Walkthrough: The Comeback King
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, 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. It runs in two parts on August 6th and 7th.
Hall of Fame Game Preview
Who, Where, When: Bills vs. Titans, Canton, Ohio, Sunday night at 8 p.m. on NBC.
Reasons to Watch: 1) It's football, or close enough. 2) Rambling interviews with inductees. Each inductee will endorse at least one teammate as a future HoFer. My guesses: Bruce Smith will stump for Steve Tasker, Rod Woodson for Gregg Lloyd, Bob Hayes for Calvin Hill, Randall McDaniel for John Randle, and Ralph Wilson for either Jack Kemp or Pliny the Younger. 3) We get our very first look at the new no-wedge policy on kickoff returns, which means we could get our very last look at Leodis McKelvin.
As the Worm Turns: LenDale White claims that he lost 37 pounds once he stopped drinking tequila. In other good news, Jimmy Buffet and Sammy Hagar both filed for bankruptcy. First, the Romo-Jessica December tryst in Cabo, now White's lime-and-salt-splattered confession: It's time for the NFL to add tequila to the banned substance list. Come to think of it, Ms. Simpson looked a little paunchy in recent photos; perhaps she and White share some Patron-fueled weight gain see-saw. Now that White is wasting away in virgin Margaritaville, he wants to change his nickname from "Smash" to "Save the Last Dance." Chris Johnson is now known as "Beep Beep." Chris Berman made this nickname stuff look easy.
Mystery QBs: Vince Young will get some snaps and tons of attention from the talking heads. Let's face it: You want to see how he does, too. Patrick Ramsey has a chance to unseat Young as Kerry Collins' backup, and Ramsey's veteran presence should keep the Titans from looking too Pop Warner in midgame. Alex Mortensen has been struggling as the camp arm, despite what his dad may tell you.
Harvard alum Ryan Fitzpatrick will get a long look as Trent Edwards' backup. Fitzpatrick is a replacement-level backup, but his running ability could keep things amusing. Gibran Hamden and Matt Baker are practice squad fodder; when they are playing, Bruce Smith will be talking about Jim Kelly, and sighing. While Hamden and Baker are throwing passes, Terrell Owens will be placed in a soundproof bubble.
Pick: Titans to win, the game to become unwatchable with 11:35 to play in the second quarter.
The latest contributor to the descent of global journalism and communication into a series of tweets is Rapid Reports, a new feature on CBSSports.com. The premise: 32 reporters, one at each training camp, blog nonstop on everything they see, no matter how mundane.
I hate this concept on several levels. Much of what gets reported is out-of-context or irrelevant: It's nice to know that Matt Stafford completed a 30-yard pass in a 7-on-7 drill, because it proves he's still alive, but it is really non-news. More personally, I fear that I will be asked to do something like this soon, that the money will be too good to pass up, and that I will find myself tweeting about Ray Rice's sports drink preferences instead of breaking down plays, telling jokes, or interacting with humans.
Much as I dislike the Rapid Reports concept, it has a hypnotic-excessive-addictive quality, and it allows hermits like me to feel like we're really at camp, or camps. It's also focused on people who are actually running around a field and sweating, with none of the Vick-Favre-Burress operatics that dominate the headlines. To judge the news value of the reports, and to get caught up after a few days at the beach, I combed through two full non-consecutive days of tweets, looking for truth and challenging my ability to read really fine print. Here are my findings:
10:23 a.m.: The Chiefs reporter kicks things off for the day: "Cloudy, cool, windy conditions for the Chiefs' first practice. The temperature is in the mid-60s." Perfect day for trout fishing on the Kinnickinnic.
10:35 a.m.: Jason Campbell is checking down to third and fourth receivers in 7-on-7 drills. August is honeymoon season in Redskins camp.
12 Noon: The Ravens reporter tells fantasy owners to keep an eye on receiver Ladarius Webb, who returned a kick for a touchdown and could challenge Yamon Figurs for the return duties. My fantasy team needs a good return man!
12:01 p.m.: Beanie Wells signs!
12:18 p.m.: Niners fans cheer sarcastically after every Vernon Davis catch. Davis responds by pouring sugar on the power cells of their hybrids.
12:46 p.m.: Rams fourth-string quarterback Keith Null goes seven-of-nine in one-on-one drills. Rams fans christen the Null-Kyle Boller-Brock Berlin backup trio as Null and Void.
1:09 p.m.: The Rams reporter is winning: nine posts in an hour, many of them about Ron Bartell. Maybe the reporter is Ron Bartell …
1:29 p.m.: Derrick Mason sighting in the Ravens hotel!
1:50 p.m.: Niners practice ends. Wait, is this Eastern time? Twelve, eleven … did the Niners stop practice at 10:50 in the morning local time? No wonder they stink.
3:08 p.m.: Ravens lunch options: "salad bar, grilled chicken, pasta, pulled pork BBQ, red beans and rice, sea bass, a cheesesteak bar and a yogurt smoothie bar with lots of fresh fruit." You can see Ray Lewis jacking someone up if there's no rainbow jimmies in that yogurt smoothie bar, can't you? More good news for the Ravens: L.J. Smith is hurt.
