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Hand in hand

When legendary coach and star QB come together, the result is usually super

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / September 10, 2009

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The iconic coach and the franchise quarterback. Put them together and there can be unforgettable magic, something so powerful that the combination stands on its own.

Simply “Belichick/Brady’’ will do in New England. Little more needs to be said.

Entering their 10th season together, they have produced three Super Bowl championships and one unmatched 16-0 regular season, results that put them in elite company.

Before them came combinations such as Luckman/Halas, Brown/Graham, and Lombardi/Starr. Weeb Ewbank had both Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.

Tom Landry made the bold switch to Roger Staubach after losing Super Bowl V. Later, there was Noll/Bradshaw. Then came Shula/Marino . . . Walsh/Montana . . . Holmgren/Favre.

Former Browns and Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi remembers hearing one of his football idols, Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr., address the subject.

“Years ago, he said that you have to have the coach and the quarterback - if you don’t, you’re not winning the championship,’’ Accorsi recalled. “You have to have other things, but you can’t have the coach without the quarterback, and you can’t have the quarterback without the coach. That never left my mind.’’

It’s the most important relationship in football, and perhaps all of pro sports.

When Accorsi traces the origins, he reflects on 1946. Offenses were evolving from the single-wing to the T-formation, changing the role of the quarterback, who had been a blocking back.

Paul Brown called all the plays. Otto Graham brought them to life on the field.

The Cleveland Browns advanced to 10 straight championship games between the All America Football Conference and National Football League, winning seven of them.

“To me, the true bond, the umbilical connection between coach and quarterback, started with Paul Brown and Otto Graham,’’ Accorsi said.

It has grown from there, the special magic emerging in different cities as the game evolved.

Bill Walsh and Joe Montana authored their special chapter in San Francisco. Longtime NFL personnel executive Michael Lombardi had a front-row seat for some of the behind-the-scenes dynamics that made the Walsh/Montana pairing such a success. He heard Walsh often say there were few coaches who could effectively tutor quarterbacks, and even fewer who could evaluate them.

What made Walsh the right match for Montana is that he effectively evaluated his strengths, then tailored the 49ers’ system around Montana’s unique gifts.

“Bill Walsh used to say it all the time - the first year, we’ll teach him the system and the next year, we’ll develop his skills in the system,’’ Lombardi recalled. “It’s the same thing Belichick did for Brady. One thing that the great coaches do is adapt the system to the quarterback. You don’t want it to be so rigid that the player can’t have his own personality come out.’’

Although Mike Holmgren is regarded as a sharp offensive mind, his ability to strike a middle ground between structure/discipline and letting Brett Favre be himself was arguably more important in helping their partnership in Green Bay thrive.

Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, who some cite as the shining example of a team - in this case, the Baltimore Ravens - not necessarily needing a star QB to win a championship, believes such flexibility must be complemented by something else to make the coach-quarterback relationship work.

“When you look at some of the great combinations, there is a trust,’’ said Dilfer, who is an analyst for ESPN. “The head coach trusts the player, and just as importantly, the player trusts the head coach. Quarterbacks are strong personalities, alpha males, and they’re not going to buy in if they don’t trust the person. That’s a big thing.’’

When assessing the Belichick/Brady duo, Dilfer sees it as a success in part because both push each other. He admires how Belichick has altered the team’s approach, playing multiple offensive styles the last 10 years within the same system, which has challenged Brady.

“They’ve been as multiple and flexible offensively as any team you’ve seen over the last 6-7 years,’’ he said. “Quarterbacks aren’t dummies. We see our coaches willing to do that, and we’re all in. As a quarterback, I’m jealous.’’

In turn, Brady has pushed Belichick and his staff when it comes to their responsibilities. Because Brady is so prepared, Belichick has said he must be meticulous in covering all bases to stay ahead of him, then communicating to him the key points.

Accorsi sees that coaching approach as one of the links between all the great combinations over the years.

“I think it starts with knowledge - if you look at some of these iconic coaches, they were teachers. You’re not going to influence Namath and Unitas unless you know what you’re talking about. If they don’t feel you can help them learn, they’re not going to respect you,’’ he said.

As for the quarterback, it takes more than a big arm or physical skills.

Accorsi recalled one of the early lessons he learned in that regard, from former Baltimore Colts scout Milt Davis. Having just broken into the business, Accorsi was evaluating a quarterback who could zing it and he asked Davis, a former cornerback, what he thought.

Davis told him that the strong arm was nice, but he was looking for more. He needed to get a feel for if the quarterback could lead the team to the end zone with the championship on the line.

The message was that a scout or coach shouldn’t evaluate a quarterback, from an athletic standpoint, like any other position.

“You have to recognize there is something special about them, that they have something in them, and that when others look at them, they’ll believe he’s going to lead them down the field,’’ Accorsi said. “A lot of what makes a great quarterback, you can’t see. You just have to feel it.’’

And in those rare occasions when the special quarterback is paired with the iconic coach, it’s the football version of hitting the lottery.

“That’s when you know you’ve made it,’’ Lombardi said. “That’s football utopia.’’

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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