Aaron Rodgers: Mr. Irrelevant in fourth quarter

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 12, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Captain Comeback

 
Some fans may be unfamiliar with Bill Kenney, the Kansas City Chiefs’ signal caller from the 1980s. Most fans who even know Kenney are scratching their heads right now to figure out what he has to do with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
 
Bill who?

On the surface, the two have very little in common. But they share one startling similarity: Rodgers and Kenney are two of the worst quarterbacks of all time when it comes to fourth-quarter comeback opportunities:
  • Rodgers is 3-18 (.143)
  • Kenney was 3-27 (.100) 
Rodgers was a first-round pick drafted to replace the legendary Brett Favre, while Kenney was Miami’s Mr. Irrelevant choice in the 1978 draft. He was technically next to last, but the final pick never made it to training camp so Kenney got the title. The Chiefs drafted Todd Blackledge in 1983 to replace Kenney.
 
Kenney was an average quarterback with a 34-43 record as a starter, and his only playoff appearance was coming off the bench in a defeat. Kenney is the only Mr. Irrelevant to ever make the Pro Bowl, as he was an alternate for his 1983 season in which he became the fourth NFL quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season, beating Lynn Dickey (the fifth) by a day.
 
Rodgers is statistically out of this world. He has gone 41-21 in the last four years and won a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP in 2010. In 69 games, Rodgers already has 27 more touchdown passes and 89 more passing yards than Kenney had in his career (106 games).
 
But Kenney and Rodgers do have quite a bit in common.

Kenney and Rodgers are two of only five quarterbacks to produce a game with four touchdown passes and two touchdown runs. They both even had 38 pass attempts in that game. But that is a one-game comparison that just makes for interesting trivia.
 
The statistical similarities we are talking about go much deeper than one game, or one season for that matter. The greater similarity is that Rodgers, like Kenney, has consistently failed to come up big in critical fourth-quarter comeback opportuntiies.

It is the reason Kenney was not held in higher regard in his day, and it's the reason that has kept Rodgers from even more success in Green Bay.
 
A refresher in case you forgot your Captain Comeback terminology: a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity is when an offense has possession of the ball in the fourth quarter, trailing by 1-8 points (one score).

And Rodgers falls far short of most of his contemporaries. Consider Giants QB Eli Manning and Cowboys QB Tony Romo.
  • Manning, who knocked the 15-1 Packers out of the playoffs last season, is 21-22 (.488) in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities.
  • Romo, who is widely perceived as a huge choker, is 13-20 (.394) in fourth-quarter comeback opportuntiies.
Hell, even JaMarcus Russell was 3-6 in his short career; he was a defensive stop away from 4-5, and one of his other losses came when Justin Fargas fumbled the ball on the drive’s only play.
 
Some believe these things even out over the years, but Kenney played nine seasons, and Rodgers’ record involves the last five. How many years does one need to display a good or bad record in close games before you believe it is more than just a random fluke?
 
At some point, pure dumb luck should have given them a boost. Instead, Rodgers is Mr. Irrelevant in the fourth quarter, much like Kenney was Mr Irrelevant in the draft.

Is Rodgers Unlucky?

Can any quarterback truly be unlucky?
 
You may scoff at the idea of Aaron Rodgers being unlucky. Looking back now, it was probably a blessing in disguise that Rodgers waited on draft day to be picked No. 24 in 2005, and then waited three full seasons behind Brett Favre before finally getting to start in 2008.
 
He plays in a great offensive system with incredible depth and talent at receiver. He is the reigning league MVP and has dominated the top spot in recent large-media player rankings. When he brings his A-game, the Packers look as unbeatable as any team in the Super Bowl era.
 
But the main problem Rodgers and Mike McCarthy’s Packers have is that they just do not finish close games for victories the way an elite team should. They do not even do it the way an average team should.
 
We detailed the problem the day the 2011 season kicked off. Front-running is the proper way to describe how Green Bay plays, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem comes when front-running is the only thing you are capable of doing.
 
After a record-setting 19-game winning streak without trailing in the fourth quarter, it looked like Rodgers may never face another comeback opportunity on his way to a second ring.
 
But when the streak ended in Kansas City and the Packers trailed in the fourth quarter, their winning streak ended as well. Rodgers threw incomplete on a fourth-down pass, and then was sacked on a third down to end another drive.
 
