Some Clarification is in Order: What Does "Clutch: Mean?

Peyton Manning represents the duality of clutch, despite having among the best 4th quarter comeback success, has had troubles in the post-season. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

The term "clutch" is one of the most hotly debated topics when it comes to sports, and especially since we had one of the most contentiously debated "clutch" players in recent years (Tim Tebow) and he was replaced by a player who some consider clutch and others think is anti-clutch (Peyton Manning). The topic of the "clutch" has many sides to it, it's vague, yet has a defined meaning to each person, though that meaning varies from person to person. Last off-season I looked at a term with similar issues when I did my study on the "IT factor."

While I was able to cover my look at the IT factor in one, albeit long, post, my research was much longer this time. In today's post I will be looking to discuss some basics about how we view sports, since this segment of the research applies to more than just football, as how they apply to the clutch. I'll be drawing on interviews with players, coaches and GM's so that we may get a better understand of how they view the clutch.

The next two articles in this series will cover the more specific measurables of the clutch, because one thing we'll discover is that having the "clutch gene" is useless unless it turns into actual production. This is why there are two parts to this term, the concept of what is "clutch" and the measurable nature of the "clutch." The fantastic and wise staffer Jeremy Bolander helps us begin the conversation:

I would personally start by telling myself that I would not apply the concept of clutch if some other concept covered the same ground and was already quantified or qualified. I would explore any situation where the combination of two or more concepts gave rise to a need for a clutch concept.

It is a concept used (perhaps too promiscuously) in any sport. To the degree that it can be quantified, I would limit myself to football data, however I would be cognizant of other sports or situations and hope to keep true to an essential nature for the concept that isn't tripped up just by crossing a boundary between sports.

QUESTION 1: Do you feel that the term "clutch" is already covered in another sports concept?

With that said, let's begin to look at the foundation for the need for the word "clutch." I will be asking a few questions that I've thoughts a lot about during this research and would love your input since there really is no end-all opinion on this topic and I'd love to hear your thoughts on these questions, which will be in BOLD.

Clutch and The Questions Surrounding It:

The word clutch has a variety of meanings, but it is always tied, etymologically, to the word choke. They are opposites in the purest sense, but not always in the view of some. In the most basic sense to be clutch means to succeed in tough times while to choke means to fail when things are hard. Yet while these two terms can be tied individuals or groups, they seem completely separated from the individual and tied to the result, not the production. So say two teams are playing each other, there will likely be one winner and one loser, but there will not always be one clutch team/person and one choking team/person. If a team plays bad the whole game and lose, they didn't choke, they just struggled (unless they needed to get into the playoffs, but that's another topic for later). To choke implies that there was a lead that was lost or a sense of victory that was almost achieved. The same can be said for clutch, a team can win, but if they were ahead the whole time, they don't receive the title of clutch. This is where I begin to question how fans use these terms.

The Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said:

Aaron Rodgers has been such a great quarterback for us, but in a different sense than past QB's the Packers have had, like Favre for examples. Both great QB's, but different because of how things in the league are progressing. Often what we saw from Favre and the Packers in the 1990's was a strong offense that didn't need to do as much because they were tasked to just keep up since they had such talented defenses and then near the end of the game, they were told to go out and either a. pound the ball or b. rely on Brett's arm to go and win that game. Because of that game method Favre is considered among the greatest clutch quarterbacks ever.

Then you have Aaron (Rodgers). A guy I consider as talented as Brett (Favre) but this team isn't the same as it was in the 1990's. We still field a great defense, but the way Mike (Holmgren) went out and play is different than how we do it. With the talent in the NFL now, we feel we can't risk playing at the level of our competition for most of the game, no offense to Brett and Mike, their record and ring speaks for themselves. Going into the game seeking to just score again and again may seem like it should be the norm, but it's not really that easy to execute, hence why some coaches and teams use different styles to succeed, and win. Because that is how we game plan, a high powered offense and a bend not break mentality on defense, we are able to drive up the score rapidly and because of that we are almost never behind. Over the past three years no team has the score margin we do at the 4th.

So does that make Aaron less clutch than Brett, no way, the ability to close a game when you are ahead is just as key as winning a game when you are behind. Both result in a win and if either fails, it results in a loss, so why is one more important than the other? Brett was great for all four quarters, but that greatest showed more in the 4th since they often had a close game near the end because of their coaching. Aaron is great for all four quarters but since the game isn't close, he's not clutch, yea I don't buy into that mentality. The great quarterbacks play great on almost ever down and game, doesn't matter if it's the playoffs or pre-season.

Now he brings up some great points here about the nature of the clutch and choke ideals. To him, and many other coaches, to be clutch isn't just being great in the 4th, a clutch QB closes a game when he's ahead, he plays smart when his team is leading and is the one getting them out to the lead. If needs be he can lead his team back, but that's not the definition of clutch. He later said:

Can I take a moment to say, how does clutch apply to greatness in the understanding of the fans? You want 4th quarter comebacks to determine greatness? Otto Graham, one of the greatest players ever, had one his whole career, yea one. Hall of Fame, seven championships, and the best record of any quarterback and he has one comeback.

