Captain Comeback: Career Records in the Clutch for Active QBs

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 04, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

Ever since that first article on fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, there have been numerous requests in the last 37 months for what the full record of opportunities are for various quarterbacks. That would mean the losses, because you have had access to the wins since 2009.

Over the years Captain Comeback has shown some of these off, but even he himself never built a list to look at. In order to further legitimize the stat like any other, you need the full picture.

In tracking these games for many years, a database of the failures (read: losses) has always been there, but only in recent years has much research been done to refine that data. It is an ongoing work in progress as the goal is to try and reach back as far as possible into history.

The opportunity records could have been used in last year’s Captain Comeback column, and they will definitely be there this season. Now we finally have the opportunity before the season starts to reveal these records all in one place for the first time for 41 active quarterbacks.

 

Disclaimer on Using the Records

How should you treat these records? Like you should any win-loss record for a quarterback: very carefully. There are always going to be games where the quarterback undeservingly gets the team win or loss regardless of his individual performance.

But that goes for any stat, including touchdown passes. Sometimes you get a cheap one where the receiver does all the work, and sometimes you do not get one when you deserved it (dropped pass in the end zone). That is just the downside to statistics.

The outliers at the top and bottom are never going to be as great or awful as the numbers suggest, and we think we have proven that enough times with Aaron Rodgers already. You should be able to guess where he shows up, though admittedly it is still staggering to view.

 

The List

The tables contain two parts. Columns 2-4 are for the record at fourth quarter comeback opportunities, which are defined by the offense/quarterback having possession in the fourth quarter while trailing by 1-8 points (one-score deficit).

Columns 5-7 are the overall record at all fourth quarter/overtime wins, which include games where it was only tied and the offense needed a game-winning drive. Playoffs are always included.

All the non-rookie starting quarterbacks for 2012 are included, along with several backups.

 

Career Records in 4th Quarter Comeback/Game-Winning Drive Opportunities

QB

4QC Wins

4QC Losses

Pct.

4Q/OT Wins

4Q/OT Losses

Pct.

Tim Tebow

6

4

0.600

7

4

0.636

Tom Brady

25

19

0.568

36

21

0.632

Matt Ryan

11

11

0.500

16

11

0.593

Eli Manning

21

22

0.488

25

24

0.510

Peyton Manning

35

43

0.449

47

47

0.500

Ben Roethlisberger

20

24

0.455

27

27

0.500

Jay Cutler

12

15

0.444

16

16

0.500

Matthew Stafford

5

6

0.455

6

6

0.500

David Garrard

11

20

0.355

18

20

0.474

Bruce Gradkowski

5

7

0.417

6

7

0.462

Josh Freeman

8

11

0.421

9

11

0.450

Mark Sanchez

9

13

0.409

11

14

0.440

Drew Brees

19

33

0.365

29

38

0.433

Alex Smith

10

15

0.400

12

16

0.429

Matt Hasselbeck

14

29

0.326

23

33

0.411

Joe Flacco

6

16

0.273

11

17

0.393

Tony Romo

13

20

0.394

14

22

0.389

Charlie Batch

8

15

0.348

10

16

0.385

Byron Leftwich

7

16

0.304

10

16

0.385

Derek Anderson

5

10

0.333

7

12

0.368

Matt Cassel

5

14

0.263

8

14

0.364

Philip Rivers

13

28

0.317

16

29

0.356

Michael Vick*

9.5

23.5

0.288

13.5

25.5

0.346

Rex Grossman

7

19

0.269

10

19

0.345

Carson Palmer

11

37

0.229

18

37

0.327

Matt Schaub

7

21

0.250

10

21

0.323

David Carr

7

20

0.259

11

24

0.314

Kyle Boller

4

13

0.235

6

14

0.300

Jason Campbell

7

23

0.233

10

24

0.294

Kyle Orton

6

19

0.240

7

20

0.259

Ryan Fitzpatrick**

5

18

0.217

6.5

19.5

0.250

Aaron Rodgers

3

18

0.143

6

20

0.231

 

*Michael Vick is 9-23-1 at fourth quarter comebacks and 13-25-1 overall because of a comeback that resulted in a tie against Pittsburgh in 2002.

**Ryan Fitzpatrick is 6-19-1 at overall 4Q/OT wins because of a failed game-winning drive in an overtime tie against Philadelphia in 2008.

This group has combined to win 35.7 percent of their fourth quarter comeback opportunities, and 41.7 percent of their overall fourth quarter/overtime opportunities.

Introducing tied situations in the overall brought everyone’s record up except for Tony Romo. All that really means is since Mike Vanderjagt (2006) and Dan Bailey (2011) failed on game-winning field goals, Romo picked up two more losses and only one extra win (thank you Martin Gramatica).

There are several quarterbacks on the list (both Manning’s, Brees, Hasselbeck, Orton, Tebow, Grossman, Flacco) who had opportunities that essentially fall under “no decisions”, and are not included in the record.

