If you're an owner or team-builder in the NFL, you love checking out the playoffs to see how title contenders have constructed their teams. Some decision-makers will focus on the number of blue-chip players dotting the roster at the marquee positions, but novice observers should pay attention to the combination of head coach and quarterback to really determine which teams have a legitimate shot at claiming the Lombardi Trophy.
Since Super Bowl XXXIV capped off the 1999 season, we've only seen four champions crowned without what I see as an A-level head coach-quarterback combination. The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV with quarterback Trent Dilfer and Super Bowl XLVII with Joe Flacco, while the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII with quarterback Brad Johnson and the Eagles won Super Bowl LII behind Nick Foles. Although each of those teams featured strong defenses or streaky offenses that got hot at the right time, the overwhelming majority of champions are led by teams with exceptional head coaches and quarterbacks.
With Super Wild Card Weekend upon us, I thought I would study the playoff field and assign grades to each head coach-quarterback combination in the tournament.
Head coach (Andy Reid): A+ | QB (Patrick Mahomes): A+
Cumulative grade: A+
Despite carrying 200-plus wins on his resume, Reid might've needed last year's Super Bowl victory to fully earn the respect and recognition that he deserves. Although the veteran coach has been touted as an innovator and QB guru based on his work with Alex Smith, Donovan McNabb and others throughout his career, it has been his collaboration with Mahomes over the past three seasons that has earned him gold-jacket status as an offensive wizard. Reid has crafted an attack that lights up scoreboards around the league utilizing a variety of fun and creative play calls that showcase the exceptional talents of his quarterback and perimeter playmakers. The 25-year-old Mahomes has taken the league by storm as a generational talent with an extraordinary combination of arm talent, athleticism, instincts and intelligence. He can play the game on- or off-script while delivering jaw-dropping plays that separate him from others at the position. He's a dazzling young player with an NFL MVP and a Super Bowl MVP already sitting on his mantle, and it's hard to dispute his standing as the game's ultimate QB1.
Next game: Divisional Round, vs. lowest remaining AFC seed.
Head coach (Matt LaFleur): A | QB (Aaron Rodgers): A+
Cumulative grade: A
It is hard to step in and immediately meet the lofty standards set in Green Bay by Vince Lombardi, but LaFleur has been setting sky-high expectations in his first two years on the sideline. The savvy coach has not only compiled an impressive 26-6 regular-season record with a pair of NFC North titles, but he has done it while implementing a scheme that has elevated the play of the 37-year-old Rodgers. The two-time MVP is arguably playing the best ball of his career in a system that's alleviated the pressure on him to make every play through improvisation. Rodgers set a career high with 48 pass touchdowns this season, and his 121.5 passer rating is the second-highest in a single season in NFL history, behind his own mark of 122.5, set in 2011. While Rodgers remains a deadly playmaker on impromptu plays, LaFleur's QB-friendly offense has enabled him to carve opponents utilizing a systematic approach from the pocket.
Next game: Divisional Round, vs. lowest remaining NFC seed.
Head coach (Sean McDermott): A | QB (Josh Allen): A+
Cumulative grade: A
It might be time to consider McDermott as the NFL's top program builder after watching his masterful work in Western New York. The Bills are a collection of hardworking playmakers with resilient attitudes and gritty personas. The scrappy head coach is directing the hottest team in football, and their relentlessness gives them a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of McDermott's fourth season on the job. Allen is the first player in NFL history with 4,500-plus passing yards, 35-plus touchdowns and five-plus rushing touchdowns in a single season. The MVP candidate is a "wow" playmaker with an extraordinary combination of athleticism and arm talent that makes him a dominant force from the pocket. Although the third-year pro will need to show skeptics he can handle playoff pressure and avoid some of the bone-headed mistakes that plagued him in the past, the Bills' QB1 could deliver a breakthrough performance that cements his standing among the elites.
Head coach (Pete Carroll): A | QB (Russell Wilson): A
Cumulative grade: A
It is hard to find fault with a coach who consistently gets his team into the postseason tournament, and Carroll earns high marks for leading the Seahawks into the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons. Despite the defense's early-season issues, the unit has come together at the right time, and its resurgence has enabled Carroll to play the complementary style of football that he prefers. Wilson is the game's ultimate eraser, with his remarkable ability to pull out wins in the fourth quarter. He is a deadly passer with the kind of improvisational playmaking skills that keeps defensive coordinators up at night. In a "win or go home" scenario that demands exceptional play from the quarterback, there aren't many QB1s capable of outplaying No. 3 in the postseason.
