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Guest Post: Quarterbacks and fourth quarter comebacks, Part I

Posted by Doug on August 6, 2009

Just above these words, it says "posted by Doug." And it was literally posted by Doug, but the words below the line belong to researcher Scott Kacsmar, who has agreed to write this guest post for us. And we thank him for it.

Forty-seven. The most famous number when it comes to quarterbacks and fourth quarter comebacks is 47. It may also be the most misleading number in NFL history. No matter what source you look at, John Elway is credited with a NFL record 47 comebacks in the 4th quarter. This leads much credence to the "clutchness" of a QB in his career, and is often cited in debates between Elway and other great QBs. But if you research all of his wins, you will have found that he is being credited for comeback wins in a game that ended in an overtime tie, and in several games the Broncos never trailed in the fourth quarter. You cannot come back when there's no deficit to come back from. Dan Marino, always credited with 37 comebacks, has been ranked in 2nd place since retirement. Even has 37.

Currently, Marino sits 3rd behind Favre (42 is the widely reported number) and Elway (lucky 47). But when the PR staff for the Miami Dolphins exclude wins that the Dolphins never trailed in the 4th quarter, while the Favre and Elway people do not, does that not suggest a serious issue with the validity of these “records”? And why has this been allowed to go on for over a decade?

That's where my research comes in.

In part I, we are going to look at just Elway and Marino’s comebacks. In part II, I will show how several other QBs have had their comebacks tracked and try to create a standard method of crediting comebacks and game-winning drives.

I have taken the time to go through each player's career and get to the bottom of things. As I looked through the games, I used a source for each QB to guide me through how they had arrived at the widely reported numbers.

Marino, from a Dolphins site
Elway, from the HOF website

I will point out the issues with those games, and bring up games missed by those lists. Before starting with Marino, let’s quickly create the definition of a comeback (there will be more detail on this in part II).

For it to be a 4th quarter comeback win, you must:

  • Win the game (no ties or losses)
  • Take the field with a 1--8 pt deficit (1--7 prior to 1994) and score as an offense (no fumble return TD to win the game)
  • It does not have to be the final winning score (hence, that applies to the number of game-winning drives)

Got it? Now it’s time for the data. Note that this includes both postseason and regular season.

Marino is credited with 37 comebacks and 13 game-winning drives (games where the Dolphins did not trail in the 4th quarter and he broke a tie for the win). My data has 51 games, and the boxscores to those games are listed below. An asterisk (*) denotes games that were drives to break a tie and are not comebacks.

*1983-11-06  @ SFO   W 20-17     [1]
 1983-12-04  @ HOU   W 24-17     [2]
 1984-11-04  @ NYJ   W 31-17   
 1984-11-11    PHI   W 24-23   
*1984-12-17    DAL   W 28-21   
 1985-10-06    PIT   W 24-20   
*1985-10-20    TAM   W 41-38   
 1985-11-10    NYJ   W 21-17   
 1985-12-08  @ GNB   W 34-24   
*1985-12-16    NWE   W 30-27   
 1986-01-04    CLE   W 24-21   
 1986-11-16  @ BUF   W 34-24   
*1986-12-14  @ RAM   W 37-31 OT
 1987-11-01    PIT   W 35-24   
 1987-12-20    WAS   W 23-21   
 1988-10-16    SDG   W 31-28   
*1988-12-12    CLE   W 38-31   
*1989-10-08    CLE   W 13-10 OT
 1989-10-15  @ CIN   W 20-13   
*1989-10-22    GNB   W 23-20   
 1989-11-19  @ DAL   W 17-14   
 1990-09-09  @ NWE   W 27-24   
 1990-10-07    NYJ   W 20-16   
 1990-12-09    PHI   W 23-20 OT
 1991-01-05    KAN   W 17-16   
*1991-09-22    GNB   W 16-13     [3]
*1991-11-10    NWE   W 30-20   
 1991-11-24  @ CHI   W 16-13 OT
 1992-09-14  @ CLE   W 27-23   
 1992-09-27  @ SEA   W 19-17   
 1992-10-11    ATL   W 21-17   
 1992-11-22    HOU   W 19-16   
 1992-12-20    NYJ   W 19-17   
 1992-12-27  @ NWE   W 16-13 OT
 1993-09-05  @ IND   W 24-20   
 1994-09-04    NWE   W 39-35   
 1994-10-16    RAI   W 20-17 OT
 1994-11-06    IND   W 22-21   
 1994-11-27  @ NYJ   W 28-24   
 1995-10-01  @ CIN   W 26-23   
*1995-11-05  @ SDG   W 24-14   
 1995-12-03    ATL   W 21-20   
*1996-11-17  @ HOU   W 23-20     [4]
 1997-09-07    TEN   W 16-13 OT
*1997-10-05    KAN   W 17-14   
*1997-12-07    DET   W 33-30   
 1998-10-25    NWE   W 12- 9 OT
*1999-01-02    BUF   W 24-17   
 1999-10-10  @ IND   W 34-31   
 1999-12-19    SDG   W 12- 9   
 2000-01-09  @ SEA   W 20-17   

There are four issues with these games (the ones with a bracketed number) that I have resolved.