These are games where they were on the field, either tied or trailing by one score in the fourth quarter or overtime, but the game was ultimately won because of a non-offensive score, such as that 2008 win over Cleveland for Peyton Manning’s Colts, or Chicago’s “crown their ass!” comeback over Arizona when Grossman was terrible.

If these games exist, you will find them at Pro-Football-Reference in a separate table (“other games of note”) at the bottom on the quarterback’s page.

The next table includes nine active quarterbacks with 10 or fewer career opportunities.

 

QB

4QC Wins

4QC Losses

Pct.

4Q/OT Wins

4Q/OT Losses

Pct.

John Skelton

5

1

0.833

7

1

0.875

Andy Dalton

4

5

0.444

4

5

0.444

Colt McCoy

1

7

0.125

3

7

0.300

Kevin Kolb

2

8

0.200

2

8

0.200

Christian Ponder

0

3

0.000

1

4

0.200

Sam Bradford

1

6

0.143

1

7

0.125

Cam Newton

1

8

0.111

1

8

0.111

Blaine Gabbert

0

5

0.000

0

5

0.000

Jake Locker

0

1

0.000

0

1

0.000

 

While Tim Tebow should be riding the bench to start the season, John Skelton is the starter in Arizona, and he will have a chance to prove if last year and this absurd 7-1 clutch record in just 13 career games has not been a fluke.

Hard to believe Skelton can, but if he defies all logic and keeps it going, then the mainstream media needs to turn their attention away from New York’s Clipboard Christ and onto someone that is really performing miracles every Sunday.

 

Now That You’ve Seen Them…Are They Still Spectacular?

Tim Tebow is at the top, and Aaron Rodgers is at the bottom. Now what?

Steve Walsh was hard to sack, and Roger Staubach was not. That does not mean we just throw the stat away. We still have to acknowledge it.

Just like with general quarterback starts and records, the fourth quarter/OT records give us a starting point for more research. Now that we know which games to look at, we start looking at more data like the drive stats, win probability, opponents, caliber of defense, size of deficit, time left, field position, venue, contribution from the running game, etc.

We can start adjusting for things like “lost comebacks” and how often the defense blew the lead or the kicker failed to tie or win the game.

We have answered who, when and what, but all of these specific things make up the how and why in the “clutch vs. choker” conundrum.

 

Gaming the System

When you start looking into the details, then you see that outlier quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are much closer than they appear on the table.

All of those difficult moments that have plagued Rodgers’ record like Mason Crosby missing critical field goals or the defense allowing a last-second score have been almost completely absent in Brady’s career.

Perhaps the biggest difference, and we already touched on this when explaining how to turn Green Bay’s comeback woes into a positive, is the way some quarterbacks can game the system by not playing well enough for a comeback opportunity to exist.

The rule has to stay at one score, because no matter if you have 15 minutes or one second, one yard or 99 yards to go, being down by one score still means you are one play away from the opponent on the scoreboard.

That is why comeback analysis, which is essentially the first popular usage of drive stats, works best in football. Drives have distinct start and end points, and the score can only change during the conclusion of one.

If you are blown out by 30 points entering the fourth quarter, there is not going to be an opportunity to have the ball behind by one score. Tebow also protected his record this way by losing games to Detroit, Buffalo and New England (twice) by huge margins.

Brady is secretly a big offender of this, as most people are not aware of how poorly he has played when New England has lost over the years, which is not very often of course.

Adjusting for games not finished or entered during a rout, the numbers show a distinct difference:

 

  • Tom Brady has only had a fourth quarter comeback opportunity in 19 of his 41 losses (46.3 percent). He has kept it to a tie or one-score deficit in 21 of his 41 losses (51.2 percent)
  • Aaron Rodgers has had a fourth quarter comeback opportunity in 18 of his 23 losses (78.3 percent). He has kept it to a tie or one-score deficit in 20 of his 23 losses (87.0 percent).

 

If Green Bay loses, you can almost count on it being a close game with Rodgers giving them a chance. The same cannot be said for New England and Brady.

The numbers begin to make more sense when you look at career stats in losses. Rodgers is the league’s “best loser”, while Brady is below his peers and sits with the likes of David Carr and Charlie Batch.

But those are full game stats. Anyone can put up a nice line when the game is well out of reach. When you look at the clutch stats for each, all logic flies out the window:

 

Tom Brady & Aaron Rodgers: Career 4th Quarter/Overtime Clutch Drive Stats

QB

Games

Drives

Att.

Comp.

Pct.

Yards

YPA

TD

INT

PR

Pts/Dr

T.Brady

57 (36-21)

123

492

303

61.6%

3638

7.39

23

17

85.4

2.46

A.Rodgers

26 (6-20)

53

187

123

65.8%

1691

9.04

8

6

95.5

2.36

 

Rodgers has Brady beat by over 10 points in passer rating. Factor in missed field goals (one for Brady; four for Rodgers), and the per-drive scoring would favor Rodgers as well.

