One year has passed since the debut of our quarterback/coach duo rankings, and plenty has changed in the top 10. The list was bound to have new members and others leave the group, but some entered the chat in a bigger way than expected.
Last season was the year Josh Allen became a MVP candidate (who would have predicted that heading into the season?) and Baker Mayfield led the Cleveland Browns to their first playoff win in 26 years. It was truly an unpredictable year; just look at the Super Bowl champions.
Before we scroll down to the 2021 quarterback/head coach rankings, let’s revisit the qualifications for this list. There was a reason Tom Brady was off the list last year and Sean McVay is omitted this year.
- New head coaches and quarterbacks on new teams DO NOT QUALIFY for the list: McVay and Matthew Stafford fall into that category since Stafford was traded to the Los Angeles Rams and McVay, though he has a 53-27 record through five seasons, has never coached a regular season snap with Stafford as his quarterback. Sean Payton is eligible for the list, but he has a new quarterback in 2021 (Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill are in a quarterback competition) — the first year Drew Brees has not opened the season as his quarterback. The same rules applied to Tom Brady and Bruce Arians and Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy in 2020, but both duos are eligible in 2021.
- Play-calling/not calling plays neither helps nor hurts: Some head coaches oversee the team, deferring the play-calling duties to the offensive coordinator. That shouldn’t affect their reputation with the quarterback or with winning games and making deep postseason runs. Head coaches that don’t call plays will not get bumped down on this list.
- Longevity isn’t everything: It’s a great sign that a head coach and a quarterback have been together for a long time (which certainly plays a role in these rankings), but recent success on the field should also play a factor. Quarterbacks who had a strong 2020 season or have a small sample size with their head coach shouldn’t be punished too harshly because they haven’t been together for many years.
- Championships help: Yes, winning the ultimate prize matters, which is a power boost– and it’s even better if that title is a recent one. Getting to the Super Bowl is a tough task, which played a part in where I decided to rank these duos. MVP awards also played a factor.
- Remember, one half of the duo may be very good but the other half lacks, which I’ll break down in the top 10 rankings below.
Here’s a look at last year’s rankings as a refresher:
- Patrick Mahomes/Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs)
- Drew Brees/Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints)
- Russell Wilson/Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks)
- Lamar Jackson/John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens)
- Carson Wentz/Doug Pederson (Philadelphia Eagles)
- Jimmy Garoppolo/Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers)
- Deshaun Watson/Bill O’Brien (Houston Texans)
- Ben Roethlisberger/Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers)
- Jared Goff/Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams)
- Aaron Rodgers/Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers)
Presenting, the top 10 quarterback/head coach duos in the NFL for 2021. Feel free to criticize!
10. Jimmy Garoppolo/Kyle Shanahan — San Francisco 49ers
How can Garoppolo be one half of a quarterback/head coach duo when he’ll be fighting for his job this fall? His success with Shanahan trumps the impending battle with Trey Lance. Garoppolo played only six games in 2020 and missed parts of others with ankle injuries, as the 49ers went 3-3 in his starts (they were 3-7 in the other 10 games). He completed 67.1% of his passes for 1,096 yards with seven touchdowns to five interceptions and a 92.4 passer rating. The yards per attempt (7.8) and pass yards per game (182.7) are the lowest since Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers, but his history in San Francisco shows Garoppolo deserves to be in the top 10.
Garoppolo has completed 67.5% of his passes in his 31 starts for the 49ers, throwing for 7,352 yards with 46 touchdowns to 26 interceptions (98.1 passer rating). Of quarterbacks who have thrown 750-plus pass attempts over the past four years, Garoppolo is fourth in completion percentage and ninth in passer rating. He’s second in yards per attempt (8.33) behind only Patrick Mahomes. No matter how you dissect it, those are top-10 numbers.
Garoppolo and Shanahan are 22-8 since the 49ers traded for the quarterback in 2017, winning the NFC West title in their only full season together — advancing to Super Bowl LIV. Shanahan is just 35-45 as a head coach with one winning record in four seasons, but it’s hard to ignore the success he’s had when Garoppolo starts.
