When the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs meet in the Super Bowl on Sunday night, you’ll have plenty of story lines to sift through. There’s the sustained greatness of the Chiefs, the AFC’s next dynasty and the one most likely to challenge all the marks set by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick with the Patriots. There’s the 49ers, who have the league’s great offensive genius as their head coach but are still looking to get over the hump and win it all. There’ll be quarterback comparisons that favor Brock Purdy for clicks and outrage, there will be not enough time spent on the excellence of these two defenses, and there will be talk of Kadarius Toney viewing himself as a Greek god of receiving while he puts up Van Jefferson production. A little bit of everything.
Today, though, I’d like to focus on a story line that matters for the Falcons. This game is the latest compelling evidence that build your team as you will, but without a great coach and a great quarterback, you’re unlikely to end up in the Super Bowl when the dust settles on a given season.
Look back at the recent history of the biggest game in the NFL and you’ll see clear evidence that you have to have one or the other, if not both. Over the past decade-plus, for example:
- The number of teams possessing a quarterback who is either young and great or somewhere in the ballpark of a Hall of Fame career represents 21 of 24 teams, so long as you recognize that Matt Ryan and Cam Newton belong in that stratosphere. The only exceptions are the 2022 Eagles (and that all depends, in turn, on how you feel about Jalen Hurts), the 2018 Eagles (Nick Foles, damn you!), and the current 49ers with Brock Purdy.
- The number of teams with a great coach at the helm is 16 out of 22, with the exceptions being the Eagles (Nick Sirianni and Frank Reich), the Bengals (Zac Taylor), the Falcons (Dan Quinn), the Broncos (Gary Kubiak), and Panthers (Ron Rivera). There’s still good coaches on that list, but not all-time greats in the vein of Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, and so forth who have led their teams to appearances in recent years. You could argue for or against Bruce Arians, too, I suppose.
The point here is an obvious one, and it certainly pertains to the Falcons: Your chances of getting to the Super Bowl without a top-shelf quarterback these days is pretty low, unless you’re the Philadelphia Eagles. Your chances of getting there without a top-tier head coach are better but not great, and even then you might have great coaches on the staff fueling your success. The Falcons tried the experiment with Desmond Ridder a year ago and saw it fail, and they jettisoned Arthur Smith because they clearly felt he wasn’t the caliber of coach who could elevate this roster past...well, unfortunately past a 7-10 record. This was a team that made a bet on an unconventional team-building path in today’s NFL, and they were rebuked for it by cold reality. As nice as it would have been to see that all work out and the Falcons triumph in a different way, they could not.
So it’s back to the well-trod path, even if that does not carry any guarantees. The Ravens have Lamar Jackson and John Harbaugh, a terrific duo by any measure, and they have fallen short. The Steelers had (until he broke down entirely) Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin for a long time and only got one Super Bowl out of it. And so on. But to ignore that the most consistently great teams, the ones with a chance every year of making it that far, are the ones with terrific coaches and quarterbacks is to ignore reality.
The Falcons hope they’ve hired a great coach in Raheem Morris, who has drawn praise from all quarters of the NFL after his hiring and is intent on bringing some of the Super Bowl shine he enjoyed in Los Angeles to Atlanta. The next piece of the puzzle—and arguably the most important one—will be finding a quarterback good enough to lift up this team and make them a credible contender once more. If the Falcons nail those two pieces, their chances of a deep postseason run will finally increase.