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Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Walkthrough: The Comeback King
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

Vapid Reports

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.


74 comments, Last at 12 Aug 2009, 11:02am

1 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Ralph Wilson for either Jack Kemp or Pliny the Younger

Quite possibly the best line ever written ever.

71 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Pliny the Younger, or Y-doggie as he was better known, always got better press because he played in Rome. Elder had the misfortune to be taken early by the Herculaneum expansion team. Then there was his controversial meddling involving the younger's draft day trade. Writers at the time speculated that Elder told the Sicillian franchise (who held the first overall pick) that Younger didn't want to play on the west coast of the empire. Elder never got the respect he deserved until after his career (and life) ending pyroplastic flow injury.

3 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

"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."

Awesome, as always, Mr Tanier.

4 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

An off week. Sections 2 + 3 were quite funny, but the stuff about Elway and Marino was paragraph-skippingly dull.

That said, if 2/3 of a massive post being "quite funny" is an off week, it's not exactly time to man the life boats...

15 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

My issue with the comeback history bit isn't that it isn't an interesting bit of conventional wisdom refuation-- it's that it was a pretty straight recitation of the P-F-R Blog post. Seems like Tanier took what should've been a FO "Extra Point," expanded the normally brief summary, and made it into half of his normal column.

6 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

FWIW, "receiver Ladarius Webb" is actually "cornerback Lardarius Webb". Probably not a good fantasy draft, though I'm sure he's better than Pliny the Younger.

21 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Hey, Pliny's career form-adjusted rhetorical devices over average is amazing, and he practically defined the epistolary position. He's like the Don Hutson of letter-writing. Dude was clutch, too - volcano wipes out a city before his eyes, and he just carries on scribbling.

67 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

To top it all off, didn't he "report live from Vesuvius" from a boat? Those things were no luxury cruisers back then--he probably had to row a bit himself, do some bailing, clean sick off the gunwale, then get back to his scribbling. What? Quill broke? Grab a seagull, pluck a wing feather, and keep on trucking.

I wonder if he was known as the "Lahar Stud" in certain circles....

Lava Leader, Pyroclastic Papa, Magma Man, Ash Kicker, Pompei Patron, Voice of Vesuvius... I'm trying, I really am.

8 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

"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."

I feel that's what makes it most enjoyable.

9 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Thanks to FO and Pro Football reference for putting this out there. The 4th quarter comeback "stat" has always driven me crazy.

If I'm down by three points at home at the beginning of the 4th and win by 17 points should that really count as a comeback?

10 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Not only that, but I tend to agree with Peyton Manning that pulling off an amazing comeback in the fourth quarter tends to mean you probably screwed up much of the first three. They're exciting, though.

41 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Gamera is really neat/Gamera is full of meat/We all love you GAM-A-RAAAAA

Also, this "A Bengals spokesman says Carson Palmer is 'ill.' His backups, however, are funky fresh" left me on the floor. Comedy. Gold.

Hail Hydra!

12 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Great piece. Methodology question: should the following game count as a "come from behind win" for the QB:
Last December, the Colts enter the 4th quarter in Jacksonville trailing 24-14. Manning rallies the Colts to 10 points to tie the game, before the defense runs back a pick for the GW score.

Technically, the QB didn't engineer the GW drive, but clearly made a major impact in the fourth quarter to put the team in position where a pick six meant the win.

So, should it count as a 'come from behind win' for the QB or not?

20 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Absolutely that Manning/Jacksonville game should count as a comeback. In fact check out part II tomorrow as that game is an example I cite.

That game is also a good example of how a QB can play well (or great actually) for 3 quarters and still need a comeback because of his defense. Peyton was 17/17 in the 1st half, one of the best games of his career.

13 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

I'm too old, because even though I knew that there would be funny stuff in the twittering, I had to start skimming. Boy, I don't get it (except for breaking news items).

14 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Again, both educational and entertaining. I loved the comeback comparisons and remember fearing Johnny U comebacks against the Packers in my youth. I also learned the hard way about 20 years ago that tequila should be a controlled substance. There's more than alcohol in those bottles.

16 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

"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."


22 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Speaking of debunking the myth of Elway, has any "serious" journalist ever written a piece fully explaining the Broncos' salary-cap violations which occurred when they won back-to-back Superbowls?

There are news articles on the web about those violations, but I wonder if anyone's ever made a big deal about this. Why aren't those Super Bowl victories universally considered to be tainted?

Raiderjoe? What say you?

23 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

I imagine both Elway and Marino's 4th come backs have a lot to do with being very good QBs on teams with often shaky defenses for a very long time.

27 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

In Elway's case, quite a few of his came in that 1989-1992 stretch when Dan Reeves went ultra-conservative with the first through third quarter offense, an underrated Denver defense kept the game pretty close, and Reeves finally let Elway loose at the end.

