Another top 10 list heading into the 2020 NFL season? Sure, every NFL fan has already seen a lot of preseason rankings, but CBSSports.com has one more to give you -- the top quarterback/head coach duos in the NFL. This one won't have any controversy, right?
How does one rank a quarterback/head coach combination? Reputation and longevity play a factor in the overall equation, but recent performance and expectations heading into 2020 also play a huge role. Then there's the Tom Brady and Dak Prescott conundrum -- do two excellent quarterbacks qualify for a list like this when they'll be paired with new coaches in 2020?
The qualifications for the list are specific:
- New head coaches and quarterbacks on new teams DO NOT QUALIFY for the list: Brady and Prescott fall into that category since Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is paired with Bruce Arians and Mike McCarthy is now the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. 2019 offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is still calling the plays in Dallas, but McCarthy and Prescott have never played a game together. The same applies to Brady and Arians, along with Cam Newton and Bill Belichick (assuming Newton starts).
- 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 won't be exempt on this list or be bumped down a few spots.
- 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 2019 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 too, which also 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.
Presenting, the top-10 quarterback/head coach duos in the NFL:
10. Aaron Rodgers/Matt LaFleur — Green Bay Packers
For all the issues this duo apparently has, Rodgers and LaFleur did a lot of winning in their first year together. The Packers finished 13-3 and made the NFC Championship game, even though they had an expected win-loss record of 10-6 based on points scored and points allowed (per Pro Football Reference). Rodgers played all 16 games and threw 26 TDs to just 4 INTs as the Packers finished with just 13 giveaways on the year (the second-most in the NFL).
The Packers actually scored the same amount of points in the regular season in 2018 as they did in 2019, even though Rodgers had a lower passer rating and a higher interception rate (he threw just two interceptions the prior year). So what did LaFleur do that made the difference from Mike McCarthy's final Packers season?
Green Bay was much improved in the red zone from the previous year (61.7% in 2018 to 64% in 2019) and the Packers defense improved from 22nd in the league in points allowed to ninth. Rodgers threw 16 TDs to 2 INTs in the red zone, but had a higher completion percentage (58.97%) to 2018 (44.26%).
Rodgers praised LaFleur for his leadership after the season, and said LaFleur allowed the players to take ownership. The limited rules for the team helped Rodgers buy into LaFleur's philosophy, even with some of the problems they had with the offense. The 13 wins in Year One is the most for any first-year head coach in Packers history.
LaFleur and Rodgers may take a step back in Year Two, but the offense can seriously improve after a year together. The Packers duo is still building a reputation; Rodgers and LaFleur were impressive enough to crack this list.
9. Jared Goff/Sean McVay — Los Angeles Rams
This duo should be much higher based on the success Goff and McVay have had together in three seasons. They have a 33-14 record together (.702 win percentage) with two playoff appearances and an NFC Championship. So why is this duo so low?
McVay wears the pants in this relationship, and he's responsible for transcending Goff into a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback. Goff had 60 TDs to just 19 INTs in those two seasons (2017 and 2018) with a passer rating over 100 both years. The Rams went 24-7 in 31 regular season games (.774 winning percentage) and went to Super Bowl LIII.
In the 2019 season, opposing defenses started to figure out McVay as the Rams offense slipped from second in the NFL in points scored to 11th. Goff struggled as well, throwing 22 TDs to 16 INTs as his intended air yards per pass completion dipped from 8.7 to 7.7 (falling from 10th in 2018 to 22nd). The Rams slipped to 9-7 and missed the playoffs entirely.
Unless McVay makes some adjustments and helps Goff get back to his 2018 form, the Rams may miss the playoffs for a second consecutive year in a loaded NFC West.
8. Ben Roethlisberger/Mike Tomlin — Pittsburgh Steelers
This duo's ranking is based more on reputation and longevity than recent performance, but that's not Roethlisberger or Tomlin's fault. The Steelers likely would have made the playoffs if Roethlisberger didn't injure his elbow in Week 2 of last season and miss the final 14 games after getting surgery.
Let's look at the season prior, when Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards and threw a career-high 34 TD -- at the age of 36. That was in his first season with Randy Fichtner (who calls the plays) as the offensive coordinator.
