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Chronology of the Fourth Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives Records

Posted by Doug on September 14, 2010

Written by Scott Kacsmar

As the 2010 season gets under way, the record for fourth quarter comeback wins is about to fall. It can happen before October starts. Veteran readers know that Peyton Manning is one comeback win away from tying record holder Dan Marino with 36, and two away from sole possession of the record. Marino also still holds the record for game-winning drives with 51. Peyton Manning is at 44 so that one will take some time to beat. I have also included the chronology for that record at the bottom of the page.

Just how prestigious is the comebacks record? Well, since virtually no one can seem to keep track of it properly, I guess the answer would be "not too much". Hopefully that will change soon.

So if the record is deficient in prestige due to the lack of standardization, that is understandable. The question is, how difficult of a record has it been to achieve? That is when a chronological history of the record is necessary.

Fourth quarter comebacks are not a record that one could construct an accurate chronological history as you would for something like rushing yards or interceptions. If you have read my past articles on comebacks, you know most people cannot accurately keep track of the number of comebacks an active player has, let alone the historical timeline. I figured I would put my data to use to construct one.

The first entry on the list would obviously be the first fourth quarter comeback win in NFL history. Except there's only one problem. I don't know when that game happened. I can surely guess it happened in the 1920's, a decade where statistics were not kept and many games ended with one (or both) teams scoring zero points.

John Maxymuk, author of Strong Arm Tactics: A History and Statistical Analysis of the Professional Quarterback, provides his own information about comebacks in his book (note: he appears to be using game-winning drives synonymously with comebacks). He has Jim Thorpe leading the only comeback win in the 1920 season. Thorpe played for the Canton Bulldogs in 1920, a team that finished 7-4-2. According to their team page here on PFR, all seven of their wins were shutouts, so no comeback win opportunities there.

I will just cut to the chase. I have little interest in pre-1950 football, back when it was full of two-way players, almost no black players, no real playoffs, few teams, and hardly anyone that could advance the ball via the pass. Many historians have all but given up trying to produce starting rosters for individual games from this era, as you can hardly judge with accuracy the team's starting QB due to the formations and style of football that was played.

My chronology will begin with the "record holder" at the start of the 1950 season. I understand he may not truly have held the record, but I'm confident this is as accurate as it can get right now. I have already added some pre-1950 data to the site, and have some more that will go up in the future. For instance, you can see Sid Luckman's games here. Luckman had 7 comeback wins in his career, which ended in 1950. The consensus best QB of this era would be Sammy Baugh, and he had also had 7 comeback wins as of 1950. Interestingly enough, the other QB that makes up the most revered pre-1950 trio would be Bob Waterfield, and he too had 7 comeback wins in 1950. All three QBs started the 1950 season with a "record" 7 comeback wins.

As I said, Luckman would retire after that season. Waterfield had his eight comeback win on 11/4/1951, the new "record". Baugh would get his eight and final comeback win on 12/9/1951 to tie him. Waterfield's ninth and final comeback win came on 10/12/1952. Waterfield retired following the 1952 season.

The next group of challengers would also be future HOFers. Bobby Layne picked up his ninth comeback win on 11/5/1955. A month later on 12/11/1955, Otto Graham had his ninth and final comeback win in his last season. As 1955 ended, Waterfield, Layne and Graham all shared the record with 9 comeback wins.

The very next season Y.A. Tittle notched his ninth comeback win on 12/2/1956 against the Colts. Two weeks later, against the same Colts team, Tittle became the first QB to reach 10 comeback wins. In 1957, Tittle had an impressive stretch of five games where he led four comeback wins, throwing the game-winning TD pass in all four of them. Tittle would add one more comeback in each of the next two seasons to push his record total to 16 as the league moved into the 1960's.

Tittle was traded to the Giants in 1961. He had one comeback win in each of his first two seasons in New York, giving him 18 as of 11/4/1962. Meanwhile Johnny Unitas was mastering the two-minute drive in Baltimore, and he caught up to Tittle on 12/16/1962. After the second game of the 1963 season, Unitas had taken over the record with his 19th comeback win on 9/22/1963. The milestone 20th comeback win came on 11/17/1963. He would finish 1963 with 21 comeback wins, and would continue adding on to his record. #30 came on 10/13/1969. The 34th and final comeback win of Unitas' career would come on 11/29/1970 against Chicago. He retired after 1973.

The only other QB from Unitas' era to challenge the record was Fran Tarkenton, who retired after 1978 with 28 comeback wins. At this point the league had implemented an overtime system to help eliminate ties and give teams a better chance at victory, the schedule was increased to 16 games, and rules were added to help advance the passing game.

It was also around this time that a statistic like the fourth quarter comeback would be written in the press. When I try to search for articles from the 1970's about Roger Staubach being "Captain Comeback" or how many comebacks he had, the results are dry. Though if you look in the 1980's you will find numerous articles citing Staubach's "23 comeback victories, with 14 of them coming in the final two minutes." Interesting to note that over time "14" has turned into "17" in many articles on the internet. But who cares about accuracy, right? Of course last year I proved that the important number here, 23, should really be 15.

