View Full Version : The Comeback King

Bronco Boy
08-06-2009, 01:52 PM
Walkthrough: The Comeback King
By Mike Tanier
Football Outsiders
Created 08/06/2009 - 12:23pm

by Mike Tanier

John Elway is renowned for his heroic fourth-quarter comebacks.

Take the Broncos' victory over the Chargers on November 19th, 1995. The Broncos took a 27-10 halftime lead, but Junior Seau intercepted an Elway pass to set up a third-quarter field goal. A Broncos drive ended in a missed field goal; the Chargers capitalized with a touchdown drive. After a three-and-out in the fourth quarter, the Chargers scored again, tying the game at 27-27 with 9:47 to play. On the next possession, Elway handed off to rookie Terrell Davis seven straight times. Davis gained 53 yards, setting up a game-winning Jason Elam field goal.

Not only was that effort not very heroic -- "It was nice to sit back, hand off, and watch somebody else do it," Elway said after the game -- but it wasn't even a comeback. The Broncos never trailed in the fourth quarter. The Boulder Daily Camera called it Elway's 36th "fourth-quarter, game-saving drive" in an act of semantic precision.

By retirement, Elway had 47 such drives, the highest total in NFL history.

Or maybe he had 49. Or 50. Or maybe just 34.

And he may not hold the "comeback" record at all.

Scott Kacsmar, a researcher who does data projects for Pro-Football-Reference.com [1], researched Elway's comebacks and made several startling discoveries:

Many of his comebacks weren't comebacks at all. They were "fourth-quarter, game-saving drives," as the Daily Camera called them, or Game Winning Drives (GWDs) in Kacsmar's words. In many of these games, Elway wasn't rallying the Broncos back from a deficit, he was driving the Broncos to victory after the opponent tied the game.

Dan Marino had many GWDs of his own, but the Dolphins' public relations department didn't classify them as comebacks. In fact, Marino had more GWDs than Elway, by a 51-49 margin.

If you count only "true" fourth-quarter comebacks, then Marino also leads Elway, 36 to 34.

Therefore, Marino is the NFL's all-time comeback king, not Elway. Elway may not even be in second place: Kacsmar believes that Johnny Unitas also had 34 true fourth-quarter comebacks, but with play-by-play from Unitas' era nearly nonexistent, Kacsmar cannot guarantee his findings.

Let's get this out of the way now: Kacsmar doesn't have an axe to grind against Elway or for Marino, nor do I. We are talking about bona fide Hall of Famers, and no one wants to denigrate their accomplishments. Kacsmar's research takes nothing away from Elway's legacy.

This isn't the story of an overrated quarterback. It's the story of an overrated, overused, and misapplied statistic, one that was hastily tabulated, lazily verified, then unleashed upon the football world.

The "47 Fourth-Quarter Comebacks" figure is widely known. Several experts cite it during the "Best Clutch Quarterbacks" episode of NFL's Top 10, and it's often the centerpiece of arguments that Elway was the best quarterback ever. Before he led the Broncos to two Super Bowls, fourth-quarter comebacks were Elway's calling card, which is why the Daily Camera was careful to mention that the Chargers game was the 36th something of his career.

Unfortunately, comebacks aren't an official NFL stat, and comeback statistics were compiled by individual teams for inclusion in media guides. That places "comebacks" in the same netherworld that tackle statistics occupied for much of NFL history. In their hurry to promote Elway, the Broncos' media department included every fourth-quarter drive Elway engineered that led to a winning score, even if the Broncos never trailed, even if Elway never threw a pass. In their zeal, they included one "comeback" that actually resulted in a tie.

The Broncos weren't doing anything wrong. But the Dolphins interpreted "comebacks" more strictly. When Marino led the Dolphins on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter of a tie game, the PR people didn't tally a comeback. There were other discrepancies. As a rookie, Marino led the Dolphins back from a 17-10 deficit against the Oilers, but left the game with an injury just before the game-winning touchdown (but after engineering most of an 83-yard drive). He doesn't get credit for a comeback. In 1985, Gary Kubiak relieved Elway in the final moments of a Broncos win against the Seahawks. Elway erased two seven-point deficits in the quarter and got the Broncos into game-winning field goal position, so he deserves (and got) credit for a comeback. But Marino deserved the same credit.

There are other problems. Kacsmar found games that both the Dolphins and Broncos media departments either missed or misinterpreted. The Broncos media department didn't count two overtime GWDs by Elway, but they did count a 17-17 tie against the Packers in 1987 as a "comeback." Marino got credit for comebacks in a few games when he never took the field in the fourth quarter with the Dolphins trailing: Defensive touchdowns tied the game or gave the Dolphins the lead before Marino went to work. When Kacsmar checked the Dolphins and Broncos media guides for data on Chad Pennington and Jay Cutler, he discovered that the double standard is still in place: Cutler's GWDs are credited as comebacks, while Pennington only gets credit for a comeback when he leads the Dolphins to a win after taking the field with a fourth-quarter deficit.

Kacsmar's research revealed that the Packers, Cowboys, Colts, and Patriots use the generous definition of a comeback, while the 49ers and Chiefs adhere to a more strict interpretation. According to the media guides, Brett Favre has more comebacks than Joe Montana (42 to 31), but Montana leads 31-27 once the GWDs are removed.

