Posted by Scott Kacsmar on February 3, 2011
Robert Duvall once said "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" in Apocalypse Now. I have never smelled napalm before, but there is something I enjoy. I love the smell of freshly produced spreadsheets on quarterbacks that will provide the data to expose myths and spit in the face of conventional wisdoms. I want to know why certain teams succeed and others fail, especially in the postseason. Well after my latest research efforts, I feel much more knowledgeable about certain quarterbacks and why their playoff record is what it is.
Just in time for a big quarterback match-up in Super Bowl XLV between Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, I compiled playoff drive stats for two dozen quarterbacks that have played in the last thirty years. It was my goal to get every quarterback with at least 8 playoff starts since 1980, and I almost succeeded. Only Phil Simms, Joe Theismann, Jim Plunkett and Danny White were left out due to lack of complete career data. I also included a few active quarterbacks with 4-7 playoff starts to their credit. I used official NFL gamebooks to get this data. While many of these gamebooks offer drive summaries, I actually went through the play-by-play for each drive (over 3400 of them) to get a better understanding of how the game progressed and for more accurate statistics.
Here is a table of stats that you may be familiar with for the quarterbacks involved:
Those are your conventional passing stats. Drive stats are something I have taken much interest in the last few years. I guess it started with my work on fourth quarter drives, and has since carried over to the full game. They offer more measures of efficiency and give better insight into how productive a team's offense or defense is and what style or tempo they may play at. Think about basketball and how the stats for a run and gun/fast break offense are going to be different than the numbers of a half-court offense.
The number of possessions a team gets in a game or season is one of the most overlooked parts of football. Every offense and defense is held to the same standard of points and yards scored/allowed, but did the defense that allows 20 points on 8 drives really play better than the defense that allowed 24 points on 13 drives? Some teams get the ball less than others year after year, meaning their offense has to play at a higher level on fewer opportunities. This would make the offense's stats look better, and the defense's look worse since they are not on the field as much as other teams. The Colts have often been a team in recent seasons that are at the bottom or close to it in offensive possessions every season. Jon Gruden, on a Monday Night Football telecast in Miami in 2009, is probably the only analyst I have heard reference this fact in the media.
If you are not familiar with drive stats, I would highly recommend a visit to that section on the FootballOutsiders site, where Jim Armstrong does a great job of putting out the drive stats on a weekly basis each season. They are listed for 1997-2010. You can familiarize yourself with the kind of numbers you can expect from an offense that is ranked at the top of the league, the average, and at the bottom, to use as a reference when you look over these playoff drive stats.
Disclaimer: the stats presented here are in the quarterback's name, but even more than usual this is really about the team's offensive performance as a whole rather than the individual quarterback. There are certain parts, like the breakdown on interceptions, that are mostly all about the quarterback, but overall drive stats are something you have to keep the team in mind first for. There are of course drives where a quarterback does nothing but hand the ball off every play. The entry "Joe Montana" is another way of saying "1981-90 49ers, 1993-94 Chiefs". Also I will note that I tried to include every drive a QB played in during the playoffs, whether or not they started the game did not matter. I will point out several things, but I will also leave the reader to make their own observations on all the various data presented below. Kneel down drives at the end of either half are excluded.
With that cleared up, on to the data.
The first table is similar to the list of stats you will find on FO's drive stats page. This is the meat of drive stats right here (yards, points, punts, TDs, etc.). Dr/GP represents the number of drives per game played. Do not put a ton of stock in those numbers, such as low-man Steve Young's 9.4, because many of these quarterbacks have played in games they did not start, thus may have only played a drive or two in one game. For Steve Young, I only included his 14 starts and his game against the 1987 Vikings where he replaced Montana in the third quarter. Troy Aikman, John Elway, Mark Brunell, Dave Krieg, and Randall Cunningham also participated in at least one game they did not start. 3OUT% is the percentage of drives that were 3 and outs. QB TOs are the total number of turnovers by the QB himself (interceptions and lost fumbles). Finally, Avg. SFP is the average starting field position the QB had.
|QB||Games||Drives||Dr/GP||Yds/Dr||Pts||Pts/Dr||TDs||TDs/Dr||3OUT%||Punts||Punts/Dr||QB TOs||TOs/Dr||INTs||Fum||Avg. SFP|
Aaron Rodgers with real gaudy numbers across the board, but of course he's only played four games to this point. Still a stark contrast to Tony Romo. Better than being Dave Krieg though. His offenses punted 54.3% of the time, which would put them in worst offense in the league territory for most regular seasons.
