My 3-Year Story of NFL Comebacks: Crusade Over Conspiracy

In light of the three-year anniversary of my first ever article, I have decided to share the ride’s ups and downs in my attempt to rewrite NFL history by blowing open a statistical conspiracy on the Denver Broncos and the use of fourth quarter comebacks.

Thursday’s article was basically the 8th chapter in the story (first seven are notably linked throughout here), but today is a perfect time to summarize the last three years, while also providing even more new evidence of a Denver comeback clusterfudge.

Documenting this process has been very important to me, and I hope it has been an entertaining and eye-opening look into the dark side of record-keeping and history.

The irony is I never had any intentions of being a journalist or anything of the sort, but this story has basically been my form of investigative reporting, and my angle to breaking into the business.

Please pass this link along and help spread the truth.

2009: The Rookie

August 6, 2009. Three years ago today, I crossed over from the world of internet forum/Excel-worshipping stat nerd to writer. I posted my first ever article.

Actually Doug Drinen of Pro-Football-Reference posted it, but it was my writing, and it was called “Guest Post: Quarterbacks and fourth quarter comebacks, Part 1.” (Chapter 1)

I thank PFR for giving me that first platform to turn my researched data into words, and I can only wish I would have written a better two-part article (Chapter 2) than I did. But that was my first time, and after hundreds of thousands of words later, I think I have a much better grip on this writing thing.

On that same day three years ago, Mike Tanier gave me a boost into the sports writing world by infusing my piece into his great Walkthrough column at FootballOutsiders. That helped spread the word and was phase one of my crusade. Thanks again, Mike.

I have said before I am not the first person to reject or disprove Elway’s mythical “record” of 47 fourth quarter comebacks, but I am the first to create a standardized system of fourth quarter/overtime wins so that we can track the real all-time leaders.

Though in my first articles you can see I was still caught up on trying to bunch all of these wins together, I soon after realized the best method is to make them two stats, and say “QB X has Y fourth quarter comebacks and Z game-winning drives in his career.” This continues to catch on, which I greatly appreciate.

Not long after those first two articles, I sold my database to Pro-Football-Reference and we put the comeback tables on every quarterback’s page for all to use. I added a part three (Chapter 3) to the series during the playoffs to explain the nuances of the data on the site. The data started showing up in writers’ coverage of the NFL.

I talked to Pittsburgh’s best sports writer, Ed Bouchette, for a story after game one of the 2009 season, and it made the front of the Sports’ section in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which had me excited as a local guy. Later that season I contributed data to articles which appeared on Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.

2010: The Plot Thickens

For a newcomer, things were going pretty well, though not once had I heard anything from the Denver Broncos. E-mails to the head of PR went unanswered, as did any phone call attempt. I can’t even get Woody Paige or any Denver-related media person for that matter to slay the dragon. Are they afraid they’ll lose their job or something?

I was also ill-prepared in the instance that Peyton Manning, who pulled to 35 comebacks, one shy of Dan Marino’s record 36, broke the record. I never could get into contact with the Colts on this matter either, despite the fact Manning and Johnny Unitas are two of the most prolific QB’s ever in this area. I will be over-prepared this season in the event that Manning finally ties and then surpasses Marino.

In the summer of 2010 I contacted NFL spokesman Greg Aiello after reading a 1996 article in which he stated the league would look into making comebacks a standard stat. I figured I have already done so much of the necessary work, so why not push him on it?

He eventually got me into contact with another NFL employee, and from there it was passed to the Elias Sports Bureau, who handles the league’s statistics. I must admit I was poorly prepared in adding a professional proposal, and basically just went off the three articles I had written at that point. Had I sent them something along the lines of what I have to work with today, things may have been much different.

Instead, the response was basically that teams are going to keep doing what they want in their media guides and press releases, and Elias, who only uses game-winning drives and never comebacks, was not changing anything.

The one time I tried to call Elias myself, a Spanish woman answered, creating a Consuela from Family Guy-esque moment, and I just hung up out of frustration. If you’re not familiar with the ESB’s website, it is basically an ad for buying a baseball book. It would be easier to reach the CIA for information or discussion.

I recently found this great article by Michael Weinreb, which talks about researcher John Turney’s similar plight with career sack totals. The NFL only made them official in 1982, but obviously sacks occurred for decades prior to that. With NFL Films having every game, why not go back and create the historical record of sacks? I of course fully support Turney’s position.