New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin echoed similar words this past off-season:

When you look at Eli, he's been a project in the best sense of the word. A young, talented and smart player who needed to grow. This growth is what has helped him become great, into what he is now. When you talk clutch to me I just scratch my head. Eli had seven comebacks in the 4th quarter this season, lead the league or around there I think. But that isn't what's impressive to me, what makes me say "wow he can play, I want him on my team" is that he can rally a tired and broken team in the 2nd quarter of week three as well as during the Super Bowl. Leadership isn't in the 4th quarter, it's in every minute of the game, on the sidelines studying or in the huddle. Consistency impresses me, not a hot flash in the 4th quarter.

QUESTION 2: Can a quarterback, or any player, be considered clutch if he makes plays to conserve a lead?

I could say my part, but I'll let another great coach talk for me, take it away Tony Dungy:

*Laughs* yea I had a clutch quarterback once, *laughs* but that's not how Peyton describes himself. He gets on himself and guys who only show up on 3rd down, he's like "where were you guys the last two downs, could have saved me the breath." He and I, well anyone really for that matter, don't care about just the 4th quarter, if you struggled all game with your tackling and came up with a huge 3rd down stop on the final drive, I'll cheer, jump around and hug you, but then come practice on Wednesday, you are working out with the practice squad for a day, you can't play poorly and expect us coaches to forget all those bad times because of one good play, doesn't work that way. I'll be proud of the good, but you got the prove you can do that every down, every game before you get my true respect.

It comes down to individuals that affect the team. If Trent (Dilfer) went out on Sunday and struggled. Didn't make his throws, struggled with his reads, and we won. He wasn't out there celebrating the next week, he knew what I expected of him, he had to improve, the team won, he didn't. If he fixed his play, came out and had a great game that following week and the team lost, he would feel bad personally and try and improve, but when he and I would talk, I would say he did his part. That's clutch to me, doing your job despite everything around you. If you did your job that week, whether it was holding the ball on the extra point or taking one snap at safety or every snap at tackle, you do your job, and no matter the result, I'm happy with you. That's clutch. Look at Warrick Dunn Warren (Sapp), Hardy (Nickerson) or Derrick (Brooks), they were around for a lot of down years, but they did their jobs every game, they were clutch, even if the team didn't win.

You do your job every down, every game, that's clutch, win or lose.

Cleveland Browns front office guru Mike Holmgren had a few thoughts as well:

When I look at guys I've worked with in the past, let's look at Colt (McCoy), Brett (Favre) and Matt (Hasselbeck). Three totally different guys, in terms of size, skill set and personality. Brett and Matt are goofs, but Brett is deadly serious when it comes down to it while Matt never really got serious. Colt is totally different, in the locker room, practice or in the huddle, he can look around, analyze the feelings of a group and then say or do just the right thing to motivate those around him. That quite, insightful leader. In a film prep, he will sit quietly as Jake (Delhomme) is breaking it down, and maybe once or twice an hour will just make one comment that will make everyone sit up and say "wow, he saw that?" He'll just observe and then when he feels he has something key, he'll say it. Brett and Matt would just chat the whole session, half the time about football the other half about anything else. Three different players, three different methods of leadership, and all three to me are clutch in that they know how to lead under pressure. You see this from (Peyton) Manning and (Tom) Brady and their passion to Donovan (McNabb), who is like Brett, and Eli (Manning) who has that quiet leadership under pressure.

QUESTION 3: Does a players production early matter, and does it relate to their "clutchness?"

At this point I was beginning to see a trend, but I kept researching and found a few more good thoughts. The first comes again from Jeremy, who says situational awareness is especially important to the idea of clutch:

So it appears that the win overall favors the QB, however, what if this play is a key play, and is in favor of the defense, and could reduce but not eliminate the QBs leverage (credit). So in terms of QB play, he would be anti-clutch, in that he performed (very) poorly (assuming the INT was the result of a missed read or inaccurate pass or bad decision) in a situation where he had little margin for error. However in terms of the win, this was not an opportunity to be clutch, since even with this most dismal failure to execute, he is still favored to win. So a neutral or "not applicable" status would accompany a "win clutchiness" metric here.

What if he had converted with a 9 yard pass into FG range, in bounds, on this play? Clearly his situational QB play would be considered clutch, since the odds were against him. However he would still have a neutral or NA status in terms of win clutchiness, since he merely went from leveraged to more leveraged. A clutch play has to start from a disadvantaged position. One could probably set up the ratio so that it returned varying levels of clutchiness, rather than a yes/no break point, which would be pretty informative. Thus this QB might get some clutch credit for the play, but very little compared to someone who HAD to make that play or game over. There might be some risk there to a relevant clutch stat, but I don't know.

