NFL Nostalgia: Ranking History's Most Clutch Quarterbacks
All truly great quarterbacks are clutch. But not all clutch quarterbacks are truly great.
You are about to meet two types of quarterbacks on this countdown. First, there's a group of very good quarterbacks who were at their best at crunch time: in the fourth quarter, in the playoffs, off the bench in a crisis and so on.
After that, we will visit with some legends, ranked not on their overall excellence but on that elusive "clutch" capability. There will be some overlap between the groups, of course. But as this countdown continues, the all-time greats will gradually take over for the pesky gunslinger types.
The quarterbacks on this countdown were evaluated based on the following measures of "clutchness":
- Playoff performance: wins, touchdowns, comebacks and so forth.
- Team of Destiny-type streaks: Quarterbacks who led a half-dozen comebacks in a season to get their teams to the Super Bowl take precedence over quarterbacks who played for 20 years and won a big game now and then.
Reputation and tradition also play a role in the rankings. Some quarterbacks with clutch reputations were left off the list (sorry, Doug Flutie). Some who are known for losing the big game get their images rehabilitated. But there are a few traditional favorites on the countdown as well, because conventional wisdom is still wisdom, especially when we reach back in history.
That's enough housekeeping. It's the fourth quarter of a road playoff game. You trail by four with three minutes left and no timeouts. Who do you want leading the huddle?
Here are 25 outstanding choices.
25. Jeff Hostetler
Jeff Hostetler was an NFL nobody when his big moment arrived. He was a third-round pick buried on the Giants bench, relegated to mop-up duty for six long years. He was frustrated, unable to find a better opportunity in the era before free agency, even willing to consider a position switch just to get onto the field as something besides the field-goal holder.
Then Phil Simms broke his foot late in the 1990 season, with the Giants in the heat of the Super Bowl chase. Hostetler led December wins against the Cardinals and Patriots to guide the team to a 13-3 finish. He threw a pair of touchdowns in a 31-3 drubbing of the Bears to start the playoffs. He took some nasty hits in the fourth quarter of the NFC title game against the 49ers, briefly leaving the game. But he returned to lead a pair of field-goal drives for a 15-13 Giants comeback victory.
Hostetler capped his 1990 relief performance with one of the greatest management efforts in Super Bowl history. He led the Giants back from an early 12-3 deficit, then orchestrated a long field-goal drive to give the Giants a 20-19 lead in the fourth quarter, all the while running a game plan designed to keep the clock ticking and the final score low. The Bills nearly staged a comeback of their own, but you know how that story ends.
Hostetler gave his teams an effective one-two punch of mobility and efficiency. His rushing statistics don't leap off the page, but he was a tricky change-up to the stationary Simms and could scramble for critical first downs when needed. As for efficiency, Hostetler did not throw any interceptions during his entire 1990 relief appearance, from December through the Super Bowl. He was the perfect quarterback for the Giants of that era, which is why he traded the starting job with Simms for a couple of years after the 1990 season, with neither staying healthy long enough to seize the job for good.
Hostetler later had several fine seasons with the Raiders. The team won when Hostetler was healthy, but Tim Brown was his only true weapon, and Hostetler's scrambles-and-short-passes game never meshed with the Raiders philosophy.
Hoss' career would have turned out differently if NFL free agency existed in the mid-1980s. He may have put up huge career numbers if he was not trapped on the bench for so long. But we may never have enjoyed the magic of that 1990 season, when Hostetler proved what a mobile, risk-averse quarterback can do off the bench for a team with an outstanding defense. Hostetler didn't quite fit the mold, but the best quarterbacks in crunch time are often the ones who do things a little differently.
24. Matthew Stafford
Matthew Stafford's fake-spike touchdown against the Cowboys in 2013 may not have been the most clutch quarterback performance of the last decade. But it was probably the best acting performance by a quarterback in the last decade.
Watch Stafford as he rallies the troops after Calvin Johnson is stopped at the half-yard line. He's totally going to spike the ball to stop the clock, right? Um...OK, in retrospect, Stafford may be going a little Evil Captain Kirk overboard in selling it. But if you are a Cowboys defender scurrying into position, you don't have time to be a drama critic. Stafford hammed it up, took the snap and took flight for a truly memorable comeback.
The fake spike launched Stafford's career as the NFL's reigning Captain Comeback. He led the league with five fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives in 2014. Last year, when the Lions' bend-don't-break defense was more of a break-but-don't-shatter-and-rain-shards-of-glass-on-the-passengers defense, Stafford again led the league with a remarkable eight comebacks and game-winning drives, an NFL single-season record.
Stafford is now 0-3 in playoff games, with a nip-and-tuck loss in Dallas in 2014 and two blowouts at the hands of better teams. Judging clutch capability by playoff results can be misleading, as we will see often on this countdown.
The most reliable late-game quarterbacks are often the ones who lead so-so teams to the postseason in the first place. That's certainly the case with Stafford. If the Lions are in the playoffs, it's usually because he and a handful of players like Johnson dragged them there. And no Lions game is over until Stafford delivers his big scene.
23. Jake Delhomme
Jake Delhomme was an obscure veteran backup who had barely played in four NFL seasons when he replaced injured Panthers starter Rodney Peete with the Jaguars leading, 17-0, in the 2003 season opener.
Delhomme threw three touchdowns, the last one with 16 seconds left, for a 24-23 comeback victory. Suddenly, Delhomme and the Panthers were on an odyssey.
