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Quarterbacks and fourth quarter comebacks, Part III

Posted by Scott Kacsmar on January 15, 2010

By Scott Kacsmar (posted by Sean Forman)

Last time I wrote out my methodology in gruesome detail for tabulating comebacks and game-winning drives. What's changed since then? Now that data can be found on every QB's page at Pro-Football-Reference in it's own table.

Everything is complete through 2009 and it goes back to 1950, with some that even go further back than that. When you are looking at a QB like Dan Marino's player page, just click on the "Comebacks and game-winning drives" link above his passing table and you'll be taken to a new page with a table of all his 4th quarter wins, complete with a link to the box score, his stats for the game, and the classification (GWD, 4QC, etc.) which is located in the "Notes" column. This information has also been added to the Play Index in the Player Game Finder. So now you can do various searches for comebacks/GWDs.

Run queries such as:
* All games where the QB had a GWD and 400+ passing yards
* Most comebacks before age 28
* Most comebacks by a QB who is retired and not a Hall of Famer
* Most GWDs in the postseason

Now I'll explain the layout of these new tables. Getting back to the Marino table of comebacks, you'll notice from the green table header that he is listed with 36 4QCs and 51 GWDs. If you sort the table by clicking on "Notes", you can see the 36 comebacks followed by the 15 games listed only as "GWD". Those 15 are all the games in which Marino led the winning score in a tied game. They did not trail, so they were not comebacks.

Take a look at John Elway's page of comebacks, and you may find some conflicting numbers at first glance. The header reads 35 comebacks, which if you remember from Part 1, is different than the 34 I credited Elway with. This is because the tables count games that end in ties as comebacks. Technically, Elway did have 35 comebacks, but only 34 comeback wins. Normally we talk in terms of wins, so that tied game against the Packers from 1987 usually would not be recognized. Keep that in mind when looking at someone's table. You can see from the "Result" column that the game ended in a tie, and any query you run in the game finder will also recognize the game as a tie.

Sort Elway's table by Notes, and you'll see 32 games that fall under the 4QC/GWD classification, which simply means it was a fourth quarter comeback AND a game-winning drive. Games 33-35 just say 4QC. You'll see the tied game is there, along with two others. Any game that's noted as just "4QC" is a game in which the team trailed in the 4th quarter, and the offense scored enough points to at least tie the game. Click on the box score for those two games and you'll see that after an Elway TD pass tied the game against New England, Dennis Smith returned a fumble 64 yards for the winning TD. Since the defense provided the winning points, Elway does not get credit for the GWD. Against the Chargers, the Elway-led offense scored 17 points in the quarter (10 when trailing twice) and the game went to overtime. Louis Wright blocked a FG and returned it for a TD for the winning points, again making this a comeback win, but not a GWD. After that you just see the remaining 15 games for Elway that were all GWDs, just like Marino had.

That's basically all there is to these tables. Now for the difficult part: trying to explain the "other games of note" table you'll find at the bottom of these pages for some QBs.

Let's use Kurt Warner as an example.

First you'll notice his normal table with 9 4QCs/14 GWDs, no different than any other player's table. Now at the bottom is a second table, which lists "3 other games of note". These tables only appear for QBs that have these "unique" games in their career. They have the same columns as the other table, but the Notes are different.

You'll either see "QB deserves no credit" or "QB deserves little credit". Simple terms, but there is no simple way of explaining how this was decided.

Fortunately there have only been a little over 150 games like this, so they do not come up often. Many of them can be grouped into a few categories, which I will try to break down as neatly as possible.

But if you click on the first game for Warner you will see a game that was tied at 20 to start the final quarter. Roderick Hood intercepted Gus Frerotte for a TD to give the Cardinals a 27-20 lead, a lead which they would not relinquish. This is why the "QB deserves no credit", because it was a defensive score that put the team ahead for good. Likewise if you click on the third Warner game, you'll see that after Houston rallied to tie the game at 21, Matt Schaub threw a pick 6 to Rodgers-Cromartie that produced the winning points for Arizona, once again making this a game Warner does not deserve credit for in terms of the 4th quarter drives classification. You would almost never see a team try and list such a game as a comeback for a QB. I list them just so people have a complete list of all the games won by that QB in which there was some winning score produced in the 4th quarter/OT. If you were analyzing Warner's performance in these situations, you would note that he did have an offensive possession against Houston with the game tied at 21 and completed one of three passes for six yards on a three and out. Analyze that any way you want. The point is this type of game should not be counted as a 4th quarter win for Warner.