The pair is good enough for a rebound in 2021, assuming Shanahan allows Garoppolo to start the season. If Garoppolo can stay healthy — and that’s a big if — he may not give up his job this year.
9. Baker Mayfield/Kevin Stefenski — Cleveland Browns
Mayfield and Stefanski have only been together one year and already found their way onto this list — after leading the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years. The improvements Mayfield made in his first year were enough for the Browns to revisit how far he can take this team. Mayfield completed 62.8% of his passes for 3,563 yards with 26 touchdowns to eight interceptions (95.9 rating) in 2020. When Mayfield posts a 100-plus passer rating, the Browns are 15-1 — and he accomplished it eight times last season (the Browns won all eight of those games, including postseason).
Mayfield joined Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck as the only players in league history to throw for 3,500 passing yards and 20 touchdown passes in each of their first three seasons. His 75 touchdown passes trail only Manning (86) and Luck (85) for the most by a No. 1 overall pick after his first three years. The resume is building for Mayfield, as the Browns have a franchise quarterback.
Cleveland finished 11-5 in Stefanski’s first year, the most wins by a head coach for the franchise in his first year since Paul Brown in 1946 (the team’s inaugural season). Cleveland snapped an 18-season playoff drought and won a playoff game for the first time since the 1994 season. The postseason win over the Steelers was the franchise’s first postseason road win since 1969. Add in the team’s commitment to the run with the wide zone scheme and the Browns have a foundation to build upon.
The Browns have an opportunity to go deeper in the playoffs in year two with Mayfield and Stefanski, a duo that has a tremendous opportunity to move up this list.
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8. Ben Roethlisberger/Mike Tomlin — Pittsburgh Steelers
Mayfield, Stefanski, and the Browns may have beaten (to put it nicely) Roethlisberger and Tomlin in the AFC wild card round playoff last year, but the Steelers quarterback/head coach duo still had a good year despite the late season collapse where Pittsburgh lost five of its last six games (including the postseason) after an 11-0 start. The then 38-year-old Roethlisberger completed 65.6% of his passes for 3,803 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions for a 94.1 passer rating in 15 starts — in which the Steelers went 12-3 and won the AFC North title. Roethlisberger was able to accomplish this despite working with the league’s worst rushing offense and coming off elbow surgery that limited him to just two games the season prior.
Matt Canada is the new offensive coordinator — and play-caller — after Randy Fichtner was let go after last year’s collapse. Pittsburgh’s offense will have a different look, which could help Tomlin’s profile as a head coach — even though he’s accomplished plenty in this league.
Remember, Tomlin has never had a losing season since taking over in 2007 — tying Marty Schottenheimer for the most non-losing seasons to begin a career in league history. Tomlin has led Pittsburgh to a 145-78-1 (.650) record in the regular season since becoming the team’s head coach, the second-best record in the NFL behind the New England Patriots. Tomlin and Roethlisberger have accomplished plenty in their 14 seasons together, compiling a 127-63-1 record (.665 winning percentage), which includes seven AFC North titles, two Super Bowl appearances (winning Super Bowl XLIII), and an 8-8 record in the postseason. In turn, Roethlisberger has earned six Pro Bowl appearances, led the NFL in passing yards per game three times, and finished with a passer rating over 100 three times.
The Steelers are just 3-6 in the postseason since 2011, but Tomlin and Roethlisberger get the benefit of the doubt based on reputation. Not many quarterback/head coach duos have a Super Bowl championship under their belt.
7. Ryan Tannehill/Mike Vrabel — Tennessee Titans
What Tannehill has been able to accomplish since becoming the Titans starter in the middle of the 2019 season is incredible, stating his case as a top-five quarterback in this league. Since becoming the starter in Week 7 of the 2019 season, Tannehill is first in the league in yards per attempt (8.55), third in touchdowns (55) and third in passer rating (111.3). Tannehill also has the most game-winning drives (nine) and is tied for the most fourth-quarter comebacks since the start of the 2019 season, while ranking second in touchdown percentage (7.2).
