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What John Elway Really did Forty-Seven Times in His Career

Posted by Scott Kacsmar on November 30, 2010

This is a guest post by Scott Kacsmar. Thanks to Scott for sharing his comeback data with us on the site. A complete list of comebacks for quarterbacks is available on their player pages linked just above their passing stats. (Sean Forman)

When Brett Favre produces a comeback victory, the sports world is a flutter with excitement. Highlight reels of the winning drive are shown ad nauseam. Mariucci cries. Madden sweats. The sales of Crocs go up. Nothing says "Brett Favre's just having fun out there" more than a signature comeback win.

You are probably wondering why I am talking about Favre instead of John Elway. In case you missed it, Favre produced a 14-point comeback win in week 9 over the Cardinals for a thrilling 27-24 overtime victory, in which he passed for a career-high 446 yards. It was an unusual game as not only did Favre pass for more than 400 yards for just the second time in his 20-year career, but it was also the second time he has led a fourth quarter comeback from a deficit of more than 10 points. The last time he did that was his very first comeback win, the infamous 1992 game against Cincinnati when he replaced Don Majkowski and has started every game since. The difference is Favre was helped with a punt return TD that day. Against Arizona, Favre did all the heavy-lifting with two TD drives late in the final quarter.

Unfortunately the media was quick to call this the "46th comeback win" in Favre's career, meaning it could only be a matter of time before Favre is compared to Elway and the myth of 47. With permanent retirement following this season actually looking like a viable option for Favre, he may only have five games left to do it.

Except with Favre, these moments do come too few and far between. What mark would he actually set with another comeback win? He would have 31 in his career; enough to tie him with Joe Montana, but still trailing Elway (34), Johnny Unitas (34), Peyton Manning (35) and Dan Marino (36). As it stands, the Arizona win was Favre's 30th comeback victory. But more on Favre later.

Speaking of inflated comeback totals, NFL Films recently did a great ten-part mini-series on The Top 100 Greatest Players. Of the nineteen quarterbacks on the list, only Roger Staubach and Elway had numerical references to their ability to lead comebacks.

Staubach came in at #46. Over a year ago I mentioned Staubach had always been credited with 23 comebacks, but actually had 15. When the NFL Network did their "Top 10 Dallas Cowboys", they used the 23 number for Staubach. As I watched the video presentation of Staubach on the Top 100, it felt like a personal triumph when narrator Peter Coyote said "during an eleven-year NFL career Staubach led fifteen fourth quarter comeback victories." Fifteen. They got it. I had to rewind the DVR to make sure I heard it right. After all the years of sources as high as the Dallas Cowboys themselves saying 23, after using 23 on a recent top 10 show, they got it right with 15.

Naturally, I had high expectations for what was to come with Marino and Elway. If they can use 15 for Staubach, why not get the numbers right for those guys too?

Unfortunately, what happened made things worse. Watching the episode with players ranked 30-21, I did not expect to see the likes of Marino and Elway that low. Marino came in at #25 with no mention to his fourth quarter numbers. After John Hannah at #24, the program referenced the "king of comebacks" coming up next after commercial. I immediately groaned because I knew what was coming. Sure enough, after an intro by Marty Schottenheimer, the first thing out of the narrator's mouth is Elway and his "record" 47 comebacks.

I have to admit I was ticked off at that moment. How can you properly give Staubach 15 and then give Elway his inflated number of 47? That makes things look even worse. If you were watching this with no idea of the numbers, you would think "wow, Elway had 32 MORE comebacks than Captain Comeback? That's incredible!" The NFL contends there is no "official" record, yet the myth of 47 stands.

I will end the suspense now. Thanks to some new data I was able to research, I am going to give a new meaning to 47 for Elway.

What did John Elway really do forty-seven times in his career?

Forty-seven times he had the ball in the fourth quarter, down by one score, and did not win the game.

The famous number the Broncos used to represent his triumphs actually equals the amount of failures he endured. If that is not the definition of irony...

Ever since I first wrote about comebacks people wanted to see the opportunities, what the real comeback percentage was. It reminds me of the Michael Jordan Nike commercial where he talks about how many times he missed the game-winning shot. I completely understand. My response has always been that a lack of data makes it hard to do that for a large portion of NFL history. I have also stressed that the numbers of wins and losses do not give a full picture of the individual performance.

Comebacks/game-winning drives are just like other stats in football. Some are bigger or more impressive than others, such as a one-yard TD plunge versus an 80 yard scamper by Barry Sanders. Sometimes you get credit when you do not deserve it. Sometimes you get blame when you do not deserve it, similar to a dropped pass that turns into an interception for a QB. Stats can be deceiving (especially ones that are not standardized).

This gives Elway a record of 34-46-1 (.426) when trailing in the fourth quarter by one score with possession. That does not mean John Elway failed 47 times. The Broncos failed 47 times (you can find a list of these games at the end). On eight different occasions Elway led a go ahead scoring drive that would have given him a comeback win, but the defense surrendered the lead and they lost. That would be eight "lost comebacks", a relatively high number that would have given him 42 comeback wins. Several other times (seven to be exact) he led Denver into field goal range for a tying or winning kick and the kicker missed, also costing him potential 4QC/GWD's.

How does Elway's record of 34-46-1 stack up? I gathered the same data for Dan Marino and the results are eerily similar. Marino's record was 36-46 (.439), and he had seven lost comebacks. There was also another game, that I detailed in part 1, where Marino did have one possession in the fourth quarter down by a score, and he did not get any points. After the defense took the lead on an interception return, Marino later, with the game tied, led a game-winning FG drive. It was not a comeback win, but technically it is not a comeback loss either so I just keep games like this duly noted.

