Captain Comeback: NFL Network Chokes on List of Top 10 Clutch Quarterbacks
By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
With the official return of summer, we return with Captain Comeback, putting the heat on those who twist the facts to create the NFL’s mythology of clutch quarterbacks.
In the dead zone of the sports year when NFL news is scarce and often bad (see Aaron Hernandez), what else can we do but reflect on the past?
On May 6, 2008, the NFL Network aired its “Top 10 Clutch Quarterbacks” show for the first time. As a frequent viewer of the channel, the Captain has masochistically listened to this broadcast way too many times over the last five years.
Much like a Philip Rivers’ fourth-quarter performance in 2012, this list flopped from start to finish. As time goes by, this outdated list gets more intolerable due to the research that has been put out there to refute clutch fantasies bolstered by invalid record holders and a lack of accountability.
In short, the list is bunk as it mentions a specific criteria (success in the two-minute drill), yet mostly relies on counting championship rings for “clutchness.” In the link to the list, seven of the 10 quarterbacks are referenced by their level of championship success.
These 10 quarterbacks have combined for 233 fourth-quarter comeback wins and 301 game-winning drives. Yet during the 44-minute show, there were, at best, 12 highlighted examples of games that involved a two-minute drill. We even like to stretch the clock back to 3:00 just to allow for more examples.
Part of this is because rarely does a team take over in the final two minutes and win the game. Those are classic, memorable finishes that should be cherished, because they are not the norm.
Still, you cannot advertise late-game heroics, but mostly promote playoff success. Clutch is not a skill, but a history of tough situations where some players just consistently perform better. Simply winning a championship does not make a quarterback clutch.
These lists are mostly for ratings and to promote discussion. Technically, there are no right or wrong answers, but there are false evidence and poor reasoning. This show was filled with an unusually excessive amount of both, which is not surprising when the topic of clutch comes up. People tend to only remember specific parts of the story.
So we have broken down, scene-by-scene, this show just to highlight some classic clutch myths and to deliver the facts. Nothing is sugarcoated and no one is safe. If you said something that’s worthy of being called out for, it’s here.
The words in bold are quoted directly from the show, which you can view here. However, you can save some time by just reading our non-fictional account of it.
The program begins with a nice quote from legendary coach Vince Lombardi: “Most games are won in the last two minutes of the first half or the second half.”
After a few answers on what makes a clutch quarterback, the late Jim Mandich (Dolphins Radio Network) sums it up best: “Here’s the measure. It’s not Super Bowl championships. It’s not total passing yards. It’s not touchdown yards. It’s this: you have a two-minute drill, you’re down by four points. Who do you want taking that snap from the center?”
It then transitions from one Dolphin to another.
No. 10 – Dan Marino
What? The all-time leader in game-winning drives (51) barely makes the list at No. 10?
Of course, this list was created a good year before any further attempt to remove John Elway as the NFL’s comeback king. Hard to fault the program for not referencing Marino’s record 36 comeback wins when most people just did not know any better at the time.
Still, No. 10 is awfully low for Marino.
Coach Don Shula had the first word: “We were never out of a ballgame with Dan as our quarterback, and I always felt that confidence and our players felt that confidence.”
Quarterback/sportscaster Joe Theismann says we were able to see Marino’s true greatness when Jimmy Johnson was the Dolphins’ head coach. Johnson would stubbornly try to run the ball before letting Marino win the game.
It’s true that the running game was horrible under Johnson. Including the playoffs, in his 69 games as coach, the running game averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry 57 times.
Still, the old adage held true. Winning teams produce carries, and Johnson’s Dolphins were 37-6 (.860) with at least 25 carries compared to an abysmal 1-25 (.038) with less than 25 carries.
That lone win, a 12-9 slugfest over San Diego in 1999, actually made unrecognized NFL history as it was Marino’s 35th fourth-quarter comeback win, moving him past Johnny Unitas and John Elway for the all-time record. He was only passed by Peyton Manning last season.
Not surprisingly, the segment ends with a reminder that Marino never won a Super Bowl, which is used to take away from his many moments of brilliance in the clutch.
