NFL Week 4 Predictions: I Don’t Care If Aaron Rodgers Is Clutch

This has been quite the week. Four years after first quantifying a quarterback’s record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, I finally saw that work transfer to the TV set this week on ESPN’s First Take with this graphic:

2013-09-24_11-38-24_225

Little did I expect what would follow. In true First Take style, right after debating whether or not Peyton Manning was the greatest QB in the history of the NFL, the next segment was fully devoted to whether or not Aaron Rodgers was still the best QB in today’s NFL. You know, ahead of the guy they just said might be the GOAT.

The surreal event of watching Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless hold a printout copy of my Insider article on Rodgers so they could argue about it is something I never would have expected and never will forget.

FT0924

The fruits of my labor made it like Christmas morning for Bayless, as he has argued his ridiculous “lack of clutch gene” narrative — ridiculous in that no gene exists for anyone — on Rodgers for years without doing the research to support it. He has something now, just as anyone should when I first wrote about the front-running Packers before the 2011 season started. This is nothing new to long-time readers, but it took a push by ESPN to finally get the numbers out there.

So if Green Bay’s historic struggles to win these games is a story going forward, then I have done my job.

The problem is when a large audience catches on to something completely new to them, there’s going to be a strong negative reaction too. That’s what I want to address here. You can consider this version 2.0 of “The Truth About the Front-Running Green Bay Packers”

First, allow me to expose a little secret:  Monday’s article was a last-second backup plan after the events of Sunday’s early games made a piece I did on the AFC null and void. So after the dramatic game ended between Green Bay and Cincinnati, I pitched a topic I’m very familiar with and have plenty of research on already.

Now, let’s understand this is a business. You need some controversial headlines that will generate clicks. Any good business will tell you that, not just ESPN. People can twist headlines all they want, but if you read the article:

I never said Rodgers is not clutch. I don’t write about the “clutchiness” of QBs. I write about what happened in clutch situations. Clutch is a history, not a skill.

I never said the 5-24 record at comebacks or 9-26 record at game-winning drive opportunities is all Rodgers’ fault. In fact, my first mention of this goes right to head coach Mike McCarthy.

“These close-game failures have been the hush-hush hallmark of coach Mike McCarthy’s otherwise successful tenure as Packers head coach. While the blame should be distributed everywhere, why are we not looking at the quarterback more?”

Here are some other direct quotes from the article that do not put the blame all on Rodgers:

“It’s always the same story for Green Bay: win big or lose close”

“Sunday was a perfect opportunity, but it was the latest in a long line of failures for the league’s best front-running quarterback and team.”

“There is some historical data to show the crunch-time disconnect in Green Bay.”

I understand the article is behind a pay wall, so not everyone was able to read it (hint: try Google). But there are claims out there on things I never wrote in the piece.

I also did not write the line “Recurring fourth-quarter failures prevent him from being NFL’s top QB” under the title, however I agree with it 100 percent. I’m not going to put Rodgers ahead of Peyton and Tom Brady, who have the gaudy stats, records, MVP awards and Super Bowl rings too. They also have a larger body of work. But the main difference comes in that I can still trust those QBs when the game does not start as planned and they have to win it late. I don’t trust Rodgers in the same fashion, which is why I had little faith he would get the go-ahead drive on Sunday in Cincinnati.

I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words on this topic before, so anyone thinking this was a knee-jerk reaction to Sunday’s game just doesn’t know my work on the topic. By the way, I’m limited to around 1,500 words on Insider, so any thought to being able to fully explain away every loss in the 9-26 record is a pipe dream.

Stephen A. Smith said he didn’t see a list of the games where Rodgers led the Packers to a fourth-quarter lead, but the defense gave it back. HOWEVVVVA, it does state this in the article:

“Of course, some of the 26 losses speak well for him. He has put Green Bay ahead seven times in the fourth quarter when trailing, only for the team to go on to lose the game. The defense is certainly deserving of blame for this.”

