Captain Comeback Week 6: When Old Is New Again

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 18, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts Comeback Kid


What’s the perfect cocktail for an unusual, record-breaking season? Start with a 132-day lockout that created a shortened off-season unlike any other, and then introduce significant rule changes to the kicking game, a reduction in padded practices, a new scoring review system, and more attempts at classifying highly athletic football players as “defenseless” in the heat of split-second action. That’s what the 2011 season has provided us to this point.
 
But Week 6 was a return to the type of NFL week fans are used to seeing. No quarterback had a 400-yard passing game. Only two teams (Atlanta and Chicago) scored at least 30 points. No one came back from a deficit of more than 10 points to win. The Patriots gutted out a low-scoring win over Dallas, reminding us of the 2001-06 Patriots. The Steelers and Jaguars played another close game in their series. Rex Grossman threw four interceptions. Devin Hester scored another return touchdown in primetime.
 
In Week 5, there were five comebacks, all on the road. This week, the home team was 11-2 overall and there was only three successful fourth quarter comebacks, with nine games featuring an opportunity. That slows down the record-pace we were at the first five weeks.
 
It felt like a return to the normal days of NFL football. At least that was the case in most cities this week (the ones where coaches weren’t garnering headlines), with Detroit being the notable exception. San Francisco at Detroit was the Cold, Hard Football Facts Game of the Week, and that’s where we start.
 

Drive of the Week

San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions
Winner: San Francisco (25-19)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 4 (19-15)
Quarterback: Alex Smith (7 4QC, 9 GWD – table)
 
There are a lot of reasons this game was so compelling, and not just for comebacks.
 
It was this week’s game with the highest winning percentage between the two teams (9-1). The teams are the Lions (no playoffs since 1999) and 49ers (no playoffs since 2002). They have pulled off three of the league’s four comebacks from a 20+ point deficit this season (all on the road). The Lions, winners of nine straight in the regular season dating back to 2010, were one of two undefeated teams, while the 49ers could have been undefeated had they not fallen victim to a big Tony Romo comeback in Week 2.
 
Then there was the game itself.
 
Detroit jumped out to a 10-0 lead, meaning the 49ers were the only team this week able to register a 10+ point comeback win, making it 19 on the season.
 
Calvin Johnson had 9 receiving touchdowns in five games, but was denied a touchdown this time. Jahvid Best (12 carries, 37 yards) was nowhere near as effective as his Monday night performance against Chicago.
 
Alex Smith threw just his second interception of the season, which led to the first lead change in the fourth quarter.
 
Down 15-13, Matthew Stafford found Nate Burleson in the back of the end zone, both feet down, but a net on the ground behind the end zone jarred the ball loose as Burleson braced himself to get up. The call was an incomplete pass, much like the game-winning touchdown that was taken away from Calvin Johnson on opening day 2010. This time the play was challenged and reversed to a touchdown, which just further complicates this “receiver must complete the process of the catch when going to the ground” nonsense. This rule is used about as consistently as the commissioner’s conduct policy.
 
After a few punts, Ted Ginn Jr., embracing his role as “return man that’s not pretending to be a legitimate wide receiver anymore”, had a 40-yard return to the Detroit 35. The 49ers drove to the 6-yard line, and that’s where Alex Smith made the biggest pass of his career.
 
It was fourth down, and failure to score a touchdown likely meant a Detroit win. Smith found Delanie Walker on a slant, and by the slimmest of margins he was able to break the plane with the ball for the score before his knee hit the ground with 1:51 left.
 
The 49ers forced a pair of four and outs, and the dream matchup of undefeated teams on Thanksgiving was over. Alex Smith had his third comeback and game-winning drive in the last four games, all on the road. It’s an amazing reversal of fortune from the past performances by Smith in these situations, as we showed after Week 2.
 
Finally, there was the post-game celebration.

Captain Comeback Underestimated the Power of the Schwartz

Everyone knows what happened by now. It’s only the most overblown story of the season. There’s two sides to every Schwartz.