Former peer and current CBS co-worker Boomer Esiason: “Why does it matter that he didn’t win a Super Bowl?”
While it really shouldn’t matter for this list, there’s no denying people feel it does matter for Marino. However, when it comes to his play in clutch situations, Marino was great even in the postseason.
Marino led three comebacks and four game-winning drives in the playoffs. He only had two close playoff losses.
The first was his playoff debut as a rookie in 1983 against Seattle. After leading the Dolphins on a go-ahead touchdown drive with 3:43 left, Marino never touched the ball again. Return man Fulton Walker fumbled two kickoffs after the Seahawks regained the lead.
In 1994, Marino’s great comeback season ended prematurely in San Diego. After leading the Dolphins to a 21-6 halftime lead, Marino’s offense ran just 16 plays in the entire second half. Trailing 22-21 with 0:32 to play, Marino set up Pete Stoyanovich for a 48-yard field goal attempt to win the game. Stoyanovich was wide right.
So any time Marino was involved in a close playoff game, he put his team in position to win late. The problem for Marino was all the blowout losses he suffered on days the Dolphins were destroyed, which was often on both sides of the ball. A staggering 23.4 percent of Marino’s playoff drives started with a three-score deficit or worse.
But in terms of a clutch quarterback? Marino deserves higher than 10th.
We’ll let Mandich close it out: “The fact that he’s number 10…you may have him as number 10, but I got him as one of the greatest clutch quarterbacks ever in the NFL.”
Best of the Rest – Terry Bradshaw
In the first segment that looks at the best players left off the list, Terry Bradshaw, the first quarterback to go 4-0 in the Super Bowl, is featured. His exclusion does not sit well with Pittsburgh media members Mark Madden and Ed Bouchette.
However, the most interesting part of this segment comes from NFL Network narrator Derrin Horton: “Sorry Terry. Making a splash with Super Bowl wins won’t get you in this top 10. Our criteria is sink or swim in the two-minute drill.”
Really? If that was the case, then the next four quarterbacks have no business being on the list.
No. 9 – Steve Young
Steve Young only had four game-winning drives in his career that started in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. Marino had that many that started in the final 60 seconds.
It’s an odd selection as Young’s time in San Francisco is better remembered for front-running and being part of so many easy wins. Everyone knew it was Joe Montana with the last-minute heroics, while Young’s tenure was filled with struggles in big games against the Cowboys and Packers.
Young was 0-8 as a starter against Green Bay before earning his first win with his most clutch moment: the 76-yard drive in the final 1:50 that ended with the 25-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens in the 1998 NFC Wild Card.
That was the most important clutch drive Young came through on (only one he had in the postseason), though a personal favorite is his first as a 49er: his epic 49-yard game-winning touchdown run against the 1988 Vikings.
Both of those plays were of course highlighted in his segment, because what else could you show here? There was an attempt to include the Super Bowl XXIX win over San Diego, but that was a blowout over an outmatched opponent.
Brian Murphy (KNBR 680, San Francisco) managed to rewrite NFL history for a 1994 win against the Lions: “And what does he do? He comes running back into the huddle, you could see the teammates get lifted up by his toughness and he led them to a comeback win in the fourth quarter.”
Here’s what really happened: San Francisco trailed 14-0 in the first half, tied the game by halftime, and technically the game-winning score came early in the third quarter. Scott Mitchell threw an interception returned to the Detroit 7. Young handed it off three times for the go-ahead score, then threw a touchdown with 9:02 to play for a 27-14 lead. The 49ers held on for a 27-21 win that was not even close to a fourth-quarter comeback.
It’s not that Young performed poorly in clutch situations. He just did not have as many opportunities to either shine or blow it.
Young was 14-23 (.378) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. He was 18-26 (.409) at overall game-winning drive opportunities. Both percentages put him above average.
Though if one wants to knock that record, it’s easy to point out he only had three comeback wins on the road (11 at home). Young was 3-16 (.158) in road comeback opportunities. Montana was the exact opposite with 23 of his 31 comebacks coming on the road/neutral compared to just eight at home.
We also got to watch Montana lead 16 comebacks in the fourth quarter over teams with a winning record. That’s more than the 14 total comebacks in Young’s career, which included five comebacks against winning teams.
