What is a clutch quarterback?
It's tough to define one because of how many variables there are in the sport of football. Between a snap and the end of a play, there are a plethora of players involved in making a clutch play happen.
The quarterback position, though, is the one most closely associated with the "clutch" label. The signal-caller has the ball in his hands every play and often plays a major role in the execution of that play. It's why when passers like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco enjoy magnificent postseasons, they get so much of the credit for their teams' playoff success.
Speaking of Manning and Flacco, they are arguably the two passers who should be trusted the most with the game on the line. Their postseason play in the last two separate years has been excellent, culminating in great throws and one Super Bowl win each.
Manning got his following the 2011 season, a year in which he had an astonishing eight game-winning drives, according to Pro Football Reference. Throughout the season, he made great throws that catapulted his New York Giants past the opposition late in games. One of his finest throws was in Super Bowl XLVI, a 38-yard throw to wide receiver Mario Manningham.
It was 1st-and-10 and the New York Giants had the ball on their own 12-yard line. Manning stood in the shotgun with three receivers spread out, one of which was Manningham, who was to his near left on the short side of the field. Manningham would be running a go-route against the New England Patriots' Cover 2 defense.
The keys to the play would rest in Manning's hands and eyes. He would find Manningham open with a well-placed pass, but only after freezing free safety Patrick Chung, who was responsible for getting over the top of Manningham's vertical route.
Chung was late reading the play from the start. He was slow to rotate over to Manningham's route because Manning froze him by looking to the opposite side of the field. Chung's pause gave Manningham more room to run his route down the sideline.
Once he noticed Chung's hesitation, Manning turned his body and heaved a pass down the left sideline, placing it to the outside where only Manningham could get it.
With Chung late in coming over and the cornerback out of position to make a play, the pass was hauled in for an enormous first down.
Following the strike, Manning completed four of his next five throws (two of which were for 14 yards or more) to lead the Giants to the game-winning TD.
Manning is an excellent quarterback and one of the league's most trustworthy in pressure-filled situations, but he's not the only one.
Flacco is also very good in such late-game scenarios, having (according to Pro Football Reference) registered four game-winning drives in 2012 and an impressive 11-to-0 touchdown-to - ratio in last year's playoffs.
A number of Flacco's big plays were the results of critical decisions he made both before and after the snap. Against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, he changed the play call on a crucial 3rd-and-inches play with more than seven minutes left in the game.
The ball was on the Ravens' own 45-yard line, and Flacco was under center with three receivers spread across the formation. At first glance, it looks to be a run play by the Ravens. The defense showed two safeties splitting the field deep and only six defenders in the box, a number that favors a run play.
As the chess game before the snap continues, the 49ers defense makes a slight change, bringing down strong safety Donte Whitner to defend the left slot receiver. That leaves only one safety deep and creates a seven-man box after outside linebacker Aldon Smith slides into it.
What that defensive change did for Flacco was force him to change his play call. It simply doesn't make sense to run into a seven-man box with six blockers, so he audibled to a pass play that saw wide receiver Anquan Boldin, lined up to Flacco's right, release outside like Manningham did in the previous Super Bowl.
At the snap, Flacco took a quick five-step drop and looked at Boldin the entire way. He made a quick ball fake and then set his feet and released the ball. It arched into the air, landing roughly two yards from the sideline and into the hands of a leaping Boldin.
Following the play, Flacco didn't go on to have as much success driving his team to score as Manning did. He threw two incomplete passes and the team had to settle for a 38-yard field goal. Despite that, the play was significant because it showed his command of the offense and understanding of situational football.
The play also proved that Flacco could step up on the biggest stage and make the big play when his team needed it the most. That's what trustworthy quarterbacks are made of.
Trustworthiness is an essential part of becoming a clutch quarterback. There are many traits—such as pocket presence, accuracy and football intelligence, among others—that combine to make one clutch. Few have them all.
But if one had to pick two to trust in a pressure situation, Manning and Flacco would certainly be near the top of the list. They have proven themselves capable of thriving in the most pressurized of late-game situations.
You can trust a Super Bowl winner in most cases.