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Quarterbacks and fourth quarter comebacks, Part II

Posted by Doug on August 7, 2009

A continuation of Scott Kacsmar's guest post from yesterday (here is the link to Part I)....

Last time we looked at 4th quarter comebacks for Dan Marino (the "new king of the 4th quarter comeback") and John Elway. Now we’re going to look at creating a
clear-cut definition of what a 4th quarter comeback is, what a game-winning drive is, and how other QBs have been tracked, and developing a standard for all teams to follow.

The ideal 4th quarter comeback analysis would be to:

1. Identify the games where a comeback (from a 1--8 pt deficit) was possible: this gives you all successes and failures. Just telling me a QB has 10 comebacks does not mean a whole heck of a lot. But if you tell me he has 10 comebacks in 13 comeback opportunities, I can probably say he’s doing a great job. If he has 10 comebacks in 30 opportunities, he might be someone only as good as Jon Kitna.

2. Identify the situation of the drive: time it started and ended, starting field position, number of timeouts, etc. Not all comebacks/drives are created equal. It’s a lot harder to come back from a 4-8 pt deficit with 30 seconds and no timeouts than it is to start the 4th quarter on the 1-yard line, down by a point.

3. Collect the drive statistics: attempts, completions, yards, length and number of plays, etc. Just your usual QB statistics. Obviously going 8/8 for 80 yards and a TD beats going 1/5 for 8 yards to set up a long FG.

4. Create advanced statistics to better understand performance: average deficit, average yards to go, average time left, points per drive, percentage of 3-and-outs, turnover likelihood, “blown saves”, etc. Along with having the number of successes and failures, this would be the most useful part of comeback
analysis. This is how you can begin to answer who’s really the biggest choker in the league. Unfortunately you need solid play-by-play data here, so the number of seasons you can obtain this type of data is greatly limited.

The problem is that we’re still stuck in stage one after all these years. Due to a semantics argument/hiccup/tie-up, no one is able to agree on a consensus definition of what a 4th quarter comeback or game-winning drive in the 4th quarter/overtime is.

Take a look at this game for Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots trailed 13-10 to start the 4th quarter. They got a FG to tie it, later a FG to win it. 4th quarter comeback for Drew right? Well, a look at the play-by-play shows the final play of the 3rd quarter was a failed 3rd down conversion by the Patriot offense. The first play of the 4th quarter was a 21 yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri on 4th down. That means Bledsoe and the offense never took the field in the 4th quarter with a deficit, therefore no comeback opportunity. It’s a game-winning drive only. I do have a fear that for seasons without play-by-play data on the net that these types of things can happen once in a while where the first play of the 4th quarter is a tying/go-ahead FG.

Let’s stick with another Bledsoe example. This time, it’s a game from 1995.
The game was tied at 14 to start the 4th QT. After Bledsoe leads a FG drive, Boomer Esiason throws a TD for a 21-17 Jets lead. On the ensuing kickoff, Dave Meggett fumbles, but sure-handed teammate Troy Brown is there to scoop up the ball and return it 75 yards for a TD and 24-21 lead. Ty Law intercepts Boomer, Curtis Martin puts it away with a 1-yard TD run. Bledsoe should not get credit for a comeback, as it was purely a special teams play that erased the one deficit they had in the quarter. But, by virtue of his FG drive when it was tied at 14, he is credited with a 4th quarter win.

So it can admittedly get confusing. There is a situation that happens once in a blue moon that confuses
even me. What do you do with a game like this one? (And it’s purely coincidental that I reference a game involving Miami and Denver)

The Dolphins trailed 10-0 to start the 4th quarter. Marino’s successor, Jay Fiedler, already was driving the offense into the redzone when the quarter began. Fiedler throws the 11-yard TD pass to Chris Chambers to make it a 10-7 Denver lead. On the ensuing drive, Elway’s successor, Brian Griese, is intercepted for a TD and a 14-10 Miami lead that they never give up. Denver fumbles the kickoff, which Miami turns into another TD for a 21-10 final.

Does Fiedler get credit for a comeback? He did lead the initial TD drive, which if he did not, Miami may never win the game. It is obviously not a game-winning drive, as the defense scored the winning points. However, Fiedler never took the field with a tie or 1-8 point deficit. Is it a comeback you give him credit for? I lean towards yes, but I’m not as confident with this type of situation as I am the others.

What makes this really interesting is Brian Griese never even got the opportunity to lead a comeback from a 1-8 pt deficit because of the fumbled kickoff. Yet the whole reason they were down in the first place was his pick 6 thrown with the lead. That is a mind-bender of an example, and I do not want to see too many
of those kind.

What can we do to define a 4th quarter comeback once and for all? I’m going to lay out several steps to follow when analyzing a game to see if it’s a comeback/game-winning drive.