Weinreb’s characterization of dealing with Elias was classic:

So I called the Elias Sports Bureau, which keeps all the official statistics for all the major sports leagues in this country. I spoke to a man whose name I cannot use because he never gave it to me, and whom I cannot quote because he declined to be quoted, and who didn’t want to be forced to repudiate my premise. At times, I felt like I was engaging in a semantic discussion with the Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons.”

To summarize: The Elias Sports Bureau feels as if there is no need to revise the history before 1982 because it would be impossible. They claim it would be impossible because there is no uniformity, because there was no standard definition of a sack before 1982, because then you fall into that statistical booby trap of comparing generations, and therefore, to go back to the play-by-play sheets and videotapes is both time-consuming and useless. In fact, Seymour Siwoff of Elias told Pro Football Weekly a couple of years ago that the only reason sacks were adopted as an official statistic in 1982 is because an increased number of incentive clauses and bonuses were built into contracts. This led to increased complaints and queries about statistics, which essentially, Siwoff said, “forced our hand.

It’s not impossible when people like Turney and me are willing to do the work. We may not be the Elias Sports Bureau, but I dare you to check the research and try and question the validity. It doesn’t take a genius to find mistakes in the “official” record.

In the 1990s, George Halas and Fran Tarkenton each held NFL records for most wins as a head coach and starting quarterback, respectively. But go figure, they each had one more win than they actually earned.

In 1992, Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Joe Horrigan found an error in Halas’ total based on a game he won despite having already left for World War II. Horrigan had the total changed from 325 wins to 324 twenty years ago, and it came at an important time as Don Shula was nearing the NFL record.

Sound familiar to anything? I tried contacting Horrigan recently, but he did not return the call.

When I was researching QB starts, I made note of this 1963 game that Fran Tarkenton could not have possibly started, as evident by his lack of any pass attempts or runs, and the fact that every newspaper archive said it was Ron Vander Kelen making his first career start. So I took it away from Tarkenton, which moved his record down from 125 wins to 124, and I put that total on PFR. I also changed it on Wikipedia, and before long, noticed some teams like the Patriots and Colts changed it in their media guides.

Last year I passed it along to the Minnesota Vikings’ PR and they agreed and made the change. They were very courteous about it, unlike some teams would be. Note: the Denver Broncos still have Tarkenton at 125. Gasp.

We’ll get another look next month when Tom Brady (124) takes the field. Right now he’s tied with Tarkenton, and the next win should surpass him.

But back to comebacks, because 2010 was when some really interesting stuff went down.

I wrote this article about the chronology of the records (Chapter 4), which expressed some of the stunning semantics blunders that went on between Elias, Denver and the Miami Dolphins in the mid-90s. That clued me in that this has been a problem that’s been going on for nearly two decades without a correction.

In late November, I put together an article that shines some of the sweetest irony you’ll ever see in life. Do you know what John Elway really did 47 times in his career? (Chapter 5)

47 is the number of times he had the ball in the fourth quarter, trailing by one score, and did not win the game.

46 losses and a tie. How unbelievable is that? I found similar results for Roger Staubach, who was falsely considered to have 23 comeback wins (real number: 15), yet 23 ended up being the number of losses in his career opportunities.

Speaking of Staubach, I experienced an incredible moment of success followed by disgust in the fall of 2010. The NFL Network aired a great NFL Films series called Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players. During Staubach’s video, the narrator said that Staubach had 15 fourth quarter comebacks in his career.

15, which is my number I put out there in the second article I wrote. Someone had to see it, because you wouldn’t get that number anywhere else. Remember, I was in contact with the NFL that summer, making them aware of the issue. It was a sense of accomplishment. If they use the right number for Staubach, then what was to come for Elway and Marino?

What came next was the first moment I thought there might be a conspiracy that goes beyond the Broncos’ botching the stats for their star quarterback. With Marino aired and no mention, they teased before commercial break about the “king of comebacks” coming up next.

It was Elway, and the first line out of the narrator’s mouth included “a record 47 comebacks.” I could have broken my TV if it wasn’t so expensive. How do you use the factual number for Staubach, ignoring the Cowboys in the process, but then go and use Denver’s falsified number for Elway? It’s absurd.

I contacted NFL Films about it, but nothing came of that either. Could not get in touch with someone that had a clue of what I was talking about.