Young does not have to meet the Montana standard to be on the list, but at this point, he shouldn’t even be making it over Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger, let alone Marino.
No. 8 – Bart Starr
We start with a great quote from 1984 from Bart Starr himself: “Anybody can play when there’s really nothing at stake, regardless of the game, regardless of the situation. I really think the measure of the player is how well he plays under pressure when you have to win.”
This is all very true, though how often did the machine that was Vince Lombardi’s 1960s Green Bay Packers play under pressure? No quarterback played with more Hall of Fame teammates than Starr. From 1960-66, the Packers featured 11 or 12 Hall of Famers (Starr and Lombardi included) each season.
Starr could be a victim of a lack of information on his playing career. We do not know with certainty his record in the clutch, but we have it on good authority that he led the Packers to 18 wins in the fourth quarter along with four comebacks for ties. That’s not quite as much as his peers like Y.A. Tittle, Fran Tarkenton and rival Johnny Unitas.
Right after Starr’s quote, a few men voiced their opinions.
Jarrett Bell (USA Today): “Bart Starr was, umm, you know, an average quarterback.”
Brian Baldinger (NFL Network Analyst): “It was Lombardi’s Packers. It wasn’t Bart Starr’s Packers.”
Long-time NFL general manager Ernie Accorsi: “When the Packers had the ball with 80 yards to go, I feared the machine more than I feared him.”
Obviously, the reason Starr makes the list is his record five championship rings, which often came after playoff wins that were rarely in doubt.
Starr had nine playoff wins, but backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski led just as many playoff comebacks and game-winning drives (1) for the Packers as Starr did. The three-peat from 1965-67 started in the playoffs with an injured Starr being replaced by Bratkowski against the Colts.
This is why “The Ice Bowl” remains the major talking point for Starr in the clutch. Against Dallas in the 1967 NFL Championship, Starr played very well in frigid temperatures, but trailed 17-14 with 4:50 to play.
After driving to the 1-yard line and facing third down, Starr used the Packers’ final timeout with 0:16 left. A field goal would have tied it, but a touchdown would almost assuredly win the game. Going for it was a very risky move as failure to score would almost surely result in a loss, but it’s also a calculated risk.
NFL Analyst Greg Cossel: “I have a really hard time viewing a quarterback sneak as a “clutch play” in NFL history.”
Starr scored on the most famous quarterback sneak in NFL history, but if he had at least an 80 percent chance of getting in, was this really that clutch of a play? The drive speaks better than the scoring play.
Still, the Green Bay machine was just too good for Starr to be on this list, though he’s not as egregious as the next quarterback.
Best of the Rest – Big-Game Quarterbacks
Next, a quick montage of quarterbacks with success in the big game is shown. This includes Phil Simms, Joe Namath, Troy Aikman and Kurt Warner. None belong in the top 10.
No. 7 – Otto Graham
Narrator Derrin Horton: “But no one’s won more championships than our next quarterback.”
Well, the problem with this line is Starr (5), among others, won more NFL championships than Graham (3).
The issue is people try to credit Graham’s AAFC accomplishments, which officially mean jack in the NFL record books. The irritating part of this is people act like Graham was the only player from the AAFC, ignoring the Browns had the most loaded team at the time.
So Graham’s “10 championship game appearances in 10 years” is one of the biggest deceptions in history, as only six of those games happened in the NFL. Only six of those games should matter.
Coach Don Shula: “All he ever did is win championships. <Chuckling> How else do you judge a quarterback?”
If that clip of Shula hasn’t made the veins pop out of Dan Marino’s forehead, then nothing will. Shula should know better than anyone a quarterback needs a balanced team around him to win championships.
Graham also lost as many NFL title games as he won. What’s so clutch about that?
Picture a quarterback today coughing up a fumble at the opponent’s 24-yard line late in the Super Bowl with a 28-27 deficit. That’s field goal range.
That’s essentially what Graham did in the 1950 NFL Championship against the Rams. He nearly ruined his greatest playoff performance with that fumble, and he knows it.
