Brett Favre: Why the Gunslinger Was Not a Clutch Quarterback

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Brett Favre: Why the Gunslinger Was Not a Clutch Quarterback
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Brett Favre leaves the field after losing the 2009 NFC Championship in New Orleans.

In the dog days of summer before NFL training camps open, everyone scrambles for content to pass the time. So what better part of the year to talk about the career of Brett Favre again? 

People either love or hate Favre, which has created an awkward legacy for the future Hall of Fame quarterback. It is especially distorted when it comes to his perception as a clutch quarterback.

As you will see, the evidence will sensibly tell you Favre was not clutch, and his gunslinger ways were a direct cause for that.

But those who love him think he was one of the best ever because of all the game-winning touchdowns they remember, while his detractors will point out that he threw too many game-ending interceptions.

It’s also trendy to compare Favre to Green Bay successor Aaron Rodgers, but I have already written enough about Rodgers in the clutch this week. It is time to get back to Favre, and a career that is actually complete.

NFL Network seemed to have the same idea, as they aired Favre’s recent interview with Deion Sanders in primetime this week, along with some other Favre-related shows.

When asked about anything he would like to get a do-over for in his career, Favre had no specific answer, but did talk about the few things people might say about him.

Could have thrown more touchdowns. Could have thrown less interceptions. My interception rate was pretty low. It was that they came at a time when…it was, you know, everyone was watching.

That is a very interesting, candid response, and one that gets right to the core issues with the clutch perception. Based on what a person thinks of Favre, they will selectively remember the successes or failures he had throughout his career. They only look at part of the picture.

Make no mistake. When a full track record is established for Favre, the results become clear. Compared to many of the greatest to ever play the game, Favre was not a clutch quarterback.

Genevieve Ross/Getty Images
Favre's winning touchdown against the 49ers in 2009 was a classic, but also a rarity in his career.

 

Favre’s Volume Misleads People

Brett Favre is No. 4 all time with 45 game-winning drives, and No. 6 all time with 30 fourth quarter comeback wins.

Based on those numbers alone, it would appear that Favre did very well in clutch situations. But that would be the wrong way to go about it. That would be looking at a picture that is incomplete.

No quarterback has played more games than Favre (326 including playoffs). Based on that fact alone, you should expect Favre to be first in almost any statistical category that is simply a counting stat; something that relies on volume.

No quarterback has thrown more passes than Favre, so naturally he has the most completions, yards, and touchdowns. Also has the most sacks, fumbles, and interceptions, but even that can be expected as well.

It is really no different for games won in the fourth quarter and overtime. When you consider the sheer volume of opportunities Favre had to collect comebacks and game-winning drives, then the fact he did not rank higher in those categories is actually a disappointment.

I wrote about the opportunities John Elway, Dan Marino, and Favre had nearly two years ago, and none of the data has changed since.

Here is an update to look at the records for the other all-time leaders in these situations. A fourth quarter comeback opportunity is when the offense has the ball in the fourth quarter and is trailing by one score (1-8 points since 1994). The column for the overall record (comebacks and game-winning drives) also includes games where the score was only tied in the fourth quarter and/or overtime.

Bear with me as these can get complicated.

The quarterbacks on the left are the top six in fourth quarter comeback wins. The quarterbacks on the right are actually the top six in game-winning drives, though they are instead sorted and listed by their overall number of fourth quarter wins (comebacks and game-winning drives).

The “ND” is a no decision game. This is where the quarterback had an opportunity with the ball for a fourth quarter comeback, did not score, but the team still ultimately won the game because of a return score. The quarterback did not get the comeback, but they also did not lose the game, hence a no decision. The no decision did not factor into the winning percentage.

Favre has two no decisions. These were games he did not score on multiple drives when given the opportunity, but they still won because of a punt return touchdown and a fumble return touchdown.

Dan Marino’s no decision disappears in his overall record, because in that game, he did get the game-winning drive. It was the comeback part that was not decided by him, because of a pick six.

Johnny Unitas has too many losses where I am uncertain if he ever actually had a legit opportunity in the fourth quarter, so his record is incomplete for the time being. At the absolute worst, Unitas was 34-46-2 (.427).

With all that in mind, the important thing is that Favre’s winning percentage is considerably lower than the other all-time leaders in these statistical categories of clutch wins.

Favre has a lot of comebacks and game-winning drives because he played the most games ever by a quarterback, not because he was exceptionally good in these situations.

Al Bello/Getty Images
Some believe Favre was more restrained under Mike Holmgren. Doesn't mean he was better in the clutch then.

 

Favre’s Yearly Record

If you want to think of Favre as a clutch player early in his career who became more reckless later on, then here is the yearly breakdown that should change your mind.

So much for the Mike Holmgren-era reeling Favre in better. From 1992-97, Favre was 10-25 (.286) at fourth quarter comebacks, compared to 20-47 (.299) the rest of his career. No difference.

Maybe the most incredible part is that during his three-year run of being named league MVP from 1995-97, Favre managed just a record of 1-9 at fourth quarter comebacks, and 2-9 at game-winning drives.

It was the most successful era of Favre’s career, but one of the least clutch. Like today’s Packers, those teams were front-runners that failed to rack up the close victories. No loss was bigger than Super Bowl XXXII when Favre’s last-chance drive came up short on a fourth-down incompletion.

In 19 seasons, just twice did Favre have a winning record in comeback opportunities. Three times (2002, 2004, 2007) he had a winning record overall. Compared to the elite quarterbacks of today, Favre does not stack up well to most.

He does at least have an interesting comparison to Aaron Rodgers, who is 3-18 (.143) at fourth quarter comebacks in his career. At the height of Favre’s days in Green Bay (1994-98), he was just 3-17 (.150) at fourth quarter comebacks.