The game in between these two was against the Cowboys in 2008 and it is an interesting case. You'll see that "QB deserves little credit" is listed for this one.

A quick recap of the game's events:
* Tied at 14 to start the 4th quarter, Warner threw an 11 yard TD pass to Steve Breaston to cap off an 89 yard TD drive
* The Cardinals added a FG for a 24-14 lead
* Tony Romo led the Cowboys to 10 straight points to force overtime
* Cowboys won the toss and received first
* After forcing Dallas to punt on a three and out, the Cardinals blocked the punt and recovered it for the game's winning TD (the first time in NFL history a game ended in OT on a blocked punt return)

Knowing the definitions I've laid out, this cannot be a comeback because Arizona never trailed in the 4th quarter. It also cannot be a game-winning drive since the winning points were provided by the special teams on a blocked punt return. However, the reason Warner deserves credit here is that he threw a go ahead TD pass with the game tied in the 4th quarter. If the defense would have held the 10 pt lead, then obviously Warner would have had a game-winning TD pass and a game-winning drive to his credit. They did not, and the special teams won the game for Arizona in OT without Warner having to touch the ball. Instead of just ignoring the game, I am giving Warner some credit for what he accomplished in the 4th quarter. The only problem is since it does not fit the definition of a comeback or a GWD, it's basically on it's own island and that is why you see it in a separate table. But he is still given some credit for a positive outcome that helped produce a win that day.

(Note: I had this part typed before the 51-45 win over Green Bay in the Wild Card round. Believe it or not Warner registered yet another type of "unique" win which would fall into the same category as the Dallas game (QB deserves little credit). It was not a comeback as they never trailed, and it's not a GWD since the winning points were scored by the defense on a fumble return in OT. Warner gets credit because he threw a go ahead TD pass when it was 38-38. Of course he would have had the GWD himself if Neil Rackers did not deliver yet another choke by a kicker this season at the end of regulation. When the site is updated for the postseason, this 4th game will appear on Warner's comebacks page.)

I'm going to type out a list of the type of "unique" games you'll find on these tables, and provide some examples that may bring back some memories (good and bad).

1. With a tie or one score deficit, the defense returned a fumble or interception for a TD to provide the winning points. The offense did not contribute to any 4th quarter scoring from a deficit or tie.
Type: QB deserves no credit
* Cardinals enjoy the unique wins
* Ollie Matson, playing on defense, makes the winning play in 1952
* Trent Green gives the Bills a gift in 2008
* Neil O'Donnell watches another QB (Scott Mitchell) throw away a game in OT (this coming after getting a punt return TD to take the lead earlier)
* Doug Williams helps Danny White get a playoff win
* Even Peyton could use a bailout one time
* Tommy Maddox crushes the hearts of Steeler Nation against Jacksonville
* Dilfer example #1

Comments: This is the most common type of game found on these "other games of note" tables

2. With a tie or one score deficit, the special teams returns a kickoff/punt/blocked punt/blocked FG for a TD to provide the winning points. The offense did not contribute to any 4th quarter scoring from a deficit or tie.
Type: QB deserves no credit
* They let them off the hook! (this had defense and ST)
* Some more Cardinals, Plummer style...
* You just can't get enough unique Cardinal games (Breaston punt return TD vs. Steelers 2007)
* Where there's Cardinals, there's also Trent Dilfer completing 5 passes in the AFC-D win at Tennessee
* Eric Metcalf abuses the Steelers in 1993
* Brian Westbrook saves the Eagles' season in 2003 against the Giants
* Roger Staubach takes it easy as Charlie Waters scores the blocked punt return TD
* Favre needed a little help from Allen Rossum in 2001 vs. TB
* Bart Starr approves of this ensuing kickoff return TD to take the lead for good against who else but the Cardinals

Comments: Slightly less common than the defensive scores. Slightly more common if the game involves the Cardinals.

3. With the game tied, the offense scores the go ahead points, but the game is ultimately decided by a tie.
Type:QB deserves little credit
* Sonny Jurgensen did his part one time...
* Sonny Jurgensen did his part a second time, but two ties
* Norm Van Brocklin game, but still Cardinals related
* Tobin Rote was hoping for one stop, but...
* Johnny U example I brought up in the past
* Lee Grosscup tried his best, but Eddie LeBaron wouldn't let up
* Y.A. Tittle had his team ahead, but...