I make sure I cover my bases. So that’s what I wanted to say about the Insider piece itself.

As for any fan criticism or written defenses that have come from other writers this week, now I will respond to those.

I’m not as nonchalant about things as Rodgers, who responded with “Yeah, I’m not worried about that at all” when ESPN’s Jason Wilde asked him point blank about the lack of success in these games. I probably need to get that way to survive in this business, but I probably like arguing with people too much to stop completely.

There were many comments, e-mails and articles this week in response to my work. I’m not going to link to any of the articles as I didn’t see any that attacked me personally. If I did, I would have responded accordingly. I’m just going to go over some of the general faults I found.

No one’s done the same study I have done. It’s hard to compare (straight up) any past study of close games if you’re not looking at things the way I do, which is 4th quarter/OT, tied or down by one score. What I do takes an eternity for one person to compile, so I don’t think anyone could have accomplished that the last few days.

Stats in the final 5:00 – Sure, we can look at these, but that leaves out a lot of what goes into the 5-24/9-26 records. It’s not just about what you do when you’re behind, but it’s how you protect that lead or how you avoid getting into these situations late in the first place.

Win-loss record at 4QC/GWD should not be thrown away like trash – You can read my rant on this from FO here. We can take these stats and just look at how good a guy is at scoring a TD when he’s down 4-8 points in the 4Q, or scoring a FG when he’s tied or down 1-3. We can break them up that way and maybe get something useful out of that. The only reason I haven’t done it is because I’m still trying to put together a full database for every single opportunity in the last 30+ years. That takes time.

However, the record, the wins and losses (and sometimes ties), is the starting point for knowing which games to look at. We can’t just ignore it. While we can break the games down and see why the team won or lost, we need to be taking 4QC/GWD, which are situational drive stats at the heart of it all, and not just focus on the scoring drive(s).

Rodgers probably could have avoided last Sunday’s 4QC opportunity if he didn’t throw a bad INT early in the quarter in scoring territory. And people talk about the Johnathan Franklin fumble on 4th-and-1 losing the game, but I can tell you any advanced stat (DVOA, QBR, WPA, EPA) will give Rodgers two negatives for the sack on 2nd-and-6 and the 11-yard pass on 3rd-and-12 that set up that 4th-and-1 in the first place. He’s still accountable in that loss for things that took place before he was even trailing in the 4Q.

With a stat like TD passes, we don’t care about what happened on the drive before and after. It is what it is. These 4QC/GWD stats are different because what happens before and after them will usually decide if they stand up or not. Just taking a 1-point lead with 14:50 left to play does not put you in good position for a GWD. You will likely need to do something the rest of the game too.

Even before I became the guy who corrected 4QC stats for people like Elway and Marino, I was tracking successes and failures for active QBs for years. Eventually I started combining the two files to develop records for how successful QBs/teams are at such games. It was only natural for me to start quantifying things like one-minute drills, two-minute offense and the four-minute offense. I want to develop a new win probability model this offseason so I can use things like WPA and Expected Points Added (EPA) for QBs in these situations. I want to quantify late-game performance and strategy as well as anyone ever has, but it’s a process and you’ll just have to bear with me.

I don’t think the W-L record, especially for a QB, is the best way to judge these things, but I know it’s not meaningless either, especially for those who sit at the extreme ends of the chart. There’s something there that’s worth exploring and talking about.

Final-score analysis is heavily flawed to study the closeness of games. Because it takes too long to do this, most close-game studies have always been about the final score. Those can be very misleading. The Colts/49ers from last Sunday played a game that was a tie or one-score difference for 93% of the game before the Colts pulled away 27-7. A final-score study would reject that as a close game, but it would accept trash like MNF Eagles/Redskins from Week 1 when Washington made it 33-27 late and failed to recover the onside kick. That game was not close and the only drive involving a one-score game in the 4Q that night was Michael Vick taking two knees. Forget about the final score.