The Titans offense is first in the league in touchdowns, 50-yard plays, and red zone touchdown percentage since 2019 — and Tannehill has played a major role in making the franchise an AFC contender. Since Vrabel made Tannehill the starter, the Titans are 18-8 (.692 win percentage) with an AFC Championship game appearance and an AFC South division title. Vrabel has never had a losing season as a head coach in the NFL (three seasons), compiling a 29-19 record. Before starting Tannehill, he was just 11-11 as the Titans head coach.
Tennessee may have been defeated in the wild card round last season, but the Tannehill/Vrabel duo is basically a lock for the playoffs with Derrick Henry in his prime and a passing game that has significantly improved with the addition of Julio Jones. The Titans are expected to be in the hunt this year for their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1999 season.
6. Josh Allen/Sean McDermott — Buffalo Bills
Allen and McDermott have a case to be even higher on this list, but debuting this high in the top 10 just showcases how good they were in 2020 — considering they are the highest duo that doesn’t have a quarterback or head coach with a championship on his resume. The Bills reached the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1993 season and their 13-3 record was the franchise’s best since 1991.
What Allen accomplished in 2020 was MVP-caliber, even if he didn’t take home the league’s highest individual honor. Allen set the Bills’ franchise record for passing yards in a season (4,544) and passing touchdowns (37), finishing with a 107.2 passer rating. He finished fourth in the league in completion percentage (69.2), fifth in passing yards, fifth in passing touchdowns, and fourth in passer rating — while also rushing for 421 yards and eight touchdowns.
Allen is the only player in NFL history with 400-plus passing yards, 30-plus passing touchdowns and eight-plus rushing touchdowns in a season and the only quarterback in NFL history with three consecutive seasons of seven-plus rushing touchdowns. He is also the first player in NFL history with two games in a season with 400-plus passing yards, three-plus passing touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 130-plus passer rating. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is the one calling the plays in Buffalo, but McDermott has been Allen’s head coach since he entered the league in 2018.
McDermott has a pretty impressive resume himself, with three winning seasons in four years with the Bills. Buffalo had just two winning seasons this century prior to McDermott’s arrival, with no 10-win seasons (McDermott has consecutive 10-win campaigns). The Bills won their first AFC East title and first playoff game since 1995 under McDermott’s watch, with Allen as the quarterback. McDermott is 38-26 (.594 win percentage) as head coach of the Bills with a 2-3 playoff record (both playoff wins came last season).
Allen and McDermott are 28-15 in 43 starts together with consecutive playoff appearances. They also came within one game of the Super Bowl in Allen’s breakthrough year, a building block of what’s to come in Buffalo. Allen and McDermott appear to be mainstays on this list.
5. Lamar Jackson/John Harbaugh — Baltimore Ravens
Jackson finally has a playoff victory on his resume, but the Ravens fell to the Bills in the playoffs last year. Why do they have a higher ranking than Allen and McDermott? Both Jackson and Harbaugh have accomplished so much in just under two-and-a-half seasons that it makes the pair one of the best in the league.
Jackson does have a MVP on his resume (the youngest MVP in league history) and became the third-youngest player to win league MVP and a playoff game at 24 years and 3 days old — only Patrick Mahomes (23 years, 117 days) and Dan Marino (23 years, 106 days) were younger. He also joined Colin Kaepernick as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with multiple 100-yard rushing yard games in the postseason, despite his 1-3 playoff record.
Now let’s get to the regular season. Jackson threw 26 touchdown passes and rushed for seven scores in 2020, joining Deshaun Watson (2018-19) as the only quarterbacks with at least 25 touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns in consecutive seasons in NFL history. Baltimore is 30-7 with Jackson as its starter in the regular season. Since his first NFL start in Week 11 of the 2018 season, Jackson’s 30 wins are the most among all NFL starting quarterbacks, and he is also the fastest quarterback in league history to reach 30 regular season victories (accomplishing the feat in just 37 starts).
Jackson is also the first quarterback to have consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons and has completed 64.1% of his passes for 6,998 yards with 67 touchdowns to just 18 interceptions (102.5 rating) since becoming the Ravens starter. He also has 2,767 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.
Harbaugh deserves plenty of credit for his development. Harbaugh is 140-86 (.620 win percentage) in his career, becoming just one of 10 head coaches in NFL history to make the postseason nine times in his first 13 NFL seasons. His eight playoff wins on the road are the most in NFL history (which he accomplished last season). He also has won Super Bowl XLVII and is one of the best coaches in the game.