For a few months, Delhomme was the next best thing to Brett Favre, another hard-throwing bayou gambler with a flair for the dramatic. Delhomme led five fourth-quarter comeback victories during the 2003 regular season. He then prevailed in one of the most dramatic playoff victories in NFL history, connecting with Steve Smith for a 69-yard touchdown pass in the second overtime period to defeat the Rams.
From there, it was on to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Delhomme threw an 85-yard touchdown pass in the middle of the fourth quarter to give the Panthers a 22-21 lead. The Patriots answered. Delhomme led an 80-yard touchdown drive that started with 2:43 left to tie the game. Alas, he left Tom Brady with one minute and eight seconds to work with, instead of the zero timeouts and 0:00 needed to ensure a chance for overtime when Brady is involved.
Delhomme appeared to get the old magic back in 2008. He led the Panthers to a 12-4 record, spurring comebacks in seesaw battles against the Packers and Saints down the stretch. But the 2008 Panthers season ended in one of the ugliest quarterback meltdowns in playoff history: Delhomme's five-interception collapse against the Cardinals.
Delhomme's leadership skills and get-it-done demeanor had outlasted his athletic ability. At the end of his career—and Delhomme hung around well past his prime—"clutch" was all he was. But when his arm was live, Delhomme was good enough when it mattered to push even Tom Brady to the limit.
22. George Blanda
George Blanda was a folk hero when I was a kid. The Raiders backup quarterback/kicker of the early 1970s was a throwback to a different era, a man of the 1950s still taking the field in the era of bell bottoms. Blanda was still kicking field goals and taking occasional snaps at quarterback when he was 48 years old. And man, the sportswriters of the time made sure we all knew about it.
When Blanda threw a touchdown pass in relief of Ken Stabler to preserve a Raiders win against the Cowboys late in the 1974 season, you would have thought astronauts found life on the moon from the columns written the next day. Stabler was a middle-aged wish-fulfillment fantasy, and columnists swoon when we see an athlete who looks like us still accomplishing something on the field. Blanda was Doug Flutie mixed with Arnold Palmer and a dash of Tim Tebow, as portrayed by Sam Elliot.
As with most folk heroes, the reality doesn't match the mythmaking. Blanda relieved Daryle Lamonica to lead a few late-game rallies in 1970 and 1971, when he was already in his mid 40s, but he threw just 235 passes in nine years with the Raiders. He was good, but based on his reputation and fame, a 1970s fan might have thought he invented the forward pass. And his rambling early career, from long undistinguished years with the Bears to a star turn with the Oilers in the wacky early days of the AFL, wasn't quite the stuff of legend. Blanda, to be blunt, was better copy than quarterback.
But c'mon: Blanda was still taking meaningful quarterback snaps at age 48. I'm not even 48 yet and my back hurts when I mow the lawn. That Blanda was able to make any contribution to the championship-caliber Raiders of the 1970s is nothing short of remarkable.
"Clutch" reputations are often a mix of fact, fiction and selective memory. When we love a player, we remember the big wins and overlook the big mistakes or missed opportunities. Blanda benefited from the narrative more than most of the quarterbacks on this countdown. But there was still a great deal of truth behind the legend.
21. Joe Flacco
There are a handful of questions that define the times in which we live. What is the role of government in private life? Is a hot dog a sandwich? How do you ride a horse in Minecraft? And of course: Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback?
Flacco, the unassuming quarterback with the cannon arm and low-sodium microwave popcorn personality, short-circuited our national quarterback conversation. He's absolutely ordinary during the regular season. Then the postseason comes, and...darn it, he's still ordinary. But he's the exact same ordinary as he was during the regular season, and that's a crucial skill when everyone else starts buckling under the pressure.
Flacco's playoff record is 10-5. He has thrown 25 postseason touchdowns, tied for 10th on the all-time list and more than Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and many, many Hall of Famers.
Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, of course, and it was no fluky Trent Dilfer situation. He needed 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions to run the playoff gauntlet of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and a 49ers team that nearly pulled off a Super Bowl post-blackout rally.
And there's the rub: Flacco is too good to be lumped in with the "bad" quarterbacks who lucked into Super Bowls but not great enough to join Brady and Co. on Mount Olympus. Because the middle ground went extinct in our culture years ago, we simply cannot comprehend how Joe Flacco is possible.
Here's the secret underlying the Flacco mystery: Among NFL quarterbacks, ordinary is good, and consistency is clutch. There are only a dozen or so "ordinary" NFL quarterbacks in the world at any given time, and coaches covet the ones who can be "the same guy every week," because reaching back for that extra something special in a big game is a great way to screw up your routine and throw five interceptions.
No, that doesn't explain whether a hot dog is a sandwich. But it does explain Flacco. When it comes to the skills most fans (and even many experts) take for granted, he's truly elite. And that makes him unquestionably clutch.
20. Warren Moon
Warren Moon was doomed to lead tragically flawed teams for two decades.
The run 'n' shoot Houston Oilers locked Moon in a two-minute drill that never ended. The four-receivers-all-the-time scheme was built for comebacks—and, because it provided no good way to run out the clock—to be come back against.
Moon led five fourth-quarter game-winning drives to get the Oilers into the playoffs in 1991. But John Elway led the Broncos back from a 24-16 fourth-quarter deficit in the divisional game, converting two fourth downs on a fourth-quarter drive which started at the 2-yard line to set up a game-winning field goal.
