Captain Comeback: Tony Romo And The NFL’s Four-Minute Offense
By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
The New York Giants actually lost a close game. The Dallas Cowboys, and Tony Romo, proved they could finish one. It must be a new NFL season.
In Wednesday night’s opener, the Cowboys did what they failed to do against their division rivals last year, and that was finish the game in the fourth quarter.
They did it with a well-executed four-minute drill in the game’s final minutes, preventing Eli Manning from leading another game-tying drive in his career.
Romo did not have a chance to lead a game-winning drive, but what he did was throw a dagger on 3rd and 10 to Kevin Ogletree to ice the game. Maybe we need to create a new stat for such a drive. You can call it the anti-comeback stat: the “game-clinching drive.”
The four-minute offense is a great way for a team to end a game with their offense on the field, and to avoid any possible last-second score against their defense. That is what Dallas did this time.
Now, we need to start quantifying the success of the four-minute offense, and have looked at the entire 2011 season as a starter. If you think most teams are very dependent on the run and willing to punt after three plays and let the defense finish the job, then you are onto something. With 20.3 percent of the drives playing out that way, it was the most common result of the four-minute offense last year.
But we found plenty of other interesting facts, not to mention some more information on Tony Romo in such situations.
The Four-Minute Offense Data
Looking at only the 2011 season (playoffs included), we wanted games where a team had a lead of 1-8 points (one score) in the fourth quarter, and with the possession starting with 4:00 or less on the clock.
Yes, there was a drive that started at 4:01 in one game and a few others that just missed the cut, but that was the restriction we used to try and keep it closest to a true four-minute offense.
Next, any drive that was all kneel downs was excluded. Kneel downs are always insignificant, and serve as reminders that the game has already been clinched. Also excluded were any drives that featured three kneel downs and a punt on fourth down as the final play of the game. Once again, there was no offense actually being run, and the team was just killing clock.
Finally, any drive that included even one kneel down and no first downs was excluded. Sometimes a team will run one play, the defense will call their final timeout they had left, and then the offense goes back to kneeling down.
We wanted situations that mirrored Wednesday night’s ending the best. In the end, there were 79 drives in 2011 (two from the playoffs). There were three games where one team had two different attempts in the final four minutes.
For the drive stats, kneel downs were excluded, as were any delay of game penalties involving the kicking teams.
The Results of the Four-Minute Offense
In the 76 games, the team running the four-minute offense had a record of 72-4 (.947) when the clock expired. That is a ridiculous number, and it speaks to how difficult it is to get the ball back late and drive for a critical score.
Still, there were 37 teams that did get the ball back with over a minute to go. A total of 14 teams had more than two minutes to work with, and that includes three of our four winners.
You might even be able to guess the four teams that succeeded. The list is what makes Wednesday night’s game even more interesting.
New York Giants at Arizona Cardinals (W 31-27) – The Cardinals had a pathetic drive behind Kevin Kolb, chewing just 27 seconds off the clock as the Giants used two of their timeouts. Kolb threw incomplete on third down, and Eli Manning had plenty of time to quickly drive for the game-winning touchdown.
New England Patriots vs. Dallas Cowboys (W 20-16) – This was the game where Jason Garrett was criticized for being afraid to put the ball in Romo’s hands following what happened against the Jets and Lions. Leading 16-13, the Cowboys ran it three times, gained zero yards, punted, and Tom Brady went right down the field for a game-winning touchdown pass with 0:22 left.
Denver Broncos vs. Chicago Bears (W 13-10 OT) – Had to get some Tim Tebow in here. With 2:05 left and a 10-7 lead, Chicago handed the ball off three times in a row to Marion Barber. They punted, leaving Tebow with 0:56 left. After gaining 39 yards, Matt Prater kicked a 59-yard field goal with 0:03 left to force overtime, where the Broncos would win on Prater’s 51-yard kick.
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys (W 37-34) – In primetime that same day as the Denver game, we would have the epic showdown in Dallas. With 3:14 left, Dallas led 34-29 and had a first down. Two runs by Felix Jones set up 3rd and 5. Romo threw deep for Miles Austin, but he missed him. The Giants got the ball back and drove for the game-winning touchdown. Dallas would miss the game-tying field goal on the final play, and this basically set the stage for the Giants’ Super Bowl run.