Comments: This is interesting because I have the tied games where the offense trailed, tied it, and came away with a comeback (but not a GWD obviously). Here we have a situation where you never trailed, so there is no opportunity for a comeback. And since the game ended in a tie, there was never a GWD. So you end up with a positive drive, some credit to the QB, but ultimately not a 4QC or GWD. That's why it ends up in this separate table with little credit attached to it. This is not something you'll see in today's game due to the overtime format (unless Donovan McNabb's playing and not trying hard enough because he's waiting for OT period 2).

4. The offense contributed some 4th quarter points to the win, but still needed score(s) from the DEF/ST to take the lead.
Type: QB deserves little credit
* The Fiedler/Griese game from 2001
* Down 17, Jamie Martin throws 2 TD passes, then the defense scores on a fumble for the winning points
* Down 13, Charley Johnson throws a TD pass and the defense scores a fumble for the win
* Down 11, Timm Rosenbach QB sneak for the TD, then Jeff George throws a pick 6 to lose it his rookie year
* Down 6, Bartkowski gets the FG drive, then the defense scores twice
* Down 10, Jim Kelly hits Lofton for a TD pass, then the ST won it with a blocked punt return TD
* Down 13, Milt Plum's TD pass to Jim Brown leads to a pick 6 for the winning points
* Down 13, Bledsoe hits Terry Glenn with a TD pass, then McNabb throws the big pick 6 on primetime
* Down 10, Randy Wright throws a TD, then Walter Stanley returns the punt 83 yards for the GW TD
* Down 9, Gary Hogeboom throws a TD, then the Colts win on a blocked punt return TD
* Down 14, Earl Morrall gets FG & TD, defense scores fumble for lead, Steelers tie, game ends tied
* Down 14, Richard Todd gets FG & TD, Kirk Springs returns punt for GW TD
* Down 7, McNabb leads a FG drive, but it's the blocked FG return TD that beats San Diego in 2005
* Down 13, Kitna leads a TD drive, then Marshall Faulk fumbles for a TD in 1998
* Down 7, Theismann leads a FG drive, then Jaws throws a pick 6 in 1981
* Down 11, Jaws leads TD drive, but it's the Miracle at the Meadowlands that wins the game

Comments: I tried to pick out good examples. These are the tough ones, such as the Fiedler/Griese example I talked about at length last time. On one hand the offense did not score the winning points, but on the other hand that DEF/ST score would never be the winning points without the score by the offense in the first place. You'll notice the last example is the Miracle at the Meadowlands. That's definitely NOT a case where you want to be praising the offense when it took a ridiculously bad play call to even put the ball into play at that point. It should have been a kneel down and game over. But even in that game, you never get to that point and that play mattering without the initial TD by the offense. These are a tough call, and I feel good with them being kept separate from real comebacks, but something's still not sitting right with me over these games. Glad they do not happen that often.

5. Go ahead points produced by a safety without the offense making a 4th quarter/OT contribution to the score.
Type: QB deserves no credit
* Down 1, might as well start with a Cardinals game
* Game tied, Barry Sanders with a bad time to have a negative run
* Down 7, Dallas gets a blocked FG return TD, miss the XP, then finally sack Ken Stabler for the winning safety
* Down 1, the Vikings block a punt thru the end zone for a winning safety
* Game tied, the Saints sack Bernie Kosar for the winning safety
* Game tied, Joe Kapp is tackled for safety

Comments: These are very rare wins. Notice that Bernie Kosar went down twice in the 4th quarter for safeties in that 1987 game.

6. Game-winning FG without the offense taking the field (usually in OT). Also, the offense did not contribute to any 4th QT scoring.
Type: QB deserves no credit
* Shanahan sends FG unit on field after Tarvaris Jackson fumble in OT
* Jets go with FG on first down in OT against Pats in 1985
* Elway fumbles, Raiders keep Marc Wilson (4 INTs) on the bench, kick a FG on first down
* No to Ferragamo, kick a first down FG after a Bartkowski fumble
* The Bucs have sent the FG unit out there on first down in 3 different OT games (1979, 1994, 2001)

And for one similarly unique game that did not go to OT...

* Dilfer example #3 - San Diego tied the game at 22, and with 0:16 left, the Seahawks returned the kickoff 64 yards. Instead of putting Dilfer & the offense out there, they tried the 54 yard FG and Rian Lindell made it for the win.