Jim “Captain Comeback” Harbaugh was excited, he was lifting his shirt up, full of energy, and he shook Jim Schwartz’s hand a little “too hard”, and slapped him on the back. Schwartz says he heard an obscenity, then offered his best “WTF?” facial expression to Harbaugh.
 
Harbaugh won the game. He also won the press conference, showing he had the bigger Schwartz by basically making the Detroit coach’s reaction look petty by smugly playing up the strength of his handshake.
 
It’s not like Jim Schwartz is a stranger to excessive coach celebration right after a win, or using profanity on the field at the end of a game. 
 
This shouldn’t be the story. Jim Harbaugh was dubbed, fair or not, Captain Comeback for his efforts with the 1995 Colts on their way to the AFC Championship game. This time, Harbaugh is doing it as a rookie head coach, in a lockout season, and with a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2002. The 49ers lead the league in fourth quarter scoring with 61 points.
 
Harbaugh looks to have made another coach’s $hi+ list (Pete Carroll, Sean Payton), but it can’t be ignored how successful he has been so far in the NFL. You can accuse Harbaugh of lacking discipline Sunday, even during the game given his team having 15 penalties, including an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Harbaugh for trying to challenge a non-reviewable scoring play. But the end result is a 5-1 record, and your front-runner for Coach of the Year.
 
Suddenly a Detroit at San Francisco playoff game would be interesting, and that’s not something anyone expected to see before the season began.
 

The Other Paths to Victory

New England Patriots vs. Dallas Cowboys
Winner: New England (20-16)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 3 (16-13)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (24 4QC, 33 GWD – table)
 
Something we did expect to see was the resuming of the Tony Romo Saga. The Cowboys played their NFL-record 11th straight game decided by 4 points or less, and in the end, Romo was not the story this time.
 
Jason Garrett and Tom Brady didn’t let that happen.
 
The expected offensive shootout turned into a low-scoring, turnover-heavy affair with the teams tied at 13 to start the fourth quarter.
 
Brady led the Patriots into field goal position, but a bad decision led to an interception, and Romo was in yet another situation where he could be the hero. Romo was able to drive deep into the red zone, but a very conservative play call (a shovel pass) on third down led to a field goal. Did Garrett call a shovel pass because he feared Romo would fumble like he did against the Jets this year? It was a sign of things to come from Dallas’ offense.
 
The Patriots, frustrated at times by Rob Ryan’s defense, went three and out. The Cowboys had a chance to go to their 4-minute offense and keep the ball away from Brady and secure the win.
 
Instead, Garrett appeared to be in full protection mode for Romo, fearful the quarterback would make another mistake. There are some teams in this league you can run the ball three times against, punt, and let your defense win the game. The Patriots are not one of those teams.
 
The Cowboys ran it three straight plays before punting the ball back to Brady with 2:31 left, which is plenty of time for that offense. Dallas stopped them twice, but three times was asking too much.
 
Rob Ryan also dialed back the pressure the closer the Patriots got to the end zone. So instead of doing what worked most of the game, the Cowboys died a slow death, with Brady connecting with Aaron Hernandez for the game-winning touchdown pass with 0:22 left, leaving no real time for Romo to answer. Brady was 8/9 for 78 yards on the drive.
 
The Patriots were held to under 30 points for the first time in the regular season since Ryan’s Browns held them to 14 last November. Still, it’s the final drive that the hairy defensive coordinator wishes he could have back.
 
Tony Romo wishes he could have thrown a real pass on third and goal, or any at all on the next to last drive (or maybe…he doesn’t).

Brady and Belichick Tie Record

With the win, Brady and Bill Belichick (116) tied Dan Marino/Don Shula for the most regular season wins by a quarterback-head coach duo. What’s odd about this stat is the way it gets phrased as “in the Super Bowl era.”
 