Graham to Cleveland’s Plain Dealer: "I wanted to die right there," he moaned. "It could have cost us the game. We were throwing the game away, anyway. The Rams are plenty tough, but we handed them a couple of touchdowns. Of course, we had to get ours the hard way."
Instead Graham got the second chance not all quarterbacks receive and he led the game-winning field goal drive for a 30-28 win. That initial championship win was a big one given what happened next.
Graham lost three straight NFL championship games.
In 1951, he threw three interceptions in a 24-17 loss to the Rams. In 1952 and 1953, he was outdone by Detroit’s Bobby Layne. In the 1953 loss, Graham completed 2-of-15 passes for 20 yards, two interceptions – this is good for a 0.0 passer rating, which did not yet exist – and lost a fumble in a 17-16 loss.
If not for that second chance to redeem his fumble in 1950, Graham could have easily started his career 0-4 in the big game with a slew of turnovers and critical mistakes.
But he would retire after picking up two more title wins in dominant performances, accounting for 10 total touchdowns. Still, we shouldn’t ignore the losses nor should we indulge accomplishments from the inferior AAFC.
That 1950 title win was the first and one of only two comebacks Graham had against a team with a winning record. He had nine comeback wins total in the fourth quarter. In four of his nine comebacks, the Browns still went on to win by double digits.
Graham rarely needed a comeback. He only lost 16 games as a starter in his career (including playoffs). Roughly 12 of those losses featured a failed comeback attempt in the fourth quarter. Graham threw a critical interception in at least half of them.
As the Houston Chronicle’s John McClain points out, Graham wasn’t on TV in his era, so he didn’t get scrutinized the way today’s players are after each game.
That’s why we are left hearing about Graham’s basketball championship with the 1945-46 Rochester Royals or seeing his unorthodox uniform instead of footage of his clutch moments.
That’s why it is easy to create the myth that he was such a clutch quarterback, rather than a great quarterback on a great team who probably should have won more titles than they did in that era.
No. 6 – Ken Stabler
Now with four poor choices in a row, Ken Stabler at No. 6 might be as bad as it gets.
Again, Miami’s Jim Mandich was spot on: “Kenny Stabler…nice quarterback, very good player, not top 10 all time. Who do you want, Brady or Kenny Stabler? Who do you want, Peyton Manning or Kenny Stabler?”
Stabler’s high ranking can be attributed to playing in a few games classic enough to earn a nickname. The problem is his contribution to some of those wins is very misleading.
In “The Holy Roller,” you have a quarterback in the red zone intentionally fumbling the ball forward with the game on the line. His teammates batted it around to the point they were able to recover it for the game-winning touchdown to beat the 1978 Chargers.
That’s not a clutch play. That’s being cheap and getting bailed out. This play was such a sham it forced a rule change to where the fumbling player can only recover the ball in such a situation.
The “Sea of Hands” was Stabler flipping a pass into double (arguably triple) coverage as he was being taken down to the ground. It was somehow miraculously caught by Clarence Davis for an 8-yard game-winning touchdown with 0:24 left to beat the Dolphins in the 1974 AFC Divisional Playoffs. That is not the kind of pass you want to see from your quarterback in that situation.
The “Ghost to the Post” was a fine playoff win for Stabler, but are his 19 comeback wins and 26 game-winning drives really any better than the 19 comeback wins and 27 game-winning drives Terry Bradshaw had in the same era? Bradshaw had a critical touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of each Super Bowl win. Two of his Super Bowl wins were fourth-quarter comebacks.
Of course the interviewed Raiders, linebacker Phil Villapiano and safety George Atkinson, loved Stabler’s ranking, but their only contributions to these shows have been to pimp the Raiders.
We’ll just end this one with Villapiano’s reasoning for putting Stabler higher: “Number six? I think Snake belongs higher, cause he was the Snake.”
Well, if games having nicknames got Stabler to sis, then having his own nickname must be worth entry into the top five, right? Brilliant thinking, Phil.
No. 5 – Johnny Unitas
Not since Marino at No. 10 was there a selection that really belongs here. Now with Johnny Unitas at No. 5, he is probably too low, which Hall of Fame sportswriter Ray Didinger also claims on the show.