[1] It is not known what 13 games a few sources have listed as the games Marino led a game-winning drive to break a tie, but I’m guessing they are missing one from his rookie season against the 49ers (source). The Dolphins led 17-14 to start the 4th before Joe Montana drove the 49ers to a game-tying field goal. Marino led the game-winning field goal drive for the Dolphins, picking up yardage on a Ronnie Lott pass interference penalty. This makes Marino +1 in overall 4th quarter wins (51).

[2] The source misses Marino’s very first comeback, also from his rookie year. At Houston on 12/4/83, the Dolphins trailed 17-10 starting the 4th. Marino threw a TD to Tony Nathan to tie the game at 17. Later he led an 82 yd drive for the winning TD in a 24-17 win (source). Marino was injured and left the game the play before the Nathan TD. But by virtue of his TD to Nathan and being out there for most of the game-winning drive, this is most definitely a 4th quarter comeback, the first of Marino's career. So Marino is +1 in both comebacks (38) and overall GW drives (51).

[3] 9/22/1991 vs. Green Bay - the Dolphins started the 4th quarter trailing 13-6. The Miami offense had been rather impotent to this point. NT Chuck Klingbeil recovered a Don Majkowski fumble for a TD to tie the game at 13. So this cannot be a comeback since Marino never did anything while trailing. Marino completed a 40 yard pass to Duper to set up the winning field goal for a 16-13 win. This is a game-winning drive, not a comeback. So subtract a comeback (that'd keep him at 37).

[4] 11/17/1996 vs. Houston - Similarly, the Dolphins trailed 17-13 to start the 4th quarter. Zach Thomas scored on an interception return to take a 20-17 lead. This cannot be a Marino comeback. The Oilers tied the game on a field goal at 20-20. Marino then led a game-winning field goal drive for a 23-20 win. This is a game-winning drive, not a comeback. Subtract it from the total (36).

Marino results: Marino had 51 overall wins decided in the 4th quarter/overtime, and 36 of them are comebacks. This is one less than what he's usually credited with.

Elway is credited with 47 comebacks. According to the HOF article and in the Denver media guide, "Elway chalked up a record 47 fourth quarter come-from-behind comebacks during his pro career." Come-from-behind? Not quite. Here is my list of 50 Elway games, again with asterisks pointing out games that were not comebacks.

 1983-12-11    BAL   W 21-19   
 1984-11-04    NWE   W 26-19   
 1984-11-11  @ SDG   W 16-13   
*1984-12-09    SDG   W 16-13   
 1985-09-22  @ ATL   W 44-28   
*1985-10-20    SEA   W 13-10 OT  [1]
 1985-11-11    SFO   W 17-16   
 1985-11-17    SDG   W 30-24 OT
 1985-12-01  @ PIT   W 31-23   
 1985-12-14    KAN   W 14-13   
 1985-12-20  @ SEA   W 27-24   
 1986-09-07    RAI   W 38-36   
 1987-01-11  @ CLE   W 23-20   
*1987-09-20  @ GNB   T 17-17 OT  [4]
 1987-11-16    CHI   W 31-29   
 1987-12-06    NWE   W 31-20   
*1988-01-17    CLE   W 38-33   
 1988-10-09  @ SFO   W 16-13 OT
 1989-10-08    SDG   W 16-10   
 1989-10-22  @ SEA   W 24-21 OT
*1989-11-12  @ KAN   W 16-13   
 1990-01-07    PIT   W 24-23   
 1990-09-17    KAN   W 24-23   
*1990-09-23    SEA   W 34-31 OT  [2]
*1990-10-21  @ IND   W 27-17   
*1991-10-20    KAN   W 19-16   
*1991-10-27  @ NWE   W  9- 6   
*1991-12-08  @ CLE   W 17- 7   
 1991-12-15    PHO   W 24-19   
 1992-01-04    HOU   W 26-24   
 1992-09-06    RAI   W 17-13   
 1992-10-04    KAN   W 20-19   
 1992-10-18    HOU   W 27-21   
 1993-12-12    KAN   W 27-21   
 1994-10-23  @ SDG   W 20-15   
*1994-11-13    SEA   W 17-10     [3]
 1994-11-20    ATL   W 32-28   
*1995-09-17    WAS   W 38-31   
*1995-11-19    SDG   W 30-27   
 1995-12-24  @ OAK   W 31-28   
 1996-09-15    TAM   W 27-23   
 1996-10-20    BAL   W 45-34   
 1996-11-04  @ OAK   W 22-21   
 1996-11-24  @ MIN   W 21-17   
*1997-10-26  @ BUF   W 23-20 OT
*1997-11-02    SEA   W 30-27   
 1998-01-04  @ KAN   W 14-10   
*1998-01-25  @ GNB   W 31-24   
 1998-11-01  @ CIN   W 33-26   
 1998-12-06    KAN   W 35-31   