You can start to see why some teams have reached multiple Super Bowls with their offense's production. Troy Aikman and Ben Roethlisberger may not be known for leading regular season offensive juggernauts, but in the playoffs, they are among the best ever at putting points on the board. In addition to points they even exceed other quarterbacks known to lead explosive offenses, such as Dan Marino and Philip Rivers, in other categories like yards/drive, while having fewer turnovers and 3 & outs. Of course, there are various factors going on here, and I will dig deeper into several of them.
There are several players that stand out, but the cases of Peyton Manning and Warren Moon are especially interesting. The Houston Oilers, unable to get past the Divisional round, were known as a team with a great regular season offense that continued to lose playoff games they should have won, while the Colts are viewed as a similar team despite winning a Super Bowl and getting to another. Both quarterbacks have very solid individual passing stats and team drive stats, but both have a losing record (Moon is 3-7 while Manning is 9-10). How can that be?
With respect to their defensive issues, field position and a lack of opportunities are two great answers for that. When you so often have games where the offense touches the ball 8-9 times, and has to go 75, 80, 85 or even 90+ yards to score touchdowns, you have to play at a very high level offensively to score a lot of points, and even the best offenses can struggle to do that in the postseason against the best competition. It has become common to see a scene like this in a Colts game as opponents try to play keep away to minimize Manning's opportunities.
Manning and Moon had the worst starting field position of these 24 quarterbacks. Aikman and Roethlisberger? Some of the best starting field position. Would the Colts and Oilers have won more games if they could get more stops on defense to get the ball back to their offense and in better field position? It would seem so, but in the cases of Steve McNair and Randall Cunningham, that would appear to be no guarantee.
Cunningham averaged 12.5 drives/game in the playoffs, highest among this group of quarterbacks. His average starting field position was the 32.09, 7th best. McNair had 11.7 drives/game and the 6th best field position at 32.34. Yet they are near the bottom in points and yards.
Here is an expanded table for starting field position. I broke it down by the number of drives starting at your own 1-9, own 11-19, the 20 yard line exactly, the 21-35, the 36-49, and then Opp. 50+ is anything starting in opponent territory. <20 % is the percentage of drives started at the team's own 20 or worse. Worst GP is the worst average starting field position the QB ever had for a game in the playoffs.
|QB||Games||Drives||Avg. SFP||1 to 9||%||10 to 19||%||20 (exact)||%||21-35||%||36-49||%||Opp. 50+||%||<20 %||Worst GP|
You can see out of the experienced quarterbacks that Moon and Manning have the most drives starting at their own 20 or worse. No one started a higher percentage of drives in opponent territory than Steve Young, though Young did have the highest rate of drives starting inside his own 10 as well, so there is a balancing act for him.
I have seen people say the Colts only scored 17 points in their playoff losses in 2008 and 2009. Looking at this clears that up. The worst field position in any of the 314 games I looked at belongs to Peyton Manning's Colts in the 2008 Wild Card game at San Diego, where they had to start at the 15.67 on average. The Colts did manage to score 17 points that day. The second worst game also belongs to the Colts, and it is the big one: Super Bowl 44 last year (16.63 was their average start). They scored 17 points in that one as well. Steve Young's 16.70 game against the Packers in the 1997 NFC Championship is the third worst game, and the 49ers scored 3 points on offense that day. Touchdowns are harder to come by when the field ahead of you is so long. In the games I looked at there were 1080 drives started at least 80 yards away from the end zone, and only 182 (16.9%) ended in a touchdown.