Two wins by the Giants, two losses by the Cowboys, and now you can see why Wednesday night’s final drive was so big.
While these were the only four teams to successfully get the ball back and win the game, it was definitely not because of how great the four-minute offense has been league-wide. Check out the facts.
Ran out clock
Out of the 32 punts, 24 of the teams had a natural three-and-out drive. Only 26 teams (32.9 percent) were able to successfully burn out the clock in the final four minutes.
The nine touchdown drives featured 18 runs and only two passes: Ben Roethlisberger’s 79-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown versus Cleveland, and Aaron Rodgers’ 84-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson in Carolina.
Three of the touchdown drives were one-play drives, and all runs: Donald Brown’s 80-yard win-clincher against Tennessee, Ahmad Bradshaw’s 19-yard touchdown against the Jets after a failed onside kick attempt, and Shonn Greene’s 25-yard touchdown against Washington on a short field with the Jets ahead 27-19.
On the eight field goal drives, only two teams gained a first down on the drive (San Diego at Denver, Tennessee vs. Tampa Bay). Everyone else just went three and out, but because of the great starting field position, they were able to make the kick.
The only two teams to turn the ball over were Tennessee and Cincinnati, with fumbles lost by Ahmard Hall and Cedric Benson on running plays.
The Bengals also went four and out against Jacksonville, handing the ball off four straight times to Benson. They gave up the ball with just 0:07 left, and even added a touchdown on a fumble return on the game’s final play.
The only other team to turn the ball over on downs was San Francisco, and that too involved Cincinnati. After a three and out, the 49ers took an intentional safety with 0:02 left as punter Andy Lee ran out of the end zone.
Here are the average drive stats:
*First “End time” is the total for the 79 drives, while the second is for only the 53 teams who did give the ball back to the opponent.
On average, teams took over with 2:32 left in the game, holding a lead of just over 5.2 points. They often had good field position (average starting LOS was 39.3), usually because of the opponent’s failure on the previous drive.
The average drive gained less than 20 yards, but the goal was usually just to get a first down or two. Not many offenses gained or needed more than that.
Best and Worst Offenses in 2011
Which teams were the most successful at the four-minute offense? The Atlanta Falcons were 3-for-3, with Matt Ryan converting two game-clinching third-down passes like Romo did the other night.
The only other team to successfully run out the clock three times was Kansas City, who had five total opportunities (two three-and-out drives the other times).
The Bengals had a lot of games go down to the wire last season, including a league-high six cracks at the four-minute offense. They were never able to simply run the clock out, but they did do this: four and out, two punts, field goal, touchdown and Benson fumble.
Oakland was 5-0 in such games, but they had just one drive of running out the clock, and that was the season opener in Denver. The other four led to punts, including a trio of three and outs.
Finally there was the San Francisco 49ers. Of course they would be involved in something unique last season. They had six drives, producing two field goals, two clock runs, a punt, and that intentional safety against Cincinnati.
This is probably the area most people are interested in. For years it seems like most offenses will just hand the ball off three times, punt, and play defense. A few other teams might actually throw on third down to try and win the game, while some maverick like Bill Belichick might just throw on four straight downs to (try and) win the game.
These 79 drives produced a run ratio of 86.6 percent, and remember, that excludes all kneel downs. We are talking about 245 runs to 38 passes (including sacks). A whopping 53 of the 79 drives featured no passes.
Only three teams called three pass plays on one drive, and that even includes Luke McCown in Jacksonville’s season opener. Six more teams called two passes, while only 17 more went with one.
It is a little surprising to not see more third down passes. Many times a team would rather just keep it on the ground, burn clock, and not try to throw for the first down to win the game.
Of the 26 teams to attempt a pass, 10 ran out the clock, while three more scored points (two touchdowns and a field goal).
Already the recommendation would seem to be more throws to make the four-minute offense more successful. But we know coaches hate risk, and passing is extra risky in this situation because of incompletions stopping the clock, sacks, and the increased chance of a turnover.