Comments: Another rare one, but it's happened a few times. Usually what will happen is a turnover or big return, and instead of risking anything with the offense, the coach sends the FG unit out on first down right away to win the game. This does not mean the offense never touched the ball in the 4th quarter/OT with a tied score. It just means they did not contribute to the winning FG since they were never on the field.

7. Without ever trailing in the 4th, the offense broke a tie with an offensive score, but the winning points finally came from a DEF/ST score.
Type: QB deserves little credit.
* Warner against Dallas
* Bledsoe leads go ahead FG drive, Pats win on Troy Brown fumble TD

Comments: This is the Warner game against Dallas I just went over above. I went over the Bledsoe game in Part II. These are very rare, as I cannot even recall anything other than these examples.

I think that covers the kind of games you'll find on "other games of note" tables.

Next, I am going to switch gears and talk about the role that comebacks had this season.

The 2009 regular season has presented some more interesting twists and turns in the history and data classification of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. With the playoffs upon us, we could be in store for some memorable moments and a possible record-breaking performance that would be recognized by this website before anyone else catches on.

When I first declared Dan Marino the new King of the Comeback, I knew that Peyton Manning was closing in on the record. I just did not think he would rip off a record seven in one season to pull within one of Marino (36 to 35) so quickly. If this ever reaches the heights I want it to, it will already be too late for Marino to get the recognition he has deserved since he retired because Manning will be hogging it all up. In addition to the record seven in one year, every game played in November by the Colts was won with a 4th quarter comeback. That five-game run of comebacks is also a NFL record. Manning, winner of his record fourth MVP award, said himself that "I have to believe that starting 14-0 and having seven comeback wins has a lot to do with this award coming our way."

Though if Manning is to move past Marino this season, it will have to be done in the postseason. With the way the Colts play tight games, it is not a stretch to say Manning may have the opportunity to finish this season with as many as 38 comebacks. A potential AFC Championship game with San Diego could prove to be difficult for the Colts, and the NFC is wide open and offers several different challengers. Let's not even look past the Ravens in the AFC Divisional round, as they are used to playing some close ones themselves and one of Manning's seven comebacks this season was at Baltimore. It would only be fitting for Manning to break the record in this postseason with the kind of year he has had. The last nine times the Colts trailed in the 4th quarter (and Manning was still in the game), they have won all nine games. That is a record run that I cannot even imagine anyone has come close to in the past. Remember, in addition to the Curtis Painter fiasco, the Colts never trailed in the Wild Card game in San Diego last season. They took a 17-14 lead to the fourth, the Chargers tied the game late, and then won on the only possession of OT. The Colts have not been beaten in regulation with Manning playing the whole game since week 8 of last year against the Titans, which was 25 games ago.

You can expect the Colts to be a tough out in any game they play this month, so pay attention to the inevitable graphic during the game that will show how many 4th quarter wins Manning has led in his career. The number that will likely appear is 43, which is incorrect as the Colts do no count the postseason (so no credit for the 2006 AFC Championship), and they do not count the Jacksonville game from last season where Manning erased the 10 point deficit and the winning score was a pick 6 thrown by David Garrard.

Another QB playing this weekend, even though I had hoped in August that he finally retired, is Brett Favre. Something strange happened in the record keeping department when Favre made the infamous switch from Jet to Viking this past summer. Favre finished the 2008 season with 42 fourth quarter/OT wins, a number that was spot-on accurate when it was reported last season after the overtime win in New England. But I noticed when he joined the Vikings, their media guide listed him at 41, seemingly eliminating the Patriot win from last season.

Now on what basis would they eliminate such a game? The Jets never did trail, and it was a Cassel-to-Moss TD that forced OT. Brett completed 5 out of 6 passes for 56 yards in OT to set up the winning field goal. Back in 2007 in a game at Denver, the Packers never trailed, Denver tied it, game went to OT, and Favre hit Greg Jennings for the winning 82 yard TD pass on the only play from scrimmage in OT. Aside from a TD versus a FG, there is no difference between the two games, yet they were counting one and discarding the other.

Then two games into the 2009 seasons, I noticed another source erased a few more games from Favre's numbers. The ESPN article listed Favre at 39 game-winning drives. So he went from 42 to 41 to 39 in a span of maybe one month. My best guess is ESPN was not counting the playoffs, in which there would be two fewer games and that means they were going with 41 from the Vikings (overall there are 3 playoff games on our table for Favre, but he did not lead a GWD against Seattle in 2003 as Matt Hasselbeck took the ball and scored in his own way instead).