If success in the two-minute drill is the criteria, then how can you not overly praise the creator of it? Unitas’ classic drive late in the 1958 NFL Championship forced the first overtime in history. It was hardly the only time he struck late in a game.
Unitas was used to calling his own plays, so getting the job done in crunch time was nothing new for him. He threw a staggering 23 game-winning touchdown passes, which is still the record as Chase Stuart’s list shows.
Starr only had five game-winning touchdown passes in his career. Rookie Andrew Luck already has four, which is as many as Otto Graham had in his six years.
That’s the beauty of Unitas’ clutch wins. He was so visibly impactful in many of them. He wasn’t just setting up 45-yard field goals or handing off play after play. He was making the decisive call and throw.
Gerry Sandusky (Ravens Radio Announcer): “Tom Brady doesn’t call his own plays. Tom Brady has a green dot on his helmet. Johnny Unitas had no green dot on his helmet. The communication package was he looked at Lenny Moore and said break it off at six yards.”
Unitas was the first dominant comeback quarterback, but he retired well before anyone decided to try making a statistic out of it. He technically held the records for fourth-quarter comeback wins (34) and game-winning drives (40) for over three decades, but never received proper credit.
Unitas was ahead of his time in many ways and his execution in the clutch was another example of that.
No. 4 – Roger Staubach
The “Captain Comeback” nickname and clutch legacy that should have been reserved for Unitas often goes to Roger Staubach, who was the star of America’s Team.
Michael MacCambridge (Author, “America’s Game”): “If you grew up in the ‘70s, it seemed like every Sunday afternoon at 3:00, the Cowboys were on TV. And every Sunday at about 5:45, the Cowboys were behind or tied in the fourth quarter.”
Yet one of the big initial findings from my 2009 article was that Staubach only had 15 comebacks and 23 game-winning drives. The Cowboys were a pioneer team in creating a fourth-quarter comeback statistic, but they made the common mistake of confusing a tied game for a comeback, which is why they have listed Staubach with having 23 comebacks in his career.
Staubach ironically enough had 23 losses at comeback opportunities in his career, which puts his record in clutch situations not that far apart from other Cowboy starters:
Cowboys QBs: 4th Quarter Comeback/Game-Winning Drive Opportunities
Yet the allure of “Captain Comeback” sticks with Staubach and not these other quarterbacks. The reason is because of the nature and timing of Staubach’s comebacks. He was able to have a memorable moment at the beginning, middle and end of his career.
Beginning: Staubach won a Super Bowl in his first season as a starter (1971), which always helps to put a player on the map. He missed most of 1972 due to injury, but came off the bench in the Divisional Playoffs for one of the all-time comebacks, erasing a 15-point deficit for a 30-28 win over the 49ers.
Middle: In 1975, the top-seeded Vikings had Staubach on the ropes in Minnesota. In the final two minutes he led a drive that would conclude with a miraculous 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson to win the game. This became known as the “Hail Mary” in the NFL, leading Dallas to another Super Bowl performance.
End: In a winner-takes-all game for the NFC East in 1979, Staubach delivered another classic comeback in his final regular-season game. He threw two touchdowns in the final 140 seconds to earn a 35-34 comeback win and division title.
Those are big moments. Also, people tend to credit Staubach for leading “almost comebacks” in both Super Bowl losses to the Steelers. Despite throwing a game-ending (Hail Mary) interception in one and falling behind 35-17 in the other before a furious rally, no one tends to blame Staubach for those losses.
In many ways Staubach is the anti-Romo, who has his worst moments come on the biggest national stages. Staubach didn’t lead a lot of clutch wins, but he had enough memorable ones when the Nielsen ratings were at their highest.
Staubach belongs on the list, though he is not worthy of the top five.
Best of the Rest – The Manning Brothers
Ray Didinger: “Peyton Manning belongs in the top 10.”
Well, no kidding. The elder Manning is easily the biggest omission on the list. Granted, this was done before the 2008 season, so Manning’s math-defying two-year run (2008-09) of 15 clutch wins and back-to-back MVP awards did not yet happen, but he still should have done enough to make the list.