The next year, Moon led the Oilers to a 35-3 third-quarter playoff lead against the Bills. What happened next made history. What's often forgotten about the Greatest Comeback Ever is that Moon led two late-game drives of his own. The first ended with a fumbled snap on a field goal. The second ended with a field goal to re-tie the game and force overtime. Only in overtime, after 50 passes in a game that should have been decided an hour earlier, did Moon finally buckle.
Off went Moon to Minnesota, where he became the signal-caller for Dennis Green's Vikings, another team with a knack for getting into shootouts. Moon led five game-winning drives in 1994, two of them in overtime. But the 38-year-old Moon played the latter part of the season with a brace on his sprained left ankle. With Moon hobbled, the Bears beat the Vikings in the playoffs.
Off to Seattle, where the 41-year-old Moon replaced injured starter John Freisz for the rebuilding Seahawks in the season opener. Moon led four more game-winning drives that year while new owner Paul Allen reshaped a franchise that had been irrelevant for years.
Moon's heroics led the Seahawks to a 6-4 record in November. Then a comeback bid against the Saints fell short—Moon tied the game with a late touchdown, but the Saints kicked an overtime field goal—and the Seahawks embarked on a losing streak which culminated in another Moon injury.
Moon led 37 game-winning drives in his career, yet his teams won just three playoff games. Things may have been different if he played in a more conventional offense in his prime or didn't spend his late career hobbling toward the finish line. Heck, things would have been different if he had not been banished to the CFL until age 28.
By the end of 17 seasons, Moon won more shootouts than he lost, which is all that can be asked of a quarterback whose teams always left him alone in a western town at high noon.
19. Tie: Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton and Y.A. Tittle
Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton and Y.A. Tittle are a trio of Hall of Famers who combined for 76 career fourth-quarter comebacks but went 0-10 in Super Bowls/NFL Championship Games.
Kelly, as you may remember, led one of the most innovative offenses of his era and brought the Bills to Super Bowl after increasingly futile Super Bowl, coming within a missed field goal of winning the first, barely making it out of the tunnel before getting clobbered in the last.
Tarkenton was the Russell Wilson of the 1960s and 1970s, a pint-sized madcap scrambler for a great Vikings team that was never quite as great as the Steelers or Raiders teams that slapped them around in the Super Bowl.
Tittle (shown) was one of the best pure pocket passers of the 1950s, a signal-caller with a knack for late-game drama who led the league in fourth-quarter comebacks in 1956 and 1957. His signature play was the "alley-oop," a back-shoulder bomb whose catchy name would migrate to the NBA. Tittle enjoyed a late-career revival with the Giants, guiding the team to three straight NFL Championship Games while posting amazing numbers for the era, including a pair of 30-plus-touchdown seasons. But Tittle threw one touchdown and 10 interceptions in three championship losses to the Packers and Bears.
One of the hardest things about assembling this countdown has been selecting quarterbacks who lost big games over the quarterbacks who defeated them. Kelly is on this countdown, but not Troy Aikman. Tarkenton is here, but not Terry Bradshaw. Tittle is here, but Bart Starr is not. How can "clutch" quarterbacks keep losing big games to quarterbacks who didn't make the cut?
Ask the question the other way: How did Kelly, Tarkenton and Tittle keep battling back, year after year? How did they keep their teams from falling apart?
The greatest quarterbacks usually lead the greatest teams. The most clutch quarterbacks are, with notable exceptions, perennial underdogs who have to keep finding new ways to climb the mountain. What Kelly, Tarkenton and Tittle did took incredible perseverance. It was never easy. And they never gave up until they had nothing left to give.
18. Earl Morrall
The greatest backup quarterback in NFL history laid an egg in the biggest game of his career...perhaps the biggest game of anyone's career.
Earl Morrall was the goat of Super Bowl III, throwing three interceptions against an unfamiliar Jets defense and needing Johnny Unitas to limp off the bench to try in vain to save the day.
Morrall threw 26 touchdown passes during the 1968 season and led the Colts to a 13-1 record after Unitas was injured in the final preseason game. One of history's greatest teams was led by its backup quarterback. But history forgets the details and remembers Super Bowl III.
Morrall took over for an injured Unitas in the second quarter of Super Bowl V, helping guide the Colts to a victory over the Cowboys. But Super Bowl V is The Phantom Menace of Super Bowls, the one history tries to forget because it was so awful. Super Bowl III was more memorable.
Morrall went 9-0 in relief of Bob Griese during the Dolphins' undefeated 1972 season. He won a pair of playoff games. The 1972 Dolphins are one of the most celebrated teams in pro football history. Morrall rarely gets celebrated. Instead, we remember Super Bowl III.
OK...let's go waaaay back. The 1962 Lions, who fielded one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, trailed the Colts, 14-7, in the fourth quarter of a December game in the heat of the playoff chase. Morrall replaced Lions starter Milt Plum, completed seven of eight passes, threw one touchdown and ran for another in a 21-14 comeback victory.
The Lions then went back to Plum and missed the playoffs. The only person who seemed to remember Morrall's heroics was Colts coach Don Shula, who signed Morrall as Unitas' backup, which brings us back to Super Bowl III.
There has never been another backup quarterback like Morrall, who spent what should have been his prime for those hopelessly bewildered post-Bobby Layne Lions. Morrall's efforts for the Colts and Dolphins helped make the NFL what it is today. And yes, that can also be said about his loss in Super Bowl III. But if there is any quarterback in history whose contributions should not be defined by his worst game, it's Earl Morrall.
17. Bernie Kosar
If not for John Elway and The Drive, we would still be talking about Bernie Kosar's heroic performances during the 1986 season.