Rodgers is 20-22 (.476) in games decided by one score, and I hope it’s assumed when I say Rodgers I mean “the Packers with Rodgers at QB”. Because the record with Matt Flynn or Brett Favre (under McCarthy) would be different.

Anyways, 20-22 is a hell of a difference from 9-26 (.257) at GWDs, so you can see it’s two completely different studies. That’s the one thing I would like to change in how I’ve been writing about this. It’s not so much a close-game issue for Green Bay as it is a failure to win games when they have to score the winning points in the 4Q/OT.  Behind Rodgers they’re 9-26 at doing that, but 49-5 in all other games. No one has been able to explain that absurd gap in winning percentage, which is the largest in NFL history.

There is no simple explanation as teams lose games for various reasons. Sometimes it’s the QB, sometimes it’s the defense and once in a while it’s a kicker. You can count how many times Mason Crosby missed a clutch kick (four games and three were long attempts) that led to a loss, but what about Tony Romo (5) or Tom Brady (once)? You can’t just adjust Rodgers’ record for these things, because they happen to all other QBs too. If you want the article that will show that, stay tuned to Football Outsiders this season.

No matter who you want to blame, the Packers are 9-26 at GWDs with Rodgers at QB and that is a terrible record, especially for such a good team. Rodgers is the headline, but the Packers’ problems are the real story, and too many people are glossing over that aspect of this.

As for criticism of my “Phil Simms analysis” that 4QC show the cream rising to the top, well you find fault with the 10 guys who have held the record for most 4QC wins since 1950: Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bob Waterfield, Bobby Layne, Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, John Elway, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. That’s a who’s who of the best QBs through the years with Joe Montana (5th all time) only excluded because he missed too many games in his career. The 1970s are not represented, but wouldn’t you know Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and Ken Stabler all lead the decade with 15 4QC wins. Throughout NFL history, the best QBs dominate this stat as much as any other stat you can pick. But for Aaron Rodgers, he’s still somehow behind John Skelton and Tim Tebow. If that doesn’t make you scratch your head, nothing will.

Enough with the “lack of opportunity” argument – I hammered on this before, but again some people think Rodgers has a lack of 4QC/GWD for a lack of opportunity. 29-35 games is plenty of opportunity. It’s not the opportunity, it’s the bad winning percentage. Here’s an updated list with a few more notable QBs and how many 4QC opportunities they have had by start.

4QO

Rodgers is just above average at 32.6%, so stop it.

Statistical significance vs. real significance – I want to tread lightly on this topic as this alone could be 5,000 words out of me. I fully understand the small sample size issues with covering football. I’ve done hundreds of articles and looked at many things over the years, so I know as well as anyone when we don’t have enough data to make good conclusions. How many comeback opportunities does Rodgers need before we can statistically conclude his record is bad? 30? 50? 100? I don’t know, but I will work to find out in the offseason.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep doing my job as a football analyst to present the patterns and trends that aid our coverage of the game. They may or may not have statistical significance, but once you start talking about 29-35 games, that seems rather foolish to brush everything off as being random.

We can all agree the final minutes of a close NFL game are different from the rest of the game, right? The rule book changes in regards to clock stoppages and things like advancing the ball after a fumble. Time actually becomes a factor with using timeouts and managing the clock. No one cares about the game clock unless it’s the end of a half. Offenses will use all four downs while playing three-down football most of the time otherwise. There’s that sense of “if this drive is not successful, we will lose the game” that just does not come early in the game. It’s a different experience in crunch time.

So how many times does a team need to experience this before they learn how to adapt to the situation? Think of your own real-life experiences in adverse situations: driving up an icy hill on your way home from work, flying on an airplane or going to a funeral parlor. Yeah, I’m going to go with the darkest analogy I could think of.

Do you have to go see 80 dead people before it becomes statistically significant in how you will handle the situation? Or does it take a few trips before we know what to expect and act accordingly? That could be anything from the smell of the place, the demeanor of mourners, dealing with the image of the person in the casket, proper dress attire, etc. Sometimes we may get thrown a curve ball like a person laughing hysterically or someone throwing themselves onto the casket. In football, some unexpected things can come up too like a seven-man blitz or a dropped pass.