Following the 2007 season, Manning had 24 fourth-quarter comeback wins and 31 game-winning drives. Both totals still rank among the most ever for a player’s first 10 seasons.
He tied the regular-season record with seven game-winning drives in 1999. He led the biggest comeback in championship game history (18 points) against the Patriots in 2006. His 21-point comeback in Tampa Bay in 2003 remains one of the most memorable in NFL history.
It cannot just be all about the postseason as Steve Young and Ken Stabler only won one Super Bowl while struggling to beat certain teams in the playoffs too.
Manning not making the list further destroys its credibility.
Eli also gets a mention following the greatest drive in history, though it was not enough in 2008 to rank him yet. Given what he’s done since then though, you can argue Eli deserves to be in the top 10 with his brother and the guy he keeps outplaying in the fourth quarter, who ranked third on this list.
No. 3 – Tom Brady
Just coming off the biggest loss of his career in Super Bowl XLII, No. 3 was probably a little too high for Tom Brady in 2008. The evidence given in Brady’s segment also does him no favors.
Joe Theismann misses the mark: “Up until just recently I felt that Joe Montana was the greatest quarterback that ever played the game. I now reserve that right for Tom Brady. My criteria is have you won with different people around you? Have you won at different times in your career? Have you won in different ways?”
Well, Brady won three Super Bowls for coach Bill Belichick by three points each in a four-year window on a defensive-driven team. Since shifting to an offensive team in 2007, Brady and the Patriots’ last five playoff exits have come at a home/neutral site to teams they were favored to beat. That last part was largely unexpected to Theismann and anyone at the time of this broadcast.
Montana won four Super Bowls in a nine-year window for two different head coaches. Nine of his 10 offensive starters from the first Super Bowl win (1981) changed for the third win (1988). Only Randy Cross returned, and he went from playing right guard to center. All 10 offensive starters changed for the fourth title (1989). Montana won one Super Bowl with a game-manager performance, two in dominant fashion and one clutch win in a low-scoring game against Cincinnati.
Perhaps Theismann was just in a hurry to film his segment as Super Beta Prostate may not have been available to him in 2008.
Howard Balzer (USA Today Sports Weekly): “Tom Brady’s had three great comebacks.” [Footage is shown of the three Super Bowl wins]
Actually, the wins over the Rams and Eagles were not comebacks. The Patriots never trailed in the second half of either game. They were game-winning drives. The only comeback was the Carolina Super Bowl. New England trailed by one point in the fourth quarter. It was the only deficit of the game for Brady, who later led a game-winning drive with the game tied 29-29.
Before the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, John Madden helped grow the legend of Brady by offering up a terrible strategy of kneeling on the football to play for overtime in a 17-17 game. NFL teams simply do not do this with 1:21 to play, so the Patriots going for the win should have been no surprise.
Peter King (Sports Illustrated): “Everybody’s screaming at their TV set, “sit on the ball, take the tie, go to overtime.” Drives them 51 yards, the winning field goal. They did that because they knew what they had in a Brady: the total flat-liner like his idol Joe Montana.”
So when the Browns were in a similar situation that season with no timeouts in a tied game against Pittsburgh, did they know what they were doing when they put the ball in Tim Couch’s hands on seven consecutive plays?
This is just a case of trying to exaggerate how good something was. It was a well-executed, dink-and-dunk drive to set up Adam Vinatieri for the type of field goal Scott Norwood and Mike Vanderjagt have choked on in such a big moment.
The lack of those classic do-or-die touchdown drives on Brady’s resume was not lost on the show.
Mike Silver (Yahoo! Sports): “Some people will say well he hasn’t had that signature moment. A lot of times it’s been tied and he’s dinked and dunked them down for a field goal.”
Jarrett Bell (USA Today): “Those drives didn’t have the same sizzle as Joe Montana’s winning drives in the clutch.”
Kevin Slaten (KFNS Radio, St. Louis): “I don’t remember many games where he actually made the play to win the game. It was Adam Vinatieri most of the time.”
Of course the New England media sees it differently.
Gil Santos (Patriots Radio Network): “<Chuckling> So what? If you win by one or you win by 100, what’s the difference? You know that’s insane. Anybody who would say that, that’s, that’s nitpicking. That’s, that’s….”