With Elway and Marino so close in record, how does Brett Favre measure up?

First, here's a post-Arizona game quote from Brett Favre on his play in crunch time:

"I feel like I flourish in those situations, maybe because of my mechanics or I'm willing to take chances maybe where other guys wouldn't," Favre said. "My track record has proven that. At that point in the game, you've got no other choice but to take chances. I feel like that's been my forte throughout my career."

I am willing to bet Favre a large sum of money (how does $20M sound?) that he has no idea what his track record actually is when it comes to making comebacks. Fortunately I am able to compile that. Unfortunately for Brett, the results are not pretty.

Favre's track record: 30-72 (.294), 9 lost comebacks, and 2 other games of note that were won on return TDs

Ouch. The worst part? 45 interceptions and 9 lost fumbles in those 72 losses (173 drives). That is almost one in every three drives ending with a Favre turnover. At the very least, Favre is absolutely right when he says he is willing to take chances.

Below is a table of stats for Favre, Elway and Marino.

* I included all their 4th quarter drives, whether they were trying to make a comeback or GWD, and whether or not the drive ended in points.
* Stats are only from drives with the game tied or a one score deficit.
* Playoffs included.
* Overtime included.
* Some stats will be from the 3rd quarter as long as the drive carried over into the 4th quarter of course.
* I gave splits between wins and losses to further show the degree of success and failure.
* Totals are there as well, and include Elway's tie plus Favre's two "other" games.
* Fumbles only include lost fumbles by the QB.
* Avg. time is an average of the time left in the game when the drive started.

QBTypeGPAttCmpPct.YdsYPATDINTRatingSkYdsRushYdsTDFumAvg. TimeDrivesPts/DriveYds/DriveTO/Drive
John ElwayWins4935723666.133809.47193110.91210633153229:091003.4244.50.05
John ElwayLosses5144423452.725325.7061956.44230248276367:431320.9124.20.19
John ElwayTotal10182248358.860157.32252380.05440884452588:162381.9733.00.13
Dan MarinoWins5143828565.139078.92278106.411721134019:141093.4845.30.08
Dan MarinoLosses5041722153.026916.45121567.7171231044048:301081.2828.90.18
Dan MarinoTotal10185550659.265987.72392387.6281952178058:522172.3837.10.13
Brett FavreWins4640025062.534268.5720898.2201182595218:361092.8439.60.08
Brett FavreLosses7562934254.438856.1894647.4392701568098:341790.9527.10.31
Brett FavreTotal123103759457.373287.07295466.960400401632108:352921.6431.50.22

When looking at the totals, Marino comes out on top statistically in practically every area that does not include running with the ball. Elway is comparable, while Favre leaves a lot to be desired. The large differentials in stats between wins and losses for all three are not much different than the usual drop you get from career wins and losses. Quarterbacks that play well usually win, and those that do not usually lose. The difference perhaps being larger here can probably be explained best by the limited sample size of drives and that success and failure late in the game is usually well-defined (lots of pass-productive scoring drives or QB turnovers).

Finally (because what good is something without proof?), here is the list of 47 games John Elway was unable to win in the 4th QT/OT (I placed an asterisk with the 8 lost comebacks):

LostCB Date Opp Outcome

9/18/1983 PHI L 13-10
* 11/13/1983 RAI (A) L 22-20

11/25/1984 SEA L 27-24

12/2/1984 KC (A) L 16-13

12/30/1984 PIT L 24-17

9/8/1985 RAM (A) L 20-16

9/29/1985 MIA L 30-26

11/24/1985 RAI (A) L 31-28 OT

11/9/1986 SD L 9-3

11/23/1986 NYG (A) L 19-16

9/20/1987 GB (A) T 17-17 OT

11/8/1987 BUF (A) L 21-14

9/18/1988 KC (A) L 20-13

12/4/1988 RAI (A) L 21-20

10/1/1989 CLE (A) L 16-13
* 10/29/1989 PHI L 28-24

12/10/1989 NYG L 14-7

9/9/1990 RAI (A) L 14-9

9/30/1990 BUF (A) L 29-28
* 10/8/1990 CLE L 30-29

11/18/1990 CHI L 16-13 OT

11/22/1990 DET (A) L 40-27

12/2/1990 RAI L 23-20

12/23/1990 SEA (A) L 17-12

9/8/1991 RAI (A) L 16-13

11/10/1991 RAI L 17-16

11/24/1991 SEA (A) L 13-10

10/25/1992 SD (A) L 24-21

10/10/1993 GB (A) L 30-27
* 10/18/1993 RAI L 23-20

11/14/1993 MIN L 26-23

12/26/1993 TB L 17-10
* 9/4/1994 SD L 37-34

9/11/1994 NYJ (A) L 25-22 OT

9/26/1994 BUF (A) L 27-20
* 10/17/1994 KC L 31-28

11/6/1994 RAM (A) L 27-21

9/24/1995 SD (A) L 17-6

12/10/1995 SEA L 31-27

12/17/1995 KC (A) L 20-17

9/22/1996 KC (A) L 17-14

10/19/1997 RAI (A) L 28-25
* 11/16/1997 KC (A) L 24-22

12/07/1997 PIT (A) L 35-24

12/15/1997 SF (A) L 34-17
* 12/13/1998 NYG (A) L 20-16

12/21/1998 MIA (A) L 31-21

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 30th, 2010 at 9:41 am and is filed under Best/Worst Ever, General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.