As I wrote last year, Harbaugh and Jackson can easily crack the top three on this list with a postseason run. We’re still waiting for them to take the next step in a competitive AFC.
4. Russell Wilson/Pete Carroll — Seattle Seahawks
Carroll decided to “Let Russ Cook” last season, as Wilson was the early front-runner to win league MVP honors. At the end of the year an MVP vote still eluded Wilson, even though he had one of his best seasons. Wilson finished with a career-high in completion percentage (68.8) and passing touchdowns (40), while finishing with 4,212 yards and a 105.1 passer rating. The Seahawks won 12 games for the first time since 2014 and the NFC West title for the first time since 2016, yet failed to win a playoff game for the second time in the last three seasons.
Since Wilson became the starting quarterback of the Seahawks in 2012, Seattle is 98-45-1 (.679 win percentage) with eight 10-plus-win seasons (in nine years), four division titles, seven playoff appearances, two NFC championships, and a Super Bowl title. In case you need more proof on how dynamic Wilson has been since entering the league, he has been selected to the Pro Bowl seven times, and has thrown for 267 touchdowns to just 81 interceptions with an 101.7 passer rating. Wilson has the second-highest passer rating and the third-lowest interception percentage (1.87) in history (minimum 4,000 attempts). Wilson has started all 144 games he’s played, which is the sixth-longest consecutive starts streak for a quarterback in NFL history.
Wilson has the second-most passing touchdowns (267) in his first nine seasons in the NFL — trailing only Peyton Manning. He also has the fifth-most passing yards (33,946) and second-highest passer rating (101.7) for a quarterback after his first nine seasons, so how did this duo fall down a spot? Seattle has failed to get past the divisional round of the playoffs since losing Super Bowl XLIX (Carroll’s infamous blunder at the 1-yard line), and fell in the wild card round last season to a backup quarterback — who never took a regular season NFL snap.
Wilson and Carroll should be in the top three, but they’ve been dethroned by duos that made deep playoff runs last year.
3. Aaron Rodgers/Matt LaFleur — Green Bay Packers
Whatever Rodgers’ beef is with the Packers, you can’t deny the incredible amount of success he’s had since LaFleur took over as head coach in 2019. The Packers are 26-6 since LaFleur took over, with back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances (only the Kansas City Chiefs have also reached the conference championship game in each of the last two years). LaFleur is just the second head coach since the league went to a divisional format in 1967 to win 13-plus games and a division title in each of his first two seasons. He’s just the sixth head coach since 1970 to lead his team to the conference championship game in both of his first two seasons as a head coach.
Rodgers has been incredible in his two seasons under LaFleur. Of quarterbacks with 750 pass attempts, Rodgers has the most touchdown passes (74) with the fewest interceptions (nine) and is the only player with an interception percentage under one (0.82). His 26 wins are also the most in the league. Rodgers also ranks third in touchdown percentage (6.8), and eighth in completion percentage (66.2) and passing yards (8,301).
Rodgers had a historic season in winning the league MVP award, completing 70.7% of his passes for 4,299 yards with 48 touchdowns to just five interceptions at the age of 37. A First Team All-Pro selection, Rodgers led the league in completion percentage, touchdown passes, touchdown percentage (9.1), interception percentage (1.0), and passer rating (121.5). He set a career-high in both completion percentage and touchdown passes. Rodgers set three NFL records in 2020, including the most games with a passer rating over 100 (14) and the most games with a passer rating over 120 in a season (10). He also had nine games with three-plus touchdown passes and no interceptions in a season, also the most in NFL history.
Rodgers became the third player in NFL history to lead the league in passing touchdowns (48) while throwing the fewest interceptions (five), joining Tom Brady (2010) and Johnny Unitas (1958) as the only players to accomplish the feat. He’s the first player in NFL history to throw at least 40 touchdowns with five or fewer interceptions in a season and his 121.5 passer rating is the second-highest in NFL history — behind the 122.5 mark he set in 2011. Rodgers’ 51 total touchdowns (48 passing, three rushing) are the third-most in a season in NFL history.