Head coach (Bruce Arians): B+ | QB (Tom Brady): A
Cumulative grade: B+
It took the Buccaneers more time than expected to hit their stride in 2020, with Arians forced to tweak his system to better suit the skills of his six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback. Although the "no risk it, no biscuit" mentality remains an integral part of the offensive philosophy, the grizzled head coach has stepped back and enabled Brady to attack defenses with a small-ball approach that places a greater emphasis on efficiency from the 43-year-old. Despite Brady's advanced age and statuesque playing style, he has delivered stellar returns in a pass-centric offense that overwhelms opponents with a collection of five-star playmakers on the perimeter. If given sufficient protection in the pocket, the G.O.A.T can still deliver an A-plus performance on a big stage.
Head coach (John Harbaugh): B | QB (Lamar Jackson): B+
Cumulative grade: B+
Harbaugh is a Mr. Fix-it on the sidelines; the one-time Super Bowl winner possesses an uncanny ability to get his team to play its best football down the stretch. The Ravens have streaked into the playoffs in each of the past three seasons behind an innovative, smash-mouth offense and suffocating defense. Jackson acts as the team's spark plug, an electric dual-threat playmaker with the potential to put points on the board from anywhere on the field. The third-year pro is the only quarterback in NFL history with multiple seasons of 2,500-plus passing yards and 1,000-plus rushing yards. Although he must prove to the football world that he can win a playoff game, the reigning MVP is a nightmare to defend on the perimeter.
Head coach (Mike Vrabel): B | QB (Ryan Tannehill): B+
Cumulative grade: B+
Vrabel's gruff exterior masks an exceptional strategist and game-management specialist. The Titans' head coach isn't afraid to utilize alternative methods to put his team in the best position to win. From employing surprise offensive, defensive or special teams' tactics to exploiting a rule found in the back pages of the rule book, Vrabel will keep opponents on their toes with his daredevil approach. Tannehill has become a stone-cold assassin from the pocket since joining the Titans a season ago. Since Week 7 in 2019, when the ex-Dolphin became Tennessee's starter, he's racked up more passing touchdowns (55) and a higher passer rating (111.3) than the last two MVPs (Patrick Mahomes has 50 and 105.5 in that span and Lamar Jackson has 51 and 109.9). Considering the 32-year-old veteran is one of only seven quarterbacks with 20-plus wins and a 100-plus passer rating in his first 30 games with a team, Tannehill gives the Titans star power at the QB1 spot.
Head coach (Mike Tomlin): A | QB (Ben Roethlisberger): B
Cumulative grade: B+
It might take a while, but Tomlin always figures out a way to keep the Steelers in title contention. Whether it requires tweaking the defense to increase the pressure on opposing QBs and force more turnovers or leaning into a pass-happy offensive scheme that puts the game on Big Ben's shoulders, the veteran coach will do whatever it takes to win. This season, Tomlin watched his team reel off 11 straight victories before stumbling down the stretch. Roethlisberger helped end the slide with a virtuoso performance against the Colts in Week 16 that showcased his IQ, awareness and touch. Although the 38-year-old has seemingly lost his fastball (deep passing ability), No. 7 is more than capable of winning a playoff shootout as a quick-rhythm gunslinger.
Head coach (Sean Payton): A | QB (Drew Brees): B-
Cumulative grade: B+
There's no disputing Payton's standing as one of the top coaches in the game. He is a masterful offensive schemer who excels at creating big-play opportunities for his quarterbacks and top playmakers. He has been able to morph his offense to fit the talent available to him, particularly in 2020, with Brees and Taysom Hill each logging significant snaps at quarterback. Brees remains the Saints' QB1 despite limitations stemming from his age (41) and health (he missed four games after suffering rib and lung injuries in Week 10). He's a masterful dink-and-dunk passer with the capacity to carve up opponents on catch-and-run throws or seam throws along the hashes. The veteran rarely pushes the ball down the field but stresses the defenses with his efficiency as a rhythm passer. Hill, meanwhile, is a dynamic running threat with an effective game as a "one-read-and-go" passer. Payton's ability to maximize the complementary talents of Brees and Hill will make the Saints a nightmare to defend in the playoffs.
Head coach (Frank Reich): B | QB (Philip Rivers): B
Cumulative grade: B
The Colts have quietly become one of the most effective ground-and-pound teams in the league under the direction of Reich, in his third season with the team. The former NFL backup quarterback loves to put the ball in the hands of his running backs behind a beefy offensive line that blows defenders off the ball. When he commits to playing a "possession" game that features the ground attack prominently, the Colts are a difficult offense to defend, provided Rivers is on his game from the pocket. The ultra-competitive 39-year-old gunslinger remains a dangerous passer when protected, even while playing through a toe injury. He has taken better care of the football over the second half of the season (68.0% completion rate, 14:4 TD-to-INT ratio and a 102.2 passer rating over the final eight games), and his improved judgment is key to the Colts' title hopes.