Kosar led the Browns back from a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit against the Jets in the playoffs for a 23-20 overtime win. A Mark Gastineau roughing-the-passer penalty sparked the comeback (Jets fans still howl about the call), but Kosar then led two scoring drives with just one timeout left and 4:14 to play, then led an overtime drive that ended with a missed chip-shot field goal before finally leading the game-winning drive in the second overtime period.
Kosar engineered seven game-winning drives during the 1986 regular season. He was the ultimate Marty Schottenheimer quarterback: a great decision-maker with enough arm talent and creativity to do more with less at the skill positions.
As the ultimate Schottenheimer quarterback, Kosar got the buzzsaw treatment from fate in the playoffs. Dan Marino came back from 21-3 to beat the Browns in 1985. John Elway drove in 1986. Ernest Byner fumbled in 1987. Injuries claimed Kosar in the midst of another playoff run in 1988. Kosar then quickly fell from the limelight.
Kosar wasn't destined to be the perennial challenger to Elway and Marino that he appeared to be in the mid-'80s. But for a few years, he was the one quarterback you did not want to face in the fourth quarter. Unless you were Elway, of course.
16. Norm Van Brocklin
Norm Van Brocklin relieved Bob Waterfield as the Rams quarterback in the second half of the 1951 NFL Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns with the Rams clinging to a 14-10 lead.
There was nothing unusual about the quarterback swtich. Waterfield and Van Brocklin platooned all season. "Buckets" Waterfield, the veteran scrambler/punter/kicker/touch passer, probed the defense early in the game. Van Brocklin, "The Flying Dutchman," part of the new generation of pocket-bound rocket launchers, came in when the Rams needed a knockout punch. Or a comeback.
The knockout punch wasn't working. An interception return set the Rams up at the goal line, but they settled for a field goal. Van Brocklin drove the Rams deep into Browns territory again, only to come away empty after three handoffs and a fake field goal. Meanwhile, Otto Graham led the Browns back to tie the game, 17-17.
Van Brocklin responded with what was often called "The Perfect Pass" at the time: a 73-yard bomb-and-run to Tom Fears. Thanks to Van Brocklin's fourth-quarter heroics, the Rams defeated the best team of their era.
Nearly a decade later, Van Brocklin was supposed to be the Eagles' veteran mentor for Sonny Jurgensen. Instead, he became the starting quarterback and de facto offensive coordinator for a team of destiny. Van Brocklin led six fourth-quarter comebacks for the 1960 Eagles. He led back-to-back comebacks against the Giants in November to propel the Eagles into the NFL Championship Game.
The Eagles came back in the fourth quarter to beat the Packers, 17-13, for the NFL title. It would be thrilling to report that another 73-yard touchdown by the Dutchman made the difference. Actually, a long kickoff return by Ted Dean sparked the final Eagles drive, which ended with a Dean touchdown; Van Brocklin threw just one pass in the comeback effort, which was followed by some legendary defensive heroics by Chuck Bednarik,
That's nitpicking. Van Brocklin led teams that came back to win against Paul Brown's Browns and Vince Lombardi's Packers. That's like coming back to win the Super Bowl against the Cowboys in 1993, then the Patriots in 2004.
The Dutchman was an ornery, cantankerous cuss who was tough to get along with when things weren't going well. But his brand of leadership worked well in his era. The only thing worse than being on his bad side was being on the opposite sideline when the game was on the line.
15. Doug Williams
"Let's get this sucker rolling!"
The Broncos led 10-0 at the start of Super Bowl XXII, and Doug Williams wasn't going to wait until late in the game to lead a rally.
Williams served as a reliever to Redskins starter Jay Schroeder for most of the 1987 season. He led a comeback when Schroeder was injured at the start of the season opener against the Eagles. He took over again for an ineffective Schroeder against the Lions in November. When it happened again in December, with Williams leading another relief comeback, Joe Gibbs gave up on the overthrow-prone Schroeder and gave Williams the keys to the Redskins for the playoffs.
Williams led a comeback from a 14-0 deficit against the mighty Bears defense earlier in the 1987 playoffs. When the Super Bowl arrived, it was time to get the sucker rolling.
Before he joined the Redskins, Williams was the first great quarterback in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. He led a former punchline of a franchise to the playoffs in 1979 on the strength of three fourth-quarter comebacks. The next year, Williams led five fourth-quarter comebacks, but the Buccaneers finished 5-10-1. The Buccaneers had an outdated offense and few skill position weapons. Their strategy was to stand Williams in the pocket and hope he could figure something out.
After a contract dispute with the Bucs, Williams left Tampa Bay for the USFL. He was a forgotten man upon his return. One of the pioneering African-American quarterbacks of his time was relegated to bench duty in Washington. Suddenly, he had a chance to make history. So Williams and the Redskins began rolling as soon as the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII began, starting with an 80-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Sanders. They didn't stop rolling until Williams polished off the 42-10 comeback.
It was a clutch performance that shattered boundaries and changed perceptions. Williams had always stood tall in the face of the pass rush. In Super Bowl XXII, he stood tall in the face of history.
14. Russell Wilson
Had Russell Wilson just handed off to Marshawn Lynch at the end of Super Bowl XLIX...
Wilson led five game-winning drives in the 2014 regular season and playoffs to get the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. He led five game-winners in the 2013 season to help the Seahawks win a Super Bowl. He led five in his rookie season to bring the team to the playoffs. Many of his wins were unforgettable: the duel with the 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship Game; the time he MacGyver'ed his way out of trouble after a messy start against the Packers.