1. The game in question was a victory: This is the easiest part of tabulating comebacks. You only need to look at games won (you can look at losses if you’re trying to get the number of opportunities, but that’s more time consuming and especially difficult prior to the play-by-play era). When it comes to ties, I think they are worth a look. If it was prior to 1974 (the season the NFL instituted overtime), they could mean more than post-OT ties. For example, this game with Joe Namath was a pretty impressive 4th quarter performance. Down 24-7, he threw two TD passes and led a tying FG to preserve a 24-24 tie instead of a sure defeat. That is a lot better than the tie we looked at in Elway’s
career. But generally, we’re looking at QBs in the OT-era, and a tie doesn’t cut it in today’s game.

2. Some type of offensive scoring drive put points on the board in the 4th quarter while the team trailed by one possession or were tied: It is ok if the
drive started in the 3rd quarter; as long as it finished in the 4th with the offense still on the field (this eliminates the Bledsoe/Cincinnati situation). It is ok if it’s a FG or TD, as long as the offense was on the field for it. It is ok if it’s in overtime.

3. There can be a difference between a comeback and game-winning (GW) drive: FOR IT TO BE A COMEBACK, THE OFFENSE MUST OVERCOME A DEFICIT. Trust me; the importance of that statement justifies the usage of the caps lock. Not all comebacks are GW drives, not all GW drives are comebacks. If you never trailed in the 4th quarter, but the game is tied and you lead a drive to win the game, that is a GW drive, not a comeback. I’ll use the reigning champion 2008 Steelers as an example, considering they’re recent and six of their 19 games played were won in this fashion.

In their first meeting against the Ravens, the Steelers led 17-13 to start the 4th quarter. They added a FG, then Baltimore tied the game at 20 with a TD. In OT, the Steelers drove for the game-winning FG.

RESULT – Game-winning drive (OT), not a comeback

Against the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers trailed 13-3 to start the 4th quarter. They added a FG to cut the deficit to 13-6. Roethlisberger then completed 4 passes for 57 yards and the tying-TD to Heath Miller. On the very next drive, Tony Romo was intercepted by Deshea Townsend for the winning TD in a 20-13 victory.

RESULT – 4th Quarter Comeback, not a game-winning drive.

In Super Bowl 43, the Steelers blew their 20-7 lead and found themselves trailing 23-20 in the final 2:30. Roethlisberger led the historic TD drive, capped off with Holmes’ game-winning catch for a 27-23 victory.

RESULT – 4th Quarter Comeback and game-winning drive.

Those are three different examples of the types of 4th quarter wins you can achieve, and with the help of boxscores, play-by-play and newspaper articles/archives, it should not be that difficult to classify them.

Checklist of questions to ask:

Did the team win the game?

- If the answer is no, then move onto the next game.

Did the QB ever have the ball in the 4th quarter or overtime with a tie or deficit of 1--8 pts?

- If the answer is no, then move onto the next game.

Did the winning team ever trail in the 4th quarter?

- If the answer is no, then this cannot be a comeback.

Did the offense produce the winning points or was it a return by the defense/special teams?

- If the answer is yes, then it’s a game-winning drive (and if there was a deficit, a comeback).

- If the answer is no, then the QB/offense does not get credit unless they did something to force a tie or get a lead at some point.

Did the offense produce a tying drive and then watched the defense/special teams score the winning points?

- If the answer is ‘yes’, then it’s a comeback, but not a game-winning drive.

All of these types of drives are positives for the offense and QB in question. Winning a game that is tied may not be as impressive as overcoming a deficit, but if you never make the plays to do it, that game may result in a loss. I think all of these kinds of drives and comebacks should be bunched together into one collection of games, and we can call them something like “4th Quarter/Overtime Wins” or “Wins Decided in the 4th Quarter/Overtime”. Then in addition to that total number, we can say how many of those wins were comebacks. That is what I did with Marino & Elway in part I. I said Marino had 51 overall wins and 36 were comebacks, while Elway had 49 & 34 (50 & 35 if you want to count that tie).

When the networks decide to show just how many comebacks/GW-drives Eli Manning has when that situation comes up in a game, they can display two numbers: 14 wins, 12 comebacks. This lets the viewer know how many comebacks he has, how many times he only had to break a tie, and overall how many times he’s come through in this drive situation they’re about to see unfold.

A popular term some teams use in their media guides are "game-saving" drives. This would be fine if everyone else was on board with it and counted games the same way. But there is no standardization and teams can basically count whatever they want. My method would provide structure. It would keep things on an even level.

Let me just state that John Elway (or any other QB) did not do anything wrong here. To the best of my knowledge, he did not instruct the Broncos to count any game they could as a comeback. The Broncos were allegedly the first team to keep track of comebacks after being asked by fans how many comebacks Elway had in the 80’s. Other teams followed suit for their star QBs, but not everyone used the same definition of a comeback. The following is a table that shows how various teams calculated comeback totals differently for some popular QBs. Using my methods to track these games, I put my actual number of comebacks up against the widely reported figure.