Head coach (Sean McVay): B+ | QB (Jared Goff): B-
Cumulative grade: B
In McVay's four seasons in Los Angeles, the Rams' offensive wizard has taken the league by storm with a clever misdirection offense that features jet sweep action and a series of complementary runs and passes that create hesitancy and confusion for defenders. The stretch-bootleg play passes and misdirection vertical shots not only exploit overaggressive defenses but make the game easy for quarterbacks. That's why the Rams enter the playoff confident in their ability to make a Super Bowl run, with or without Goff, who has been dealing with a thumb injury that kept him out of the regular-season finale. The 2016 No. 1 overall pick ranked in the bottom two in win percentage (.600), touchdown-to-interception ratio (20:13) and passer rating (90.0) among the 14 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs.
Head coach (Kevin Stefanski): B | QB (Baker Mayfield): B-
Cumulative grade: B-
Stefanski won't be available for the AFC Wild Card Round after testing positive for COVID-19 this week, but the first-year head coach has carefully crafted an offense that blends a power running game with a QB-friendly aerial attack featuring a number of complementary play passes. Mayfield has crushed it within the Browns' new scheme, posting a 16:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 102.1 passer rating since Week 7. Despite the hot streak, the 2018 No. 1 overall pick must improve against the elites; consider his 2020 performance against eventual playoff teams included a 7-12 record and dismal stats (60.8% completion rate, 29:27 TD-to-INT ratio and an 80.5 passer rating).
Head coach (Matt Nagy): C+ | QB (Mitchell Trubisky): C+
Cumulative grade: C+
Nagy's decision to relinquish offensive play-calling duties in November sparked a revival down the stretch, but his influence still shows up with some of the creative play designs featured in critical situations. Trubisky has flourished in coordinator Bill Lazor's version of the offense since reclaiming the QB1 spot from Nick Foles in Week 12. The fourth-year pro has found his groove in an attack that features play-action passes (35.2% play-action rate with Trubisky under center, highest in the NFL) and quicks. With a 70.1 percent completion rate and 10:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past six games, the 2017 No. 2 overall pick is heating up at the right time.
Head coach (Ron Rivera): B | QB (Alex Smith): C+
Cumulative grade: C+
Credit Rivera for getting the WFT into the playoffs in the first year of his tenure. The grizzled head coach has gotten his team to buy into a complementary approach that enables the team's second-ranked defense to set the table for an opportunistic offense. The 36-year-old Smith is the perfect caretaker of the offense as high IQ playmaker with sound judgment. Despite his upside-down touchdown-to-interception ratio (6:8), he is a sound decision maker who excels at playing mistake-free football. Washington just has to hope a nagging calf injury doesn't keep Smith from continuing his incredible comeback story in the playoffs.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Huge opportunity for Justin Fields on CFB's biggest stage
If your team is in need of a franchise quarterback, you might want to tune in to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday night to catch a glimpse of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. The Buckeyes' junior QB is a former five-star recruit who has yet to announce his intentions for the 2021 NFL Draft. It appears he has all of the tools needed to flourish at the next level, though.
At 6-foot-3, 228-pounds (per Ohio State measurements) with A-plus arm talent and athleticism, Fields is from the new school of quarterbacks that has taken the league by storm in recent years. He displays the ability to push the ball down the field with pinpoint rainbows while also flashing the anticipation and touch to attack windows on short and intermediate throws. As a play-action passer, in particular, Fields' big arm enables him to shred overaggressive defenses that are lured to the line of scrimmage with deceptive play-fakes. In addition, his athleticism and ability to throw on the move would enable him to thrive in an offense that features bootlegs and movement passes on the perimeter.
As a runner, Fields' combination of size, strength and speed makes him a perfect fit for an offense hoping to utilize the quarterback in the running game. He has the ability to execute the read-option game or handle the rigors of chewing up yards on designed quarterback runs. Although he is not quite on the same level as Lamar Jackson as a runner, he is certainly on par with Josh Allen as a rugged playmaker on the ground. Fields runs the rock like a tailback. Those skills could make him an intriguing goal-line and short-yardage option for a team with a creative offensive coordinator who keeps a handful of Single Wing plays in the back of the playbook.
You will hear skeptics cite his disappointing performances this season against Indiana and Northwestern as cause for concern regarding Fields' pocket-passing ability and processing skills. There's no doubt the Buckeyes' star is still a work in progress as a passer. He has a tendency to stick with his primary target for an extended period before moving on to his secondary reads. The hesitancy leads to late throws, particularly against zone defenses, in which defenders are keying the quarterback's eyes.
In Monday night's game against Alabama, scouts will pay close attention to see if Fields can show progress with his diagnostic skills while also stepping up in a big game with significant implications. That's exactly what he did against Clemson on Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl, showing toughness in playing through a painful injury. If the Buckeyes' QB1 can torch a Nick Saban-led defense with pinpoint passes and athletic plays, he will boost his stock even more with QB-needy NFL teams watching.