Captain Comeback: Week 1 thrivers and drivers

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 13, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Comeback King


Welcome to the first edition of “Captain Comeback," where we will be looking at all the fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives from the week, providing the kind of historical and statistical context you can’t find anywhere else.
 
In fact, finding any reliable, standardized information on the topic of fourth quarter wins has been hard to come by. Fortunately, Captain Comeback took up the task of researching and standardizing these statistics, and this work has been available on pro-football-reference.com since 2009.
 
If you need to catch up on all the history of these stats in the last two years, here’s an article for the game-winning drives leaderboard heading into the season, which also includes links to the five articles. This is must-read material if you want to learn about the peculiar history of these stats and how such controversy and inconsistencies were created due to semantics via public relations. At the Cold, Hard Football Facts, we simply have the facts to present. No PR campaigns here.
 
This won’t be another long history lesson, but from time to time this season references will be made to how comebacks and game-winning drives are used in the media. Hopefully with the stats available on PFR and now this weekly column, these references will become increasingly accurate as more people are aware of the standardized methods.
 
What definition are we using for fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives? Please read the articles for more details, but here’s the general idea:
 
Fourth Quarter Comeback (4QC) – when the winning team trailed by some deficit in the fourth quarter and came back to win. Zero points (tied) is not a deficit.
Game-Winning Drive (GWD) – is the scoring drive that puts the winning team ahead in the fourth quarter or overtime for the rest of the game.
 
Before finally getting started on Week 1, let’s extend a word of thanks to all the people that have provided the clarity for how these statistics should be used, as even Captain Comeback was once falling into the trap of trying to combine them into one stat.
 
The best way to put it is “quarterback X has Y comebacks and Z game-winning drives”, which is thankfully how a lot of people have used it.
 
They are two separate, but related stats. Sometimes they happen on the same drive, many times they don’t. Not all games have both, and hopefully you will quickly understand this as we go through the games and their classification each week.
 
Starting next week we’ll get immediately into the action. This week it was necessary to provide the background information so people know what to expect. Hopefully you are interested in the opportunity to have actual data and facts on just how well or how poorly certain players and teams perform when the pressure’s on.

Drive of the Week

Given the winning drives in Week 1, it seems as though this space should be devoted to the end of the Notre Dame/Michigan game from Saturday night. The only question is: which of the three touchdown drives in the last 2:16 (which covered 199 total yards) do you pick?
 
That was incredible stuff from the college guys, but we are strictly NFL here. While the most talked about drive of the week was probably the Saints and their failed goal line run with no time left against Green Bay, this is for the winners.
 

San Diego Chargers vs. Minnesota Vikings
Winner: San Diego (24-17)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 3 (17-14)
Quarterback: Philip Rivers (13 4QC, 16 GWD - table)
 
Norv Turner just loves these slow starts, as the Chargers needed a comeback in week 1 for the fourth straight season. Last year they were unable to get it done in Kansas City, which went a long way in their failure to win the division.
 
This time they were successful, with some unusual faces leading the way. Having lost kicker Nate Kaeding on the opening kickoff, it was punter Mike Scifres that had to come in for the rare 40-yard game-tying field goal by a punter to tie the game at 17 after San Diego moved the ball 46 yards.
 
Donovan McNabb did what he often does in this situation, and went three and out. Philip Rivers, who was just 1-5 at comebacks in 2010, now had the opportunity to put San Diego ahead. Antonio Gates reached up high and caught a key pass on a 3rd & 4 to move the ball to Minnesota’s 19.
 
Two plays later Rivers did something he’s not used to doing: he moved out of the pocket and lobbed a pass to Mike Tolbert, who raced for the end zone on the 19-yard touchdown. It capped off a 64 yard drive, which put San Diego ahead 24-17 with 5:01 left. It is the 9th game-winning touchdown pass of Rivers’ career.
 
After another three and out by Minnesota, the game was decided on a goof. With the Chargers facing a 3rd & 2 and the Vikings having no timeouts left, a hard count drew Minnesota offsides, giving San Diego a free five yards and the victory.
 
The last time Adrian Peterson played San Diego, he rushed for a NFL record 296 yards. This time he had 98 yards. The last time Donovan McNabb played San Diego, he passed for 450 yards. In a week where a record 14 quarterbacks passed for at least 300 yards, McNabb this time finished with just 39 yards through the air, or one more than the 38 Philip Rivers had on the game-winning drive.

The Other Paths to Victory

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns
Winner: Cincinnati (27-17)

Type: 4QC/GWD

Largest Deficit: 4 (17-13)

Quarterback: Bruce Gradkowski (5 4QC, 6 GWD - table)
 
The Andy Dalton era got off to a respectable start for Cincinnati, but the rookie was injured and had to be replaced for the second half with Bruce Gradkowski. No fear, for Gradkowski is well experienced with the AFC North. He is the only quarterback to play on each side of the NFL’s battle for Ohio, and in 2009 the Pittsburgh native became the first quarterback since 1940 to throw three go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter in a stunning 27-24 comeback win over his hometown Steelers.
 
