Debunking the Myth of the Clutch NFL Quarterback

Sam Quinn@@Samquinn23Contributor IIIOctober 3, 2012

Photo courtesy of silive.com
Photo courtesy of silive.com

I've harped on how overrated Eli Manning is for the past eight months or so. ESPN has had so much fun making puns with his name and the word "elite" that the common fan seems to think he's truly on that level as a quarterback. 

They look past his inconsistencies, his incredible supporting cast and consistent coaching staff and point to one thing: he's clutch. Well, you know what? I don't think this mythical construct of the clutch quarterback even really exists.

I think it's an entity created entirely by the ratings-driven world of media and the shortsightedness of many fans.

Before you call me crazy, let me clarify. I do think that there is a threshold a quarterback must pass to prove that he doesn't get tight in the fourth quarter, but it doesn't take much. For example I don't hear many people talk about how clutch Joe Flacco is, but he has road comebacks against Pittsburgh and New England. Those were big games and he managed to win them and that's enough for me.

What I think is ridiculous is the notion that quarterbacks can truly be ranked and rated in terms of their "clutch-ness." Clutch is not a finite, tangible skill. It is not something that can be quantified or even really evaluated. Clutch is the ultimate "what have you done for me lately" stat.

Just look at Sunday Night Football. Eli Manning's offense scored only 17 points en route to a second straight divisional loss. That's not clutch.

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Eli Manning also led a late drive that put the Giants in field goal range. That is clutch.

A Ramses Barden penalty took them out of field goal range, making them lose the game. Losing is not clutch.

If Barden hadn't committed such a stupid penalty the Giants would have won and Manning would have another comeback on his resumé, despite doing absolutely nothing differently. That is clutch.

There are so many options and hypotheticals here that my head is spinning. And that's just from one game. 

Aaron Rodgers, arguably the best quarterback in the league, has only four fourth quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives. By comparison, Matthew Stafford, in only 34 career starts, exceeds Rodgers's numbers with six fourth quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives. 

I don't think there is a rational person who would call Stafford better or more clutch than Rodgers, so why does Stafford seem to continuously put up big comebacks and seem clutch? Because he has more opportunities.

In the seven games in which he led a game-winning drive, Stafford threw nine interceptions. What does this say? That Stafford played badly at the beginning of the game. In other words, Stafford doesn't play exceedingly well late in games, he's just inconsistent enough that he can play terribly early in games and make up for it by playing at his usual level late in games.

This logic goes beyond Stafford. It extends to many of the top-tier quarterbacks that are inconsistent. Jay Cutler has 12 fourth quarter comebacks and 16 game-winning drives, Tony Romo has 13 fourth quarter comebacks and 14 game-winning drives, Philip Rivers has 13 fourth quarter comebacks and 16 game-winning drives and Eli Manning has 22 fourth quarter comebacks and 26 game-winning drives. 

Like Stafford, Romo (18 to 14) and Rivers (20 to 16) have more interceptions than games. Cutler (12 to 16) and Manning (20 to 26) are close as well. 

Being able to pull yourself out of a hole is a nice trait to have, but all things considered, wouldn't you rather have a quarterback who doesn't put you in holes to begin with? That's Rodgers, yet I continue to see fans saying they'd take Eli over Rodgers because of how clutch Eli is. Maybe if Rodgers threw more early interceptions he could be clutch too. 

Let's take a look at Tom Brady. He won his first 10 playoff games and three Super Bowls in his first four years as a starter. By any definition, that is incredibly clutch. What has happened since? Well, he's gone 5-5 in the playoffs. In his past four trips he has lost as the favorite four times. Twice at home, and twice with Vegas favoring him by double digits. Does that sound clutch to you?

It probably doesn't, yet by nearly any measure, Brady is a far better quarterback now than he was back then. Brady posted quarterback ratings of 86.5, 85.9 and 92.6 during his three Super Bowl seasons. He has topped 100 four times since and hasn't fallen below 96 since 2007. 