Wilson's near-misses are often more memorable than his comebacks. He led the Seahawks back from a 27-7 deficit against the Falcons in the 2012 postseason, only to lose on a last-second field goal. He rallied back from a 31-7 deficit but came up short against the Panthers after the 2015 season.
But no near-miss comeback can hold a candle to Super Bowl XLIX.
The Seahawks led 24-14 at the start of the fourth quarter. Tom Brady did Tom Brady things, and the Patriots soon led 28-24. Then the Seahawks drove. Wilson to Marshawn Lynch. Wilson to Ricardo Lockette. Wilson to Jermaine Kearse...holy David Tyree, what a play! 1st-and-goal on the 5-yard line. Handoff to Lynch for four yards, down to the 1-yard line.
Change the play, Russ! Call a handoff, or a rollout, or anything but a pass to a no-name receiver in tight coverage in the middle of the end zone...
Wilson, already 8-4 in playoff games after just five NFL seasons, will be out there leading comebacks again this year. As usual, his offensive line will probably stink and his receivers will be ordinary, so those comebacks will involve death-defying scrambles and last-second bombs. He'll probably drag the deeply flawed Seahawks to the postseason yet again, where he will find himself in a showdown with a better-protected quarterback on a better-balanced team.
If he reaches the 1-yard line with the game hanging in the balance, neither Wilson nor the Seahawks are going to make the same mistake twice. Brace yourself, Eddie Lacy.
13. Ben Roethlisberger
If this countdown of clutch quarterbacks appears skewed toward current quarterbacks—spoiler alert: more are coming—it's because modern quarterbacks are better in the clutch than old-timey quarterbacks.
Please don't send all-caps emails explaining how gritty Sonny Jurgensen was. Modern rules and tactics make fourth-quarter heroics easier and, therefore, more common. Offense-friendly rules, intricate no-huddle schemes, improved kickers on better playing surfaces, even the extra round of playoff games—they all provide extra opportunities to win big games in the final minutes.
Roethlisberger and the last guy on our countdown (Russell Wilson) are the closest things the modern NFL has to old-school quarterbacks playing by the new rules. Their fourth-quarter comebacks rarely take the form of six-pass, 32-yard drives to set up 48-yard field goals. Wilson has to run around in circles until defenders are tired of chasing him before delivering the game-saving play. Roethlisberger, by contrast, often stands in the pocket, pump-faking and elbowing aside defenders, until one of his receivers (Hines Ward or Santonio Holmes early in his career, Antonio Brown or one of his proteges nowadays) escapes from a defender.
Roethlisberger's most famous clutch performance was his final drive to beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. But Roethlieberger has led 39 career game-winning drives, seven of which came against the Ravens. Anyone who has ever watched a slobberknocker Ravens-Steelers MMA bout knows they often come down to which quarterback is still standing by the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger's "just a flesh wound" approach to playing through injuries makes him the perfect quarterback to survive a slugfest.
Send Roethlisberger back to the 1970s, and he would lead plenty of comebacks in that rough 'n' tumble era. The totals might not be as impressive, but the biggest wins would be just as big.
12. Joe Namath
You probably know about Super Bowl III and the guarantee. It was a watershed moment in pro football history. The three quarterbacks who played in that game all reached this countdown. And Joe Namath, truth be told, didn't do much more than call handoffs to Matt Snell and let his defense take care of business in the upset which paved the way for modern NFL popularity.
You may not know the Jets only reached Super Bowl III because Namath led three regular-season fourth-quarter comebacks. He then threw a fourth-quarter interception in the AFL Championship Game which helped the Raiders take a 23-20 lead. Undaunted, Namath promptly led a game-winning drive, capped by a touchdown to Don Maynard.
Namath spent his early career earning the right to sit shirtless at poolside and deliver soundbites before Super Bowl III. The Raiders and Chiefs were the AFL's powerhouses. The Jets were a penny-ante operation before Namath arrived. Namath's arm and flair for the dramatic—not to mention a football IQ and work ethic overshadowed by his playboy personality—allowed Weeb Ewbank to build a rival for those better-run franchises. Namath didn't just lead comebacks. He led a franchise by its nose into relevance.
Namath was only a great pro quarterback for a few years. He then became Broadway Joe for decades. Younger fans have a warped sense of his abilities, if not his contribution. Namath didn't just capture the imagination of a generation because he was Mr. Sexy Guy who lived and worked close to Madison Avenue and got hot at the right time. He was a brilliant quarterback whose career was cut short by his own knees. And while his late-game heroics were unnecessary in Super Bowl III, they are a big part of what made him a legend.
11. Bobby Layne
"Bobby Layne never lost a game. Sometimes, time just ran out on him." — Detroit Lions great Doak Walker.
Layne made sure time rarely ran out on him. He and Lions coach Buddy Parker are credited with inventing the modern two-minute drill. They would practice late-game situations, designing sequences of short passes toward the sidelines and making sure Layne's teammates knew what was expected of them when the team needed a fourth-quarter drive. This was innovative thinking in the early 1950s, and when combined with Layne's athleticism and daring, it took the NFL by storm.
Layne led the Lions to wins over the Browns in the 1952 and 1953 championship games, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to win the second title. That's like beating the modern Patriots in back-to-back Super Bowls. Layne led three fourth-quarter comebacks to bring the Lions back for a chance at a third title during the 1954 season. Alas, he had one of those embarrassing big-game failures that even the best quarterbacks suffer now and then: a six-interception debacle in a 56-10 drubbing at the hands of the Browns.