In other sports we have seen teams like Michael Jordan’s Bulls or Sidney Crosby’s Penguins have to climb the ladder of success before winning a championship. That means getting your feet wet in the playoffs, learning how to adjust for a best-of-7 series and going further each time before eventually completing the journey to the top.

Why can’t it be the same in the NFL where you have to learn to adjust to adverse situations? It shouldn’t take years upon years to do that either. I think we’ve seen enough from the Packers to reasonably conclude they struggle a lot in these types of games.

If you honestly see zero significance and only randomness to the Packers being 5-24 at 4QC behind Rodgers — possibly 0-20 against winning teams — then maybe following the NFL is not right for you. That record is unlike anyone else’s record when we’re talking about an annual SB contending team. Now if you want me to break the records down to adjust for opponent, or dig deeper into the causes, then that’s fine. I’ve done such things in the past. I know the few wins the Packers do have have often been unimpressive (bad opponents, small deficits). There are patterns. I’ve done enough to know something is not right with how the Packers win and lose football games.

Not to harp on it, but the comments made this offseason by Greg Jennings and Donald Driver about Rodgers’ leadership is another layer to this story. Cue the smoke/fire line. We don’t see receivers for QBs like Peyton, Brady and Matt Ryan question their leadership. We also see those QBs with great success in these close games. Maybe there’s something there, but let’s stick to numbers.

I have seen all 26 losses by GB. They happened and it didn’t take a stroke of bad luck every time. This team has issues late whether it’s the QB’s unwillingness to throw interceptions so he takes drive-killing sacks, the lack of a running game, the struggling OL, McCarthy’s playcalling, Dom Capers’ defense or Mr. Crosby’s kicking. There are baselines already established. For an elite QB, a 9-26 record at GWDs is bad and no one will convince me to say otherwise. Should it improve, then credit to the Packers.

But as long as it stays where it is, we have a problem here, and remember it’s a problem that has already and will continue to cost the Packers wins, division titles, higher playoff seeds, playoff wins and Super Bowl rings.

2013 NFL Week 4 Predictions

After hesitantly picking the 49ers, that makes me 4-0 on the Thursday games this season. My record’s much better than the quality of those games. I’m still stinging from another difficult Week 3 that saw an 8-8 record. Onward and upward this week as we try to figure these teams out.

Winners in bold:

  • Giants at Chiefs
  • Cardinals at Buccaneers
  • Steelers at Vikings
  • Ravens at Bills
  • Bears at Lions
  • Bengals at Browns
  • Colts at Jaguars
  • Seahawks at Texans
  • Jets at Titans
  • Eagles at Broncos
  • Cowboys at Chargers
  • Redskins at Raiders
  • Patriots at Falcons
  • Dolphins at Saints

Season results:

  • Week 1: 11-5
  • Week 2: 12-4
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Season: 31-17

Good god I have 10/14 road teams winning this week. Even if we don’t count Pittsburgh (neutral site), that sounds like trouble. Upset watch for Seattle, Cincy, Baltimore and Chicago?

Also, back in April I had Pittsburgh beating Minnesota in London with the premonition of Adrian Peterson being contained, Christian Ponder coughing over some turnovers, Big Ben finding Sanders/Brown deep down the sideline for scores. Just a good day for the Steelers in London. Now with both teams at 0-3, I barely feel like watching this one. Though with Matt Cassel stepping in at QB, I can’t imagine the takeaway-less Steelers do not get a few this week. And I still expect the Steelers to win, dropping a Minnesota team I railed on more than any other team this offseason to 0-4.