Likewise in the NFC Divisional playoffs against the New York Giants, the Packers found themselves down 20-13 in the fourth quarter. Rodgers was sacked on a fourth down at the Giants’ 39, and Eli Manning led another scoring drive to open up the lead. Green Bay lost by 17 points at home.
 
Rodgers had his two worst games of the season on those days. Green Bay’s only fourth-quarter comeback in 2011 was the game Matt Flynn started in Week 17, throwing for 480 yards and six touchdowns against Detroit.
 
Green Bay does an incredible job of keeping almost every game close, but they just do not finish enough of them with wins.
 
Before last season, the common response from Green Bay fans about their poor record in these situations was that Rodgers usually did his job. It was the defense, or kicker Mason Crosby that let the team down in the end.
 
There is some truth to that, but the same things can be said for many quarterbacks. Yet many quarterbacks boast a lot more than three comeback wins, which you can see buries Rodgers and Kenney on this list of leaders since 1960.

The list shows that 199 quarterbacks, many of them unknowns or journeymen, produced more than three fourth-quarter comeback victories. Contemporary elite QBs such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Ben Roethsliberger and Drew Brees all boast at least 19 comeback victories.
 

Kenney-Rodgers

Bill Kenney knows all too well about being let down by his Kansas City teammates. He would have to be let down in order to amass a record of 3-27 in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities.
 
When you add all game-winning drive opportunities, the two quarterbacks again have a very similar record. Kenney was 7-27 (.206), and Rodgers is 6-20 (.231).
 
Here is a table that summarizes their team’s struggles:
 
Type Bill Kenney Aaron Rodgers
Failed 4QC/GWD Losses 27 20
Blown 4Q Leads 13 10
Avg. Blown Lead (Pts) 5.6 5.8
Lost Comebacks 6 4
Clutch FG Misses 4 3
 
Exactly half of Rodgers’ 20 losses saw the Packers leading at some point in the fourth quarter. That is nearly identical to the 13-of-27 leads held by Kenney’s Chiefs (48.1 percent).
 
The average blown lead was also nearly identical, at just under six points (basically a touchdown). Four times the Chiefs blew a two-score lead, ranging from 9-13 points. The Packers had two blown two-score leads (10 and 11 points).
 
The worst blown lead came in 1984, when the visiting Chiefs led the Giants 27-14 in the fourth quarter. After the defense allowed two long touchdown drives, Theotis Brown fumbled the ball at midfield with 1:43 left, and Kenney never got the ball back.
 
This was a season after Brown had fumbled at the 2-yard line against San Diego with the Chiefs trying to make a 14-point comeback. They eventually did when Kenney threw a game-tying touchdown with 1:34 left, but he never got the ball back. San Diego got the game-winning field goal with 0:02 left in a 41-38 win. Kenney was 31/41 for 411 yards and 4 TD in a career-day.
 

Lost Comebacks

But for as good as Kenney was in that 1983 game at San Diego, it was not a “lost comeback” as the Chiefs never took the lead in the fourth quarter.
 
A “lost comeback” is a game where the quarterback met every requirement for a fourth-quarter comeback win except for getting the actual win.
 
Rodgers has four lost comebacks, and Kenney has six. Kenney had three lost comebacks alone in the 1983 season when he threw for 4,348 yards.
 
Kenney has a rather crazy number of lost comebacks when you consider the career total for very experienced franchise quarterbacks like Peyton Manning (7), Tom Brady (2), Dan Marino (7), Brett Favre (9), and John Elway (8).
 
If you adjusted each quarterback’s fourth-quarter comeback records with the lost comebacks, then they would be 9-21 for Kenney (.300) and 7-14 (.333) for Rodgers.
 
The two most recent lost comebacks for Rodgers were great games where he could not do anything else for his team in the fourth quarter.
 
9/27/2010 at Chicago (L 20-17) – Rodgers put the Packers ahead with 6:52 left on a touchdown scramble. With the game tied, James Jones fumbled his pass, and the Bears kicked the winning field goal with 0:04 left. Rodgers never got another chance.
 
12/20/2009 at Pittsburgh (L 37-36) – Down 24-14 to start the fourth quarter, Rodgers would lead the Packers to a 28-27 lead. After falling behind 30-28, Rodgers took advantage of a short field after Mike Tomlin’s onside kick decision, and threw a go-ahead touchdown to James Jones and two-point conversion pass to Brandon Jackson with 2:06 left for a 36-30 lead. Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers 86 yards for the game-winning touchdown pass with no time left on the clock.
 