Things got weird in Detroit after the championship era faded. Parker resigned amid a cloud of controversy, Layne was suddenly traded in the middle of the 1958 season and the Lions began suffering under a malaise—or perhaps a curse—which has never fully lifted. Exiled to Pittsburgh, Layne and Parker continued their late-game heroics, leading the woeful Steelers organization to a pair of winning seasons with the help of several signature Layne comebacks.
Layne is best-known today for the "curse" he cast on the Lions, and also for being one of the most notorious carousers of pro football history. But the two-minute drill was his greatest contribution. Layne may have been a tipsy swashbuckler, but it took more than derring-do to beat Paul Brown's teams. It took fresh ideas and hard work, two facets of Layne's mystique—and clutch capability in general—history often overlooks.
10. Eli Manning
Manning led three late-game comeback victories for the 2007 Giants in the regular season. He then led the Giants back from behind to beat the Cowboys in the playoffs. And of course, he executed one of the most miraculous drives in Super Bowl history, highlighted by David Tyree's unforgettable off-the-helmet 32-yard reception.
The storyline: Ha ha, the Patriots choked, and Manning sure was lucky Tyree could catch passes with his ear hole.
Manning led five fourth-quarter comebacks during the 2011 season, guiding the Giants back from a 34-22 late-game deficit for a crucial December win against the Cowboys. After another round of nip-and-tuck playoff games, he led the Giants back from a 17-9 third-quarter deficit, driving 88 yards in the final minutes of the game to once again beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
The storyline: Ha ha, Wes Welker dropped a late-game pass that would've helped the Patriots bleed the clock and prevent the comeback. So let's argue about whether Eli is "elite."
Manning led six comebacks or game-winning drives last season, bringing the Giants back to the postseason for the first time in five years. But with party boats, playoff losses and wall punches dominating the conversation in January, there was no way Manning's clutch performances were getting noticed.
The Giants are loaded for a Super Bowl surge this season. If they get it done, it will be because Manning once again kept his cool week in and week out on a team full of mercurial personalities in the nation's most unforgiving sports environment.
If Manning's clutch performances do lead to a third Super Bowl win, chances are the storyline will be all about what happened to Tom Brady.
9. Dan Marino
When both quarterbacks retired in the late 1990s, John Elway had cemented himself as one of the greatest clutch quarterbacks in history. Dan Marino, if not Chokezilla himself, looked like a strong-armed "stat guy" who never got it done in the big game.
What numbers were available at the time supported that narrative. Comeback totals were tallied by team media guides, and the Broncos media guide listed Elway with lots of comebacks. Plus, he led The Drive and such. Marino was the guy who led the league in passing, then lost to Elway's Broncos or Jim Kelly's Bills in the playoffs. 'Nuff said, right?
Then Scott Kacsmar formally defined the terms "fourth-quarter comeback" and "game-winning drive" in the mid-2000s, researched the totals throughout NFL history and created the comeback data now seen at Pro Football Reference. The shocking result: Marino led 36 career comebacks, Elway 35. With Tom Brady and Peyton Manning still in mid-career at the time, Marino and Johnny Unitas were pro football's all-time comeback kings.
Early in Marino's career, the Dolphins defenses weren't spectacular, so Marino, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton had to come from behind to win some 41-38 and 34-24 shootouts. Later in Marino's career, the Marks Brothers gave way to receivers like Oronde Gadsden and O.J. McDuffie, so the Dolphins often had to rally for 16-13 or 20-17 wins.
In the postseason, Marino led the Dolphins back from a 21-3 deficit against the Browns after the 1985 season and from being down 16-3 against the Chiefs in the 1990 playoffs. Marino's final comeback came on January 9, 2000, in a playoff win over the Seahawks, one year after Elway retired.
None of the comebacks were as dramatic as The Drive, and there were no Super Bowl victories. Given the choice between Elway and Marino with two minutes left in a playoff game, comeback totals be damned, I would pick Elway as well. But it would be close. Perceptions and narratives can be misleading, especially when gauging something as ephemeral as "clutch" performance.
8. Ken Stabler
The most remarkable thing about the Holy Roller is just how slick it was.
For those of you who weren't raised on NFL Films programming, the Holy Roller was a fumble-on-purpose play Ken Stabler and the Raiders used to beat the Chargers early in the 1978 season. Stabler dropped back to pass trailing 20-14 with 10 seconds left at the Chargers' 14-yard line. Woodrow Lowe appeared to have Stabler sacked, but The Snake flipped the ball toward the end zone. Madness ensued, and Dave Casper ended up landing on the ball in the end zone for a game-winning touchdown.
Watch it in real time. Looks like a fumble, right? Now watch the NFL Films version. Yeah, he might as well have stuck a shipping label on the ball and same-day delivered it to the end zone. But the crafty Stabler knew what he could get away with...at least until the NFL changed its rules to prevent any future "Holy Rollers."
The Holy Roller is Stabler's second-most famous miracle comeback, which tells you all you need to know about why he is so high on this countdown. The Sea of Hands play took place at the end of a 1974 playoff game between the Raiders and Dolphins. Trailing the defending two-time champion Dolphins 26-21 with two minutes to play, Stabler led a drive that ended with a desperate pass into a "sea" of waiting Dolphins defenders in the end zone. Raiders running back Clarence Davis somehow emerged with the football.
