, and because my intuition is that coaches probably do get too much credit for their good fortune (whether QB-related or not).  But regardless, I think it’s clear that LeBatard’s 13/14 number is highly misleading.

6 Responses to “A History of Hall of Fame QB-Coach Entanglement”

  1. Rob DiRe says:

    Hey, I love the statistical analysis. I just read this article as well as the Rodman articles and I think you are doing a fantastic job. I have a sports blog too, except it is the opposite. Everything is by the eye test, and by arbitrary questions, rather than statistics. However, good statistical analysis like this is hard to overcome. (for the record, you could not be more correct about Rodman’s dominance).

    Make sure to thank LeBatard for retweeting you, I’ll be checking back when you post again.

  2. benjaminmorris says:

    Thanks Rob. I’ll take a look at your blog after I get some sleep. But I don’t really consider myself a “statistics” guy, per se. I try to use them when they’re useful and criticize them when they’re not.

  3. Jim Glass says:

    The causality goes HoF Coach –> his QB gets into HoF, not the other way, pretty clearly.

    Here are some thoughts on why.

    A short mental experiment: Suppose Joe Montana and Archie Manning had switched teams. What’s more likely…

    John North and JD Roberts would be in the Hall of Fame, and Bill Walsh would be a forgotten failure? Or…

    League-top draft pick Manning would be in the Hall of Fame with Walsh, and middling pick Montana would be forgotten with with the rest of those ‘Aints.

    Pick one.

  4. benjaminmorris says:

    Hi Jim. Apparently I was responding to your comment on Advanced NFL Stats while you were commenting here. Your conclusion is obviously plausible, but your Bill Walsh/Joe Montana hypo sort of begs the question.

  5. Rusty says:

    I would say more than “Tom Landry is awesome” to dispute your entanglement theory with respect to him. Landry went to two NFL Championship games with Don Meredith as his QB (each lost on a single, last second play to the Packers), went to a Super Bowl with Craig Morton which was lost on a last second FG in one of the craziest games ever played, and once Staubach retired the Cowboys, then led by Danny White, when to three consecutive NFC Championship games.

  6. benjaminmorris says:

    Valid points all, though I wouldn’t call it “my entanglement theory.” I was just using the crudest tools possible to exclude the clearest cases, which leaves plenty of room to analyze the careers of the remaining HoF coaches and speculate about which may have been riding their QB’s coattails, or vice-versa.

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