Tomlin and Roethlisberger have accomplished plenty in their 13 seasons together, compiling a 115-60-1 record (.653 winning percentage), which includes six AFC North titles, two Super Bowl appearances (winning Super Bowl XLIII), and an 8-7 record in the postseason. In turn, Roethlisberger has earned six Pro Bowl appearances, led the NFL in passing yards twice, and finished with a passer rating over 100 three times.
Certainly it's a resume that could be worth a higher ranking, but the duo did go 0-2 in two starts together last season and it's unclear how the 38-year-old Roethlisberger will respond to the elbow surgery. Not to mention the Steelers are just 3-5 in the postseason since the Super Bowl XLV loss in 2011.
Rosethlisberger could still perform at a high level and the Steelers make a return to the postseason, elevating the status of himself and Tomlin for 2021. There are just too many question marks heading into 2020 to elevate their ranking.
7. Deshaun Watson/Bill O'Brien — Houston Texans
We can all agree O'Brien brings this relationship down with his questionable in-game decisions. For example, O'Brien admitted he didn't know it was fourth down when he made the decision to kick a 31-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 when the Texans were up 21-0 in the AFC divisional playoff loss to the Chiefs. He followed that with the fake punt call up 24-7 that didn't get a first down (the Chiefs scored 51 unanswered points to win 51-31). In a 2018 AFC wild-card loss to the Colts, O'Brien went for it on fourth down five times and converted only twice.
O'Brien is giving up the play-calling duties this season, which should elevate this duo. Watson has certainly done his part, throwing for 9,716 yards with 71 TDs to just 29 INTs (101.0 passer rating) in just 38 games -- while also rushing for 1,213 yards and 14 scores. The Texans are 24-13 in Watson's 37 starts (.649 win percentage) with a playoff win last season.
With how well Watson has played, Houston should be better (and probably should have at least reached a conference championship game). That falls on O'Brien and his faults as a head coach (there's a separate category for him as a general manager). This group elevates with a deeper playoff run.
6. Jimmy Garoppolo/Kyle Shanahan — San Francisco 49ers
If only the 49ers could have held a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in Super Bowl LIV ...
Shanahan and Garoppolo didn't have their finest moment with the championship on the line, but that shouldn't take away the accolades the duo has already accomplished. Garoppolo and Shanahan are 19-5 since the 49ers traded for the quarterback in 2017, winning the NFC West title and NFC Championship game in 2019 -- their only full season together.
Garoppolo is the ideal quarterback for Shanahan's offense, which features heavily on the zone-run scheme. All Garoppolo has done is complete 67.6% of his passes with 39 TDs to 21 INTs and a 99.2 passer rating. Garoppolo has been criticized for being a game manager, but the 49ers finished third in completion rate (68.81%) and yards per pass (7.9). He also completed 69.7% of his passes with six TDs, one INT and a 105.6 rating in the fourth quarter, making the Super Bowl LIV performance an anomaly rather than how he's performed throughout the year. Garoppolo also completed 72.7% of his passes with 11 TDs and three INTs for a 115.7 rating when trailing last season.
If the 49ers win the Super Bowl, this duo easily falls in the top five. Instead, Garoppolo was just 3 of 11 for 36 yards and an interception in the fourth quarter of the loss (2.8 passer rating). The key miss was an incompletion to a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders on an X-post that would have given San Francisco the lead with 1:49 to play (the 49ers lost 31-20 after Damien Williams sealed the win with a touchdown run on the next possession).
Shanahan has been the play-caller for the two biggest collapses in Super Bowl history, thanks to getting too pass-happy in the final quarter. The only blemish on an impressive resume so far that may dial up a Lombardi in the coming years.
5. Carson Wentz/Doug Pederson — Philadelphia Eagles
A Super Bowl title from Pederson catapults this duo, as many Wentz critics seem to forget the Eagles were 10-2 and leading the NFC East that season when Wentz went down in the third quarter of a Week 14 win over the Rams (Wentz threw his fourth TD pass of the game on the bad knee to give the Eagles the lead). Wentz was the front-runner for MVP when he went down, throwing a franchise record 33 TDs to 7 INTs (101.9 rating).