Again, several issues here. First, the Broncos' PR people must have fallen asleep while looking at games against the Seattle Seahawks. There were three Seattle games where Elway should be credited with a game-winning drive (but no comebacks since they never trailed).

[1] 10/20/85 vs. Seattle – Denver led 10-7 to start the 4th quarter. Seattle forced OT with a field goal. After the teams traded punts twice, Dave Krieg threw an interception that put Denver at the Seahawks' 15 yard line. The offense, with Elway, came out and ran 3 plays for 8 yards. They kicked a 24 yd FG for the 13-10 OT win. Hardly the stuff of legends, but it still counts as a game-winning drive.

[2] 9/23/90 vs. Seattle – Denver led 28-24 to start the 4th. After adding a field goal to the lead, Seattle forces overtime with a TD for a 31-31 tie. In OT, Elway completes three passes and Bobby Humphrey ran 26 yards on a draw on a 66 yard drive that led to the winning field goal.

[3] 11/13/94 vs. Seattle – Denver led 10-3 to start the 4th quarter, only to see the Seahawks tie the game on a TD run. Denver answered with the winning TD drive, capped by a Leonard Russell 11 yard TD run. On the 9-play, 80 yard winning drive, Elway completed all five of his passes.

None of the three are comebacks, but they are game-winning drives. I was thinking the reason Denver people didn't list the first two is because they have nothing to do with the 4th quarter; they were OT drives. The third one was not, and they just flat out missed it.

But if you look closely at that Denver/HOF link with the 47 games, you'll find this gem:

"Oct. 26, 1997 at Buffalo — Directs 9-play, 43-yards drive in 4:47 during overtime to set up a 33-yard Jason Elam field goal with 1:56 remaining on the clock, giving Denver a 23-20 win."

That’s right; it is the exact same situation as the first two games they missed. This is why my Elway data includes 50 games (the 49 wins and the tie). Of those 50 games, 15 of them saw Elway lead a game-winning drive without ever trailing in the 4th quarter. Subtract these 15 from the comeback total, and that makes it 35 comebacks.

Some people have mentioned backup QB Gary Kubiak filling in for an injured Elway and finishing off a winning drive, thinking that Elway should not get credit. This was on 12/20/85 vs. Seattle (something about Elway and Seattle). That thinking is wrong. Twice, Elway led game-tying touchdown drives in the 4th quarter when Denver trailed by 7. With the game tied, he completed a 27 yard pass, and then was knocked out of the game. Kubiak scrambled to finish off the drive and they won on a field goal. Elway deserves credit for this one, one of his finest comebacks and NFL games period.

[4] Finally there's the issue of the 17-17 tie against Green Bay in 1987. Granted, the Broncos were down 17-10 and he led an 18-play drive to tie the game at 17. But the next 20+ minutes of the game were scoreless and the game ended in a tie. While this technically can be seen as a comeback, there's no win attached to it. Call it a tying comeback, a special situation, but do not call it a comeback win. Subtract this one too.

Elway results: Elway had 49 overall wins decided in the 4th quarter/overtime, and 34 of them are comebacks, and another game was a comeback that produced a tie. This is 13 fewer than he gets credit for, and the overall number of drives is fewer than Marino's.

Even if you count the tie, it's still 51 to 50 in favor of Marino. If you count the tie as a comeback, it’s still 36 to 35 in favor of Marino for comebacks. No matter what you wish to call them, Marino has more than Elway, and deserves to be recognized for it.

Next time we’ll look at some other QBs and how their comebacks have been tracked, not to mention how Elway may actually be only third all-time instead of the clear #1 position he has held for over a decade.

In the mean time, if you're interested in more studies of 4th quarter comebacks, see Jason McKinley's article at Football Outsiders, and Clark Heins' research, which you can read about here.

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

Editor's note: here is a direct link to Part II of this article.