Tomlin, Roethlisberger approaching level of legendary pairs

By Mike Freeman National Columnist

One looks like an actor. The other acts like Charlie Sheen.

One is highly respected. The other is mostly tolerated.

The coach, Mike Tomlin, is one of the youngest coaching stars in NFL history. The quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is the equivalent at his position. That's about the only thing the two Pittsburgh Steelers have in common. Other than what is becoming one of the best coach-quarterback combinations the league has seen.

Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger are becoming familiar with the celebratory handshake. (US Presswire)

They're not there yet, but the Tomlin-Roethlisberger duo is getting dangerously close to some historical landmarks. Considering the anti-dynasty tapestry of modern football, what they're doing is borderline stunning. If Tomlin and Roethlisberger win Super Bowl XLV, it would be a second championship in three years.

This is also one strange pairing, very different from Paul Brown/Otto Graham or Bill Belichick/Tom Brady, among many others. The NFL still seems, to a degree, slightly uncomfortable with the two men. Tomlin's youth -- he's just 38 and bears a striking resemblance to Omar Epps -- hurts him in the eyes of some coaches who think he has latched onto a winner in Roethlisberger.

And Roethlisberger's lewdness makes him one of the most disliked great winners of the Super Bowl era.

Nonetheless, what they're doing is fairly remarkable. The stunning part is that both men are in their prime. If the duo keeps winning and the Steelers organization continues to be the best at drafting talent perhaps in all of sports, Tomlin and Roethlisberger could be together for a decade longer. It's not impossible for them to win four or five total Super Bowls together.

If Roethlisberger has truly put his bar-hopping days behind him and Tomlin continues to grow, the duo could eclipse Belichick and Brady -- the modern standard.

"Basically, what it boils down to is that they're winners," said Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who paired with quarterback Bob Griese. "One guy is proving to be a great coach and the player is proving to be a great quarterback."

How these combos happen is a product of many things. Some of it is pure luck. Part of it is strategy and intelligent drafting. Yet perhaps much of it is chemistry between the two men.

Shula and Griese are a perfect example of the latter. Shula was a meticulous coach who left nothing to chance. Griese was the same at quarterback. Griese, in fact, used to constantly sit in on coaching meetings.

The greatest coach-quarterback due in league history is probably Brown and Graham. They were in Cleveland for a decade and went to the championship game each year (six of those appearances were in the NFL and four in the All-America Football Conference) winning seven total championships.

There are other duos:

Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr: Eternal, dominant duo who went to championship game or Super Bowl six times.

Bill Walsh and Joe Montana: Might be the best. The Walsh coaching tree is stunning and no quarterback in history was as accurate as Montana (though he had Jerry Rice to throw to).

Belichick and Brady: Notice most of the names on this list. Many were able to accomplish their dynasties before true free agency and without a salary cap. Belichick is perhaps the best coach in NFL history and assembled the Patriots under far more restrictive rules than other coaches. Brady is almost the caliber winner of a Montana or Graham, coming just a few minutes away from having a perfect season.

Shula and Griese: The fact Shula is the only coach in league history to have an undefeated season earns him a spot high on this list. Griese is in the pro and college Halls of Fame.

"Bob was just a great field general for us," Shula said. "He was a perfectionist."

Big-time winners
Top coach-QB combos

Coach/Player NFL record Win % NFL titles

Brown/Graham 57-13-1 .801 3
Belichick/Brady 111-32 .776 3
Landry/Staubach 85-29 .746 2
Lombardi/Starr 77-23-4 .740 5
Tomlin/Roeth. 43-19 .694 1
Shula/Griese 82-36-1 .689 2
Noll/Bradshaw 107-51 .677 4
Walsh/Montana 75-36 .676 3
Levy/Kelly 101-59 .631 0
Grant/Tarkenton 64-27-2 .588 0
Johnson/Aikman 38-30 .559 2

Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw: Many of these duos had massive talent around them. The Steelers' pair seems to be the only one penalized for that. But it's understandable, because no dynasty was as stacked as that one. None. Still, Bradshaw and Montana remain the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls.

Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman: A short but explosive Super Bowl run.

Marv Levy and Jim Kelly: Levy was a professor and Kelly was a cowboy. Together they reached four consecutive Super Bowls. No, they didn't win but that level of excellence is still impressive.

Tom Landry and Roger Staubach: Won a great many games but should've won a great many more. In many ways, they underachieved.

Bud Grant and Fran Tarkenton: Reached three Super Bowls.

There are others to mention, like Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre or Tom Flores and Jim Plunkett. Shula likes to point out that he and Dan Marino weren't exactly horrible, either.

If Tomlin and Roethlisberger capture a second title they might move beyond the Levy/Kelly pairing particularly because winning multiple championships today is much more difficult than it was even 20 years ago.

What Belichick and Tomlin have in common is that both coach today's players. Player loyalty to the head coach was built into the football culture in the days of Lombardi and Landry. Not so today. Coaches have to cajole and beg players to go consistently hard (not all players, but too many). Plus, there were no Twitter/Facebook/Internet/24-hour media distractions.

Coaching today is infinitely harder, which is why what Tomlin is doing at such a young age is impressive. **** impressive.