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Games Are Closer Than Ever Now, Part II

Part I

The Detroit Lions went 9-7 in 2016, but it was a remarkable 9-7. That’s because quarterback Matthew Stafford recorded 8 fourth quarter comebacks and 8 game-winning drives! That’s right: in all but one win for the Lions (and therefore, all but one game), Detroit trailed at some point in the 4th quarter.

That makes those 4th quarter comebacks sound impressive: if not for those 4th quarter comebacks, the Lions would have gone 1-15. And they were impressive! But here’s a way to make them appear less impressive: Detroit won just a single game last season where the team trailed entering the 4th quarter.

No, really. The Lions trailed by 3 points entering the 4th quarter in a home game against Jacksonville, and won 26-19. The Lions were 1-6 when trailing after three quarters in 2016. Detroit did win two games when tied after three quarters, and went 6-1 when leading after three quarters.

This isn’t intended to diminish Stafford’s performance last year, but rather to put some perspective around the idea of 4th quarter comebacks/game-winning drives. In a lot of competitive games, there are a number of lead changes in the 4th quarter, and it makes sense to call all lead-changing drives a comeback.

That said, let’s look at a different definition of a 4th quarter comeback: one where a team won after trailing while entering the 4th quarter. By that measure, Oakland led the NFL with 5 such comebacks, and the Raiders went 5-4 when trailing after three quarters. Although maybe pump the brakes a little bit if this fact alone causes you to elevate Derek Carr in your brain: the Raiders trailed entering the final frame by 1, 1, 3, 4, and 11 (opening day against New Orleans) points in those games.

In 2016, just 39 games saw a team trail entering the 4th quarter and go on to win; another two ended in ties. For context, there were 245 games overall in 2016 where a team trailed entering the 4th quarter overall.1 That means teams won2 16.3% of games when trailing entering the 4th quarter. That’s not remarkable at all, and matches the long-term average throughout football history. The graph below shows the winning percentage, by season, among teams that trailed entering the 4th quarter:

So by this new definition, there are NOT more 4th quarter comebacks than ever before. But then again, this is also NOT the definition of 4th quarter comebacks that anyone uses. I’m not quite sure what to take of this, so I leave it to you in the comments.

Here’s something I was curious about: what’s the long-term trend on the points differential through 3 quarters among trailing teams? It’s around 11 points, and it’s been that way for awhile (in the ’60s, it was a little higher):

And what if we look just among those games where a team came back and won? As you’d suspect, those games were closer after three quarters, with the average deficit being about 5-6 points. And there isn’t much of a trend in either direction in recent history:

That’s it for part 2. Let me know what you’d like to see, if anything, in part 3.

  1. Said another way, there 11 games that were tied entering the 4th quarter. []
  2. Counting ties as half-wins. []
  • sacramento gold miners

    The way the game is being called today, does help somewhat in the fourth quarter comeback area. Some drives are being kept alive by player safety rules, hits which were perfectly legal years ago. But it still usually takes a quality QB to amass a high fourth quarter comeback total. Terry Bradshaw is an exception, the 70s Steelers rarely trailed in the fourth quarter.

    • Tom

      Right about Bradshaw, although he did have some 4QC’s in the early 1970’s, before the Steelers really got rolling. He “led the league” (if we can even call it that) in 1971 with three 4QC’s, tied with Len Dawson and Bob Griese; in 1972 he had three 4QC’s again, tied for second. After that, yeah, the Steelers defense was pretty much making sure the games were in hand by the 4th quarter.

    • Tom

      Well, we’ve all moved on with our lives, but since I’m messing around with this stuff, here’s Bradshaw’s totals: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2e86196f73810e28a62730f55e48479caf7257ec6487a2306fb5c0b497ec80fc.png
      Looks like he did have one later year where he was pretty “clutch”…1979, he led the league with five 4th quarter comebacks. I wonder how many of those are the result of bombs to Swann or Stallworth…

  • Tom

    This is really good stuff, been looking at this a bit myself when researching for my “QB’s in Clutch Situations” posts. Below is a chart I have of 4QC’s (the NFL’s definition) as a percentage of overall games played since 1994: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3125fcca5b85d19dcf193f9ed7e813e3fada64216d581f68115e353b9bc24a19.png
    Looks to be trending upwards…does this jive with what you have? I’m still in the process of getting the data from before 1994, will post that if I get a chance (although you probably already have this data at hand I’m assuming).