In between famous games with names, Stabler led five fourth-quarter comebacks during the Raiders' 1976 Super Bowl run.
It only seems like every Raiders game in the 1970s featured a miracle Stabler comeback which bent the rules a little bit, not to mention three vicious hits by the Raiders defense and a postgame motorcycle junket to Tijuana. Stabler and the Raiders usually played by the rules, played their share of ordinary (or even boring) games and sometimes even made curfew. But Stabler and the Raiders performed their wild-men-on-the-brink routine so often that it is instantly recognizable as their brand 40 years later.
Come crunch time, the 1970s Raiders were a danger to themselves, others and to any worms that might have been crawling on the grass between Stabler and the end zone.
7, Roger Staubach
The first last-second pass to be called a "Hail Mary" wasn't really a Hail Mary.
The bomb Roger Staubach threw to Drew Pearson to beat the Vikings in December 1975 was just that: a bomb. The modern Hail Mary play, with receivers clumped in the end zone waiting for a jump ball, did not yet exist. Staubach may have been throwing up a prayer when he coined the term "Hail Mary" to describe the play, but the almighty helps those who help themselves. What he really threw was a long back-shoulder pass after a pump fake, not a coin in a wishing well.
Staubach was often called "Captain Comeback" in his day, in addition to "Captain America" and "Roger the Dodger." The nicknames described both the personality and playing style: an all-American Navy vet with the legs, arm and creativity to improvise, adapt and overcome anything the defense threw at him.
Staubach's actual comeback totals aren't that impressive—15 fourth-quarter comebacks in eight seasons as a starter—but Staubach's Cowboys didn't trail many opponents in the first place. Staubach led the Cowboys to 11 playoff wins and two Super Bowls, throwing 24 postseason touchdowns in the defense-dominated '70s. His clutch bona fides aren't really debatable.
Next time you see a quarterback attempt a Hail Mary, imagine a world in which neither the term (outside of prayer books) nor the play even existed. Then imagine what sort of player could single-handedly popularize the late-game miracle and add a whole new meaning to the English language. Roger Staubach was that sort of player.
6. Brett Favre
Brett Favre was a lot like Batman. The Ol' Gunslinger, just like The Dark Knight, excelled at getting himself out of predicaments that he had gotten himself into.
Let's face it: Batman makes a lot of trouble for himself. He creates his own archenemies by throwing hoodlums into acid vats, beefs with Superman while Lex Luthor hatches barely concealed evil schemes and acts pretty dense for the first two-thirds of every story. And Favre caused himself and his teams plenty of unnecessary headaches by throwing sidearm passes into triple coverage.
We love Batman because he always outsmarts and outfights the bad guys in the end, and also because he is better at everything than any of us when he has to be. And we loved Favre for the same reason. Across 30 fourth-quarter comebacks and 45 game-winning drives, he performed daring escapes and miraculous feats of athleticism, skill and (sometimes) genius.
Favre caused more than a few of the problems he ended up solving. But the same can be said of many of our clutch quarterbacks. When his team needed him, Favre always had an extra gadget in his utility belt.
5. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning led his team to a come-from-behind victory for the first time against the Jets in November of his rookie year. The Jets, a playoff-bound team coached by Bill Parcells, led 23-10 at halftime. Manning, a ballyhooed but turnover-prone rookie, connected with Marvin Harrison for a third-quarter touchdown, then delivered what would become a quintessential Peyton Manning late-game drive: a 16-play, 80-yard methodical march down the field which used up most of the remaining 3:04 on the game clock.
Peyton Manning engineered his final comeback in the divisional round of the playoffs at the end of the 2015 season. The Steelers led the Broncos, 13-12. Manning, now a battered junk-ball pitcher, began another fourth-quarter trek: 13 plays, 65 yards, seven minutes of precious game time and a two-point conversion after the touchdown to provide a gasp of breathing room. Manning had little fourth-quarter magic left, but it was enough to beat the Steelers and propel the Broncos toward the Super Bowl.
Manning led 45 regular-season fourth-quarter comebacks in his 17-year career, six more than any other quarterback in history. He engineered 56 game-winning drives, which is why you can still picture them in your head: Manning barking audibles, sniping short pass after short pass, managing the clock like a Time Lord, sometimes hitting Harrison for the final blow, sometimes letting Mike Vanderjagt or Adam Vinatieri finish the job with a short field goal.
For all his efforts, Manning dodged a bottom-of-the-comment-thread reputation as a "choke artist" for most of his career. It may have been the falsest narrative in sports history. Manning was one of the NFL's most consistent clutch performers for nearly two decades. The critics and naysayers tried to bury him, but he persevered and went out a winner. It's hard to be more clutch than that.
4. Johnny Unitas
The Greatest Game Ever Played was a Johnny Unitas comeback to lead the Colts past the Giants in overtime in the 1958 NFL Championship Game.
Now, "The Greatest Game Ever Played" was not really the greatest game ever played. We have witnessed dozens of more exciting games since 1958; last year's Super Bowl is just one example. But the 1958 championship was one heck of a comeback by Unitas: With the help of receiver Raymond Berry, all-purpose back Alan Ameche and others, he drove the Colts from their own 14-yard line with less than two minutes to play to set up a game-tying field goal, then drove 80 yards for a touchdown in the first overtime game ever.
Comebacks were much harder in the olden days than they are now. High-percentage passing and well-rehearsed no-huddle tactics were still decades away. Teams with fourth-quarter leads squatted on the ball to kill the clock; playing catch-up usually meant throwing the ball up for grabs in an era when interception rates were much higher. Football games were generally won with running and defense, and they were won in the first three quarters.