Having also led two shocking last-minute comebacks against the Bengals as a member of the Buccaneers (2006) and the Raiders (2009), Gradkowski filled in admirably in his team debut, completing 5/12 passes for 92 yards.
 
Trailing 17-13 with 4:31 left, Gradkowski caught the Browns unprepared for a 3rd & 11, and found rookie A.J. Green all alone for the game-winning 41-yard touchdown; the first reception of his career. The timing could not have been much better.
 
Here is a table of the rookie receivers that have caught a game-winning touchdown as their first ever reception in their team’s first game:
 
Receiver QB Date Opponent Trailed TD Length Time Left
A.J. Green, WR Bruce Gradkowski 9/11/2011 CLE (A) 17-13 41 4:28
Ernest Wilford, WR Byron Leftwich 9/12/2004 BUF (A) 10-6 7 0:00
Clarence Kay, TE Gary Kubiak 9/2/1984 CIN 17-13 8 5:26
 
After Colt McCoy’s fourth down pass fell incomplete to center Alex Mack (no, seriously), Cedric Benson showed he’s been rehabilitated after serving five days in jail, and put the game away with a 39-yard touchdown run. Cleveland starts the season 0-1 for the 12th time in the last 13 years since their return to the league.
 

New York Jets vs. Dallas Cowboys
Winner: New York (27-24)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 14 (24-10)
Quarterback: Mark Sanchez (6 4QC, 8 GWD - table)
 
History shows Dallas as a team that you expect to pull off the miraculous victories, while the Jets are more of the tease that usually just leaves you feeling disappointed in the end. Lately those roles have been reversed. Dallas continues to find ways to lose games in mind-numbing fashion, while the Jets have racked up six comeback wins in their last 15 games. Remember when Mark Sanchez was the quarterback that couldn’t seem to lead a comeback at USC or in his rookie season with the Jets?
 
The truth is, Sanchez did little to earn this one. His interception on the final play of the third quarter was returned to the 1-yard line, where Dallas was able to score the touchdown and take a 24-10 lead.
 
Sanchez did respond with a nice 84-yard touchdown drive, capped off with Plaxico Burress’ first touchdown since Super Bowl XLII to make it 24-17.
 
Tony Romo then fumbled on his way to the goal line, giving Sanchez a chance to tie the game. Instead, Sanchez was sacked and fumbled the ball. Dallas was in good shape, but then they lost 12 yards on the drive and had to punt.
 
That is when disaster struck for Dallas, as the punt was blocked by Joe McKnight and returned for the tying touchdown. After both teams punted, Romo had a chance to win the game, and immediately fired a pass to a hobbled Dez Bryant, who was easily covered by Darrelle Revis.
 
Revis returned the ball to the Dallas 34. After the Jets moved the ball just two yards, Nick Folk (former Dallas kicker) came out and kicked the 50-yard game-winning field goal with 0:27 left. Meltdown complete.
 
It was the first 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter for the Jets since their incredible comeback win over Miami from a 30-7 deficit in 2000 (“The Monday Night Miracle”). The Cowboys were 241-0-1 all time when leading by at least 14 points in the fourth quarter prior to this game.
 
Technically, the comeback was completed with a score on special teams. But would that touchdown have happened if the touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress never happened? It’s really a “partial” comeback for Sanchez and the offense, but how do you distinguish that? Even Captain Comeback struggles to this day with these games. Fortunately there are only about 35 of them out there, and we just happened to get one to start the season.
 
It was all that Tony Romo’s fault, everyone knows that. If he had held onto the ball like he was supposed to, Dallas would never have lost that game. In a similar situation, noted Pet Detectiive Ace Ventura would certainly suggest that Tony Romo should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell*.
 

Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers
Winner: Arizona (28-21)

Type: 4QC
Largest Deficit: 7 (21-14)
Quarterback: Kevin Kolb (1 4QC - table)
 
Could you argue the game of the day Sunday was this barnburner between Carolina and Arizona? Cam Newton was very impressive in his rookie debut, passing for 422 yards to shatter the previous record for most passing yards in a NFL debut. Kevin Kolb was also pretty good in his first start for Arizona, passing for 309 yards and two touchdowns.
 
In the few opportunities Kolb had in Philadelphia for comebacks, he was abysmal (0.0 passer rating-abysmal). Sunday was a different story, as Kolb faced a 21-14 deficit early in the fourth quarter and started at his own 10-yard line. He completed 3/4 passes for 86 yards, including the game-tying touchdown to Early Doucet on 3rd and 7. No one even covered Doucet over the middle as he raced 70 yards to the end zone.
 