With Carolina and Green Bay on the bye week, there’s no chance to blow a late lead this week. But if there’s anyone I don’t want to see need a fourth-quarter comeback in Week 4, it will be Breaking Bad. I’ve noticed a lot of big-time series finales in recent years (Dexter and Big Love especially) waited too long to get things going and tried to rush it for a botched ending. I’m counting on big things from AMC here.

If Walter White escapes the country to become a lumberjack, I’m going to lose my sanity and quit watching these series since we never get closure or final satisfaction anymore.

NFL Week 7 Predictions, Dick LeBeau and Writing Recap

That was a historic week. Peyton Manning set the new mark for fourth quarter comebacks, which only changed record holders for the third time since 1963, and I wrote eight articles totalling over 24,000 words.

Think I need a bye week.

This Week’s Articles

Captain Comeback Week 6: Matt Ryan Passes Tom Brady For Best Record in the Clutch – Cold, Hard Football Facts

While Manning and the Denver Broncos had the Drive of the Week, there was a rare (or at least they used to be) blown lead of two scores in the fourth quarter by the Patriots. With Tom Brady unable to answer, he was surpassed by Matt Ryan (19-11) for the best record in NFL history at 4Q/OT drives to win games.

Peyton Manning is the NFL’s All-Time Leader in Fourth Quarter Comeback Wins – Cold, Hard Football Facts

With 37 4th quarter comeback wins, Peyton Manning now has the NFL record. Of course in classic comeback semantics style, he was asked in the post-game conference the following question: “Did you know you passed, or tied Marino for the most fourth quarter comebacks?” You can’t make this stuff up, just as the Broncos can no longer claim Elway had 47 comebacks. The comeback king lives in Denver, and this time it’s valid.

NFL Rookie QBs Off to Unprecedented Start – NBC Sports

The 2012 season is the first time five rookie quarterbacks started in Week 1, and Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson continue to hold onto their jobs. They are off to one of the most productive starts in NFL history for a rookie class. I understand the table is not displaying properly in this article, so here is a picture of it.

2012 NFL Season is the Year of the Kicker – Bleacher Report

Did you know through 91 games kickers were on pace for the greatest kicking season ever? They have made 326 of 372 field goals (87.63 percent), which would be a new NFL record. A crazy fact: the top nine seasons in NFL history for FG percentage are the last nine seasons (2004-12). Find out what could be causing this.

Following a Legend: Andrew Luck Week 6 at New York Jets – Colts Authority

The second career road game, much like the first, for Andrew Luck did not go so well. A look at every drop back.

The Thinking Man’s Guide: NFL Week 7 Predictions – Bleacher Report

This week we take a look at Seahawks/49ers, and already a correct prediction on the 49ers holding up at home in a low-scoring game. Also: Joe Flacco is a much different QB on the road, Eli’s revenge on Washington, and the Steelers’ recent struggles in prime time.

Captain’s Challenge: Your Answers to the Top 5 Quarterbacks in NFL History – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Here are some of your answers and feedback on the challenge of using one stat to reflect the best top 5 group of QBs in NFL history. I still think 4QC wins does the best job, but some interesting choices also came up.

Don’t Believe Hype with Steelers’ Defense – NBC Sports

Steelers’ CB Ike Taylor asked us to look at the facts, so I did. Not only has the defense been blowing leads in the fourth quarter with regularity since 2007, but this was a big problem in Dick LeBeau’s first run as defensive coordinator in Cincinnati (1984-91). They allowed 27 game-winning drives in that span, tied for most in the NFL. Since 2007 the Steelers have allowed 20 (tied-2nd), and a whopping nine of them came with less than 0:40 left in the game. It’s a career trend, as is the constant failure against the elite QBs in the game.

This is one that can get at least two follow-up articles, so I’m not done yet.

One thing I’ll point out right now is why I didn’t include LeBeau’s 2004-2006 tenure into the stats.

For one, I do have a space limit, and already went over more than I should have on this piece. Two, I feel the problem has grown since Mike Tomlin became the head coach (2007), and I also know the game has statistically changed since that season in terms of passing efficiency.

