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Who's More Important, the QB or the Offensive Coordinator?

Football is a team game, but everyone is quite eager to assign individual blame or praise depending on the outcome. That’s simply human nature. In the NFL, this urge to assign individual responsibility evolves into full-blown debates that rage for decades.

One of those debates is the importance of a quarterback vs. coordinator. The initial thought is that a great coordinator can only do so much to overcome the deficiencies of the quarterback, but a truly great quarterback doesn’t need a good offensive coordinator to reach the heights of stardom. There are arguments for both sides that hold water; the best quarterbacks have been paired with a great coach, but there have been a handful of QBs who succeed despite their head coach throughout NFL history.

Philip Rivers comes to mind as an example, consistently putting up good to great numbers without a like-minded offensive coordinator at his hip for his entire career. Of course, he’s never even been to the big game, much less won a championship. Ben Roethlisberger has been extremely prolific over the last decade with three different offensive coordinators, out of which only Todd Haley would be considered quality. The rings argument remains, however.

On the flip side, there are plenty of examples to show how a good offensive mind can lift up his quarterback, and when paired with the right one, can create something special. We need look no further than Los Angeles, where Jared Goff looked like a spectacular bust of nearly unprecedented magnitude with Jeff Fisher before undergoing a Pokemon-esque evolution to top 10 QB under Sean McVay in the span of precisely one year. Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels have been terrorizing the league together for over a decade. Joe Montana and Bill Walsh were the original shining example of two great football minds coming together and creating a masterpiece.

For Bill Cowher and Phil Simms, the answer is quite easy. While both were in the midst of interviews at NFL on CBS Media Day, Simms dragged Cowher away to enjoy some discourse on this very topic. This is how their exchange unfolded:

Simms: I think I had it last year, before the draft. I said, ‘What’s more important?’ and you laughed, I said ‘Is it the quarterback or the coordinator?’ and you go, ‘You know, that’s a good question. I’ll have to think about that.’

Cowher: It’s the coordinator! I’m just telling you.

Simms: Yes! But nobody ever believes it or says it. We didn’t even say it last year, even though we talked about it and we never said it on the air. Don’t worry, Show One it’s coming.

Cowher: The coordinator can put you in the best position possible. The quarterback can be a great quarterback, but if you don’t give him a chance, then you know what? What good is it? If you don’t give him a chance to be successful, because, you know football is the ultimate chess match, it’s move-countermove. How much flexibility are you gonna give the guy? Can the guy get out of a bad play?… Giving him flexibility, giving him options can take away maybe that little thing that he doesn’t have that our guy does have. So what do you do? You play to his strengths, right? Hey, let’s talk about this sometime.

Simms: It’s so funny, we talked about it, and I wrote it down the day I thought of it. And I said ‘I’m gonna bring this up during the year.’ Every week, I keep notes I want to bring up… But we never brought it up.

Cowher: I said, when I first became a head coach, the most important hire I made was the offensive coordinator. Ron Erhardt. ‘Fargo’ was awesome. You know what he allowed me to do? He allowed me to coach defense. I know he wanted to run the ball and how he loved play action, and I go, ‘You’re good. We’re good. Let me take care of this side.’

The former coach and quarterback both firmly come down on the same side of the argument you’d think would divide them. Like most things, the true answer to this argument falls somewhere in the middle, because as I said 600 words ago, football is a team game at its core. An offensive genius like Andy Reid could engineer a top-15 offense from scratch, and a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes will make an MVP case with yours truly calling plays.

Most teams are lucky to have one good quarterback or coordinator, much less both. It seems, in today’s NFL, most teams fall on the same side as Simms and Cowher; nearly half of the league will have new signal-callers this season, several of whom stem directly from the McVay coaching tree (which is somehow real after only three seasons as the top dog in L.A.). Great quarterbacks are, and always will be, in short supply. They need to have the once-in-a-generation combination of skills, smarts, and athletic ability. Great coordinators are always extraordinarily smart, but it’s possible to become a great coordinator just by working your ass off. That isn’t the case with quarterbacks.

When it comes down to it, put your money on finding a great coordinator first. The pool is larger and your chances of success are greater, even though it’s only marginally so. Football can be one big crapshoot, but a good coordinator is easier to find and more likely to make sense of the chaos.