This is also our first example of a game that included only a comeback, which is rare. Kolb never even had an opportunity for the GWD. After Doucet’s score tied the game, Carolina punted, and rookie Patrick Peterson returned it 89 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
 
The Cardinals are no strangers to winning games with non-offensive scoring plays. It’s the 8th time since 2002 the Cardinals have done so (2nd most – Bears, Eagles, Jets, Seahawks; 3)

Arizona's Non-Offensive Game-Winning Scores (Since 2002)

 
Date Opponent Final Type Scorer Distance
9/15/2002 SEA (A) W 24-13 Kick return MarTay Jenkins 95
10/24/2004 SEA W 25-17 Safety Punt blocked -
9/30/2007 PIT W 21-14 Punt return Steve Breaston 73
10/7/2007 RAM (A) W 34-31 Interception Roderick Hood 68
10/12/2008 DAL W 30-24 OT Blocked punt return Monty Beisel 3
10/11/2009 HOU W 28-21 Interception Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 49
1/10/2010 GB W 51-45 OT Fumble return Karlos Dansby 17
9/11/2011 CAR W 28-21 Punt return Patrick Peterson 89
 
Cam Newton still had opportunities to play hero. The stage was set: 2:20 left, 83 yards to go, down by a touchdown. Newton’s pass on 4th and 5 came up a yard short; similar to Steve McNair’s pass to Kevin Dyson in Super Bowl XXXIV. That day McNair needed to go 88 yards in 1:48.
 
Even if it was just one game, Newton gave Carolina fans hope for the future. New acquisitions Kolb and Peterson provided the Cardinals big plays for a win, just what Arizona was hoping they paid for.

Non-comeback notes of the week

Come back, Peyton.
 
Just when Captain Comeback thought he could at some point this season write about Peyton Manning surpassing Dan Marino for the most comeback wins in NFL history (Manning’s 35 are one behind Marino’s 36), Manning has two neck surgeries and is likely out for the season, if not longer. Bummer.
 
Manning now faces the single biggest comeback of his career: being physically able to return to playing football ever again. Love him or hate him, Manning makes the NFL a better product, and it’s just not the same without him. Here’s to hoping we have not seen the last of Peyton Manning.
 
The Colts certainly need him back, as they got a sour taste of life without Peyton on Sunday in Houston. Manning has started 227 games in his career, and not once did he ever lose two fumbles in a game, nor did he ever go to halftime with a deficit larger than 24 points. Kerry Collins, in his first very try, managed to lose two fumbles in the first quarter, and the Colts trailed 34-0 at halftime in an embarrassing defeat.
 
The Colts weren’t the only playoff team from last year to come up with a dud in week 1.
 
Pittsburgh lost a game by 28+ points for the first time since 1997, which was also a season-opener (lost 37-7 to Dallas). It’s a real rarity to see the Steelers defeated like that, especially against Baltimore. Eight of the previous nine meetings were decided by seven points or fewer. However, there are week 1 duds manifested in Pittsburgh’s history. Since 1940 there have been 7 teams to start the season with a -7 turnover differential in their first game. The Steelers have four of those games (1950, 1964, 1989, and 2011). It could have been worse. It could have been 51-0 to Cleveland.
 
The Chiefs have been outscored 102-24 in their last three games since Charlie Weis accepted the offensive coordinator job at Florida. Matt Cassel, in leading the offense to 8.0 PPG, is only 42/87 (48.3%) for 304 yards, 1 TD, 6 INT, 32.0 passer rating in those games. That’s 3.49 YPA, folks. Even Joey Harrington averaged 5.79 YPA in his career, and that’s the worst mark ever (min. 1500 attempts). Hell, the often criticized Eddie George averaged 3.64 YPC on the ground for that matter.
 
How did Atlanta follow up the worst loss of the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era, the 48-21 shredding by Green Bay in the NFC Divisional playoffs? They had their worst regular-season loss in a game started by Ryan; 30-12 at Chicago. Who’s next? Michael Vick returns to the Georgia Dome with the Eagles, the team that handed Atlanta a 34-7 loss in 2009 in a game started by Chris Redman. What’s that stat again about teams starting 0-2 and making the playoffs that year?
 
Did it seem like there were more blowouts than usual this week? If you paid close attention to the 1PM games, then you would say yes. In the three main primetime games, we watched all six quarterbacks pass for 300+ yards in what were generally exciting games.
 
However, we still had 9/16 games (56.3%) where a team had an opportunity to come back in the fourth quarter from a one score deficit, which is about the league average. Even if blowouts seemed like the story, more than half the games were still close late.

*Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer 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. He does not wish Tony Romo to die of gonorrhea and rot in hell. He was just referencing Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which featured snubbed comeback king Dan Marino.  You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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