Some Clarification is in Order: "Clutch" Part 2: The 4th Quarter

This is the smile of the man many consider the most clutch man of the NFL (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

In the last discussion we had about clutch we mulled over and asked some questions about the nature of clutch. We discussed thoughts like:

- Can a quarterback, or any player, be consider clutch when he plays smart to protect a lead?
- Does the play of a player matter early when you judge them for being clutch?
- Does the situation matter when we judge someone as clutch or not clutch?

Between the article itself and the comments section there was a lot of very good discussion about the more vague, dare I say existential, side of being clutch. After doing all these interviews with members of the NFL, as well as the staffers here on Mile High Report, the little stat man inside me got restless, and while this wasn't my goal when I began this research, it came along for the ride. With that being said, I figured while many may feel this side of the research isn't really important to the study of clutch, I understand, but for those who do, I hope it's educational. I will be looking at a number of different metrics that are often associated with the term clutch.

This will only be looking at quarterbacks due to the massive nature of trying to look at every position, but it should be noted this type of study could have been done at any position, here are a few example:

- Defensive backs (interceptions of a game winning drive)
- Offensive lineman (sacks given up on 3rd down)
- Pass rushers (tackles for a loss on 3rd down)

So What Does it Mean to Be Statistically Clutch?

This is the real question, and after surveying a large group of NFL members and fans, I've compiled a list of what I looked at in this statistical side of the study:

  • 4th quarter comebacks
    - This one is most commonly associated with clutch, and while not perfect, should be included in any study
  • Improvement in the 4th quarter over the first three quarters
    - As mentioned above the 4th quarter is tied to the term clutch, and the level of play of a quarterback in the 4th compared to the first three should be looked at.
  • Performance on 3rd down
    - How a player performs on a 3rd down is key, and is one of the most pressure-filled situations in game.
  • Playoff numbers compared to regular season
    - This one is important because each game in the playoffs is high pressure, and improvement under these circumstances are a good sign.

Now there are other metrics some would use, but when surveyed, these were the ones that almost everyone felt was a good way to measure at least one side of clutch. Now remember this isn't meant to say someone is or isn't clutch, rather this is meant to show how people do under certain situations and then you can draw your own conclusions, though I will share my own thoughts, but it's fine to just ignore those.

Now we'll only be looking at the first metric today since doing all four in one article would take far too long, so we'll do one today and the next in the following articles. Let's get to it.

4th Quarter Comebacks:

When most fans think of clutch, it's almost always tied to the 4th quarter. Quarterbacks who play well and win a lot of games in the 4th are known as clutch, we saw this last season with quarterbacks like Eli Manning and Tim Tebow. During my survey I didn't find anyone who felt the 4th quarter was a bad representation of the clutch. But there is more than the simple number of 4th quarter comebacks often listed. We often hear Elway's, Marino's or Favre's total comeback numbers, and while those numbers are fun, they really are meaningless since they don't show how long it took to get those numbers. Take John Elway and Brett Favre for example, Elway has 34 recorded 4th quarter comebacks (not to be confused with a game winning drive which is when a team scores to break a tie to win a game) while Favre has 20 comebacks. Similar numbers, but Elway recorded his 34 comebacks in fewer games. Let's look at it this way:

- Favre: 30 comebacks in 298 games
- Elway: 34 comebacks in 231 games

So it's clear that Elway's comebacks are more impressive than Favre's because he did it in fewer games. This is just one of the ways I wanted to make the comeback a "smarter" or "better" statistic by putting it in context and perspective.The second way I wanted to examine the 4th quarter comeback and make the statistic better is to find the total opportunities of a 4th quarter comebacks. By looking at this we can see a success rate for the quarterback. Let's look at Elway and Favre again:

- Favre: 30 comebacks out of 88 opportunities for a 34.1% success rate
- Elway: 34 comebacks out of 84 opportunities for a 40.5% success rate

This additional statistic continues to refine and perfect what we are looking for. From just 4th quarter comebacks Elway and Favre we similar but Elway was slightly better. With the addition of viewing these comebacks out of total games we put it in perspective of their whole careers. Now we've included a success rate and we are getting an even clearer picture than we had before, Elway won 6% more often than Favre did over the course of their careers, and over a span that long, it matters. If Favre had Elway's success rate he'd have won nearly 6 more 4th quarter comebacks.