    • What definition are you using?

      Also, 1994 appears to have been the dead ball era for this stuff. You aren’t using arbitrary endpoints intentionally (or maybe maliciously is the better word), but I think that’s the result when you look at the period from ’94 to ’16. Said differently, 4QC were really high in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which makes the variation over the last 40 years look more like random variation then a reflection of the modern trend towards the passing game.

      Do you agree, looking at my graph if you started at 1994?

      • Tom

        As far as the definition, I’m using the definition PFR uses (and I think the NFL) – the data is straight off their site. I’m sure you’ve seen this, but Scott Kacsmar goes into detail about 4QC/GWD’s here:


        Perhaps what he arrives at in those series of articles is what PFR is using…at the outset, he mentions that “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)”

        As far as starting at 1994, I used that because that’s where my “clutch” data starts, the first year play-by-play is available on PFR. Yeah, no malicious intent here…when I read your post, I was reminded that I had made a chart that showed 4QC’s being “on the rise”, just wanted to throw it out there, see what you thought, how it compares with your definition of 4QC, etc. Probably shouldn’t have posted anything unless it went back to 1960.

        That being said, I think the PFR 4QC numbers do match your graph, although the numbers aren’t that high in the late ’80’s early ’90’s…there’s that one huge spike in 1989, but the years on either side aren’t too high. I went back a few more years, here’s the data:
        I took a quick look at some years in the 1960’s, the numbers are pretty high, as your chart shows…in 1960, 16% of the games were 4QC’s (!), 14% for 1961 and 1965 (just random years I grabbed).

        Overall since 1960 I’d say it’s random, but just from eyeballing your chart, it looks like 4QC’s are trending upwards over the past 40 years. This of course, could just be random and maybe they’ll drop the next couple of years, etc.

        (EDIT: For the chart above, I start at 1986 because you mentioned late ’80’s early ’90’s and wanted to address that. Not just picking some date to make a point, etc., it doesn’t matter to me whether these numbers are actually on the rise or not!)

        • Interesting stuff. Glad you posted it — and yeah, my point was more that I think when people hear “since 1994, XYZ is on the rise” they assume that XYZ was even lower before 1994. In other words, people tend to assume a linear trend when it comes to football history, and that’s almost always not the case. Even passing efficiency doesn’t follow a linear trend, although that’s much closer to perception than most issues.

          • Tom

            Yes, correct…you just imagine that line continuing in that direction, and it gives the wrong impression…as if that’s just the natural occurrence of things, etc. And in this case, perhaps more egregious because continuing that line into the 1960’s pretty much “cuts off” Johnny U’s great comebacks!

          • Tom

            Since my head is all in to this, might as well finish it off. Below is a chart of 4QC’s as a percentage of total season games since 1960: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/01b63772aa482da237dfc43ef241a210560dfbe04c6e52ba8b5d89021b82dba0.png
            Pretty much looks like your chart, and it does appear to be random variation. The trend line is going up, but all we’ll need for it to level out is about 3 or 4 seasons at 10%, etc. I do find it interesting that there is a sizable drop off of “above trend line” seasons after the merger…from 1970-1981 it doesn’t go above 13%. Perhaps a reflection of the “run” mentality in those days? Maybe teams had gotten away from passing so much that they just couldn’t mount these last minute comebacks? Just a guess.

  • Richie

    Interesting to see that the run-heavy 1970’s has the lowest percentage of 4th quarter comebacks. Makes sense, because running is generally thought to be a better way to protect a lead, and a more difficult way to make a comeback.

    • Tom

      Was thinking the same thing (see my post below). They’d gotten away from the pass so much, that perhaps teams weren’t equipped as much to make those quick strikes, besides throwing bombs and Hail Mary’s of course. Totally off the top of my head right now, but it seems like we just didn’t see those types of methodical, game-winning drives again (the numbers are higher in the 1960’s, so perhaps we can assume that Johnny U and those guys were passing more to get that 4th quarter win) until Montana, Elway, etc., in the 1980’s? Maybe I’m stretching things here…

      • sacramento gold miners

        Prior to 1978, defenders were allowed more contact with receivers, and that loosened up the short passing game as well. That helped with the fourth quarter comebacks.