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Just Who Are the NFL's "Clutch" QBs?

Refreshing some old ideas with the most recent data on NFL quarterbacks in 4th quarter drives of close games.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

"Clutchness" is probably one of the most overused and at the same time least understood words used to describe quarterbacks. Clutchness usually refers to a critical situation where a quarterback finds an extra gear and elevates his performance in that situation, often the fourth quarter of close games.

Good quarterbacks, so the thinking goes, consistently manage the game better in clutch situations, such as during a fourth-quarter comeback drive. But the key here is "consistently." Just because a quarterback "came through in the clutch" in one playoff game doesn't make him clutch, it makes him lucky - unless he's shown a consistent clutch performance over time prior to that game and after the game. For example, a quarterback cannot be unclutch in the regular season and suddenly be clutch in the postseason, or vice versa.

Over the last few years, I have gathered data on QB performance in the fourth quarter of close games, and today I'm going to update my data with the latest numbers.

I started by projecting the starting QB on all 32 NFL teams. I am honestly unsure about who will start for the Buffalo Bills, and Mariotta (Tennessee) and Winston (Tampa Bay) have no NFL records, so I left those teams out.

Next I looked up which games those quarterbacks started between 2011 and 2014 and searched those games for drives begun in the fourth quarter (or overtime) with a difference in score of fewer than eight points. By looking at a four-year period, I hope to get a better feel for which QB has been consistently clutch, and which QB has been simply lucky in a few games.

Going through the data, I counted a TD, FG, or missed FG as a "success" for the QB, even though it's entirely possible it left their team still trailing. I ignored any drives which ended with a fumble, turnover on downs, the end of regulation time, or a punt. I counted any drive which ended on an interception as a "choke", by which I mean an error on the quarterback.

Finally, I determined the "factor", which is a multiplier of how many times more likely a given QB is to be successful than throw an interception. I also ran these calculations for the NFL as a whole in that time frame and listed that as "NFL Average". I understand there can be plenty of argument about these terms, but as long as they are applied evenly and openly, the resulting data should be useful and indicate true trends, even if it is not a perfect reflection of the "clutchness" of these quarterbacks.

I've summarised the data in the table below. Note that this is not a perfect table. I assembled it by hand and any errors contained herein are mine and mine alone. But the "clutch quarterback" discussion has not had any revised data in some time and I wanted to attempt to update it.

Here is the data. Click on a header to sort by column.

Team QB Drives Success Rate Choke Rate Factor
Minnesota Bridgewater 22 54.6% 4.6% 11.9
St Louis Foles 40 50.0% 7.5% 6.7
New England Brady 90 48.9% 10.0% 4.9
Dallas Romo 110 48.2% 7.3% 6.6
Denver Manning 42 47.6% 11.9% 4.0
Green Bay Rodgers 57 47.4% 1.7% 27.9
Arizona Palmer 64 46.9% 6.3% 7.4
Baltimore Flacco 89 46.1% 6.7% 6.9
Seattle Wilson 61 44.3% 11.5% 3.9
Indianapolis Luck 53 43.4% 7.6% 5.7
Atlanta Ryan 86 43.0% 7.0% 6.1
Chicago Cutler 54 42.6% 7.4% 5.8
New Orleans Brees 66 39.4% 12.1% 3.3
Detroit Stafford 111 38.7% 7.2% 5.4
Carolina Newton 88 38.6% 4.6% 8.4
New York Smith 47 38.3% 10.6% 3.6
Cincinnati Dalton 109 37.6% 9.2% 4.1
Kansas City Smith 81 37.0% 2.5% 14.8
z - The NFL Average QB 2784 36.5% 9.3% 3.9
New York Manning 85 36.5% 14.1% 2.6
Cleveland Hoyer 33 36.4% 18.2% 2.0
Miami Tannehill 74 35.1% 6.8% 5.2
Philadelphia Bradford 40 32.5% 5.0% 6.5
Washington Griffin 65 30.8% 6.2% 5.0
San Diego Rivers 86 30.2% 15.1% 2.0
Pittsburgh Roethlisberger 81 29.6% 7.4% 4.0
San Francisco Kaepernick 52 23.1% 3.9% 5.9
Houston Fitzpatrick 62 22.6% 19.3% 1.2
Oakland Carr 14 21.4% 14.3% 1.5
Jaguars Bortles 21 19.1% 9.5% 2.0

Not too many surprises lurk in the data. Ben Roethlisberger had a great year in 2014, but appears to have struggled quite a bit otherwise. Eli "Mr. Clutch" Manning seems to have come in just below the NFL average, likely because of the lack of legitimate targets in that time with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz both experiencing injury issues in the time frame studied. From this perspective, it seems that the Rams came out well ahead in the Nick Foles trade, but it's worth noting that both Foles and Sam Bradford have very small sample sizes. Speaking of small sample sizes, that readily explains the presence of Teddy Bridgewater at the top of this list, while Derek Carr sits near the bottom. Both teams are high on their young QB at the moment. Time will tell where they really belong.

For those who have been saying that the Dallas Cowboys have relied too much on Tony Romo to win games, there's some definitive support for your argument. Only Matt Stafford has more 4th quarter drives in the last four years with his team in a close game. The average NFL team has had 87 such drives in the four-year span studied, which means that Romo's team has put him in this situation 26% more than the average QB. For him to be 4th in the league in success rate, and 32% more successful than the NFL average, in that situation is a significant achievement to begin with. For him to have those rates when he's there so much more often is truly remarkable and that's why he leads the league in successes, ahead of second place Tom Brady by nine.

On the flip side, Romo is 22% less likely to throw a pick in this situation than the NFL average, landing him in a fairly large "above average" tier that runs from Robert Griffin III at seventh (6.2%) to Andrew Luck at 17th (7.6%). The width of this entire group is smaller than the gap below it (next is Andy Dalton at 9.2%) and nearly as large as the gap above it (Sam Bradford at 5.0%). Finally, in terms of differential, Romo is about 6.6 times as likely to lead a scoring drive as to end with a pick, which ranks him eighth best in the league.

As we look at the results, it's important to emphasize that these stats reflect the last four years. Romo had a career year last year, but he's been a top-notch QB for a very long time and certainly did carry the team long before they "took the ball out of his hands" (where's the sarcasm font when you need it?) last year.

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