Either way, Staubach's career was a starting point for the comeback stat. About the only stat I know where you combine regular season numbers with postseason (unless you're the Colts). Where a tie-score turns into a deficit (unless you're the Dolphins; props to them). Where a tied game is apparently good enough to add to a list of wins (seemingly Broncos-only). Where standardization is thrown out the window and chaos to do promotional stat-padding reigns free.

But I'm getting off track. Let me put down the axe for a moment and get back on the history trail.

The 1980's saw three more HOF QBs chasing the record Unitas had a firm grip on. Joe Montana, arguably the most impressive comeback QB as measured by quality, finished his career with 31 comeback wins, becoming only the second QB at that time to surpass 30.

Twenty years after Unitas took sole possession of the record in 1963, a great QB draft class was selected in 1983. John Elway and Dan Marino would engage in a head-to-head 16-season battle for the comeback record, with each QB dazzling the fans with memorable fourth quarter heroics, and each QB's public relations staff tabulating the games the way they saw fit.

Marino struck first in Houston on 12/4/1983, notching his first comeback win. A week later, John Elway erased a 19-0 deficit against the team he did not want to play for, the Baltimore Colts, for his first comeback win. On 11/4/1984, each QB picked up comeback win #2. They must have liked it, as each picked up their third a week later on 11/11/1984. As the 1980's ended, Elway held a 17-13 advantage over Marino.

After tying the then-record with six comeback wins in a season in 1992, Marino led 24-23. Despite tearing his Achilles tendon in 1993, Marino still led 25-24 as the 1994 season began. In that season, Elway played a classic Monday Night game against Montana's Chiefs on 10/17/1994. During the broadcast, a graphic displayed the most game-winning drives (note: not comebacks) since 1975. They had Marino with 35 and Elway with 26.

Where did these numbers come from? They are certainly not the numbers Denver was using for Elway. No, these numbers came from the Elias Sports Bureau and their GWD definition (which is fine). Checking them against my own, the 35 for Marino comes from subtracting out his two playoff wins at that point (Elias does not include postseason), so it's correct. The 26 for Elway is more tricky. I have 34 games for him at that point. First, subtract the four playoff wins. Subtract the tie game in 1987. Subtract a 1989 Seattle comeback that had a non-offensive drive win the game (so no GWD). Then finally subtract two comebacks where the winning points were scored on return TDs. That is how you get 26, a correct number of GWDs at that point.

Elias may not tabulate comebacks, but they were on the money with the GWDs in 1994. So how come no one paid attention to their numbers as time went on, or acknowledged the difference in a comeback versus a game-winning drive? Have you ever heard someone say "John Elway had 47 game-winning drives"? Nope, it's always "comebacks", and it's always been wrong.

(Smell a tangent coming yet? I have picked up the axe again.)

After the 1996 season, each QB was sitting on 31 comebacks, now tied with Montana for second place. Though something interesting happened during this season, and it again involved Monday Night Football and the Elias Sports Bureau. Elway had just completed his 30th comeback win against the Raiders on 11/4/1996. During the broadcast, another Elias-produced statistical graphic correctly displayed Elway as having 34 GWDs (not counting the winner that night) and Marino with 40. What did the Broncos have at that time? 40 for Elway, 31 for Marino. WARREN SAPP STUNNED FACE.

How could it be so different? Know what the response was from the Denver PR? "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that you're either ahead or behind and you either won or you didn't."

Well, not to toot my own horn, but maybe it does take a genius?

I mean, a ton of people obviously have a problem processing these concepts into numbers. It really is not that hard to do. Elias' Steve Hirdt knew what he was doing with the numbers, but apparently facts do not go far if someone does not like what they say.

Also if you write for Denver, I guess you may adhere to what the Broncos say. Take this Denver Post article quote from 11/27/1996 by Joseph Sanchez for example. In trying to report on this MNF stat debacle, he says that "in the definition used by the Broncos, the Dolphins and most other teams, the quarterback gets credit for a game-saving comeback drive only if he overcomes a deficit on the scoreboard to win at the end of the game or tie at the end of the game before winning in overtime." Yeah, sure buddy. Mind going back and counting all those Elway comebacks from a "zero point deficit"? That is just bad reporting. The Dolphins and Broncos were not counting the same way. Period.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello on making comebacks an official statistic: "So yes, it's something that we'll look at as far as becoming a standard league statistic. But I can't tell you when."

That was from 1996. This is 2010, and it will not happen this year either. I already took my shot at it, and essentially teams are going to keep being able to put out the numbers they want in media guides and press releases, and it's up to the media and networks to interpret them. Hooray for freedom of the press. Facts? We don't need no stinkin' facts!

Maybe if I can get a crazy Denver writer with national media attention on my side to go against the Denver-Elway comebacks myth... Woody Paige, are you reading?

Alright class, wrapping up the history lesson.