But the benefits are more yards, first downs, and ultimately more wins.
How many game-clinching conversions on a third down pass did we see in 2011 a la Romo in New York? Only twice, and both thrown by Matt Ryan (against Tennessee and at Carolina).
Ben Roethlisberger is the only other quarterback to get the clinching first down for his team to run out the clock, but he threw a second-down pass to Mike Wallace on what looked like an audible between the two at the line.
Now remember, this is based on drives that started in the last four minutes. You can have someone starting with the ball with 5:50 left, and putting together a long drive that ends with this type of third-down conversion to ice the game.
Last season, quarterbacks were just 5/25 (20.0 percent) at converting on third down in the final 3:00 of the fourth quarter, leading by 1-8 points.
But on these 79 drives last season, only two of them were ended the way Romo ended his night in New York, and that’s part of why it’s a pretty big deal.
Tony Romo: Perception vs. Reality...Again
Had Romo not delivered on that pass, it could have easily been déjà vu all over again for Dallas.
Last season at home, the Cowboys led the Giants 34-22 with 5:41 remaining. After a New York touchdown, Romo had the aforementioned four-minute drill that ended with his misfire on a pass to Miles Austin. The ball may have been “caught in the lights” for Austin. Either way, three and out for Dallas.
Eli Manning gets the ball back with 2:12 and the rest is history. They still talked about the miss to Austin on Wednesday.
This week Dallas took a 24-10 lead with 5:51 remaining. New York scored their touchdown – almost like clockwork — with 2:36 left. Romo would get the ball back at his own 26 with 2:31 remaining, and the Giants having two timeouts plus the two-minute warning.
After two runs, the Cowboys appeared to have converted the 3rd and 2 with a run, but Jason Witten was called for holding. This set up Romo for a more difficult 3rd-and-10 situation, but this time he delivered with a slant to Ogletree; a star receiver out of nowhere this night.
The play gained 13 yards, and it was game over. Three knees, no bobbled holds, and Romo and the Cowboys snapped the streak of the defending champion starting 1-0 every year since 2000. The Giants winning two of these games and the Cowboys losing two last year is just history.
Should Romo have missed a receiver again, we would have never heard the end of it if Eli came up with yet another comeback win. But since Romo did come through this time, we also know this moment has a very short shelf life should the Cowboys falter this season.
At least we now have some better context on how rare it is for an offense to come through in that situation. While Jason Garrett, like he arguably did in New England last year, could have taken the ball out of Romo’s hands, ran it on 3rd and 10 and relied on the defense, they went for the win, and his quarterback delivered.
Maybe this should be the norm in Dallas. Using the new Game Play finder at Pro-Football-Reference, we can get a list of Romo’s success on similar third-down plays over the years.
Since 2006, Romo is 6-of-8 for 58 yards and a touchdown on these plays (fourth quarter, ahead by 1-8 points, and facing third down with less than 3:00 left). Only Tom Brady has had more attempts (10). Interesting to note: Drew Brees is only 1-of-7 for 9 yards.
Romo’s first attempt was a slant to Terry Glenn to finish off the 9-0 Colts in 2006. He converted twice on a drive against Cincinnati in 2008 to extend a 24-22 lead out to 31-22 with 1:52 remaining. The play in Washington was a big one to help finish that game, and the pass to Witten in Philadelphia also closed out the game.
Small sample size? Absolutely. So are the three playoff losses everyone harps on.
But it also shows just how silly it is when people hold the pass to Austin against Romo as if it was the main reason Dallas lost. Teams rarely ever blow a 12-point lead in the final six minutes and have a game-ending field goal blocked in the same night. As we proved last year when it happened, quarterbacks that play like Romo did that night (140+ passer rating on at least 30 attempts) never lose.
Except that one time, where Romo had a miss to Austin on a big third down. But it’s the type of situational play he has come up with on six other occasions. Which should matter more?
Romo can handle the heat of a four-minute offense. Not many coaches seem to have the brass balls required to seize these opportunities and make the most of them. Maybe a pep talk from Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross-style, might help (language NSFW).
“A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing.” Captain Comeback will keep an eye on which teams are actually trying to close this season.
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 email@example.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.