The next way I wanted to improve this statistic is by looking at Lost Comebacks, something that was mentioned in the original article. A Lost Comeback is when an offense drives and takes the lead, then either the defense or special teams give up a score and the offense never get the ball again, that is a Lost Comeback because the offense and quarterback did their part to win, and never got the chance again once another part of the team failed.

For example lets look at a fictional game between the Bengals and Browns. The Bengals are up 13-10, the Browns drive and score a touchdown with only 7 seconds left on the clock. On the kickoff the Bengals return the kick for a touchdown leaving no time left. That would count as a Lost Comeback. Now these are rare, most careers only see about 3-5. So by including lost comeback into our success rate we can get an adjusted success rate that includes games where the defense or special teams lost a lead the offense had. Back to Elway and Favre:

- Favre: 30 comebacks and 9 lost comebacks out of 88 opportunities for a 44.3% adjusted success rate
- Elway: 34 comebacks and 7 lost comebacks out of 84 opportunities for a 48.8% adjusted success rate

From this we see both Elway and Favre improve when we include Lost Comebacks, and while Elway still has the better adjusted success rate, Favre did close the gap by about 2%, due to 10.2% of his attempts ending in a Lost Comeback. This is about as perfect a picture of what is the best form of the 4th quarter comeback.

I've also included the number of 4th quarter comeback opportunities divided by total games too see how often the quarter back was in position to get comebacks. Last I included the number of comebacks divided by total games to see how big of a percentage the comebacks were in perspective of their career.

Now I've taken all these numbers from Pro-Football-Reference.com, the best football reference site on the web, and their comebacks are all found by going game by game rather than trusting the varying number that are found on the Hall of Fame, NFL, and other sources. They are the premier reference site on the web and are used by EPSN, Football Outsiders and a number of other big name media members. How they get their numbers are listed in these articles: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Here's how the table will be organized, with how it's displayed on the table in ():

- Games started (Games)
- 4th quarter comeback opportunities (4th Q CB Opport)
- 4th quarter comeback wins (4th Q CB)
- Lost 4th quarter comebacks (Lost 4th Q CB)
- Lost comebacks out of the total opportunities as a percentage (Lost CB as % of CB Opport)
- 4th quarter comeback success rate, comebacks divided by opportunities (4th Q CB SR)
- Adjust 4th quarter comeback success rate, includes lost comebacks (Adj. 4th Q CB SR)
- 4th quarter comeback opportunities out of total games, take the 4th quarter comebacks divided by games (4th Q CB opport % of games)
- 4th quarter comebacks out of total games (4th Q CB % of games)

I included the top 10 quarterbacks in total comebacks as well as a number of other quarterbacks (retired, veterans and young quarterbacks seen as clutch). So now that we've got that behind us, here is the table, and it will also be the first sortable table seen on MHR, I'm hoping that it works smoothly:

