The word "clutch" gets thrown around rather loosely in the NFL today. Instead of attempting to determine what a clutch performance is, media and fans alike will label any fourth-quarter comeback, game-winning field goal or late-game reception as a clutch performance.
For example, quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers had a fourth-quarter comeback victory against the Detroit Lions in Week 17. It'd certainly be easy to call that a clutch performance, except for the fact that the loss to Green Bay that week gave the Lions an 0-16 record on the year.
Should beating an 0-15 team in the fourth quarter really be considered a clutch performance?
Here we'll attempt to figure out the best way to really measure clutch performances.
Fourth-Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives
Despite my earlier example of Rodgers and his fourth-quarter comeback against the Lions, this is a great way to measure how clutch a quarterback is. The chart below shows the quarterbacks with the most career fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history (via pro-football-reference.com):
And this chart below shows the quarterbacks with the most game-winning drives in NFL history (via pro-football-reference.com):
No one would argue with you if you called Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, John Elway or Tom Brady clutch. However, those statistics don't paint the whole picture of what a clutch performance is. Certainly, we wouldn't consider a quarterback who had game-winning drives and fourth-quarter comebacks against the worst teams in the NFL clutch.
It'd be more accurate to say quarterbacks who do that underachieve. While there is value to statistics like the ones in the charts above, those statistics simply can't be the final say when measuring clutch performances.
Clutch in Big-Game Situations
The best way to measure clutch performances is to look statistics like game-winning drives and fourth-quarter comebacks and see whether those drives and comebacks came in the regular season with nothing on the line or in big-game situations.
Obviously, a player who makes a game-winning field goal or game-tying touchdown reception in the Super Bowl is going to have a more clutch performance than a player who makes it in Week 4 against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
When measuring clutch performances, we have to take into account when these performances took place. Take wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and his performance in Super Bowl XLIII as an example.
In the video above, we see Larry Fitzgerald take a slant pass from quarterback Kurt Warner and turn it into a 64-yard touchdown reception. That reception gave the Arizona Cardinals a 23-20 lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers with just over two minutes remaining.
On the other side of the ball, wide receiver Santonio Holmes has a six-yard game-winning touchdown reception for the Steelers, as we can see in the video below.
Both Fitzgerald and Holmes made incredible plays in the biggest game of their lives, and it'd be foolish to not consider each play an extremely clutch performance.
Big plays in big games are how clutch performances in the NFL need to be measured.
The Case of Adam Vinatieri
If you're looking for one of the most clutch performers, if not the single most clutch performer, in NFL history, you probably shouldn't look much further than kicker Adam Vinatieri.
Bleacher Report writer Alessando Miglio summed up the perception of how clutch Vinatieri is in one simple tweet:
oh, a clutch FG from Adam Vinatieri? What a surprise.— Alessandro Miglio (@AlexMiglio) December 9, 2012
See, Vinatieri having a clutch performance is so common that is hardly requires a reaction. One look at Vinatieri's 2001-2002 playoff run, and you'll see what truly defines a clutch performance.
It started on a snowy day in Foxboro with the New England Patriots down by three points to the Oakland Raiders. His 45-yard field goal with time expiring sent the game into overtime. In that extra period, Vinatieri kicked a 23-yard game-winning field goal to send the Patriots to the AFC Championship Game.
Then came Super Bowl XXXVI, where the Patriots were huge underdogs to the high-scoring St. Louis Rams. However, it was Vinatieri's foot during the biggest play of the 2001 season that gave the Patriots a victory. His 48-yard game-winning field goal as time expired was one of the most clutch performances in NFL history.
To this day, Vinatieri holds the NFL record for most postseason field goals with 42, and his seven field goals in Super Bowls is also an NFL record.
A clutch performance is so much more than a game-winning touchdown pass or field goal. It's so much more than a key reception or a long gain on the ground.
It's all about the timing of these clutch performances. A true clutch performance is Joe Montana to Dwight Clark in the final seconds of the NFC Championship Game. Or Joe Namath guaranteeing a victory against the best team in the league during Super Bowl III.
A performance needs to be measured during the biggest games at the most crucial times to truly be clutch.