Who Has The Juice: NFL Quarterback Whisperers

by Justis Mosqueda

Once hire-fire season begins, the NFL, the media and fans begin to obsess over the idea of “the quarterback whisperer.” Former Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians even named his book after it. The problem is, we do most of the math on it wrong.

Whenever a coach has a breakout season with a quarterback, people tend to tag him with “quarterback whisperer,” no matter what his previous history at the position is like. Most of the media isn’t exactly comparing apples to oranges, but they’re only comparing the most recent apples in coaches’ baskets.

In an attempt to measure the quarterback success of these so-called quarterback whisperers, I took a look at the ANY/A track record of every coach in the sport who touches a quarterback. This includes current head coaches and offensive coordinators with an offensive passing game background (positionally coached quarterbacks, receivers or tight ends) and all of the league’s quarterbacks coaches. I measured the ANY/A Value (essentially plus-minus for adjusted passing yards) for every coach when he was in a position of accountability over a quarterback (head coach, offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach).

Below are the results of the 67 “quarterback whisperers” in the study, including some free agent coaches who have been rumored to take over as head coaches or offensive coordinators since Black Monday:

First of all, the trio in New Orleans (head coach Sean Payton, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi) stick out like a sore thumb. They have been together for the majority of Drew Brees’ Hall of Fame run in New Orleans, with Lombardi only leaving for a two-year stint of slightly above average passing production as Detroit’s offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015. In circumstances like theirs, where these coaches have been so locked into a quarterback for so long, it is harder to parse out who really has the juice.

Josh McDaniels, third on the list, is in a somewhat similar position because he has coached Tom Brady for so long. The same goes for former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy (#6). When your quarterback performs, you generally keep your job. From an outsider’s perspective, that makes it harder for us to know if it’s because of the success of the quarterback or the coach, though.

A few interesting names at the top of this list are Jim Caldwell, Greg Knapp and Randy Fichtner. Caldwell went 24-8 with the Indianapolis Colts before a Peyton Manning-less season led to his firing, leading to him going 36-28 with the Detroit Lions. The last time we saw Caldwell, Matthew Stafford set his career-high in ANY/A.

Knapp and Fichtner are examples of long-time head coaches who aren’t really aged out of getting head coaching interviews (both are 55 years old), but have never really been thought of as more than just offensive coordinators despite their players’ success. Knapp has coached in six NFL cities, with two stops in Oakland and Atlanta, as a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator since 1997. Fichtner is a bit of a shooting star, transitioning from the college game to Pittsburgh’s wide receivers coach in 2007, to quarterbacks coach in 2010 to offensive coordinator in 2018. Among offensive coordinators, only two (Carmichael and McDaniels, who will both take interviews for head coaching positions this offseason) have a more impressive career ANY/A resume than Fichtner’s 2010-2018 run.

The bottom of the list is very clear. Three offensive coordinators, Oakland’s Greg Olson, Buffalo’s Brian Daboll and Washington’s Matt Cavanaugh, have almost twice as costly resumes as the fourth-worst “quarterback whisperer” on our list. They are miles behind everyone else in the NFL in terms of their pro football resume.

Last thing worth noting: Oakland head coach Jon Gruden is the only offensive-minded head coach with a passing game background whose offenses over the course of his career have been more negative than positive.