Wentz has been just as good since, even though he played the 2018 season with a knee that wasn't 100% recovered at the beginning of the year and a broken bone in his back the second half of the year. The Eagles quarterback has thrown 48 TDs to 14 INTs since his 2017 season, though the Eagles are just 14-13 in those starts.
Pederson deserves the credit there, creating ways to utilize Wentz's strengths by moving him outside the pocket -- even with the lack of talented receivers at his disposal. The Eagles played the final three regular season games last season with Deontay Burnett, Robert Davis and Greg Ward starting -- all on the practice squad earlier in 2019 -- and still won the NFC East.
Wentz has played just nine snaps in his postseason career and is 32-24 with Pederson (.571 win percentage). The Eagles won the NFC East and clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs in 2017 because of the play of Wentz, a huge factor in Philadelphia winning the Super Bowl.
There's no denying how well Pederson has performed in the playoffs, as his aggressive style of coaching has generated points (the Eagles averaged 31.3 points in the 2017 postseason and put up 41 against the Patriots in Super Bowl LII). Pederson is 4-2 in the postseason, as the Eagles have qualified three straight years. Philadelphia also set a league-record with 29 fourth down attempts in 2017, converting 20 of them (69%).
Consider this: Wentz has thrown for 81 TDs to 21 INTs in just 40 games over the last three years. He has 72 TDs to just 2 INTs in the red zone over his career, not throwing a red zone INT since 2018.
There's definitely an argument Wentz and Pederson could be lower based on the Nick Foles factor, but the Eagles' success is tied to those two.
4. Lamar Jackson/John Harbaugh — Baltimore Ravens
Jackson was very impressive in his first full season as a starter, setting a new standard for scrambling quarterbacks. Not only did Baltimore have the highest-scoring offense in football, Jackson became the first quarterback to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season. He also had the most rushing yards by a QB in a season in NFL history (1,206), while leading the league in TD passes (36) and touchdown percentage (9.0). In the final eight games Jackson played in the regular season in 2019, he completed 69.4% of his passes for 1,477 yards, 25 TDs and just one INT. He also had 630 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns.
All of this culminated in Jackson becoming the youngest MVP winner in league history as the Ravens finished 14-2 and earned home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Jackson has failed to win a playoff game in two appearances, but is also just 23 years old heading into 2020.
Harbaugh deserves a ton of credit for Jackson's development, even if he defers the play calling to offensive coordinator Greg Roman and has quarterbacks coach James Urban play a steady hand in Jackson's development. The duo is 19-3 in just 22 starts, as Jackson has thrown 42 TDs to 9 INTs while rushing for 1,901 yards and another 12 TDs.
The pair just needs to get over the hump in the postseason, where Jackson has turned the ball over five times, been sacked 11, and completed just 51.1% of his passes. The Ravens thrive off the running game, which Harbaugh essentially abandoned once the Titans took a double-digit lead in the third quarter of the AFC divisional round playoff loss in 2019.
Harbaugh and Jackson can easily crack the top three on this list with a postseason run.
3. Russell Wilson/Pete Carroll — Seattle Seahawks
We're starting to get to the elite of the quarterback/head coach duos. Wilson and Carroll have one of the more impressive resumes in the NFL. Since Wilson became the starting quarterback of the Seahawks in 2012, the Seahawks are 86-41-1 (.671 win percentage) with seven 10-plus-win seasons (in eight years), three division titles, six playoff appearances, two NFC championships, and a Super Bowl title.
Not impressed yet? Wilson has been selected to the Pro Bowl six times, and has thrown for 227 TDs to just 68 INTs with an 101.2 passer rating. Wilson's pass interception percentage of 1.8 is the second-lowest ever (behind only Tom Brady) and has the second-highest passer rating all-time (minimum 3,000 attempts). Wilson has started all 128 games he's played, which is the seventh-longest consecutive starts streak for a quarterback in NFL history.
The Seahawks have won nine postseason games under Carroll and Wilson ... so why is this duo third? For one thing, look at who's ahead of them. Also, 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). While they won a postseason game in three of their four appearances, Carroll's questionable fourth down decisions have come into play in recent years and the head coach relies way too much on Wilson to bail him out of trouble.