Statistics prior to 1966 definitely have some accuracy issues, especially when you get into the pre-1950 two-way player era. With that said, it makes no sense why the league historians do not recognize some of today’s stats as being the all-time record when that clearly is the case.
 
The two notable quarterbacks that started their careers before 1950 that we don’t have a reliable record for are Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh.
 
Sid Luckman played for George Halas’ Bears from 1939 to 1950. In that time, the Bears had a regular season record of 98-32-3. Obviously Luckman did not start, let alone play, in all of these games, nor did Halas coach all of them.
 
Sammy Baugh played for the Washington Redskins from 1937 to 1952. In that time, the Redskins had a regular season record of 99-73-7. Just like Luckman, Baugh did not start or play every game, and he had eight different head coaches.
 
A deceptive 98 and 99 still aren’t more than 116, so beyond any shadow of a doubt, when the Patriots win their next game to get to 117, it will be the all-time record.
 

Brady’s Fourth Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives (Again)

Speaking of semantics and stats, it came up again in a big way this week. Back in Week 3 we sorted the Brady mess out; as he was being credited with 31 fourth quarter wins by the Patriots, an incorrect number.
 
The AP reports for this game state it was “the 32nd successful comeback of Brady's career in games the Patriots trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter.”
 
That’s false.
 
First, connecting a tie with a comeback is always wrong. Zero points is not a deficit, thus not a comeback situation. Then you have to wonder who the source is for the AP’s information. It likely wasn’t the Elias Sports Bureau, as they do game-winning drives, not comebacks for quarterbacks, and they don’t include playoff games in their numbers.
 
With the number being 32 and the way it was written, they likely used the 2011 New England Patriots Media Guide, which is missing two games.
 
Based on the criteria above (games the Patriots trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter), the Captain dares anyone to explain how wins over the Bills on 9/10/2006 and Lions on 11/25/2010 don’t count. Those are the two games the Patriots are missing.
 
What these games are being called is the other problem. ESPN’s John Clayton probably did the best job by writing that it was Brady’s 33rd game-winning drive and leaving comebacks out of it. Well, actually he wrote “33nd” and the editor missed it, but it was all in good faith, John.
 
Fox’s Thom Brennaman called the game and cited Brady’s “31 game-winning touchdown drives”, which is a new title he made up from God knows where. Isn’t he mostly a baseball announcer? He should still know field goals win games too.
 
For the record, Brady’s 33 game-winning drives consist of 14 field goals and 19 touchdowns. That doesn’t mean more of the games didn’t involve scoring touchdowns; it’s just the final go-ahead drive that broke down into that 14/19 split.
 
You can find articles from 1996 about the whole comebacks/semantics fiasco with Dan Marino and John Elway that was going on. Let’s try and nip this Brady one in the bud, Patriots.
 
Solution: Fortunately there’s an easy solution to this problem. Instead of trying to morph two stats into one or change the definition of a comeback, all you have to do is make one sentence. Tom Brady has 24 fourth quarter comebacks and 33 game-winning drives in his career. That’s all. The total list of games amounts to 34, but that is how they break down into comebacks and game-winning drives, which are two separate stats.
 
Final thoughts on Brady’s drive: it was deemed something you expected to see from Brady, because we’ve apparently seen it many times before. But just how many times have we seen Brady take the Patriots down the field in the last three minutes for a touchdown to win or tie the game?
 
Tom Brady's Late-Game Touchdown Drives
Date Opponent Down Time Start DL Brady Time End
10/14/2001 San Diego 7 2:10 60 5/8 for 60 yards, TD 0:36
11/10/2002 at Chicago 5 1:50 56 4/7 for 53 yards, TD 0:21
11/3/2003 at Denver 3 2:15 58 4/5 for 58 yards, TD 0:30
11/13/2005 at Miami 1 2:53 76 2/2 for 76 yards, TD 2:16
9/14/2009 Buffalo 5 1:56 31 3/3 for 31 yards, TD 0:50
10/16/2011 Dallas 3 2:31 80 8/9 for 78 yards, TD 0:22
 
The answer is now 6. This list includes Brady’s first comeback win in the NFL (San Diego), his largest comeback win (21 points vs. Chicago in 2002), and his return game from ACL surgery (assist to Leodis McKelvin).
 