On the field, Peyton Manning was less than a minute away from that record-tying 36th comeback in the playoffs, but a long kick return by Antonio Cromartie put a damper on the ending with the Jets getting the walk-off field goal win. After seven straight comebacks to get to 35, Manning lost his next six opportunities and hasn’t played a game since that Wild Card loss.

2011: Captain Comeback Begins

Last year I had full intentions of doing a weekly column where I go over all the fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives of the week. This would provide an undisputable account of each week’s games, and with lots of exclusive data.

With PFR moving away from blogging, I joined the new site Football Nation last July and one of my first articles (Chapter 6) was about the news I received from the NFL that their Record and Fact Book for 2011 was going to feature game-winning drives. They only limited it to since 1970 and listed the top five, but it was accurate, had Dan Marino at the top, and it was a step in the right direction.

From Football Nation, I quickly got involved with the Cold, Hard Football Facts brand. That would be the destination of Captain Comeback, which had a very successful first season. By midseason I found a format I love, and will continue to provide this type of analysis each week during the season.

Last summer I refined my database of fourth quarter/overtime wins, which allowed for me to have good information done in a timely manner for my articles. I focused more on writing and building a brand rather than trying to get the Broncos or NFL to change anything.

It was a great season with plenty to write about in this area.

Even with Peyton completely gone in 2011, his brother Eli picked up the slack with a record-tying seven comebacks of his own. Tony Romo’s “clutch vs. choker” persona being questioned was good to write about. There was also the Tim Tebow story, which meant good news for me. Even got to correct Elias again on stats related to Tebow’s game-winning drives. And of course the whole Green Bay Packers/Aaron Rodgers mystery of how they’re such an anti-comeback team (3-18 record) continues to be a key story for me.

Getting the @CaptainComeback name on Twitter and networking/promoting there has been a huge boost as well. Interacted with a lot of cool people the last 12 months.

2012: Big Plans

This offseason I have been hammering away at completing an even bigger database in the hope that I can get the information people have been looking for the last three years: full comeback/GWD opportunities. I have been teasing some of the information here on my blog and in some articles lately, and hope to have results during the season.

I also have thought about writing a book in the future on this topic. A complete guide, from going over this history of how screwed up the semantics and use of comeback stats have been, with full tables of stats on teams and quarterbacks, and numerous case studies that you would expect from analysis of thousands of the close finishes in NFL history. So much great stuff could come from these databases. I’m excited about just the possibilities alone.

Peyton is back this year, so hopefully that will lead to a lot of attention over this Denver story. You can say I haven’t done enough to get it out there, but I always thought on-field action backed with indisputable research would always speak louder than anything I do by myself. But admittedly, I could have done (and do) more to get it out there.

I called ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Saturday to pitch a show idea about this story, and I should probably not stop at that one voice message.

I cannot rely on Peyton alone. I thought him joining Denver would do the trick (Chapter 7) by itself, but  of course the Broncos have gone with a defense that makes it look like Manning’s comebacks never existed by not mentioning them once in 678 pages of their media guide.

And these are the days of searchable PDF files, so they can’t say it’s in there and I just missed it. If they try and add it in now, I have the original copy saved and the revision date of 6/24/12 listed inside.

The use of their media guides against them was fun to compile last week, and I went even deeper over the weekend to look at their material from the Jake Plummer era. It further proves how badly the Broncos are botching comeback records and fabricating Elway’s legacy in the process.

This is from a 2006 press release:

There’s a lot going on here. First, it’s very interesting to see Denver focus on only comebacks, as evident by the 21 and the table. Note: in the 2006 media guide, it even calls them “pure” comebacks. What’s awkward is the table saying since 1995, yet Drew Bledsoe’s total is listed since 1997. Something wrong with the five comebacks he had in 1995-96?

I know that for Bledsoe’s career (since 1993), he had 24 comebacks, but I bet my life they are not the same 24 games Denver had in mind here. Peyton did in fact have 19 comebacks then, which gives me a good idea of what number, if any, they will try and say he has this year. Hint: it will be about a dozen off what they have for Elway.

Plummer’s 21 is a farce. They include this 2002 game against Seattle as a comeback/GWD for Plummer, even though it consisted of Arizona blowing the lead to start the fourth quarter, and MarTay Jenkins returning the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

“Pure” comeback, baby. Plummer was so good he got the offense the 4QC/GWD without even taking the field. The masters of comeback deception have outdone themselves here, as I have never seen any team credit their quarterback for a fourth quarter win like this when the return score did all the work.