LeBeau’s defense works great…if you want to win the AFC Central in 1995. But against today’s pass-heavy offenses with multiple receiver sets and little care to the running game, it is a lot easier to pick up his blitzes and throw against his CB cushions. If the scheme was still really that signficantly great, then why is it so dependent on one player (Troy Polamalu) to be there? Without Polamalu this defense is one of the worst in NFL history at creating takeaways.

As for the 2004-2006 seasons, let’s do a quick review for notable games.

2004

Week 1 vs. Oakland – in his first game back, LeBeau’s defense squandered a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter, with Rich Gannong throwing a 38-yard TD pass on 4th and 12. Ouch. Fortunately, the offense put together a game-winning drive, using up 4:30 of the final 4:36 on the clock in a 24-21 win.

Week 4 vs. Cincinnati – Down 21-17, Carson Palmer threw a pick six late to Troy Polamalu, in what may have been the first big impact play of Troy’s career.

Week 6 at Dallas – Down 24-20, Vinny Testaverde only had 0:25 left at his own 35, but was able to get the ball to the PIT 30 for one final play. The Hail Mary was broken up in the end zone.

Week 11 at Cincinnati – Up 17-14, the Steelers made four stops in the fourth quarter, including forcing a late safety when Palmer was called for intentional grounding in the end zone.

Week 13 at Jacksonville – The Jaguars went 62 yards for a field goal to take a 16-14 lead with 1:55 left. Roethlisberger led the game-winning drive, and Byron Leftwich only had 0:11 left. He would complete a 19-yard pass to Jimmy Smith, but Josh Scobee was wide right on the 60-yard FG.

Week 15 at NY Giants – After the offense took a 26-24 lead, the Steelers allowed a 52-yard TD drive by the young Eli Manning. Giants led 30-26, but Ben led another go-ahead drive. With 3:31 left Manning’s deep ball was intercepted, and the offense converted two third downs to run out the clock.

Week 17 at Buffalo – Playing their backups, the Steelers forced a fumble of Drew Bledsoe, and a young James Harrison returned it for a touchdown to take a 26-17 lead.

AFC Divisional vs. NY Jets – After the offense tied the game 17-17, the defense allowed the Jets to drive, but Doug Brien missed a 47-yard FG with 1:58 left. Roethlisberger threw a big pick, but Brien missed it again. The Jets converted a 3rd & 13 in OT, but a holding penalty stalled their drive. The Steelers drove for the GW FG.

2005

Week 3 vs. New England – Down 13-10 in the 4th, Tom Brady led the Patriots on a 86-yard TD drive. They went 59 yards to add a FG (20-13). Roethlisberger led a game-tying TD drive. With 1:14 left Brady found two quick, easy completions to running backs, and Adam Vinatieri made the 43-yard GW FG with 0:01 left. It was a 37-yard drive.

Week 5 at San Diego – Down 14-13, Drew Brees led the Chargers 62 yards for a FG to take a 16-14 lead. Roethlisberger got the lead back with a 3-play TD drive. The defense allowed an 11-play, 62-yard TD drive to give up the lead again. Fortunately they stopped the 2pt conversion. More fortunately, the Steelers drove for the game-winning FG with only 0:06 left, so Brees didn’t have a third chance.

Week 6 vs. Jacksonville – Defense made a few stops in a tied game, but Tommy Maddox threw a game-ending pick six in OT.

Week 8 vs. Baltimore – Anthony “Radio” Wright led three straight FG drives in the 4th quarter to turn a 17-10 deficit into a 19-17 lead for Baltimore. Roethlisberger led the go-ahead FG drive, and the defense finally stopped Wright on a 4th and 6.

Week 9 at Green Bay – Up 13-10, the Steelers forced a 3 and out and a pick of Brett Favre.

Week 11 at Baltimore – With Maddox struggling at QB again, the Ravens went on a 30-yard drive in OT that ended with Matt Stover’s 44-yd GW FG.

