Today’s guest post/contest comes from Thomas McDermott, a licensed land surveyor in the State of California, a music theory instructor at Loyola Marymount University, and an NFL history enthusiast. As always, we thank him for his hard work.
One way we can tell if a quarterback is “clutch” – meaning, he plays well when he absolutely has to – is by looking at his 4th Quarter Comebacks (4QC) and Game Winning Drives (GWD). Below are definitions for both1:
4th Quarter Comeback: In the 4th quarter, the quarterback leads a scoring drive while being down one score or less that results in the game being tied or his team taking the lead. As long as the QB’s team wins the game, the QB gets credit for the 4QC, even if his scoring drive wasn’t the game-winning drive.
Game-Winning Drive: In the 4th quarter or overtime, the quarterback leads a scoring drive that results in his team taking the lead (meaning, breaking a tie or overcoming a deficit) for the last time.
While I believe that both of these stats do a pretty good job of revealing “clutch” quarterbacks (in any case they point us in the right direction), they don’t tell us much about the quarterbacks’ actual role in said stats. Did he just suddenly find himself on the opponent’s 1-yard line after a turnover, hand the ball off to the RB who scores a TD, winning the game? Or what about all those “missed” 4QC/GWD’s: situations where the quarterback heroically leads his team down the field for the go-ahead score, only to then watch on the sideline as his team loses the game when the opposing team scores on their last drive. Remember, the quarterback does not get credit for a 4QC if his team does not win the game.
What I thought might be helpful, and interesting in any event, is to look at a quarterback’s performance within the defined situation spelled out above for 4QC/GWD’s – namely, in the 4th quarter or overtime, when the game is tied or the quarterback’s team is trailing by one score (8 points since 1994, 7 before that). This might give us some insight into how a QB played when it really mattered, regardless of who actually won the game.
The metric I’ll use to evaluate performance will be a variant of Bryan Frye’s Total Adjusted Yards per Play. I say “variant” because I’m not including 1st down data, which Bryan does2, and I’m giving a 15-yard bonus for successful 2-point conversions.3 Here’s the formula:
(passing & rushing yards + (touchdowns * 20) + (2ptconv * 15) – (interceptions * 45) – (fumbles lost * 25) – ( sack yards)) / (pass attempts + rush attempts + sacks)
One final note before the table: a strength of opponent adjustment is entirely appropriate for a study like this, and regrettably, I didn’t do it. That’s on the list for next time.
Finally, the table. Here’s how to read it:
Jay Cutler had 11 games where he and the Bears offense found themselves in our defined clutch situation; in those situations, he had 56 completions in 95 attempts for 773 yards, 5 passing touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and was sacked four times for 16 yards. He had 5 carries for 39 yards and a touchdown, he lost one fumble (from a sack by Von Miller!), and had one 2-point4 conversion. This makes for 816 Total Adjusted Yards in 104 action plays, giving Cutler 7.8 TAY/P, which is the fifth highest in 2015. If we take his TAY/P and compare it to the league average of 5.2 yards, Cutler’s performance is 2.7 yards above average; multiplying that by 104 action plays gives him 277 yards of Clutch Value, the most for 2015 (and 26 yards ahead of “Clutch-Master” Eli Manning).
|Rk||Player||G||Cmp-Att-Yds||Pass TD-Int||Sks-Yds||Car-Yds-Rush TD-Fum Lost||Action Plays||TAY||TAY/P||TAY/A OvAvg||Clutch Value||4QC||GWD|
Some initial comments:
- The minimum number of drop backs is 24. I’ve gathered the clutch situation data for all quarterbacks since 1994, and the standard deviation for Clutch TAY/P starts to get reasonable at around 24 drop backs in a season.
- Of course, this stat can still get a little wonky due to “fluke” plays and small sample sizes. Eli Manning made one clutch play in the Giants-Dolphins game in Week 14: an 84-yard catch-and-run TD pass to Odell Beckham Jr., which netted him 104 TAY/P.