Unitas changed the perception of what a quarterback could accomplish late in the game. He led 36 comebacks and 40 game-winning drives in his career; both numbers would have been records at the time if comeback totals were tracked. Unitas routinely worked his magic three or four times per year in the era of 12- and 14-game seasons. His success helped open up the game and modernize late-game tactics. And of course, that 1958 championship introduced a national television audience to the thrill of the last-ditch comeback drive.
A grump might point out that Unitas didn't have a comeback up his sleeve in Super Bowl III or that the magic often failed him against the mighty Packers. No one wins every close game. Unitas is here because he won THE close game of his generation, plus dozens of others.
3. Joe Montana
The "John Candy Story" has become one of pro football's greatest old yarns. Late in Super Bowl XXIII, with three minutes left to play and the 49ers trailing the Bengals, Joe Montana pointed into the crowd and asked left tackle Harris Barton, "Isn't that John Candy?"
For the millennials out there who know who Joe Montana is but may think John Candy is some knockoff Jolly Rancher: Candy was the comedian who played Barf in Spaceballs. Even in Candy's 1980s prime, Montana was more famous than Candy. The modern equivalent of Montana pointing out Candy would be Tom Brady looking away from the overtime toss in last year's Super Bowl and getting excited about seeing Kevin James in the crowd. Except that Candy was actually funny. But that's not what this segment is about.
So Montana was so cool that not only could he people-watch before leading one of the greatest comebacks of his era, but he didn't even need A-list celebrities to distract him. Epic comebacks were old hat for Montana by the end of the 1989 season. He and Dwight Clark beat the Cowboys with The Catch way back in the 1981 postseason. Montana ended his career with 31 fourth-quarter comebacks and 33 game-winning drives, plus four Super Bowl rings, of course.
Montana's 49ers could beat opponents a dozen different ways. Late-game heroism was just one more weapon in his arsenal. Montana was so cool at crunch time that he could allow his eyes to wander. His performances were so breathtaking that the rest of us couldn't look away.
2. John Elway
John Elway, orchestrater of The Drive, windmill-diver to deliver key first downs in Super Bowls, spent over a decade as The Quarterback Who Could Not Win the Big Game.
Elway led 35 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career. His 98-yard drive against the Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship Game is still known by its one-word nickname 30 years later. He dueled some of the greatest quarterbacks in history while going to battle with one of the weakest offensive supporting casts a perennial contender ever fielded. It wasn't enough. The public is fickle. Clutch reputations are elusive. And Elway's Broncos always got the holy living tar beat out of them in Super Bowls.
That leaping dive in the red zone in the Super Bowl against the Packers helped change Elway's image. But there was still more work to be done. The dive set up a Terrell Davis touchdown to give the Broncos a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter. But Brett Favre had a reputation of his own to protect. The Packers came back to tie the game.
Elway didn't have a dramatic fourth-quarter drive in his arsenal in Super Bowl XXXII. But he had Davis, a solid defense and the savvy to hand off, distribute some short passes and play field-position football. The Broncos tilted the field in their favor until Davis could grind out a game-winning touchdown. Sometimes the most clutch thing a quarterback can do is operate within the game plan and rely on his teammates. (Ask Joe Namath about that sometime.)
The Broncos followed their win in Super Bowl XXXII with a win in Super Bowl XXXIII. Elway retired as one of the NFL's most celebrated champions. It was hard to remember how battered his reputation had been just over a year earlier.
History is kind to quarterbacks who persevere until they find teammates who don't require them to do it all by themselves. The one quarterback worthy of passing Elway on this countdown always had the support he needed. What he's done with that support has been nothing short of historic.
1. Tom Brady
Tom Brady has led 10 game-winning drives in the playoffs, four more than any other quarterback in history and as many as John Elway and Dan Marino combined.
Brady has thrown 63 career postseason touchdowns, the most in history; Joe Montana is second with 45. Add Elway's 27 playoff touchdowns to Troy Aikman's 23, and you can still squeeze a Bob Griese, Joe Theismann, Jim Plunkett or Fran Tarkenton in (all have less than 13) and still wind up with fewer postseason touchdowns than Tom Brady.
Brady's greatest clutch performance was his most recent. My colleagues and I typed a lot of "All Good Things Come to an End" headlines into our laptops during halftime of February's Super Bowl, especially since Brady helped dig his own hole with a pick-six.
We should have known better. Brady also needed a late drive to beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. He battled Jake Delhomme tooth and nail through the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVIII, prevailing on a last-second field-goal drive that defied the laws of time and space. The Seahawks led the Patriots, 24-14, in the fourth quarter of XLIX just three seasons ago; the Seahawks managed to turn Brady's comeback into their own melodrama, but only because Brady comebacks seem so inevitable (and the Seahawks can be pretty melodramatic).
So Brady's comeback from 28-3 in the last Super Bowl was just a slightly more extreme example of what he has always done. Brady's Patriots may clobber weaker opponents in the first quarter to get to the big games. But when the big games arrive, no one is better at finding ways to win than Brady, except perhaps the guy who coaches him.
I could go on, but the only people arguing this selection are a half-dozen dudes in faded Elway jerseys and some cranks typing CHEATRIOTS on every comment thread they can find. Brady is historic, legendary in his own time, excellent in every element of football that maters and as close to an inarguable example of the ultimate "clutch quarterback" as we will ever see.