One could argue Plummer started his career in Arizona, so maybe they were working off bad information. A logical argument, but I have the evidence this isn’t the case.

This is the Denver Broncos’ 2006 media guide claiming in Plummer’s player bio that the Seattle game was Plummer’s 17th comeback. Note the list of games here. That game, listed appropriately in “other games of note” at the bottom, was on 9/15/2002.

If you put the game in chronological order, it would be the 17th game on that page. This is Denver calling all of Plummer’s fourth quarter wins comebacks, even though three of the games (4, 9, 15 on PFR) were just game-winning drives where Arizona never trailed in the fourth quarter. And of course counting the Seattle game is pure lunacy. Plummer never even took the field for the opportunity, let alone do anything to deserve the comeback/GWD.

The Denver bio goes on to say Plummer finished 2002 with 21 comeback victories, even though six of them weren’t actually comebacks for him.

Plummer joined the Broncos in 2003, and his lone comeback/GWD of the season was noted by Denver as being his first for the team and the “22nd of his career.”

In 2004, Plummer had four game-winning drives, but only one of them involved a comeback (Carolina game). This time Denver says that Plummer led “four fourth quarter or overtime game-winning or game-tying drives on the year” to increase his total to 26.

Where they really blow it is when they give Plummer credit for his 19th comeback victory twice in two different seasons (2002 and 2004). Fancy that with both coming against Carolina, but they are two different games set over two years apart.

What does it show? When he was with Arizona, Denver refused to consider the difference between a comeback and a GWD, and just called them all comebacks. When he joined the team, they tried to get cute with “pure” comebacks, but outsmarted themselves when it came time to keep track of the stuff.

The 10/10/2004 game against Carolina was not Plummer’s 19th comeback. It was his 17th. Even if we get dumb about it and count the 2002 Seattle game, then that’s 18, which still comes up one short.

In 2005, Plummer had a comeback (9/18/2005 vs. San Diego) and two game-winning drives, though nothing specifically mentions them.

If the 10/10/2004 Carolina game was the 19th “pure” comeback of Plummer’s career, and he had 21 through 2005, then that means Denver is counting either the 12/12/2004 game against Miami or 11/24/2005 game in Dallas as a “pure” comeback, despite the fact Denver never trailed in the fourth quarter either time.

That would explain the bogus 21 comebacks at the beginning of 2006. However, that means there was another change when Plummer actually did have a comeback in Week 2 over Kansas City, but the number remained at 21 comebacks. Game-winning drives went up to 29.

Sticking with 2006, after a game-winning drive over Baltimore, the Broncos now went with 22 comebacks and 30 game-winning drives.

Even though the graphic clearly states the teams were only tied 3-3 in the fourth quarter, they add one to Plummer’s comeback total. The 0-point “deficit” is a popular thing for the Broncos.

And that is one of the core factors in how they were able to fabricate a record for John Elway, and get away with it all these years. If they can’t even handle a few Jake Plummer games from the digital media era, then it’s no wonder they had such ridiculous numbers for Dan Marino the 1990s.

That is why pure ignorance like the following from the Denver Post in 1996 has been allowed to exist: “Despite what you’ve heard and saw again Monday night, Elway is the NFL’s king of comebacks, not Dan Marino. Elway has 41, Marino has 32.”

Why is this so hard for people? In the words of Denver’s own PR man Jim Saccomano from a 1996 Denver Post article:

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you’re either ahead or behind and you either won or you didn’t.

Nope, it doesn’t take a genius. It takes Captain Comeback. It takes someone willing to put in the effort and call out a team when they are indisputably wrong.

From the confines of my home, I have done my part to rewrite NFL history. My history does not stand for one team winning the semantics battle to falsify a record to make their Hall of Fame quarterback look better.

For once, I feel very optimistic about this 2012 season, and the next chapter in the crusade over comeback conspiracy. The darkest days are behind us. The hardest work has been finished. Now we wait for new history to unfold, and put the past behind us.

Pass the link, and spread the truth my friends.

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One thought on “My 3-Year Story of NFL Comebacks: Crusade Over Conspiracy

  1. I have hope that the NFL will eventually release all the archived film. I never, ever thought we’d see the All-22, yet that’s being made available this year. The NFL is missing out on a huge possible revenue stream from archived games–they could easily charge big money to sell copies (DVD or digital) of entire past seasons.

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