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NFC East QB's: Romo, Vick, Manning And Others In The 4th Quarter

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Yesterday, Mike Sando from ESPN's NFC West blog ran a story in which he used LeBron James' perceived lack of 'clutchness' against the Mavs as a starting point for a look at the 'clutchness' of NFC West quarterbacks.

ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer used that story to look at Tony Romo's performance in clutch situations. Archer found that over his career, Romo has averaged a 101.5 passer rating in the fourth quarters of games with a score differential of seven points or less.

He also writes that since 2006, only Peyton Manning has a higher rating in comparable situations (103.7) than Romo. The only blemish on Romo's stats was the 2010 season (69.7) in which he dipped under 100 for the first time in his five NFL seasons.

But is there really such a thing as 'clutchness', and how would the NFC East QBs fare in such a comparison?

The 'clutch quarterback' is not a formally defined term, but in common usage it refers to a quarterback who makes important positive plays for his team at key moments and in the tightest situations. Traditionally, 'clutchness' was defined simply by looking at the raw number of comebacks led by a QB in the fourth quarter or in overtime. More recently - and because the ESPN stats provide those splits - it has become 4th Quarter QB rating with the score +/- 7 points: late game, high pressure situations. If not now, when?

Of course, there are other splits one could look at, like QB rating in the last two minutes of each half, 3rd and long conversions or red zone passer rating. All of these are high pressure situations when QB's can show their supposed 'clutchness', but we'll stick with the 4th quarter, +/- 7 points passer rating for this post.

All of this of course assumes that there are quarterbacks who are able to elevate their level of play in specific situations. Why they would choose to lower their performance at other times is beyond me of course, but let's look at the facts nevertheless.

A little under two years ago, FootballOutsiders looked at whether there is actually such a thing as a clutch quarterback, i.e. a quarterback who always plays better in the fourth quarter of close games.

After looking at both passer rating and DVOA between a quarterback’s performance in the clutch and his performance overall, other than Eli Manning (in Aaron Schatz’s words "but that’s probably a fluke"), no other quarterback has consistently shown higher passer ratings or DVOA in ‘clutch situations’. Basically, if a QB is good, he’ll play good in the clutch. If he is bad, he’ll play bad. Over time things even out. From the FO article in ESPN the Magazine:

"What do Santa and clutch QBs have in common? They don’t exist.

Patriots fans had no fear. Their team trailed Buffalo 24-13 with 5:32 left in the first Monday night game of 2009 and sure enough Brady led them from behind for the victory. It was just the latest example of how Brady raises his game when it matters most.

Or does he? Patriots Nation might be surprised that Brady’s passer rating in 2007 was 8.3 pts lower in the clutch (when the score was within 7 pts in the 4th qtr or OT – in fact in 2006 it was 21.8 pts lower and and 27.4 pts lower in 2005

Now it’s time to retire the myth of the clutch QB. We looked at it and there is no year to year correlation when the game is on the line. Good QBs are generally good QB’s in the clutch – meaning their QB ratings stay relatively the same…bad QB’s such as Kyle Orton remain bad QBs".

In essence, FO found that good QBs are good regardless of situation. And what we commonly think of as 'clutch QBs' are players who are usually pretty good in no-clutch situations as well.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are very good in the 4th quarter of close games, but they're just as good in the 2nd quarter of not-so-close games. Good players play well in clutch situations not because they have some ability to elevate their talent in "the clutch," but because they are good players, and their average statistical level of performance is very good. Most statistics with decent sample size indicate that players perform about as well in "the clutch" as they do the rest of the time - especially in team sports where it takes a lot more than a single player to win.

But since we've opened this particular can of worms, let's look at how how the NFC East QBs fared in "4th quarter, +/- 7 points" situations last year and over their career, as measured by passer rating. Couple of notes up front: the "4th quarter, +/- 7 points" split is only available back to 2006, so any data for Manning, Vick, Grossman or Kitna beyond that is not included.

Kolb only accumulated stats in that particular situation in 2010. Also, I'm listing McNabb because until further notice, he's still with the Redskins. Finally, Vick's 'career' clutch numbers only include the 2006 and 2010 seasons. I'm sure he had a number of clutch situations in between, but not on the football field.

Career 2010
QB Passer Rating Rating 4th Q,
+/-7 pts
Attempts Rating 4th Q,
+/-7 pts
Tony Romo 95.5 101.5 55 69.7
Donovan McNabb 85.7 76.7 87 59.2
Rex Grossman 81.2 67.7 27 44.7
Eli Manning 80.2 93.4 27 77.1
Michael Vick 80.2 96.2 29 138.7
Jon Kitna 77.5 69 28 93.9
Kevin Kolb 73.2 n.a. 29 29.8

Romo's fourth quarter numbers are largely in line with his overall numbers, and 2010 likely was an aberration, as it hopefully was for the whole team.

McNabb's, Kitna's and Grossman's passer rating in close fourth quarters are all between 8 and 14 points below their career average. Manning's fourth quarter clutch numbers are higher than his career numbers, but 2010 brings his numbers a little more down to earth, just like Romo's numbers came down last year. While Michael Vick had a truly outstanding year in 2010, his only other year in this analysis is 2006 - where he had a 61.0 rating in close fourth quarter situations. Which Vick will we see in 2011?

As for Kevin Kolb, I hear the Eagles want a first round pick for him.