Belichick was actually right on the money when he compared this Dallas drive to the one in Denver (the “intentional safety” game). The Patriots were down by 3 in both games, and each drive started and ended with similar times left. That was nearly eight years ago.
 
There were also five field goal drives in the last three minutes: three game-winners with the game tied, then two when the Patriots trailed by 3 points (including the “Tuck Rule” game).
 
This is a good example of why such drives shouldn’t be taken for granted. They are rare, and fans should learn to appreciate them.
 

New York Giants vs. Buffalo Bills
Winner: NY Giants (27-24)

Type: GWD
Quarterback: Eli Manning (16 4QC, 20 GWD – table)
 
It wasn’t quite Super Bowl XXV, but the Giants and Bills played a competitive game on Sunday, with the Giants improving to 4-2.
 
Ryan Fitzpatrick had another comeback in mind, tying the game with a 9-yard touchdown to Stevie Johnson. On his next drive, Fitzpatrick had Buffalo in field goal territory with the ball at the NYG 27.
 
Looking like he graduated from Slippery Rock rather than Harvard, Fitzpatrick made a poor decision to force a ball to Johnson, which was intercepted by Corey Webster with 4:02 left.
 
Eli Manning took over, and as he’s done often this season, he led the Giants down the field for the go-ahead score. Buffalos Drayton Florence, a hero in the game against New England this year, was flagged twice for defensive pass interference on the drive, including a 3rd-and-6 play.
 
Lawrence Tynes kicked the 23-yard game-winning field goal with 1:32 left.
 
Buffalo’s last chance ended quickly with a four and out, as they were unable to recapture the late-game magic they have shown. Their defense also failed to force a takeaway for the first time this season.
 
Eli Manning set the Giants’ franchise record with his 20th game-winning drive. He only completed one pass for 3 yards on the drive, but those two DPI penalties on passes intended for Hakeem Nicks gained 26.
 

Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers
Winner: Atlanta (31-17)

Type: 4QC/GWD
Largest Deficit: 3 (17-14)
Quarterback: Matt Ryan (10 4QC, 15 GWD – table)
 
Matt Ryan became the second Atlanta quarterback (Steve Bartkowski) to enter double-digit comebacks territory with a must-win game over the Panthers, who once again didn’t finish the fourth quarter.
 
Entering the week, the Panthers (-16 points differential, +310 net yards) actually had better statistics in points and yardage than Atlanta (-26 points differential, -225 net yards). Their problem has been the last 15 minutes of the game, and that was on display again.
 
Down 17-14 to start the fourth quarter, Michael Turner powered the Falcons into the red zone, setting up the 24-yard tying field goal by Matt Bryant.
 
A holding call derailed Carolina’s drive, setting Ryan up for the winning drive. Ryan was 3/5 for 53 yards, and scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 7:00 left. It was the third rushing touchdown of his career.
 
Cam Newton already has 6 rushing touchdowns this season. When he gets his 7th (likely the next game), look at some of the names he will have already tied for career rushing touchdowns: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Steve DeBerg, Jake Delhomme, Boomer Esiason, Bob Griese, Jim Kelly, and Joe Namath. He’s already passed a lot of prolific names.
 
But the stat Newton is not putting up is wins, and just as he’s had in every game this season, the opportunity was there to bring Carolina back. Newton led 7 game-winning drives for Auburn in their 2010 national championship season, but the NFL is a whole different beast, thus 1-5.
 
Newton attempted a screen pass, but DT Corey Peters surprised him to make the interception. Atlanta had a short field and was able to take much of the time off the clock as they added another touchdown to the lead for a 31-17 final.
 