Speaking of touchdown drives, here's another table. Avg. Yds is the average length (in yards) of the TD drives the quarterback led. Avg. Score is the average point margin of the game when that drive was started. I am not sure how relevant this is to anything, but I threw it in there out of curiosity. In theory I would guess the closer your Avg. Score is to 0, the more that quarterback's TD drives came when the game was very close. A negative number would indicate more of a tendency to put up "garbage time TDs", while a high positive would come from someone on the right side of a blowout win. Again, not sure if this is actually telling of anything or not. Then I broke it down by distances.
|QB||TDs||Avg. Yds||Avg. Score||70+||%||80+||%||90+||%||<50||%||<40||%||<30||%||<20||%|
Tony Romo may have only led 7 TD drives, but at least they have been some long ones. But now we can see that difference again in Manning/Moon and the likes of Aikman/Roethlisberger. The average TD drive for the former is around 70, while the latter only were going about 58 yards on average. That does matter. Also, Roethlisberger and Jim Kelly have some very similar splits here.
There are some crazy numbers here.
- Only 27.8% of Roethlisberger's TD drives have gone 70+ yards. The average is 48.2%.
- Tony Romo's only led 7 TD drives total, yet two of them are for 90+ yards (28.6%).
- In four games, Aaron Rodgers has already lead more 80+ yard TD drives (8) than Drew Brees (7), Donovan McNabb (7), Tom Brady (7), Jim Kelly (5), and Ben Roethlisberger (4), among several others.
- Warren Moon had 45.5% of his TD drives go 80+ yards. The average is 24.5%.
- Steve Young (38.6%) and Troy Aikman (33.3%) had more TD drives start in opponent territory than anyone else.
- Peyton Manning's had just one TD drive under 40 yards (2.3%). The average is 14.5%.
Keeping with the idea of Avg. Score, here is a table for the breakdown of drives that were started with a lead, tie or a deficit. Avg. Score is again the average point margin for all the drives when the drive started. 3+ SCR DEF is the number of drives that were started with a deficit of three or more scores (17+ points since 1994, 15+ points prior to that). 3+ SCR LEAD is the number of drives started with a lead of three or more scores.
|QB||Drives||Avg. Score||Behind||%||Tied||%||Ahead||%||3+ SCR DEF||%||3+ SCR LEAD||%|
Out of all-time great quarterbacks, Dan Marino was behind the eight ball a great bit. The most staggering number is that 23.4% of his drives were started with at least a three score deficit. The average is only 8.5%. Marino had to play from behind so much, you wonder how much of an impact that can have on a quarterback's stats when they are put in a position to force throws you would not often attempt if the game was closer.
That brings me to two final tables for interceptions. In the first you can see the number of interceptions per drive. The Avg. LOS represents the average line of scrimmage for where the interception was thrown. Avg. Score is the average point margin when the interception was thrown. Not surprisingly the average was -4.37. Quarterbacks throw interceptions from behind more often than not. You can see that breakdown of interceptions thrown from behind, tied or with the lead. I also was able to get the number of red zone interceptions thrown by each quarterback.
The second table is for interceptions thrown with a three score deficit or worse, a deficit of one score, a deficit of one score in the fourth quarter, and finally the number of interceptions thrown when the game was tied in the fourth quarter and overtime.