Name Games 4th Q CB Opport 4th Q CB Lost 4th Q CB Lost CB as % of CB Opport 4th Q CB SR Adj. 4th Q CB SR 4th Q CB opport % of games 4th Q CB % of games
Manning, P
208
71
35
6
8.5%
49.3%
57.7%
34.1%
16.8%
Marino
240
87
36
6
6.9%
41.4%
48.3%
36.3%
15.0%
Elway
231
84
34
7
8.3%
40.5%
48.8%
36.4%
14.7%
Favre
298
88
30
9
10.2%
34.1%
44.3%
29.5%
10.1%
Testaverde
214
98
29
4
4.1%
29.6%
33.7%
45.8%
13.6%
Tarkenton
239
76
30
5
6.6%
39.5%
46.1%
31.8%
12.6%
Unitas
186
61
36
4
6.6%
59.0%
65.6%
32.8%
19.4%
Montana
164
61
31
4
6.6%
50.8%
57.4%
37.2%
18.9%
Moon
203
73
26
6
8.2%
35.6%
43.8%
36.0%
12.8%
Bledsoe
193
71
24
3
4.2%
33.8%
38.0%
36.8%
12.4%
Kelly
160
46
22
4
8.7%
47.8%
56.5%
28.8%
13.8%
Fouts
171
54
24
3
5.6%
44.4%
50.0%
31.6%
14.0%
Brady
159
47
25
2
4.3%
53.2%
57.4%
29.6%
15.7%
Roethlisberger
113
41
20
2
4.9%
48.8%
53.7%
36.3%
17.7%
Brees
153
56
19
3
5.4%
33.9%
39.3%
36.6%
12.4%
Starr
158
39
19
5
12.8%
48.7%
61.5%
24.7%
12.0%
McNabb
161
51
17
6
11.8%
33.3%
45.1%
31.7%
10.6%
Manning, E
115
39
21
4
10.3%
53.8%
64.1%
33.9%
18.3%
Stabler
146
45
19
3
6.7%
42.2%
48.9%
30.8%
13.0%
Namath
130
34
16
1
2.9%
47.1%
50.0%
26.2%
12.3%
Griese, B
151
40
16
4
10.0%
40.0%
50.0%
26.5%
10.6%
Bradshaw
158
41
19
2
4.9%
46.3%
51.2%
25.9%
12.0%
Aikman
165
49
16
4
8.2% 32.7% 40.8% 29.7% 9.7%
Dilfer
113
41
14
2
4.9% 34.1% 39.0% 36.3% 12.4%
Romo
077
35
13
2
5.7% 37.1% 42.9% 45.5% 16.9%
Staubach
114
32
15
2
6.3% 46.9% 53.1% 28.1% 13.2%
Young, S
143
37
14
5
13.5% 37.8% 51.4% 25.9% 9.8%
Rivers
096
32
13
1
3.1% 40.6% 43.8% 33.3% 13.5%
Cutler
078
21
12
1
4.8% 57.1% 61.9% 26.9% 15.4%
Ryan
062
24
11
1
4.2% 45.8% 50.0% 38.7% 17.7%
Sanchez
047
15
09
1
6.7% 60.0% 66.7% 31.9% 19.1%
Smith, A
066
18
10
0
0.0% 55.6% 55.6% 27.3% 15.2%
Freeman
040
17
08
1
5.9%
47.1%
52.9%
42.5%
20.0%
Warner
116
37
09
4
10.8%
24.3%
35.1%
31.9%
7.8%
Orton
069
19
06
1
5.3%
31.6%
36.8%
27.5%
8.7%
Tebow
016
10
06
0
0.0%
60.0%
60.0%
62.5%
37.5%
Dalton
017
07
04
0
0.0%
57.1%
57.1%
41.2%
23.5%
Rodgers
062
21
03
3
14.3%
14.3%
28.6%
33.9%
4.8%
Skelton
011
06
05
0
0.0%
83.3%
83.3%
54.5%
45.5%
Graham, O
114
03
01
0
0%
33.3%
33.3%
2.6%
0.9%

Notes and Wrapping Up:

- While many young quarterbacks like Skelton and Tebow have incredible success rates, the longer a career goes, the lower that success rate goes, especially since Skelton, Tebow and Dalton technically have too few games to reach the minimum for a solid grouping, but I included them since they have generated so much attention recently. But if you look at the "real" veterans, those with over 100 starts, you begin to see how great Elway was, despite being middle of the road on the list.

- But if you don't want to look at the whole list, you can just compare some classic players like Elway, Marino and Montana to compare a few greats.

- Of Testaverde's 214 games, nearly half were games where he had to comeback, there is a reason his career record isn't that impressive.

- Some great quarterbacks aren't very good in those 4th quarter comebacks, Aaron Rodgers, Otto Graham and Kurt Warner are three examples.

- On that note some quarterbacks have had some bad luck when it comes to Lost Comebacks, Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young are two examples of this, both having over 13% of their comebacks ruined.

Hope this was entertaining and educational, as next time we'll be looking at how each quarterback played in the 4th quarter.

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