Well I can tell you after a very memorable game winning TD pass to Greg Lewis against the 49ers, and a comeback win over the Ravens, Favre is sitting at 29 comebacks and a total of 44 games won in the 4th QT/OT. Would have been interesting to see if the "47" number would have been brought up by the media at some point this year if Favre had a few more for the Vikings than what he did.

One other thing brought up with Favre and comebacks in 2009 was that he has never led his team to a win after trailing by 17 or more points at any time in the game (0-43 record). This was presented during week 16 on Monday Night Football after the Vikings trailed 23-6 to the Bears before forcing OT and losing 36-30. It was probably the closest Favre has come to getting a win in that situation. ESPN could have said 15 points or more and the same would have been true (and the number of losses probably would have went up a little bit). I gave Carl Bialik over at the Wall Street Journal some data on comeback wins from double-digit deficits. You can read his article here for more on Favre and big comebacks. This article has reached its Favre quota.

Another QB that did pretty well with comebacks this season was the opposing QB for the Pittsburgh Steelers, specifically the one known as Jay Palmerkowski-Casselacco (he's reportedly Polish). Five times the Steelers had the lead in the fourth quarter and lost the game, the most by any team this season. Carson Palmer led a game-winning drive to break a tie in a sixth loss. It was a season of devastating losses for the defending champs, a year after they made the fourth quarter their own trademark performance of coming up with big scoring drives and defensive stops.

Perhaps the most mystifying of the five blown leads came against the Oakland Raiders. Pittsburgh's defense allowed not one, not two, but three TD passes by Bruce Gradkowski in the final 8:30 of the game, the game winner coming with nine seconds left. That is the first time since 1940 any QB has ever thrown three 4th quarter TD passes when facing a tie or one score deficit on each drive. That's right. Not Unitas, not Montana, not Marino, not Manning. Bruce Gradkowski, and he was using Louis Murphy and Chaz Schilens to get the job done. The only thing that could have made this more embarrassing was if JaMarcus Russell was hovering over center that day.

Other nuggets from 2009:
* The season started with the longest game-winning TD from scrimmage (87 yards) in the last minute of the 4th quarter when Brandon Stokley caught a tipped ball thrown by Kyle Orton to beat the Bengals.
* Ben Roethlisberger became the second QB in NFL history (Boomer Esiason) to throw for 500+ yards in a 4th quarter comeback win when he had 503 yards and threw the game winning TD on the final play of the game against the Packers.
* Vince Young led a 99 yard TD drive to beat the Arizona Cardinals on the last play of the game, a drive that evoked memories of Super Bowl 43 and The Drive. For the opposing QB that day, Matt Leinart, it brought back nightmares from the 2006 Rose Bowl.
* For the first time since 2004, Donovan McNabb led two comeback wins in the fourth quarter in the same season. He also did this for the first and likely last time.
* Matthew Stafford's signature moment of his rookie season is his winning TD drive against the Browns, as he came back to the game after being injured and threw the winning TD to fellow rookie Brandon Pettigrew on an un-timed down after pass interference was actually called in the end zone.
* The lone "unique" 4th quarter win of the 2009 regular season belongs guessed it, the Arizona Cardinals when they intercepted Matt Schaub for the game winning TD against Houston.
* The Texans still picked up four game-winning drives this season (two comebacks), a franchise high, on their way to the first winning season (9-7) in franchise history.
* The largest 4th quarter comeback of the season was 17 points from the New England/Indianapolis showdown that will best be known for "4th & 2".
* The Patriots also lost their reg. season finale at Houston after holding a 14 point lead in the final quarter. In the previous nine seasons with Bill Belichick coaching the Patriots they had lost just one game with a double-digit lead in the 4th quarter. They did it twice in 2009.

Reminder: if you consider the 2006 AFC Championship the real Super Bowl due to the Grossman Factor that year, the last three championships have seen a team erase a 4th quarter deficit in the final two minutes of the game. My prediction for this postseason is that some team will try to do the same, and we will have another Scott Norwood moment in the Super Bowl. If you have been paying close attention to the kicking game this year, you know why. It would only be fitting.

If the Cardinals are involved for the second straight year, perhaps they will block a Matt Stover FG, return it for a game winning TD in a tied game they never trailed in, but which Kurt Warner threw another go ahead TD to Larry Fitzgerald earlier in the 4th quarter. Again, it would only be fitting.

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