- It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: while these numbers might reveal quarterbacks who played well in clutch situations, it’s entirely possible they wouldn’t have needed to “come through in the clutch” had they just played better in “non-clutch” situations.
- You might notice that Cutler and Derek Carr have the same number of 4QC/GWD’s (4) and yet Cutler is at the top of our ranking and Carr is at the bottom. What gives? Shouldn’t a high Clutch Value correlate well with 4QC’s and GWD’s? Well, yes and no. There’s a lot of randomness here, and as noted above, a QB can play well in the clutch and his team can still lose the game, or a QB can play pretty badly and still win the game. But, generally, better QB clutch play does correlate well with wins (or, 4QC’s for our study). So, for 2015, the correlation is zero, but the single season correlation factor since 1994 is 0.38, and if we correlate using career numbers (again, since 1994), it’s 0.56.
- Eli Manning played pretty well in the clutch in 2015, but you might not be able to tell from his 4QC/GWD’s. He led his team on two possible game-winning drives, against the Patriots in Week 10 and the Panthers in Week 15. In both cases, he watched from the sidelines as those teams’ quarterbacks’ led their offenses on game-winning drives.
- As poorly as Derek Carr played in the clutch (admittedly, his numbers are mostly driven down by his disastrous two-pick 4th quarter performance against Kansas City in Week 13), he, like Manning, could have had 2 more 4QC/GWD’s had the Oakland defense stopped Jay Cutler in Week 4 and Landry Jones in Week 9.
- Fun fact: the Broncos defense recovered 5 quarterback fumbles (at least 4 were forced) in clutch situations in 2015.
Would love to hear any comments, especially whether or not you think this stat can tell us anything useful (I’m on the fence). I’ve already collected the single season and career numbers, if there’s enough interest, I’ll post those as well. Thanks for reading.
[Editor’s Note 1: We should state the obvious that the idea of “clutch” may not be repeatable on any meaningful scale at the professional level. That doesn’t make this less interesting, but just interesting in a retrodictive rather than a predictive way.]
[Editor’s Note 2: Ryan Fitzpatrick remains unsigned, IMO, in large part because of his ranking on this table. He had six interceptions on just 67 passes in clutch situations, including two enormous ones when down by 7 with 2 minutes to go against Houston and down by 5 with 2 minutes to go against Buffalo in the final game of the year (he also threw a key interception earlier in the quarter). He had two desperation interceptions in the final 25 seconds of the fourth quarter, which aren’t as bad, but also had two big failures on 4th down against Buffalo (in November) and Houston (one of which was also an interception). Those three games were half of the Jets losses in 2015 — and Fitzpatrick played terribly against the Eagles in a fourth loss — which is why it’s easier for Jets management to take a hard stance on Fitzpatrick now. Whether that is appropriate is up for debate, but it’s a lot easier to not throw big money at a quarterback who had a big season when that big season was tainted with some notable failures in “clutch” situations.]
- As many of you already know, Scott Kacsmar did a ton of great work in this area; his “Quarterbacks and fourth quarter comebacks” article at the old PFR Blog provides all the information you’ll ever need about 4QC/GWDs. [↩]
- Including 1st down data is entirely appropriate for this study, probably even more so than for season or career data, since getting a first down on a possible game-winning drive is pretty important. I’m not including it here because I feel that if we give a bonus for 1st downs, there should be a penalty for failed 3rd and 4th down conversions, and I haven’t done enough research yet for that (at the moment, I’ve got a failed 3rd down conversion being equal to losing about 16 yards). [↩]
- I haven’t done any research on this yet; for the moment, 15 yards “feels” right. [↩]
- Note: To save room on the table, 2-point conversions were omitted but are still part of the formula. There were only four in 2015, converted by Cutler, Rivers, McCown, and Mariota. [↩]