Yet Brady continues to lose in the playoffs. Does this mean he's not clutch? Of course not, it simply means his teams have lost. Brady didn't suddenly lose his "clutch gene," or trade it in for better statistics, he simply lost close games. 

This is happening because close games are essentially random statistically. A Grantland study by Bill Barnwell shows that teams that win at least 75 percent of games decided by a touchdown or less regress to winning 50.7 percent of games decided by the same margin the following season. Similarly, teams that win less than 25 percent of those games win 45.9 percent of them the following year.

Over half of Brady's playoff games (12 of 22) fell within this margin. Considering the inherent randomness of these games, we can say that they essentially come down to luck.

Brady was 6-0 in such games during his three Super Bowl seasons, but since then he is 2-4. Is it at all possible that Brady was simply incredibly lucky during that first stretch and incredibly unlucky during that second stretch?

Partially, yes. Brady is an incredible quarterback who deserves all of the acclaim he gets. He has certainly passed the "clutch" threshold several times over. He wasn't more clutch earlier in his career than he is now, he played at a similar level but his team's ability to win close games simply regressed to the mean. In other words, he was luckier earlier in his career. 

What is Eli Manning's record in such playoff games? 5-1. In other words, don't expect the Giants to continue winning close playoff games. It's a statistical anomaly. Arguing the opposition essentially means you have more confidence in Manning and Tom Coughlin than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

Continuing with the trend of close games being random, we need to look at how these clutch quarterbacks do when they're supposed to win. While Eli Manning has won plenty of important road playoff games, he hasn't been nearly as good at home. In his three career home playoff games, he has thrown five interceptions and averaged less than 15 points per game for his team. 

If you are given credit for winning games you shouldn't then you should lose credit for losing games you should win. I believe too much value is assigned to both sides, but logically Eli hasn't shouldered a fair amount of blame for his losses considering the praise he gets for the wins.

Finally, there is a media aspect to this. Where was all of the love for Eli Manning last year? He'd already won a ring and had incredible stats late in the game. Nobody was talking about him because the media had a new golden boy: Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers was the one who had just won a Super Bowl by playing road games. He was the eventual league MVP. Despite his lack of comebacks (which I maintain is a very positive quality), he was the one everybody wanted to talk about.

Before that it was Drew Brees. He was the one who led the lowly Saints to their first championship, toppling the legendary Peyton Manning

And before that it was Ben Roethlisberger. He was the guy who made that perfect, game-winning throw to Santonio Holmes to win his second championship.

Sensing a trend?

None of those quarterbacks were only clutch for one season. They simply all got a turn in the media spotlight because they were the current champion. 

There's also the fact that these guys have to play each other. When two clutch quarterbacks play, by definition one has to lose, and therefore be seen by the media as non-clutch. There are going to be playoff games where Eli Manning beats Aaron Rodgers and there are going to be playoff games where Aaron Rodgers beats Eli Manning. ESPN just loves to pay attention to the one that happened last. 

Losing to top teams doesn't mean you aren't clutch, it means that the two teams were probably fairly similar and the outcome of the game would be close and therefore random. 

Eli Manning is no more clutch than Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, he's the simply the guy who was clutch last. And if he created a few more opportunities for himself by not playing well early in games, that didn't end up hurting him either.

Every top quarterback will get their time in the clutch spotlight sooner or later. Heck, we even saw a glimpse of it with Tony Romo earlier in the season when he beat the Giants in New York. It's just important to remember that ,once you hit a certain point, ranking quarterbacks based on their performance in the clutch doesn't make sense. 

Why rank players based on something that they either only control by playing badly or don't control at all? It is a lazy and arbitrary way to judge players, no different than claiming Trent Dilfer was a better quarterback than Dan Marino simply because he has a Super Bowl ring.

Let's stop overrating players simply because they are "clutch."