There's a catch-as-catch-can element to the comeback numbers listed in the media guides, and Kacsmar goes to great lengths in his study to explain the difference between a comeback, a GWD, and just an unusual win. He cites numerous hard-to-categorize examples. What if the comeback drive starts in the third quarter and extends into the fourth? What if the play that gives the quarterback's team the lead is the very first play of the fourth quarter? And what if it's a field goal? If the quarterback rallies his team back from a large deficit, but the game-winning play is a defensive or special teams touchdown, should he be credited with a comeback? Kacsmar suggests several guidelines for standardizing comebacks and GWDs. He also suggests that media guide editors, broadcasters, and others add context to the numbers: list both comebacks and GWDs, plus comeback opportunities, "blown saves," and other data that might help fans gauge a quarterback's penchant for fourth-quarter heroics.

What Kacsmar's research ultimately shows is that these "heroic comebacks" are really just a grab bag of close wins from each quarterback's career. Sometimes, as against the Chargers in 1995, Elway (or Marino) just handed off a few times, then cheered for the kicker. Sometimes, the quarterback played poorly early in the game, or needed to atone for earlier mistakes: both Elway and Marino have GWDs that resulted from their own fourth quarter interceptions, which kept opponents in the game. Few of the "comebacks" resemble The Drive in any way: Most are mundane, end in field goals, and occur midway through the fourth quarter, requiring the defense to stop one or two opposing drives before the victory is sealed. "Comebacks" are as circumstantial as any other NFL stat, but they are even less reliable because they are tabulated haphazardly. Standardization would help, though comebacks and GWDs will never be more than a "color" stat, one that helps tell a player's story but has little value for determining how good he was or will be.

Elway doesn't need the comeback record to be a great player or a Hall of Famer. Perhaps there shouldn't be a "comeback record" at all. But if there is one, evidence suggests that it doesn't belong to Elway, and it shouldn't be attributed to him. It belongs to Dan Marino. The" 47 comebacks" number is used too easily as a conversation squelcher, and often as a subtle dig against Marino, Jim Kelly, or some other quarterback who lacks a "clutch" reputation. It's a false number, and its existence clouds our perception of NFL history.

To read Kacsmar's entire study, or to find the real numbers for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, check out Kacsmar's article on Pro-Football-Reference.com's blog [2]. It runs in two parts on August 6th and 7th.

Peoples Champ
08-06-2009, 02:08 PM
well elway has more superbowls,

We can argue who has more comeback wins, or game winning drives , or whatever, but when it comes down to it in the crunch time, who do you want behind center?

You poll the United States, Elway will be #1.

Flex Gunmetal
08-06-2009, 02:21 PM
Elway led the Broncos to 5 super bowls.
Mike Tanier could be an idiot.

Tombstone RJ
08-06-2009, 02:22 PM
I kinda agree with the article. I watched Elway's entire career and I never understood why he is known as the "comeback" QB (aside from "The Drive").

I just don't personally recall all these great comeback drives. I know he had many GWDs, and many come back drives but I don't think he has more than other great QBs like Montana or Favre or Marino or Kelly or Aikman, etc...

Point is, Elway won a lot of games and you can't take that away from him. But I do think the Broncos over emphasized he's comebacks. For some reason the Broncos felt this made him a better QB...

Bronco Boy
08-06-2009, 02:32 PM
Elway led the Broncos to 5 super bowls.
Mike Tanier could be an idiot.

I don't think the article disputed the fact that he led them to 5 super bowls.

08-06-2009, 02:39 PM
Elway is 5-1 in AFC Championship Games. Not too bad.

08-06-2009, 04:47 PM
You folks sure do have a hard time identifying the point of an article and responding to that topic of discussion.

Super Bowls and Championship games have nothing to do with this article.


08-06-2009, 05:02 PM
Why was Marino coming back when he had a better team than Elway?

Take your research and shove it Kacsmar, Elway is the King. Of what? Everything to do with a QB including comebacks when his team couldn't maintain.

08-06-2009, 06:00 PM
I pretty much have to disagree with any article that is in any way negative about any past or present Bronco, other than Dale Carter and Jay Cutler.

I just want to get that out on the table.

Mr. Mike Tanier is clearly a communist.

08-06-2009, 06:05 PM
I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.

Flex Gunmetal
08-06-2009, 06:43 PM
I don't think the article disputed the fact that he led them to 5 super bowls.

Before he led the Broncos to two Super Bowls, fourth-quarter comebacks were Elway's calling card.

Peoples Champ
08-07-2009, 07:56 AM
stats are overrated, you gotta go with who you would put back there when the game is on the line. Its Elway.

Stats get overhyped. Like interceptions. There is no way to tell how many of a Qb's interceptions are his fault, linemans, WR's or a missed assignment.

Or Baseball. If a player goes 0-4 at the plate with 4 line drive outs. Statistically that was a terrible day, but you know the coach is thinking, man, that guy is hitting the ball well. But if you look at the stats, your like no way that guy is hitting the ball well.

Bronco Boy
08-07-2009, 08:13 AM

By "Super Bowls", the author obviously means Super Bowl victories. Semantics.