AFC Divisional at Indianapolis – Despite leading 21-3, the Colts went on TD drives of 72 and 80 yards in the 4th QT, plus a 2-point conversion to make it 21-18. Getting the ball back, the Colts went 4 and out after two sacks of Manning. Jerome Bettis shockingly coughed the ball up, and Roethlisberger tackled Nick Harper. Manning completed two passes for 30 yards before rookie Bryant McFadden prevented a Reggie Wayne TD. Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard FG.

Super Bowl XL vs. Seattle – Down 14-10, Seattle drove from their own 2-yard line to complete a pass to the 1-yard line, but Sean Locklear was called for holding. Three plays later Matt Hasselbeck threw an interception and the Steelers all but put the game away on Randle El’s touchdown to Hines Ward.

2006

Week 1 vs. Miami – Up 21-17, this one was a good hold to start the season. The defense intercepted Daunte Culpepper twice, including a pick six by Joey Porter to ice the game.

Week 3 vs. Cincinnati – Two fumbles led to two Carson Palmer touchdown passes on short fields in a comeback win for the Bengals. While the fumbles were bad, there’s no reason to give up one-play TD drives of 9 and 30 yards. Hold them to a field goal at least once. This was the season-long problem with the 2006 Steelers. The offense would turn it over, and the defense would compound it by allowing instant points. A perfect example here.

Week 7 at Atlanta – An unexpected shootout, the Steelers tied the game late 38-38. Michael Vick drove the Falcons, but Morten Andersen was short on a 52-yard FG. In OT Andersen made the GW FG from 32 yards out on the only drive of OT. Key play was Vick converting a 3rd and 9 for 26 yards to Alge Crumpler.

Week 10 vs. New Orleans – Another shootout with Brees, the Steelers took a 38-24 lead. The Saints went 64 yards, scoring on a “fumblerooski” play. Brees was driving late for the tie, but Terrance Copper fumbled at the PIT 25 after a huge hit from Tyrone Carter. Steelers won 38-31.

Week 11 at Cleveland – One of Roethlisberger’s best comebacks. Down 13-3, he led the offense 87 yards for a TD. Josh Cribbs returned the kickoff for a TD (20-10). Ben led another TD drive, then another with 0:32 left. Charlie Frye only had 0:27 left, but moved the ball to the PIT 22. On his last chance, Braylon Edwards could not complete the catch in the end zone.

Week 17 at Cincinnati – This turned into a 4th QT shootout. Down 7-3, Palmer went 80 yards, completing a 66-yard TD to the late Chris Henry. The Steelers went 63 yards for a TD (14-10). The Bengals came right back with a 73-yard TD drive (17-14). Steelers tied with a FG (17-17). With 0:55 left at his own 33, Palmer would find Henry deep for 47 yards. Shayne Graham was wide right on a 39-yard FG with 0:08 left, or else the Bengals would have won, made the playoffs, and another GWD against this defense. Instead the Steelers get the ball in OT and Santonio Holmes goes 67 yards for the TD to give a disappointing season a nice finish.

What do we see? Some good, some bad, and more of the offense bailing out the defense at the end. Things were better then than they have been in recent years, but it’s not the lockdown defense the stats show in terms of how many points and yards they allow. No one cares how many yards you gave up if you blow it at the end of the game.

2012 NFL Week 7 Predictions

I had the 49ers, so I’m already four wins away from matching last week’s awful total.

Winners in bold:

  • Titans at Bills
  • Cowboys at Panthers
  • Ravens at Texans
  • Browns at Colts
  • Cardinals at Vikings
  • Redskins at Giants
  • Packers at Rams
  • Saints at Buccaneers
  • Jets at Patriots
  • Jaguars at Raiders
  • Steelers at Bengals
  • Lions at Bears

Season results:

  • Week 1: 12-4
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 4-12
  • Week 4: 10-5
  • Week 5: 10-4
  • Week 6: 5-9
  • Season: 52-39

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.