Yet how can Brady’s performances produce a 63.2 winning percentage compared to just 23.1 percent for Rodgers? Apparently that extra context speaks much better of the rest of the New England team than it does Green Bay, which has been our stance since day one.

The Packers are a historically bad team at closing out the tough wins, while the Patriots used to be the best ever. Brady is a more normal 11-11 (9-9 at comebacks) since 2007, despite leading some of the most prolific offenses in history.

Will these things ever even out for their careers? Not likely, which is why we have to keep track of all the other relevant information.

 

It’s About More Than One Drive

This is about building a full picture. The stats presented above are too specific to be the only information one looks at. Sure, Rodgers is very good at getting a touchdown when he is down by seven points, but what about when the game is tied and it comes time to win the game? What about the 10.5 sack percentage on these drives? The clutch drive stats can be misleading.

When you drive 80 yards but come up short on four straight passes inside the 5-yard line, what good did that really do for your team? Nice on the box score, not relevant anywhere that counts.

You might look at the number of drives and games and think this is such a small portion of the player’s career, so why should it matter this much?

For starters, pretend every successful fourth quarter and overtime win for each quarterback never happened. That means in its place would be a loss. If you gave Eli Manning 25 more losses in his career, he would be a quarterback with a .400 record and no playoff wins. Forget elite, no one would have him in the top 10.

While you have to look beyond just the record, the record actually does contain more information than you might think. Those drive stats above focus on having the ball down by 0-8 points, but that record is really being decided by looking at the game from the first play until the last.

If you played much better early on, then there’s a good chance the opportunity never even presents itself in the fourth quarter. That is hard to do, because most games are going to be close, but you have a 45-minute start to distance yourself.

Unfortunately there is still nothing we can do for the quarterback that gets behind big and stays behind big, but every other type of game gets picked up in the record.

While the successes are drive stats, giving someone a game-winning drive is not just about credit for that one drive. It is about finishing the game to validate that drive’s impact.

If an offense takes a 16-14 lead with 14:00 left, why should the quarterback and offense get a pass for what happens the rest of the game? Their job is not complete.

The margin for error gets smaller as the game goes on, and the offense must understand that whether they are trailing, tied or leading. You cannot afford to waste possessions late in the game like you can get away with at the start.

Case Study

Just to use Rodgers and Brady one last time as an example. Each had their 2011 season end against the New York Giants with a failed fourth quarter comeback.

Rodgers trailed 20-13 early in the fourth quarter. Had he played better early, he would have been in a better position. With a chance to tie, he had four straight failed drop backs, ending with a sack on 4th and 5 at the NYG 39.

This was not a drive you could have afforded to waste, and the sack gave Eli Manning great field position. The Giants drain clock, add a field goal, and just like that Rodgers is down by 10 with half a quarter to go. Ryan Grant fumbles, the Giants return it 40 yards, and now you are down 30-13 and it’s season over.

When you have to give up possession of the ball in the fourth quarter, you take the risk of getting it back down by two scores and with little time left. Every drive must count unless it involves you in the victory formation, ready to kneel down and run out the clock. Only Joe Pisarcik and the 1978 Giants have blown that moment.

One could say Tom Brady’s record should be even better if the defense did not allow a game-winning touchdown to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, leaving Brady with the task of going 80 yards in 0:57 with one timeout remaining.

Like Rodgers, that was Brady’s one opportunity in terms of the failed comeback and his drive stats, and it was a near-impossible task. However, this game clearly did not come down to one drive. After taking a 17-9 lead in the third quarter, the prolific Patriots were shut out in the game’s final 26:20, which is inexcusable.

Brady started the fourth quarter with a bad interception on an uncharacteristic deep ball. On the next drive, New England had a chance to really run down the clock, but Brady just could not connect with Wes Welker on a big play, which actually was characteristic of the Patriots’ offense.

Following that miss, the Giants embarked on their 88-yard drive for the winning touchdown. Had the Giants managed to run out the clock and kick a game-winning field goal instead, Brady actually would have avoided a loss on his clutch record, since there never would have been an opportunity with the ball when tied or down by one score.

But we know there were other opportunities for New England to avoid that final-minute drive of desperation that ended with an incomplete Hail Mary in the end zone.

 

Conclusion

If we started to track stats for those important game-closing drives with the lead, then that potentially could bring Rodgers and Brady closer statistically, but the record is still a huge difference.

Why is that? Keep reading Captain Comeback and we will continue looking into such things in greater detail. All the data has already been collected. Today it was the records, next time it could be the associated drive stats for every active quarterback.

The records are what they are. Some quarterbacks cheat the system by playing too poorly. Some have had a lot of bad luck. Some have choked too many times, or have actually come through at an impressive rate.

Success and failure in the clutch is a legitimate area for stats, and of huge importance for shaping a player’s legacy. However, we look at facts and history, and will never feed you drivel like the “clutch gene” or “quarterback X has such a great record because of his heart, leadership and swagger.”

 

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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