Rodgers and LaFleur may not even be together in 2021, but the duo deserves to be amongst the elite on this list.
2. Patrick Mahomes/Andy Reid — Kansas City Chiefs
Mahomes and Reid clearly have an argument for the top spot for the second consecutive year, but we’ll get to why they fell to No. 2. The Chiefs are 38-8 in Mahomes’ 46 starts with three AFC Championship Game appearances (in three full seasons), two conference championship victories, and a win in Super Bowl LIV for a 6-2 postseason record. Reid deserves the credit too, as the Chiefs have averaged 31.4 points per game in Mahomes’ 46 starts — including scoring 30-plus points 28 times and 40-plus points eight times.
Mahomes is still the youngest player to win NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP while having the most passing yards (14,152), passing touchdowns (114), highest passer rating (108.7) and fewest interceptions (24) through a player’s first 46 starts.
Since becoming the Kansas City Chiefs starting quarterback in 2018, Mahomes leads the NFL in passing touchdowns (114), and is second in passing yards (13,868) and passer rating (109.3) This past season, Mahomes completed a career-high 66.3% of his passes for 4,740 yards with 38 touchdowns to just six interceptions (108.2 rating). Mahomes also led the league in passing yards per game (316.0).
Mahomes recorded his third-consecutive season with 4,000-plus passing yards, becoming the third player in NFL history with 4,000-plus passing yards in three of his first four seasons, joining Peyton Manning and Dan Marino. He also became just the seventh player in NFL history to throw for 4,500-plus passing yards and 35-plus passing touchdowns multiple times in his career. Mahomes is just the third quarterback with at least 110 touchdown passes in his first four seasons in NFL history, joining Marino (142) and Kurt Warner (111).
Based on Mahomes’ historic start and Reid taking the Chiefs deep in the playoffs each year in the three full seasons that Mahomes has been the starting quarterback, the duo should be the best in the NFL, right? If only they weren’t dethroned by a duo that won a Super Bowl in their first year together.
Brady and Arians captured a Super Bowl championship in their first year together, which catapults them to the top of this exclusive list. Brady is the second quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl with two different teams (joining Peyton Manning, who did it with the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos). He’s the first player in NFL history to win a title in three different decades (2000s, 2010s, 2020s) and the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl title in each conference.
What Arians did for Brady’s career — at the age of 43 — may never be replicated. Brady set the NFL record for touchdown passes in his first season with a new team (43) and second-most passing yards in year one with a new team (4,633). Arians and Brady took the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl — while Brady became the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl and win it at 43 years, 188 days. Brady finished second in the NFL in completions (401), tied for second in passing touchdowns (40), and third in passing yards (4,633). He led the Buccaneers to the franchise’s second Super Bowl title, as Tampa Bay became the first franchise to win the Super Bowl in its own stadium — beating Mahomes, Reid and the Chiefs.
Arians became the oldest head coach to win a Super Bowl at 68 years and 127 days. He’s the second-oldest head coach to win a NFL championship; George Halas remains the oldest coach to win a title at 68 years and 331 days when the Chicago Bears won the NFL Championship in 1963. The Buccaneers became the first team in NFL history to score 30-plus points four times in a single postseason. They are the first team in NFL history to defeat three former Super Bowl MVPs (Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes) — and they did it in consecutive games.
Brady has seven Super Bowl titles on his resume and more Super Bowl championships than any other franchise in NFL history (the New England Patriots have the most with six — all with Brady at QB). He’s also the first player to win seven NFL championships and joined Bill Russell (Boston Celtics), Joe DiMaggio (New York Yankees), Mickey Mantle (New York Yankees), and Yogi Berra (New York Yankees) as the only players in the four major American sports to win seven championships and three MVP awards. Brady won his fifth Super Bowl MVP — the most in Super Bowl history.
The Brady-Arians duo accomplished all this in Year One during a pandemic with no preseason and a restricted training camp. The odds were stacked against the Buccaneers to win a Super Bowl in Year One with Brady and Arians, and they won the title anyway. Imagine what Year Two could bring for this duo.
Brady and Arians deserve the top spot, especially since Brady is the only quarterback to defeat Mahomes and Reid in the postseason.