QB                 Reported     Actual
John Elway              47        34
Brett Favre             42        27
Dan Marino              37        36
Peyton Manning          37        28
Drew Bledsoe            32        24
Joe Montana             31        31
Johnny Unitas           31        34
Tom Brady               28        20
Roger Staubach          23        15
Ben Roethlisberger      19        15
Chad Pennington          7         7
Jay Cutler               7         5

The very first question you may ask is, "why are Chad Pennington and Jay Cutler on that list?" It’s just to show that the Dolphins and Broncos are staying true to form in their tabulations. The Broncos have no problem mentioning games that broke ties, while the Dolphins only focus on true comebacks.

Ben Roethlisberger already having 15 legit comebacks in five seasons is pretty impressive. If he can stay healthy and the Steelers continue their winning ways, he could be a threat to challenge the record holder (which is Elway, should be Marino, probably will be Peyton) some day. In the 2008 Steelers media guide, they list Ben as having 13 game-winning drives in the 4th QT/OT (12 reg. season, 1 postseason). Yet in the press release for Super Bowl 43, they say Roethlisberger had 5 during the 2008 season for a total of 17. Either they forgot to count the postseason one they had in the media guide, or they don’t want to count the postseason. With his drive against Arizona, Ben has 19 overall 4th quarter wins and 15 comebacks.

Roger Staubach was known as 'Captain Comeback', but he must have built that legacy squarely on an amazing comeback off the bench in the playoffs in 1972, and the Hail Mary to Drew Pearson against Minnesota three seasons later. He only had 15 comebacks, while every site says 23. I did locate those 23 games, and found that the Cowboys never trailed 8 times (interestingly enough 7 of the 23 games were against the Cardinals). Even the Cowboys’ official site says Staubach led 23 come-from-behind wins in the 4th quarter when they selected him the #1 Cowboy ever. My apologies to Captain Comeback and his fans, but the facts do not justify the moniker. Terry Bradshaw, a rival QB of Staubach’s, had 19 comebacks (four in the postseason). And not to stick the knife in deeper, but Troy Aikman had 16 comebacks in his career. I do not know where Danny White ranks, but Tony Romo is at 6 and counting.

I already talked about a couple Drew Bledsoe games. Now let’s look at Mr. Patriot himself, Tom Brady. Now frame this, as this will be the only time you see me defend Tom Brady. According to his Patriot bio, in the Giants victory that made New England 16-0, Brady “led the Patriots to victory after trailing in the fourth quarter for 28th time of his career.” Not true, as 9 times they never trailed. I have 29 games for Brady, but for some reason sources do not count the first game of the 2006 season against Buffalo. Trailing 17-14 to start the 4th quarter, Brady led a tying FG drive. On the ensuing drive, J.P. Losman was tackled for a safety and the Patriots won 19-17. If you’ve understood everything so far, you know that this is a 4th quarter comeback (but not a GW drive). How is this any different than one of those Elway games where Elway ties it and they return a blocked FG for a TD in overtime to win the game? It’s the same situation, yet Brady gets no credit for that game. He should have 29 overall wins and 20 comebacks.

Brett Favre is supposed to stay retired, so hopefully that will spare us any chance of the media claiming he is chasing the comeback record. He is credited with 42, but only has 27 comebacks, and is not exactly known for any real famous ones. Maybe the long game-winning TD pass to Sterling Sharpe against the Lions in the playoffs would be worth mentioning. Just not a situation Favre thrived in. The opportunities were certainly there for him to have more than anyone, but he did not come through with the record amount. A propensity for turnovers via forced throws is not what you look for in a QB in this situation.

Let’s have a round of applause for the 49ers and Chiefs for keeping it legit for Joe Montana and the 31 comebacks he made in his career. Of course it was not too hard considering he only had three other games in his career where he led a game-winning drive to break a tie. This just speaks to the dominance of the 49ers. Rarely found themselves behind in the 4th quarter, but if they were, Montana could lead them back with the best of them. Lots of memorable TD drives, and that’s what stands out about Montana. He led TD drives, several times in the playoffs, and he was usually the catalyst of the drive and the guy that threw the winning score.

