Thursday, February 10, 2011

How clutch are NFL QBs

[Ed. This post isn't about Michigan and stems from an argument I had with a friend about how clutch Ben Roethlisberger is. Since Time Warner Cable doesn't have a deal with the Big Ten Network yet, I had to listen to the NW game on MGoBlue and don't have anything to write about. In any case, I thought what I found here was interesting and decided to post it.]

A few days ago, one of friends mentioned that Ben Roethlisberger was on pace to become the "clutchest" QB in NFL history and that, regardless of the outcome, most of America expected him to march down the field in the Super Bowl and provide yet another game-winning drive. Per usual, I had my doubts. I wasn't convinced of Big Ben's late game heroics and thought that a stat like "game-winning drives" was kind of useless. A more important metric would be to look at how many times a QB is put into that situation and how many times he succeeds.

Finding out that statistic is a little less difficult than you might think (although it's still tedious). had a guest blog post a few years ago that looked specifically at a QBs game-winning drives, after which, they started tracking all game-winning drives by QBs.

There are a few caveats. First, there's a different between game-winning drives and 4th quarter comeback game-winning drives. In the former, teams can be tied in the fourth quarter and the QB can lead the team for the eventual score. The latter, however:
For it to be a 4th quarter comeback win, you must:
  • Win the game (no ties or losses)
  • Take the field with a 1--8 pt deficit (1--7 prior to 1994) and score as an offense (no fumble return TD to win the game)
  • It does not have to be the final winning score (hence, that applies to the number of game-winning drives)
Fairly simple. In my opinion, these are the real drives that indicate a QBs clutchness. Driving when you're tied with the opposition is one thing, but knowing you need to score (and with the other team knowing you need to score) is something entirely different.

For this study, I established similar criteria. For a loss to count against a QB's "clutch rating":
  • the QB must finish the game
  • team must be trailing in the fourth quarter from 1-8 points
  • loss between 1-8 points (unless there was a pick-6 thrown/fumble recovery for TD in a potential clutch drive)
  • the drive(s) in question must start with more than one minute left in the game
  • missed field goals or other mistakes not caused by the QB (e.g., RB fumbles) still count against their score 
  • overtime losses in which you had the ball count against clutch rating. Overtime losses in which the QB doesn't have the ball are not counted
The first criteria is obvious: The QB needs to have the opportunity to be clutch. The second and third are simple: there needs to be a chance for the game to be tied or won during the fourth quarter. I also removed all drives that began with less than one minute remaining in the game. With less than one minute in an NFL game, it is incredibly difficult to mount any sort of substantial drive. So for good or bad, those were removed.

Drives that ended in a missed game-winning field goal or RB/WR/TE fumble also count against the QB. This may not be entirely fair to the QBs in question, but the main point of this is to get a metric by which we can compare them to each other. Given how much of these drives are the result of plays by the skill position players and kickers anyway, the QBs will get dinged when their teammates fail. And in overtime, the immediacy with which you can lose amplifies the situation. Truly clutch QBs will score in OT.

With that in mind, I took a handful of active QBs and looked at every loss they incurred throughout their careers* in order to get some sort of metric for where Roethlisberger stands in the grand scheme of clutchiness. I have two elite QBs (Tom Brady and Peyton Manning) and three QBs that are at or near league average (Tony Romo, Chad Pennington, David Garrard). Brady and Manning were included because they appear on the original list of QBs with the most comeback victories. The other three were selected by me with no real rhyme or reason. I assumed Pennington and Garrard would constitute the middle of the pack and Romo would probably be a stepping stone to the elites.

The biggest issue with this whole approach is sample size. The amount of times QBs are put in the position to lead a 4th quarter comeback game-winning drive are pretty small, as you'll see. But most of the quarterbacks had at least two or three of these in each season in which they played a significant amount. Remember, these are the numbers since 2002 and beyond, so Brady and Manning's numbers a) should likely both be a bit higher and b) are not complete:

QB Total attempts 4th quarter comeback game-winning drives Clutch rating
Tom Brady 25 18 72%
Peyton Manning 40 25 62.50%
Ben Roethlisberger 29 18 62%
Tony Romo 16 9 60%
David Garrard 26 11 42.30%
Chad Pennington 24 7 29.16%

The first thing you notice is that, damn, Tom Brady is who you want as a QB when you're down in the fourth quarter. He wins almost 3 out of every 4 games in which his team has been trailing between 1-8 points in the fourth quarter. The next thing you notice is that Roethlisberger has a really high clutch rating, nearly as high as Manning's. If ESPN had stats for games before 2002, my guess is that Manning's would be somewhere around the high 60%s and may even approach the 70%s, but that's all speculation. Romo is also very high though he doesn't have nearly the reputation that the three above him do for being a comeback kid.

On the other end of the spectrum, Pennington has a woeful success rate. Garrard is probably hovering around where the rest of the league is. I don't really have the time or energy to uncover more players clutch rating, but I would venture that most of the league is somewhere in the 35-50%.

In the end, this shows as much about the kinds of games teams are playing in as it does the quarterbacks themselves. For example, Roethlisberger has played in more of these games than Brady has despite being in the league less time. But since these drives (and wins) are attributed to the QBs, so too should the losses. If anything, this gives us a slightly better indication of who can make their respective offense move when it really counts. If nothing else, it's a better method than basing your understanding of a QBs clutchness on total comeback wins alone.

*Unfortunately, because ESPN only has play-by-play analysis of games dating back to 2002, Brady has 4 clutch game-winning drives removed and Manning has 9. These are not insignificant numbers due to a relatively small sample size. And while they would almost certainly improve each's clutch drive percentage, the respective QBs seasons prior to 2002 were very likely also filled with games that would hurt that percentage.


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