Kenney’s six lost comebacks read like a Greek tragedy.
 
11/1/1981 at San Diego (L 22-20) – Down 19-14, Kenney leads consecutive field goal drives for a 20-19 lead. San Diego gets a late field goal, and Kenney has just 0:13 left when he gets the ball back. He completes a 44-yard pass as time expires.
 
12/12/1982 vs. LA Raiders (L 21-16) – After falling behind 14-9 late in the fourth quarter, Kenney goes 4/4 for 73 yards, and Billy Jackson scores a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:55 left. The Raiders get a late touchdown, and Kenney has just 0:16 left. He throws three desperate incompletions to end the game.
 
9/12/1983 vs. San Diego (L 17-14) – Down 14-10, the Chiefs used a trick play with receiver Carlos Carson throwing a 48-yard touchdown pass to Henry Marshall with 3:07 left. Dan Fouts led San Diego back with a touchdown, and Kenney had 1:45 left to answer. After three short completions for nine yards, the Chiefs handed off to Jewerl Thomas on 4th and 1, and he was stopped for no gain. San Diego ran out the clock.
 
11/6/1983 vs. LA Raiders (L 28-20) – After the Raiders took the lead, Kenney went 6/11 for 64 yards and a touchdown pass to Ken Thomas with 7:16 left. The Raiders get another touchdown to go up 21-20. Kenney completes a 50-yard pass, setting up kicker Nick Lowery for a 43-yard field goal. Lowery misses with 1:52 left. Kenney gets the ball back with 0:39 and no timeouts left at his own 30. As time is ticking down, Kenney throws a pick six with 0:03 left, securing the 28-20 loss.
 
11/27/1983 at Seattle (L 51-48 OT) – Despite holding a 42-31 lead in the fourth quarter, Seattle comes back to take a 45-42 lead. With 2:15 left, Kenney engineers an 80-yard touchdown drive, completing 4/6 passes for all 80 yards and the 21-yard touchdown to Theotis Brown with 1:30 left. One problem: Nick Lowery misses the extra point, meaning Seattle can get a field goal and tie instead of having to score a touchdown to win. They get the field goal, and the game goes to overtime. Seattle wins the coin toss and gets the winning field goal. Kenney never touched the ball after the go-ahead touchdown pass.
 
Kenney-Rodgers Stat: Need another interesting connection? Aaron Rodgers holds the NFL record for most points scored in a playoff loss (45 at Arizona in 2009 NFC Wild Card). Bill Kenney was the first to hold the record for most points scored in a NFL regular season loss (48 at Seattle). Kelly Holcomb did it with Cleveland in 2004 against Cincinnati. Note: George Blanda holds the overall pro record with 49 points in a 52-49 defeat to the Raiders in 1963, but that was an AFL game.
 
11/8/1987 vs. Pittsburgh (L 17-16) – Trailing 14-10, Kenney has two low-impact drives that result in field goals for a 16-14 lead with 10:46 left. After Christian Okoye fumbles, the Steelers take a 17-16 lead. Kenney throws a desperate interception on 4th and 18 at his own 32. He gets the ball back one last time with 1:17 left and no timeouts. Kenney completes a pass to the PIT 20, but there is not enough time left to stop the clock and get the field goal.

When this disgruntled Chiefs fan went off on Kenney on his site, claiming he “would never, ever come through in the clutch,” he was almost right had he meant the team and not specifically Kenney.

Clutch Field Goal Misses

A clutch field goal is defined as a field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter or overtime with the team tied or trailing by 1-3 points.
 
Kansas City’s Nick Lowery missed four clutch field goals, and Green Bay’s Mason Crosby missed three.
 
Lowery was considered a great kicker in his career; however he was hardly the Adam Vinatieri of his era.
  • 10/9/1983 at LA Raiders – Down 21-20, Lowery’s 48-yard attempt is blocked with one second remaining.
  • 11/6/1983 vs. LA Raiders – A month later, down one point again to the rival Raiders, Lowery misses a 43-yard field goal with 1:52 left.
  • 11/30/1986 vs. Buffalo – Down 17-14, Lowery’s 44-yard attempt is wide left with 0:14 left; failing to send the game to overtime.
  • 12/19/1987 at Denver – Down 20-17, Kenney goes 5/9 for 51 yards to try and force overtime after trailing 20-10 in the quarter. Lowery is wide right on the 37-yard field goal with 0:34 left.
In the aforementioned shootout with Seattle in 1983, Lowery was wide left on an extra point with 1:30 left, which would have given the Chiefs a 4-point lead, forcing the Seahawks to score a touchdown instead of the game-tying field goal.
 