According to the last press release for the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning is credited with 36 game-winning drives in the 4th QT/OT. For some reason, they choose not to include the 2006 AFC Championship, which was Manning’s shining moment. Manning threw for 155 yards in the quarter, as he led the Colts to 17 points on three scoring drives in the quarter, and a 38-34 victory. They also do not include Manning’s week 16 performance against Jacksonville from last season, another of the finest games of his career. Trailing 24-14 to start the 4th quarter, Manning passed for 110 yards on two drives to tie the game at 24. On the ensuing drive, David Garrard was intercepted by Keiwan Ratliff for the game-winning TD. Obviously, it’s a 4th quarter comeback for Manning, but he doesn’t get the credit from his own team because it wasn’t a game-winning drive. That gives Manning 38 overall wins, and 28 are comebacks. He’s the favorite to take the comeback king title, especially if the Colts play games like they did last season. In 2008 alone, Manning led 4 comebacks and 3 game-winning drives in the 4th quarter.

You may remember I mentioned at the end of part I that Elway may only rank 3rd all time in comebacks. The last QB I want to talk about is Johnny Unitas. Known for crafting the 2-minute drill, Unitas led a ton of late-game rallies in his career. The only question is how many? The same Colts media guide says Unitas had 31 as a Colt. Given that he had none in his brief appearance as a Charger, it’s safe to say they’re giving him 31 for his career. And assuming they do not count postseason like they did with Manning, they are not counting "The Greatest Game Ever Played." But 32 still does not jive with what I found. Due to the fact these are older games and things can be less accurate, I am not as confident in Unitas’ data as I am that of Elway and Marino (and the other QBs mentioned). Though I will still present the case for how Unitas can be anywhere from 3rd to 1st in comebacks.

I have 43 games for Unitas. 34 are comebacks, 7 were game-winning drives that they never trailed, and 2 were comebacks he led in games that resulted in a tie. The two ties are pretty impressive for the non-OT era. Against the Lions in 1965, Unitas threw 2 TD passes to John Mackey in the 4th quarter to force a 24-24 tie. Two years later in Minnesota, Unitas twice led the Colts to tying TDs in the 4th quarter when facing a 7 point deficit. The game ended in a 20-20 tie. If you believe that ties should count, then Unitas would have 36 comebacks, the same number as Marino; the most in history.

There is another game to consider with Unitas, and it’s another one of those nasty Fiedler/Griese examples. Playing at Detroit in 1963, the Colts trailed 21-16 to start the final quarter. Unitas led a drive that resulted in a 45 yard FG to cut the deficit to 21-19. Milt Plum, throwing his first and only pass of the game, was intercepted for a TD by Andy Nelson. The extra point failed, and the Colts had a 25-21 victory. We know Unitas did not lead a game-winning drive; the defense took care of that. We know he did not lead a comeback drive to tie the game as well. The difference between this game and the Dolphins/Broncos game is that the Colts still win this game no matter if Unitas led the FG drive or not. With the other game, Fiedler’s TD pass was crucial in giving them the lead (and win). Keeping a butterfly effect in mind, does Plum ever throw that pass at that field position if Unitas never got the FG drive? I lean towards not crediting Unitas for a comeback in this situation. They needed 5, he got them 3. Could he have led another scoring drive to win the game? Of course. The defense took care of it for him though. If you are a huge Unitas fan and want to truly believe this should count (in addition to the two ties), then that would give him 37 comebacks, the most ever. But I do not think you should count this game.

Additionally, there was a game in 1970 against Buffalo that presents a rather unique case that has yet to be discussed. The game was tied at 14 to start the 4th quarter. Unitas led a go-ahead FG drive, only to see Buffalo tie it with a FG of their own. The game would end in a tie. Unitas did not lead a game-winning drive as there was no win to attach it to. He did not lead a comeback as there was never a deficit in the 4th quarter (though the Colts did trail 14-0 in the 2nd quarter before scoring 17 unanswered). This game is a positive for Unitas, given that he helped wipe out a 14 point deficit and did lead what could have been the game-winning drive, but I think in terms of 4th quarter comeback analysis, you just make a note of this one and keep it separate from the other games.

As for explaining my discrepancy with the Colts’ media guide (34 to 31), the best I can say is they must not be counting the 1958 championship game, and they probably are not counting this game against Green Bay in 1958. The Colts trailed 17-14 to start the 4th quarter. Unitas led a tying FG drive, then the defense intercepted Bart Starr for the winning TD. This is just like the Manning/Jacksonville example, which the Colts did not count. It’s a comeback, but not a game-winning drive. Subtracting those two games, it’s still 32 to 31. My best guesses are that there are errors in a boxscore(s), Unitas may have not finished one of these scoring drives, and that the Colts just simply missed a game somewhere.

Comebacks and game-winning drives are interesting subjects. On the field they make for some of the most memorable moments in NFL history. Now if everyone can get on the same page with how to classify and analyze them, it would make discussion a lot easier and more productive. No longer should someone be able to simply drop “47” and end the debate. Maybe it’s just a fantasy of mine, but I’m looking forward to the day where someone can fire back, “well he had 6 more comebacks, but on 18 more opportunities and he only led TD drives 45% of the time and had twice as many turnovers in the process!”

Feel free to send any special questions or comments about this to me at