Maybe it’s a Green Bay thing.

 

Why Favre’s Record Could Have Been Better

Before getting to the worst part, let’s look at some of the good Favre did that he won’t get credit for.

There were some great performances like in 1997 when Favre threw a go-ahead touchdown pass against the lowly Colts, only to never get the ball back in a 41-38 loss. It was Indianapolis’ first win of the season after starting 0-10, and it was a defensive collapse by the Packers.

That was one of three games in Favre’s career when he led a go-ahead touchdown drive, only to never see the ball again in a loss.

The most significant came in the 1998 NFC Wild Card game at San Francisco. An instant classic, Favre dueled with Steve Young and threw a go-ahead touchdown to Antonio Freeman with 1:56 left.

After the referees missed a Jerry Rice fumble that would have ended the game, San Francisco finished the drive with Young’s memorable touchdown pass to Terrell Owens. Favre never got the ball back, and it was the end of the Holmgren-era in Green Bay.

It was also the last time Favre did his job well in a playoff defeat.

Favre had nine “lost comebacks,” which are games where the quarterback did everything required for a fourth quarter comeback win except for the win part.

The nine is a very high number historically, but once again, when you factor in the volume of Favre’s opportunities, it looks less impressive, especially when compared to others.

Favre may have nine lost comebacks, but they only represent 12.5 percent of his total failed comebacks.

If someone like Drew Brees ended up with as many comeback losses as Favre, and maintained his current rate of lost comebacks, then Brees would have an expected 21.8 lost comebacks, which is just a staggering number.

Favre was better than his record, but so are most quarterbacks.

 

Why Favre’s Record Wasn’t Better

The explanation is rather simple. Favre was too much of a gunslinger to be consistently relied on in these situations. While it was sometimes a strength, ultimately it became a weakness when the stakes were higher and greater execution was required.

It comes back to the quote from Favre himself about everyone watching when the interceptions came. Well, everyone was watching when a lot of the touchdowns came too.

Everyone knows the touchdown to Sterling Sharpe in his first playoff win, the “he did what?” play to Antonio Freeman on Monday Night Football, and the game-winner to Greg Lewis in 2009 against San Francisco.

That is why some people believe Favre was great in these situations.

If you watched all of the games, then you should have remembered a lot more interceptions than touchdown passes.

When the game was not hanging in the balance, Favre had pretty strong numbers, and a reasonable interception rate. But when it was tied or he had the ball down by one score, the interceptions went way up, and the touchdowns way down. The passer rating dropped over 20 points, and Favre also lost 10 fumbles in these situations.

Favre had 54 turnovers on the 173 drives that comprised the 72 losses in fourth quarter comeback opportunities. That is .312 turnovers per drive. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were last in the league in 2011 with .209 turnovers per drive.

Now part of the reason for these bad numbers is that you get into a lot of desperate situations where you have to make something happen with next to little time left. Hard to fault Favre for throwing an interception on a Hail Mary, which happened a couple of times.

But we all know Favre did a lot more than throw desperation interceptions. He threw the boneheaded interceptions that other quarterbacks just would not make.

For the New Orleans Saints in the 2009 playoffs, Tracy Porter had huge interceptions of Favre and Peyton Manning. But if you compare the plays to the situation and decision each quarterback made, it is not even a comparison which play was worse.

Favre rolled out to his right with his team only needing a field goal, and decided to force a throw across his body to the middle of the field, which Porter easily picked off. A few more yards of scrambling and Ryan Longwell could have attempted a long field goal to win the game and put Favre back in the Super Bowl.

It was the final gasp of a quarterback that made a record amount of bad interceptions in the playoffs.

The loss to New Orleans was the third time in Favre’s career that he threw a fourth quarter interception either before or after the opponent’s game-winning drive in a NFC Championship game.

In his playoff career, Favre threw six interceptions in the fourth quarter or overtime when tied or down by one score. Naturally, that is the highest total in the last 30 years, and likely the highest in NFL history.

It obviously was far from only being a postseason problem. Those are just the games people remember best. In the regular season, Favre’s gunslinger ways hurt him throughout his career.

Consider it no coincidence that Favre never won a game when trailing by more than 14 points at any point in the game. While lesser quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matthew Stafford were doing that in consecutive weeks last season, not once in his long career did Favre overcome the bigger deficits.

That is the flaw of a gunslinger defined.

When you need to get hot and string together scoring drives, you do not want a guy that is going to take a lot of chances, because chances come with risk. You are bound to screw up. Even if it’s not in the form of an interception, it could be a sack from holding the ball too long while waiting for a big play that kills a drive.

Technician quarterbacks like Joe Montana and Peyton Manning have led multiple comeback wins from that situation, because they played with great efficiency and avoided negative plays.

Negative plays were much too the norm for Favre when he had to lead the team back or put together a game-winning drive. It cost him dozens of wins, multiple playoff wins, and ultimately more Super Bowl appearances and championships.

 

Favre’s Legacy

No gunslinger ever made his way through the league with more ammo than Favre. However, some were a bit better at hitting their target, especially when the firefight got the hottest.

It remains to be seen how history will treat Favre in this age when passing numbers are getting bigger in both volume and efficiency.

His legacy should focus on his outstanding durability and iron-man streak. In his prime Favre was one of the most effective quarterbacks in league history.

But that durability should also demand a lot of his stats and records are put into better context, and that includes his comebacks and game-winning drives.

Favre may have come through in dramatic fashion many times, but the truth is the gunslinger shot his team in the foot way too often to rightfully earn the distinction as a clutch player.

 

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