Honestly, this duo should be better. Wilson has the offensive playmakers needed to make a deep playoff run, especially in the tough NFC West. Seattle should have high expectations for 2020, as it will be in contention to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
2. Drew Brees/Sean Payton — New Orleans Saints
Taking names and kicking butts since 2006, Brees and Payton are inseparable as both continue their path to the Hall of Fame. The Saints are 133-83 (.616 win percentage) in Brees' 216 starts as he has earned 12 Pro Bowl appearances in 14 years with the team. Brees has won Offensive Player of the Year twice and threw for 65,068 yards with 467 TDs to 184 INTs (101.3 rating).
We're just getting started. Brees has led the NFL in completion percentage six times (including the last three years), passing yards seven times, passing touchdowns four times, and passer rating twice. He has the most 5,000-yard passing seasons in history (five) and occupies four of the top 10 spots for most passing yards in a season.
The Saints have won seven division titles under Brees and Payton, with eight 10-win seasons and a Super Bowl XLIV title in the 2009 season. Recent regular season success propelled this duo to No. 2, as New Orleans is 37-11 over the past three years with three consecutive division titles and back-to-back 13-win campaigns.
Let's get to the (recent) postseason failures. New Orleans has failed to reach the Super Bowl despite its regular season success, going just 2-3 in the playoffs during this stretch. We know about the NFC Championship game debacle, but Brees also threw an interception in overtime of that game that led to the Rams upset. Brees struggled to throw the ball downfield in the NFC Wild-Card loss to the Vikings last season (the Saints also lost in overtime) and I don't think Saints fans need to be reminded anymore of the "Minnesota Miracle" at the end of the 2017 season.
Like the Seahawks, this duo has been good enough to reach the Super Bowl -- but just hasn't gotten the job done over the last three years. It actually is incredible Brees and Payton have been to only one Super Bowl in 14 years together, especially after Payton had one of the gutsiest calls in Super Bowl history with the onside kick to start the second half of that win.
Brees and Payton clearly belong in the top two.
1. Patrick Mahomes/Andy Reid — Kansas City Chiefs
What Mahomes and Reid have accomplished in just two full seasons together is remarkable. Mahomes is the youngest player to have both a league MVP and a Super Bowl MVP award. Mahomes, still just 24, has thrown for 9,128 yards and 76 TDs against 18 INTs in his two full seasons as a starting quarterback (109.6 rating).
Mahomes threw for 5,097 yards and 50 TDs in his MVP season of 2018 and completed 65.9% of his passes for 4,031 yards and 26 TD to just five INTs (105.3 rating) while playing the majority of 2019 with a knee injury. Mahomes threw for 901 yards with 10 TDs to just two INTs (111.5 rating) in the postseason, as Kansas City erased a 10-point deficit in all three of its playoff wins.
Kansas City is 24-7 in Mahomes' 31 starts, reaching the AFC Championship game twice and having a 4-1 postseason record. Reid deserves plenty of credit for the brilliance of Mahomes, as the Chiefs have averaged 32 points per game in his starts -- including scoring over 30 points 19 times and over 40 points seven times. Kansas City led the NFL in scoring and total yards in 2018 and finished fifth in scoring last year, despite Mahomes missing two games with his injury.
The Chiefs have scored over 30 points in all five postseason games Reid and Mahomes have played together, averaging 35.8 per game. Mahomes has thrown for 1,374 yards with 13 TDs and 2 INTs in those games while also rushing for three scores.
Reid has over two decades of success in the NFL, having a top-10 offense in points scored in 17 of his 21 years. His .688 win percentage with the Chiefs is already impressive, but it skyrockets to .774 with Mahomes as his starting quarterback. Then there's the 207 regular season wins (seventh all-time) and 15 playoff victories (sixth all-time).
Mahomes is the All-Pro quarterback Reid has been searching two decades for, and he has him until the 2031 season (Mahomes doesn't turn 25 until September). This duo should remain amongst the elite of the NFL for the next decade, competing for championships year after year.