While Newton is gaining valuable experience it these situations, he has yet to show the necessary killer instinct to finish the job. Should he improve on that, Carolina could find themselves back in the hunt as soon as 2012.
 

Top Comeback Failures of the Week

In a week where failure was far more obvious than success, there were several statistical lowlights on display.
 

Sean Payton Breaks Leg; Brees Breaks the Captain’s Heart

You go and praise a guy for his excellence in the fourth quarter last week, and then he immediately comes back with a game like the one Drew Brees had in Tampa Bay on Sunday. Brees did throw for 383 yards to set a record with four consecutive 350-yard passing games. He threw a touchdown pass to extend his consecutive games streak to 33.
 
But the problem is he threw three interceptions, none more costly than the last. Just when it looked like Brees was going to pull off another big comeback drive, he scrambled on a 4th and 2 at the Tampa 4 yard line and lofted an ugly pass into the end zone, right into the hands of LB Quincy Black. These are the kind of games Brees has avoided since 2009. These are the kind of games that have prevented him from winning MVP awards and taking that next step into the upper-echelon of quarterbacks.
 
One has to wonder how much coach Sean Payton was really seeing from the bench (later the booth) as he suffered a torn MCL and broken tibia during the game.
 

Hail Mary and Takeaway Hell

Both Tony Romo and Jaguars’ rookie Blaine Gabbert had Hail Mary opportunities at the end of the game. These are very low-percentage plays so it’s no big deal they didn’t work, but usually you see the quarterback at least give his team a chance with a throw into a crowd. Romo’s pass went harmlessly out of bounds. Gabbert’s was rarer, as the pass actually was thrown too far too fast, as no Jacksonville player was in any position to get to the ball. You have to at least give your receivers a chance here.
 
Something even stranger about the Jaguars/Steelers game was the fact that not only did both teams not have a turnover, but there wasn’t a single failed fourth down conversion. There have been four games this season where both teams combined for no turnovers, and the Steelers have played in two of them (Week 2 vs. Seattle).
 
Of course as we looked at in Week 4, Pittsburgh’s defense has been on a historically bad pace for takeaways. They have just two takeaways this season, which is the fewest by any team in the first six games of a season since 1940. The record for fewest takeaways in a 16-game season is held by the 2006 Washington Redskins, who had just 12 in a 5-11 season.
 

Colts Keep Losing

For the fifth game in a row (12th overall dating back to 2009), the Colts lost a game in which they had a comeback opportunity in the fourth quarter. They found some creative ways to do it this week (stifle yourselves, conspiracy theorists).
 
A once rare occasion, Adam Vinatieri had his game-tying field goal attempt blocked, albeit from 52 yards out. Then Pierre Garcon tried to one-up Ronnie Brown by trying a lateral (to an offensive lineman?), which resulted in a fumble and scoop & score for the Bengals. Curtis Painter finally threw his first interception of the season to put a bow on it.
 
The Colts are 0-6, and you will have a tough time finding any wins on their remaining schedule. 0-9 is a very likely start. They have not been getting blown out recently, but that’s not surprising.
 
Even the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that went 0-14 and could be considered the worst ever, still had 7 comeback opportunities in the fourth quarter. The 2008 Detroit Lions, the only team to ever go 0-16, had 9 games like that on their path to imperfection.
 
This is the NFL. Bad teams can still be competitive most of the time. But ultimately, bad teams keep finding ways to lose, and that’s what the 2011 Colts have been doing.
 

Packers Keep Winning

As was first mentioned on the Cold, Hard Football Facts last week, the Packers inched another game closer to tying the 1942-43 Washington Redskins for the longest winning streak in NFL history without trailing in the fourth quarter.
 
The easy 24-3 victory over the Rams was Green Bay’s 12th straight win, which puts them one game behind those great Washington teams. Based on the way Minnesota looked against Chicago and what could possibly be Christian Ponder’s first start, the Packers will have another good opportunity to tie the record.
 
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 most definitely doesn’t like Tom Brady, but does like getting stats correct. 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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