What if this same QB and situation were set against a 2 point deficit rather than lead? At 1:12 with 3rd and 8 (let us also add no timeouts) this play is very likely a make or break play, and is highly likely to be a pass, since the defense is leveraged situationally as well as for the win. An INT in this case is both anti-clutch for winning and for positional efficacy. A first down scores well as a clutch play in both categories as well. A TD would be very clutch, since it basically flips the situation over to a leveraged winning situation for the QB.
QUESTION 4: How does the way a defense play affect the way you view a players "clutchness?" (Playing prevent defense vs lots of blitz's vs etc)

QUESTION 5: Should things outside a players control affect how you view them? (Team talent, opposing defense game planning, etc)

To sum that up, the same pass in three varying situations sheds different light on the credit he receives. The coverage could be the same, the pass rush could be the same and the routes could be the same, but because of the situation, should a player receive more credit?


QUESTION 6: Should the situation be the main focus of how we view "clutchness?"

A Quick Survey of Players and Coaches:

Now I had the chance to participate in a survey where players and coaches answered a number of questions, while I won't show the whole survey due to length a copyright issues, but here are a few excerpts of the survey:

Q: Is the ability to make a clutch play tied to the 4th quarter exclusively?

Yes No
Player 73% 27%
Coach 81% 19%


Q: Is someone's "clutchness" tied to a single play or their play throughout a game, season or career?

Single Play Long Term
Player 11% 89%
Coach 3% 97%


Q: Is winning required to receive the title of clutch?

Winning Required Not Required
Player 39% 61%
Coach 37% 63%

Clutch, How it Changes a Players Career:

The last topic of discussion is how often a players career is almost always focused around a handful of events that shape how we view them, both for the good and bad. A few examples:

- Everyone knows Bill Buckner's huge error in the 1986 MLB postseason, but almost nobody remembers that he had a very solid career outside of that one moment.
- Frank Reich's unbelievable comeback (possibly the greatest comeback ever) where he lead the Bills over the Oilers in the 1992 playoffs, then he really never did anything else.
- Tony Romo fumbling the snap in his first playoff game back in 2007 has shaped his legacy despite being one of the best quarterbacks in the 4th quarter.
- Dan Marino will always have the moniker attached to him for not winning that Super Bowl but he is considered by former players and coaches as one of the most clutch quarterbacks in history.
- Similarly Brett Favre has a mixed view among fans compared to those connected to the NFL. Favre ended his time with three different teams with three different interceptions, and that haunts him, but he also has one of the lowest interception rates in the 4th quarter.
- Anyone who say Leon Lett's mistake against the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl where he recovered a fumble and was running it back for a touchdown (impressive for a lineman) and got cocky on the return and on the 1 yard line he was caught from behind and the ball was stripped. This resulted in a touchback for Buffalo. Overall it was a bad play for the Bills when the ball was stripped, but in the end, due to the hustle of a forgotten player (Don Beebe) it turned out great, despite that they game was out of reach.

The Lett-Beebe is a great segway into my next questions.

QUESTION 7: How do things we say when you consider Don Beebe's forced fumble apply to the term "clutch?" (effort, the game being out of reach, etc)

QUESTION 8: How often does one good/bad play affect how you view a players' career?

And Now a Word From Our Staffers:

To conclude I wanted to share a few thoughts some of the staffers had on the topic:

Tim Lynch:

Elway lost, but was always considered clutch. Same with Montana. Stats will not be able to define clutch. It's an intangible. A person either has an intensely strong desire to win and the will to pull it off. You cannot quantify that, you can only witness it. Over time, of years, people realize this guy has it.

It's a psychological effect that one person can have on a group of people (even opposing players). When Elway had the ball late with the game on line, the opposing team believed he would do it. That is really dangerous. It almost becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Neil Smith's famous quote in 1997 to Elway after he joined the Broncos, "The same shit you did to me for 9 years, alright!?"

It should be (about the playoffs)... driving 87 yard in the Super Bowl for a TD pass to win the game with 13 seconds left is pretty clutch. aka, Joe Montana.

Brian Shrout:

I think to get to people's idea of clutch you're going to have to get a handle on all of the given individual's presuppositions about what makes a good QB. But even with the coaches, you're going to have the same issue. Each coach will have his own set of criteria of what makes a good QB.

Personally, I think "clutch" like "franchise QB" can only be defined after the fact, looking back at the body of a player's career.

Kirk Davis:

It is like trying to define "Franchise QB or player" or "Gamer." Simply players that can rally their team for a comeback. Really you could make a list of all the players who you think possess that quality and then study it for characteristics. I mean, look at Joe Namath. Then look at Terry Bradshaw. Not that similar. One could argue that Bradshaw had a team built around him and he was merely a part of it. Joe Montana too. Bur Namath was Davis to Unitas' Goliath

To wrap up, this was more meant as an exploratory post to see how coaches, players and writers felt about the term "clutch" and "choke." There are such a variety of beliefs held among fans I wanted to see how those tied closely to sports felt about the terms. I hope this article was educational as to seeing how athletes and players view what it means to be "clutch."

The second part of this study and research will look more into different ways to quantify the term, looking at things like playoff success, 4th quarter comebacks and if a player gets better or worse in crunch time. For those who made it through this, thanks and hope you learned something and please feel free to answer the questions I put in BOLD, because I would love to hear what Mile High Report thinks about the situation.

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