Tom Curran (CSNNE): “Well it would have been really reasonable for the Patriots, only needing a field goal in Super Bowl 36, to just go ahead and get the touchdown so everybody felt better about it. Would that, would that make sense to everyone? Hey, we need three, but let’s get seven so Brady’s legacy better. We need touchdowns to get him the clutch—come on!”
If you are putting someone in the top three and/or ahead of Montana, then what’s so unreasonable about that? It’s easier to win when it’s tied versus trailing. A deficit of 1-3 points is easier to overcome than 4-8 points. It’s easier to set up a field goal than drive for a touchdown.
Through the 2007 season, Brady had thrown 10 game-winning touchdown passes (six when trailing). His kickers made 13 game-winning field goals. Brady’s kickers never lost a game for him with a failed kick in the clutch until last season against the Cardinals.
This 2010 Football Outsiders article from Nicholas Higgins is a little outdated, though it’s fittingly closer to the show’s original air date. Higgins adjusts comeback opportunities for field position, time, deficit and outcome.
Higgins notes Brady’s “average degree of difficulty per drive was the easiest of any player in the top 20 of the ACE rankings.” Brady ranks just 14th in Adjusted Comeback Efficiency (ACE). This followed a poor 2009 season in which Brady was successful on just one of 10 drives.
Since this show, Brady’s led nine more game-winning drives, but also lost 14 games with an opportunity. He was never going to be able to keep up the record pace from earlier in his career without selling his soul, but as the years go by Brady’s career begins to resemble the story of Dorian Gray more and more.
It’s not that Brady himself has gotten worse. It’s that the memories of old Brady as the flapless leader were overshadowing the remarkable play of his teammates. He was built up to be something he never was. Now that the team is not playing to the same level, Brady has suffered some of the misfortunes he once never had to deal with.
It may be the cruelest case of regression to the mean in NFL history, and it certainly has had an impact on the results of Brady’s play in the clutch.
Best of the Rest – Brett Favre
It was good to see Brett Favre’s exclusion from the list. For every jaw-dropping comeback one can remember, there’s more than one game-killing turnover to suffer through.
There is no doubt Favre led some impressive game-winning drives, but part of him having so many is the fact that he played more games (326) than any quarterback in NFL history. Yet he still never had the records for comebacks or game-winning drives, which should tell you something.
If not, then there’s this:
Brett Favre In the Clutch (Career Incl. Playoffs)
Favre just had too many turnovers in these moments to be an all-time clutch quarterback. In addition to the 54 interceptions, he lost 10 fumbles. He was 46-75 (.380) at overall game-winning drive opportunities.
This segment was nearly perfect until the end set off a series of cringe-worthy lines.
Narrator Derrin Horton: “Favre’s 37 fourth-quarter comebacks are impressive, but one man has more.”
No. 2 – John Elway
Denver running back Terrell Davis: “Hmm, I find that very hard to believe that somebody would be ranked ahead of John Elway, especially since he has the record for fourth-quarter comebacks.”
Narrator Derrin Horton: “With a NFL-record 47 fourth-quarter comebacks, the question wasn’t whether or not the Broncos would win. It was how John Elway would do it.”
Oh brother. You know, the creators just took the false information that’s been out there for years from the Broncos, so it’s not like this was unexpected. Still, every time you hear it, you know a huge reason for Elway’s ranking is tied directly to a record he never held. He sharpened his legacy through semantics rather than achievement.
The NFL Network went back and changed its top 10 left-handed quarterbacks show before. It used to be Scott Mitchell at No. 10 followed by “The Field” at No. 9. Yet sometime after 2011 it ended up being Tim Tebow at No. 9.
If they can make that change, why not change this intro? Wipe “The Myth of 47” out of all of history.
We will likely never come up with a better find than when discovering 47 represented the number of comeback opportunities Elway had that did not result in a win (46 losses, one tie).
His comeback record of 34-46-1 (.426) is still impressive, though is it that much better than Dan Marino’s 36-46 (.439) or Peyton Manning’s 38-44 (.463). Those pocket passers also have the statistical advantages in the clutch over Elway as well.