Marino and Elway each sat on 32 comebacks as 1997 ended. Marino got to 33 on 10/25/1998, with Elway tying him a week later on 11/1/1998. Then Elway tied Unitas with his 34th and final comeback win on 12/6/1998. So after 35 years of having the record all to himself, Unitas had company, and Elway retired with a share of the record.

Deciding to give it one last try, Marino returned for his 17th and final season in 1999. In a classic against a young Peyton Manning in Indy, Marino notched his 34th comeback on 10/10/1999. On 12/19/1999, Marino picked up his record-setting 35th comeback win against the Chargers. A few weeks later, Marino won his first and only road playoff game with his 36th and final fourth quarter comeback victory in Seattle on 1/9/2000. Marino's decade-long reign is the second longest anyone has held the record behind Unitas.

Here is the chronology of the fourth quarter comeback record since 1950:

7 - Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bob Waterfield; 1950 - 11/3/1951
8 - Bob Waterfield; 11/4/1951 - 12/8/1951
8 - Sammy Baugh, Bob Waterfield; 12/9/1951 - 10/11/1952
9 - Bob Waterfield; 10/12/1952 - 11/4/1955
9 - Bobby Layne, Bob Waterfield; 11/5/1955 - 12/10/1955
9 - Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, Bob Waterfield; 12/11/1955 - 12/1/1956
9 - Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, Y.A. Tittle, Bob Waterfield; 12/2/1956 - 12/15/1956
10 - Y.A. Tittle; 12/16/1956
14 - Y.A. Tittle; thru 1957 season
15 - Y.A. Tittle; thru 1958 season
16 - Y.A. Tittle; thru 1960 season
17 - Y.A. Tittle; thru 1961 season
18 - Y.A. Tittle; 11/4/1962 - 12/15/1962
18 - Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas; 12/16/1962 - 9/21/1963
19 - Johnny Unitas; 9/22/1963 - 11/16/1963
20 - Johnny Unitas; 11/17/1963 - 12/14/1963
21 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1963 season
23 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1964 season
25 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1965 season
26 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1966 season
29 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1968 season
31 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1969 season
34 - Johnny Unitas; 11/29/1970 - 12/5/1998
34 - John Elway, Johnny Unitas; 12/6/1998 - 10/9/1999
34 - John Elway, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas; 10/10/1999 - 12/18/1999
36 - Dan Marino; 1/9/2000 - present

Each of the nine men that have held or shared this record have been enshrined in the HOF. Peyton Manning will make it a perfect ten.

Johnny Unitas held this record for decades, yet never received any credit for it. For the last decade, 36 has been the benchmark, and Dan Marino the setter. Yet it is a number that will never hold significance, a record that will never truly be attributed to Marino, and when it is surpassed in the near future, I can only hope he receives some acknowledgement for holding it and also the GWD record, as no one's achievements should fall victim to semantics. The league and Elias have kept away from this semantics mess. The onus is on each NFL team to get their facts straight and their words right. I implore fans and national sports writers to question why this has been allowed to go on for years and years, and ask for the league to step in and mandate standardization of the statistic. Without standardization, you just have numbers that mean nothing.

Finally, here is the chronology of the fourth quarter/OT game-winning drive record since 1950:

17 - Sammy Baugh; thru 1950 season
19 - Sammy Baugh; thru 1951 season
19 - Sammy Baugh, Norm Van Brocklin; 12/26/1960 - 10/21/1961
19 - Sammy Baugh, Charlie Conerly, Norm Van Brocklin; 10/22/1961 - 12/2/1961
19 - Sammy Baugh, Charlie Conerly, Johnny Unitas, Norm Van Brocklin; 12/3/1961 - 9/15/1962
20 - Johnny Unitas; 9/16/1962 - 11/10/1962
20 - Bobby Layne, Johnny Unitas; 11/11/1962 - 12/7/1962
21 - Johnny Unitas; 12/8/1962
22 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1962 season
25 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1963 season
27 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1964 season
29 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1965 season
30 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1966 season
33 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1967 season
34 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1968 season
37 - Johnny Unitas; thru 1969 season
40 - Johnny Unitas; 11/29/1970 - 9/30/1995
40 - Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas; 10/1/1995 - 11/4/1995
41 - Dan Marino; 11/5/1995 - 12/2/1995
42 - Dan Marino; thru 1995 season
43 - Dan Marino; thru 1996 season
46 - Dan Marino; thru 1997 season
48 - Dan Marino; thru 1998 season
51 - Dan Marino; 1/9/2000 - present

You can send any detailed questions/comments to

P.S. During the season I will have a more formal part IV of the "Quarterbacks and fourth quarter comebacks" series, which will break down the comebacks many prominent QBs have had for "quality", looking at their performance and the situation. I would like to let everyone know we will be updating the comebacks and game-winning drives for this 2010 season on a weekly basis, so keep an eye on that. I appreciate seeing people on the internet talk about this in terms of player having "X comebacks and X game-winning drives" in his career, so the data is being put to use.