|QB||Games||Drives||INTs||INTs/Dr||Avg. LOS||Avg. Score||Red Zone||%||Behind||%||Tied||%||Ahead||%|
|Drew Brees||7||81||2||0.025||own 47||-9.00||0||0.0||1||50.0||1||50.0||0||0.0|
|Tony Romo||4||45||2||0.044||own 49||-9.00||0||0.0||2||100.0||0||0.0||0||0.0|
|Matt Hasselbeck||11||133||9||0.068||own 40||-0.78||0||0.0||5||55.6||1||11.1||3||33.3|
|Aaron Rodgers||4||42||3||0.071||opp 42||9.33||1||33.3||0||0.0||1||33.3||2||66.7|
|Randall Cunningham||10||125||9||0.072||opp 47||-8.00||3||33.3||8||88.9||0||0.0||1||11.1|
|Tom Brady||19||207||16||0.077||opp 46||-4.44||4||25.0||10||62.5||2||12.5||4||25.0|
|Dave Krieg||11||105||9||0.086||own 45||-9.44||0||0.0||6||66.7||2||22.2||1||11.1|
|John Elway||22||239||21||0.088||own 44||-6.10||2||9.5||10||47.6||5||23.8||6||28.6|
|Donovan McNabb||16||187||17||0.091||own 47||-3.00||3||17.6||10||58.8||2||11.8||5||29.4|
|Steve Young||15||141||13||0.092||opp 42||-6.38||1||7.7||11||84.6||1||7.7||1||7.7|
|Steve McNair||10||117||11||0.094||opp 49||0.27||2||18.2||3||27.3||5||45.5||3||27.3|
|Peyton Manning||19||200||19||0.095||opp 40||-5.53||4||21.1||11||57.9||0||0.0||8||42.1|
|Kurt Warner||13||144||14||0.097||own 49||-0.43||2||14.3||7||50.0||2||14.3||5||35.7|
|Eli Manning||7||72||7||0.097||own 40||-8.57||1||14.3||5||71.4||1||14.3||1||14.3|
|Mark Brunell||11||113||11||0.097||opp 48||-6.45||2||18.2||8||72.7||2||18.2||1||9.1|
|Troy Aikman||16||164||17||0.104||own 43||-3.59||1||5.9||12||70.6||1||5.9||4||23.5|
|Ben Roethlisberger||12||131||14||0.107||opp 47||-0.71||2||14.3||5||35.7||4||28.6||5||35.7|
|Jake Delhomme||8||93||10||0.108||opp 43||-11.60||2||20.0||9||90.0||0||0.0||1||10.0|
|Brett Favre||24||274||30||0.109||own 39||-7.17||1||3.3||19||63.3||7||23.3||4||13.3|
|Philip Rivers||7||77||9||0.117||opp 49||-2.67||0||0.0||6||66.7||0||0.0||3||33.3|
|Dan Marino||18||205||24||0.117||opp 49||-11.04||3||12.5||19||79.2||1||4.2||4||16.7|
|Warren Moon||10||107||14||0.131||own 47||-0.86||2||14.3||5||35.7||3||21.4||6||42.9|
|Jim Kelly||17||195||28||0.144||own 48||0.07||4||14.3||11||39.3||6||21.4||11||39.3|
|QB||INTs||3+ SCR DEF||%||1 SCR DEF||%||1 SCR DEF, 4Q||%||TIED, 4Q/OT||%|
Is it surprising Brady, Montana and Manning rank in the top 5 in percentage of their passes intercepted in the red zone? Or that Montana (5) has the highest number of red zone interceptions? Bengals fans probably would say that number should be 6, referring to Lewis Billups dropping Montana's interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Things that make you go hmm....
Jake Delhomme's pick parade against the Cardinals gives him the lowest average score margin for his interceptions at -11.60. Dan Marino is right there with him at -11.04. Only Rodgers (small sample size), Montana, McNair and Kelly averaged interceptions with a lead. Out of the experienced quarterbacks, Montana, Moon and Manning all threw at least 42% of their picks with the lead, yet only Montana has the winning record. No one averaged more INTs/drive than Jim Kelly.
Something that is not surprising: Brett Favre throwing 6 interceptions in the 4th quarter/overtime with a one score deficit or tie. Those must have been fun.
I crammed to get this done before the Super Bowl, so I regret not having more quarterbacks included, especially those with 6-7 starts (Kosar, Sanchez, O'Donnell, Flacco, etc.). Perhaps during the off-season I can come back with a follow-up that will include more players, and even more detailed situational stats such as third downs and actual passing stat splits based on the score margin. I could find the answer to a question like "which QB's running game did the best job converting 3rd & 1 runs?"
Any other questions you would like to see answered?