At a minimum, that would be two game-winning field goals, two game-tying field goals to force overtime, and an extra point that really boosts the team’s probability of winning.
 
Mason Crosby is a less accomplished kicker drafted in the sixth round in 2007. He has made 79.4 percent of his field goals.
  • 11/9/2008 at Minnesota – Down 28-27, Crosby came up wide right on a 52-yard attempt in the dome with 0:26 left.
  • 12/22/2008 at Chicago – On a frosty night and with the game tied 17-17, Crosby’s 38-yard attempt is blocked with 0:18 left. Chicago gets the ball first in overtime and Robbie Gould makes the game-winner from the same distance.
  • 10/10/2010 at Washington – Tied 13-13, Crosby misses a 53-yard attempt with 0:01 left after it hits the left upright. A Rodgers interception in overtime sets up Washington’s winning field goal.
Crosby could have had three game-winners here, though two of the attempts were long, and the other was blocked on a cold night.

One (Ugly) Difference

If there was something to take out of these losses, it was that Rodgers played better in general, and better in the fourth quarter specifically. That should be expected, as he is a better quarterback than Kenney.
 
But the ugly stat for Kenney is the 14 interceptions he threw in the fourth quarter of these 27 games. Rodgers has half as many turnovers (six interceptions, one lost fumble).
 
On 10 occasions, Kenney threw an interception in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
 
Even uglier for Kenney: he threw four pick six’s in the fourth quarter when trailing by one score. Three times it happened in the final two minutes.
 
Rodgers has thrown a pick six, and of course lost a fumble that was returned for a game-losing touchdown in overtime of his first playoff game in Arizona.
 
Now to Kenney’s defense, once again, he was facing a lot of desperate situations in the final minute when he needed to just throw one up and make a miracle happen. That’s understandable.
 
Four of the interceptions came on drives that started with fewer than 40 seconds remaining, and with Kansas City trailing each time.
 
That was just the reality of what happened too often in the 80s for Kansas City. They made it harder on themselves by giving the game away so late.
 

Kenney’s Chiefs Were the Anti-Packers

While Rodgers competes with a loaded offense and talented defense, Kenney played on the forgotten era of the Chiefs; teams mostly devoid of talent.
 
Marv Levy was there in his first head coaching stint for Kenney’s first three seasons, but other than that, Kenney was never in the presence of anyone in the Hall of Fame.
 
These were not your Hank Stram-era Chiefs, with several Hall of Fame players on the roster. These were also not your Marty Schottenheimer-era Chiefs, who came in 1989 and drafted Derrick Thomas No. 4 overall.
 
No, this was the long go-between era, and Kenney’s teammates were receivers like Carlos Carson, Henry Marshall, Stephone Paige. Running backs like Herman Heard, Joe Delaney, and Billy Jackson. Delaney made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but he tragically died in 1983 after trying to rescue three children from drowning.
 
Kenney’s Chiefs did not have household names, yet he still managed above-average stats (even if slightly) for most of his career.
 
Perhaps if his teammates performed better in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs could have avoided the dreaded pick of Todd Blackledge No. 7 overall in 1983. Kenney would have had more wins, and a winning record for his career. He would have earned some more respect.
 
Instead, Kenney rolled with the punches and had more than a fair share of bad luck in Kansas City.
 

Conclusion: Going Forward

Green Bay fans can celebrate their Super Bowl XLV triumph, but no one should deny that performances in the clutch have been a problem each season in the McCarthy/Rodgers era.
 
The Packers undershot their expected wins in 2008 (actual: 6, expected: 8.9), 2009 (actual: 11, expected: 11.8) and 2010 (actual: 10, expected: 12.1). The failure to win close games is the main reason for this.
 
They did go 15-1 last year (expected: 11.9), but that was more due to the defense shutting teams down late rather than the offense making critical scoring drives when they had to.
 
Will they continue to lose these close games at a historic rate? Based on law of averages, you might say no. But then again, look at Kenney and the Chiefs.
 
Captain Comeback will keep a close eye on this one, and be back throughout the season with more historical perspective.
 
Clearly Bill Kenney was never on Aaron Rodgers’s level in the NFL, but this is one part of Rodgers’ career where he resides in the same neighborhood as Kenney.
 
Not sure anyone else has ever lived there besides the two of them.
 
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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