Franchise Quarterbacks and Andy Reid's Legacy

Kevin Kolb and Andy Reid 2010 Transition from Donovan McNabb Coaching Legacy Philadelphia Eagles

What Andy Reid is attempting is the rarest of feats. Finding and tutoring not one, but two franchise quarterbacks, switching seamlessly from one to the other, and succeeding with both is a venture that no coach as achieved in recent NFL memory. Coaches have executed parts of this formula, but never the whole undertaking.

It’s hard enough to find one franchise quarterback. This is where most coaches fail first. Look at the infamous 1999 QB class. Tim Couch took down two coaches with Cleveland: Chris Palmer and Butch Davis. Akili Smith grounded two more in Cincinnati: Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau. Daunte Culpepper was great for a while, before putting Dennis Green and Mike Tice out of jobs. And Cade McNown’s failure doomed Dick Jauron’s regime in Chicago.

Only Reid found an elite quarterback from that bunch. Or perhaps he was the only one able to craft a great quarterback out of what he was given. Both scouting talent and coaching it are vital, and most coaches fail at one part. Sometimes a Brad Childress or a Sean Payton can grab a rare free agent veteran to lead their franchise. Sometimes coaches like Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher or Brian Billick build winning teams in the face of inferior talent behind center. But that’s a slightly different skill.

Of course, discovering and teaching aren’t enough. The coach has to build a winning team around the player. Mike Shanahan drafted Jay Cutler but couldn’t create a winner. Jim Mora couldn’t engineer a playoff win for the young Peyton Manning-led Colts. Neither could Marty Schottenheimer with Drew Brees or Philip Rivers.

Andy has succeeded at that. For eleven years he guided the Eagles to the top of the NFC again and again. Sure, no Super Bowl, but he built winners. Tony Dungy did the same thing with Peyton Manning. Bill Belichick did the same with Tom Brady. Cowher eventually found Ben Rothlisberger and won a championship. Same with Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning. The duos of Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers, Rex Ryan and Matt Sanchez are all reaching for similar goals.

Successful coaches find their franchise quarterback, tutor him, and flourish with him at the helm — none of which are easy tasks. Yet no coach above found a new franchise quarterback to replace the old. Cowher bowed out while his quarterback was still in his prime. Same with Dungy. A whole list of other great coaches did too. Bill Walsh left as Joe Montana’s time with the 49ers was winding down. Mike Holmgren jumped to Seattle instead of sticking with Brett Favre, then left again when the Matt Hasselbeck era was slipping away.

Partially this is due to the simple fact that coaching in the NFL is grueling, and it’s difficult to last for more than a decade or so in one place — even when you have success. Holmgren showed the ability to pick a second franchise quarterback and tutor him, just with another team. Walsh grabbed Steve Young from the dark recesses of Tampa Bay, only didn’t stay to coach the team’s future Hall of Famer.

Coaches who last past the first decade, and there aren’t many of them, have trouble finding a second elite quarterback to pick up the slack. Jeff Fisher is a good example. Fisher drafted Steve McNair third overall in 1995 and stuck with him for a decade, amassing two division titles, five playoff wins, and a lone Super Bowl appearance (sounds a little familiar). However, since trading McNair in 2006, Fisher has had trouble finding a consistent replacement. Vince Young has looked like the future at times but never received the mentoring he needed coming out of college. Kerry Collins is a stop-gap. The Titans don’t really have a “franchise quarterback” at this time.

Some teams do manage to switch directly from the old franchise quarterback to the new — Montana to Young, Favre to Rodgers, Drew Bledsoe to Brady — but it’s been almost exclusively a new coach who makes the switch: George Seifert, Mike McCarthy, Belichick. The guy who didn’t draft or coach the older veteran, who’s committed to a long-term solution even when the old player may have a few more years left.

That’s what makes what Reid is trying to do so extraordinary. His ability to find, groom, and win with Donovan McNabb has deservedly helped build his reputation as one of the best coaches in today’s NFL. But if he manages to make lightning strike a second time with Kevin Kolb, and pulls off the seamless transition, Reid’s accomplishment, in my mind, would make him one of the best coaches of all time.

Now, as for that Super Bowl…