Some cling to Elway's supporting cast not being up to snuff, but we have looked deep into his comebacks before. Elway posted superior statistics starting in the 1993 season after Dan Reeves was gone. This statistical increase carried over into clutch situations.
However, Elway's record in clutch opportunities was better under Reeves:
John Elway: Dan Reeves Era vs. Post-Reeves Era
There’s not much new we can offer on Elway after all these years, so let’s just see what others had to say on the show.
Bob Golic (former Browns defensive tackle): “If John Elway has had 47 comebacks, why is it all you guys ask about is “The Drive”?
It’s a fair point. Though “The Drive” is the highlight comeback of Elway’s career, you rarely hear about anything else.
Other notables include his first comeback, which erased a 19-0 deficit against the 1983 Colts, who he refused to play for that year. In the 1991 playoffs, Elway had another classic drive to eliminate the Oilers. In 1992, Elway threw two late touchdowns to beat the Chiefs. His very last comeback was also a special one as he threw for 400 yards in erasing a 10-point deficit to beat the Chiefs to get to 13-0 in the 1998 season.
Still, it comes back to “The Drive” more often than not.
The final quote comes from an unnamed broadcaster: “This guy will go down as the greatest come-from-behind player in National Football League history.”
Not if we stick to the facts.
No. 1 – Joe Montana
No quarterback has had a perfect career, but Joe Montana retired with the fewest holes in his legacy. He deserves to be No. 1.
Sure, he had Bill Walsh’s innovative West Coast Offense. The 49ers were loaded on both sides of the ball and had a defense that does not get enough credit. The one time he had a poor defense, the 49ers went 3-6 (1982). The 49ers usually performed well when he missed a start, which happened often.
There was that dark age of three straight one-and-done postseasons (1985-87) where Montana played very poorly. Cincinnati’s Lewis Billups should have had that red-zone interception early in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXIII. He statistically peaked when playing with the best wide receiver in NFL history.
Montana still did enough to overshadow his advantages, especially in crunch time.
What verifies Montana’s greatness is that he had big clutch moments in college at Notre Dame, many in San Francisco, and even in two years with the Chiefs he had two comeback wins in the playoffs and outdueled John Elway on the Monday Night Football stage in 1994.
Montana’s comebacks weren’t just big in volume. He had 31, but 23 of them came on the road or a neutral site. That ties Peyton Manning for the most in NFL history.
Montana had four game-winning touchdown passes in the playoffs, which is the most of any quarterback. The first was “The Catch” to Dwight Clark. Then his 92-yard drive in Super Bowl XXIII was the first classic drive to win a Super Bowl late. It’s still one of the best drives ever, ending with the touchdown pass to John Taylor.
There’s a short list of quarterbacks with more wins in the clutch than losses (minimum 30 games): Matt Ryan (23-14), Tom Brady (38-25), Joe Montana (34-31), Peyton Manning (50-49) and Dan Marino (51-50).
Ryan’s on his way while the rest belong high on this list, but no one should be higher than Montana. Not in 2008 and not in June 2013.
Narrator Derrin Horton: “Joe Cool may be number one, but like everyone on our list, he proved that clutch quarterbacks are born, not made.”
You could probably replace clutch with “great” and get most of the same truth, but there will always be the outliers who surprise or disappoint in the high-pressure situations with amazing frequency.
That’s why making this list is not the same as making a list of the 10 greatest quarterbacks of all time, which would actually be easier to do.
The results turn out a bit differently when those 35-point blowouts over the Lions in Week 12 are set aside.
Though it would be easy to bash Tom Curran for trying to use the Jabar Gaffney defense in a Montana vs. Brady debate, he did deliver a classic final line: “What about Brian Sipe?”
What about another attempt at making a better list five years later? Here’s one.
1. Joe Montana
2. Johnny Unitas
3. Peyton Manning
4. Tom Brady
5. Dan Marino
6. John Elway
7. Roger Staubach
8. Eli Manning
9. Ben Roethlisberger
10. Drew Brees
What’s the reasoning here? Surely you can search the previous 6,500 words for most of it.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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