3:29 p.m.: Mike Singletary says he is glad that fans booed Alex Smith. He doesn't comment on the sarcastic cheers.
3:36 p.m.: Lions training camp begins. Dow drops 600 points.
3:58 p.m.: First play of Packers camp is a handoff to Ryan Grant. Three defenders are out of position.
4:23 p.m.: Lots of reports from Chargers camp: quotes by Eric Weddle, Antonio Cromartie doing pushups. No complaints about the food, but no yogurt smoothie bar, either.
5:48 p.m.: It's raining at Titans camp, and about a third of the fans who showed up for Keith Bulluck/Chris Johnson autograph day head home. Vince Young tries to escape clutching a moist Bulluck Fathead but is captured by Jeff Fisher.
6:44 p.m.: Young completes passes to Casey Cramer and Chris Stevens at Titans camp. What string is this?
7:03 p.m.: The Browns reporter gets busy with a string of posts. Rookie tight end Aaron Walker keeps dropping passes. But is he a soldier?
7:40 p.m.: Beanie Wells looks great in drills!
8:09 p.m.: A Bengals spokesman says Carson Palmer is "ill." His backups, however, are funky fresh.
8:23 p.m.: Beanie Wells is injured!
10:48 p.m.: The Vikings and Bears dominate the final posts. Lots of Jay Cutler and Sage Rosenfels. Adrian Peterson is lining up in the slot. Someone alert the fantasy owners!
Fast-forward to Tuesday:
9:36 a.m.: Kicker Lawrence Tynes fills in at wide receiver during Giants defensive drills. And promptly sho … no, I'm better than that.
9:42 a.m.: The Eagles' first-team offense fails to score in the red zone against the second-team defense. They are in midseason form.
9:47 a.m.: Derrick Mason knocks down a little boy while chasing a ball to the sidelines. "I had a premonition something like this would happen. That's why I retired!"
9:53 a.m.: With the pocket collapsing around him, Jason Campbell throws an interception. Campbell remains a top fantasy starter in 7-on-7 leagues.
9:56 a.m.: Percy Harvin is catching kickoffs!
10:02 a.m.: A flurry of Redskins posts. Albert Haynesworth tackles Clinton Portis. That's what $13 million looks like lying in the middle of a field.
10:14 a.m.: Percy Harvin is struggling to catch kickoffs!
10:20 a.m.: Joe Mays is Stewart Bradley's replacement at middle linebacker for the Eagles. Mays single-handedly stops the Eagles' first-team offense in a goal-line drill.
10:45 a.m.: Percy Harvin falls while taking a handoff.
10:48 a.m.: The Packers pump in simulated crowd noise, but one "zealous kid" can be heard screaming above the din. Derrick Mason is sent from Baltimore to silence the kid.
11:55 a.m.: Mike Shanahan appears at Patriots camp. He was at Steelers camp on Saturday. He wears a red striped hat and shirt.
12:46-1:02 p.m.: The Red Bull kicks in for the Texans reporter, who makes about 200 posts. Rookie tight end James Casey makes a great catch, and he long-snaps too! In other news, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams look great. That's reassuring.
1:19 p.m.: "Not much went down in Steelers morning practice." Honesty will get you nowhere in this job.
1:30 p.m.: In an effort to stave off blindness, I increase the font size on the blogs threefold. The next few posts were blurry and may not be accurate.
1:33 p.m.: Veronica wipes the face of Percy Harvin.
1:37 p.m.: Lions defensive backs lose their footing on a rain-slicked field. Later, they hurt themselves when cutting with non-safety scissors.
2:38 p.m.: Hail follows heavy rain and wind at Bengals camp, and the reporter cannot see what's going on. After two or three posts, it's clear the dude really wants to go home.
3:20 p.m.: Shaun Rogers takes a super-slow penalty lap after making a mistake. But then, it might not have been a full-speed practice.
3:46 p.m.: Kicker Matt Bryant sits out Bucs practice, letting Mike Nugent take all the reps. Either is ready to kick a 65-yard field goal against the Eagles, should the need arise.
4:01 p.m.: Percy Harvin cleanly fields his first punt. There's another Stations of the Cross joke here, but I cannot find it.
4:16 p.m.: The Steelers' "not much went down" reporter answers e-mails by name, so you can be a star if you send him a question. Bonus points if your name is Seymour Butts.
4:20 p.m.: There's no Percy Harvin news, though it feels like there should be.
4:54 p.m.: David Carr looks sharp in Giants camp, earning a congratulatory phone call from Jason Campbell.
5:05 p.m.: Jarvis Moss un-retires for the Broncos. NFL Network cancels retrospective on his career.
5:35 p.m.: A fan passes out from heat exhaustion at Bears camp. Mike Shanahan resuscitates him.
6:00 p.m.: The Bengals reporter hasn't been heard from in hours and is presumed drowned.
8:46 p.m.: David Garrard is having a hard time finding receivers. As is the entire Jaguars organization.
8:50 p.m.: Darrius Heyward-Bey catches 11 passes in an offense-only drill. Al Davis looks like a visionary genius in a Davis-only universe.