Where does Alex Smith rank among the most clutch quarterbacks in the NFC West?
While sifting through quarterback statistics, I stumbled upon some interesting numbers regarding how each NFC West signal-caller closed out games in 2011.
At first, we will look at every stat individually and then rank the players in order of the best performers per stat. Then I will provide a final ranking at the end to determine which gunslinger was the best in late-game situations.
It is important to start a game well, but how you finish that game is oftentimes more crucial.
Where does your team’s quarterback rank among his division-rivals? Follow along as we sort this out.
–Notes: Statistics provided are for fourth-quarter and overtime periods only. Both Arizona quarterbacks are included, as both played significant time last season.
Setting parameters will make this thing easier to decipher and make the results a bit harder to dispute.
I expect some griping, nonetheless, but perhaps you can appreciate the rankings more if there is an actual scoring system as opposed to just a bunch of numbers followed by my opinion of how these men should be ranked.
We’ll be using golf-style scoring here. The lower the score, the higher the ranking.
Keeping it simple is always best: A No. 1 ranking in a particular stat earns a player one point, whereas a No. 5 ranking earns said player five points. Players who tie in a stat will be given the same amount of points depending upon where they rank—tied for No. 1 equals one point, etc.
Easy enough, yes? Moving on to the goods.
Completing passes becomes more important the deeper into a game a quarterback gets—especially if your favorite team finds itself with a deficit.
None of the quarterbacks in the NFC West were “elite” in this category; however, the top-three men did an admirable job completing passes in crunch-time, as all were near or above 60 percent.
5. Kevin Kolb: 52.6 percent
4. Sam Bradford: 53.2
While completing passes is important, it is more significant to produce yards.
If a quarterback completes 85 percent of his passes, but for only 3.5 yards per attempt, not much is really being accomplished.
Getting the ball down the field is the name of the game, and four of the five quarterbacks did a commendable job in doing so.
5. Bradford: 5.3 YPA
4. Smith: 7.2
3. Jackson: 7.3
2. Skelton: 8.1
1. Kolb: 8.7
Manning’s 8.9 yards per attempt was better than everyone in the NFC West was. He’s hard to beat in a close game.
A fourth-quarter touchdown pass can sometimes be the difference between a win and a loss.
Conversely, late-game interceptions are more often than not damning to a team’s chances at victory.
The better the TD-INT ratio, the more clutch a quarterback is considered. There are fluke numbers out there, but normally these numbers give a fairly accurate definition of how good a QB is in pressure situations.
5. Jackson: 1.25:1 (5 TD-4 INT)
4. Kolb: 1.33:1 (4-3)
T-2. Skelton: 2:1 (6-3)
T-2. Bradford: 2:1 (2-1)
1. Smith: 5:1 (5-1)
Smith actually beats out Manning (3:1, 18-6) in this category. Though Smith (97) did not throw nearly as many late-game passes as Manning (233), his TD-INT ratio is remarkable.
This statistic intrigues me mainly because of the results. I was shocked to find out whose offensive line performed best in the clutch, and there is no doubt you will be as well.
But it also speaks to the clutchness (a made-up word, yes) of the quarterbacks who sit atop the list.
5. Bradford: 7.9 PA/S
4. Smith: 8.8
3. Jackson: 10.1
2. Kolb: 15.6
1. Skelton: 20.6
Skelton beats Manning at this statistic, but Manning’s 16.6 passing attempts per sack is still good.
As I said, this shocked me. Arizona’s offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL last season, surrendering 54 sacks—the second-highest total to only St. Louis. That could be good news for the Cardinals.
This stat is somewhat controversial. Some people live by it; others despise it.
ESPN has even come up with its own—very confusing—version of rating quarterbacks, called the Total Quarterback Rating (explained here in a 2,500-word commentary by ESPN Stats & Information Director of Analytics, Dean Oliver).
I’m using the simple, time-tested version, however. The one used by everyone but ESPN.
5. Bradford: 70.7 rating
4. Kolb: 83.1
3. Jackson: 84.8
2. Skelton: 92.5
1. Smith: 95.0
Further proving that Manning is crazy good in late-game situations, he boasted a 109.6 QB rating in the fourth-quarter and overtime last year. Skelton and Smith were good, but not on Manning’s level—as not many were last year.
This is the category that separates the big-league from the little-league.
A lot of what needs to be said about how a quarterback performs late in games can be told by how many comebacks he has led and how many game-winning drives of which he has been the conductor.
3. Kolb: 2/1
2. Skelton: 4/5
1. Smith: 6/6
Once again, Manning takes the cake. He engineered seven fourth-quarter comebacks and eight game-winning drives, according to ProFootballReference.com. Skelton and Smith round out the top two for the second consecutive time, as the cream seems to be rising to the top the deeper down the statistical line we walk.
But who is the NFC West’s most clutch quarterback?
Despite Alex Smith leading the division in three clutch categories, John Skelton had a more well-rounded clutch season.
5. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (25 pts.)
The St. Louis Rams had an abysmal 2011 season. The entire roster was racked with injuries, and Bradford was left to make do with what he had.
Coming off a season in which he was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, and with his Rams narrowly missing the playoffs, expectations were certainly high for the former No. 1 overall pick. Players, coaches and fans alike assumed they would be in the thick of the NFC West race, but instead the team found itself in the hunt for the top pick in the draft.
4. Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks (20 pts.)
Expectations were also high for the Seattle Seahawks last season after backing into a playoff spot with a division-winning 7-9 record, then shocked the football world by defeating the New Orleans Saints in a home Wild Card victory.
The 2011 defense did its part, finishing as the No. 9 overall unit in the NFL.
Jackson and the offense, however, struggled to do anything positive on a weekly basis—they finished 22nd in passing yards per game and 23rd in scoring. That prompted management to bring in unproven free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn to compete for the starting job.
Based purely on my own speculation, Jackson should have the upper hand in winning the three-man quarterback competition in Seattle based on the fact that he is the only man returning from last year and knows how the offense works.
Nary a comeback last year, however, could come into play when head coach Pete Carroll makes his final decision.
3. Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals (19 pts.)
Kevin Kolb had a tumultuous first season in Arizona, as he spent half the season on the sideline hampered with various injuries. There were a few opportunities to mount a late-game comeback, but he failed to do so for one reason or another.
That he comes in at No. 3 on the list is surprising to me, but it was not by much—just a single point, as you see.
If Kolb doesn’t win the starting job for the Cardinals and can’t get on the field this season, he may be all but finished as an NFL starter. Can Arizona trust him with the keys to the franchise? Here’s what I think.
2. Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (13 pts.)
You ‘Niners fans are appalled that Alex Smith is not No. 1. And that’s OK, because what’s a B/R column without controversy and debate?
Smith was great for San Francisco during his first year under head coach Jim Harbaugh—he produced career-high numbers across the board.
It’s quite possible Smith has turned a corner in his career and will finally be what the 49ers drafted him to be, and that is a franchise quarterback. After one stellar season behind the league’s best defense and one of the better running games in football, it may be too early to call, but he is headed in the right direction.
Six game-winning drives prove it’s true.
1. John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (12 pts.)
For those of you who may have forgotten, this list is on the most clutch quarterbacks in the division, not for overall quarterback play. If this had to do with the latter, John Skelton would likely be last—by a lot.
Skelton had the benefit of playing with a defense that was firing on all cylinders toward the end of the season. He used it to his benefit, winning six games down the stretch, four of which were of the comeback variety.
While it’s true that the team found itself with a fourth-quarter deficit most of the time as a direct result of his poor first-half play, he did make up for it.
He has a real chance at winning the starting quarterback job in Arizona, but don’t be surprised to see Kolb win it initially.