1992 was especially bizarre because the Broncos looked utterly helpless for 3/4 of most every game on offense:

Week 1 - Broncos stumble horribly on offense all game and trail 13-10 (the TD having come on a fumble return); Elway leads TD drive in final moments

Week 5 - Broncos again stumble horribly on offense, trail Kansas City 19-6; Elway leads long TD drive beginning with 5 minutes left as Broncos cut it to 19-13 just after two-minute warning; Chiefs mess up the kickoff return, Broncos get a longish punt return after the 3-and-out; Elway throws winning TD within 3 plays

Week 7 - Broncos trail Oilers 21-20, having struggled offensively for most of the day (one score came after a punt block, one on a breakaway by Gaston Green, with not much offense in between); in final two or three minutes, Elway leads 3-play, 80-yard drive (two completions for about 60, then a 20-yard TD run for Reggie Rivers)

57 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

In Elway's case, quite a few of his came in that 1989-1992 stretch when Dan Reeves went ultra-conservative with the first through third quarter offense, an underrated Denver defense kept the game pretty close, and Reeves finally let Elway loose at the end.

1992 was especially bizarre because the Broncos looked utterly helpless for 3/4 of most every game on offense

These are the Broncos I remember! So this is why I've always thought Elway was overrated and undeserving of best-ever consideration.

Thanks for this, I was beginning to think I was crazy or horribly slanted against the man.

24 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

"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!"

You know what's sad? I played in a fantasy league last year where someone had the brilliant idea to count return yards equal to receiving or rushing yards. Needless to say, this radically changed the parameters of what makes a good WR. I won the league championship with Johnnie Lee Higgins as a starting WR. I don't even like to claim that championship, because that whole league was severely busted.

29 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

"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!"

Wait a minute, which Adrian Peterson?

49 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Hardly matters, they'd both be useless in the slot. Though I guess having Purple Jesus lined up in the slot would prevent the QB from mistakenly thinking that he would pick up a blitzer.

32 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

I've always found the "game-winning or -tying drive in the 4th quarter" notion to be extremely silly. Let's say you punch in from the one-yard-line to take the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, then go three-and-out for the remainder of the game while your defense saves your behind. That counts the same as three extraordinary evade-the-rush, throw-off-the-wrong-foot, 60-yard touchdown strikes in the final 5:40??? Its a non-stat.

Often, and I think particularly in the case of Elway, this is an example of one of the most common mis-uses of "statistics": an attempt to support a point-of-view that we have based on casual observation, but the support lacks disciplined, rigorous methodology (or, in the case of politicians, things which we fundamentally believe regardless of, and sometimes in spite of, actual evidence). What we saw from Elway was a unique combination of skills that loosely added up to "play-making" and made him a particularly dangerous late-game threat. The 4th-quarter drive "stat" was, I think, a lame attempt to objectify that mostly subjective observation. That doesn't make the observation wrong, but it certainly fails to make it "right", statistically speaking.

That said, if behind in the fourth quarter, I'll gladly hand the ball to either Marino or Elway and take my chances from there.

36 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

I would say as most have that the comeback statistic is a vague and over-used one in football. However, not all comebacks are equal and it seemed like Elway made comebacks in bigger games than Marino, especially early in his career which cemented the comeback king reputation.

Based on my philosophy that a 'big game' comeback is more relevant than a regulat one, I would put Elway in the company of Montana, Brady, Staubach and Unitas as the elite comeback QBs ever.

Perhaps my orange blood has run amok on this post, but I can think of back to back games in either 1984 or '85 where Karlis hit the upright in back to back games after Elway put them in field goal position.

37 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

This is the most entertaining thing I have read in a while...even though I disagree with the Elway v. Marino mess. Marino was great, but Elway did a lot of what he did basically by himself. Elway would have won five SBs with Marino's surrounding talent. Not knocking Dan at all; he's top five any day of the week. Elway might have been the best in the modern era, though.

And no, I'm not a Broncos fan, so that doesn't explain it.

55 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

First of all, your mom's a troll.

That was unwarranted. I'm sure she's a nice lady.

But, no, I'm neither a troll or a Broncos fan. I'm a Bucs fan, so it could be argued that I don't even know what a franchise QB looks like.

Was that non-confrontational enough for you?

44 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

"Elway would have won five SBs with Marino's surrounding talent. "


Perhaps Marino would have won 5 SBs if he had Terrell Davis or some other RB who could rush for 2,000 yards in one season. I think its really tough to argue that Marino was surrounded by more talent than Elway. Marino had Duper and Clayton, but no defense to speak of.

53 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

OK, it's fair that Marino had no running game. He DID, however, have much better receivers. Let me say that with the same offensive talent, Elway would have won five. Even if that's an exaggeration, it's certainly not to say that he would have gotten to more than one.

That's not a knock on Dan. Marino probably would have won five with Montana's surrounding talent, and if Montana had guys like Ricky Nattiel, Vance Johnson, and Mark Jackson to throw to, he wouldn't have gotten there at all.

65 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

There's a viable argument, illustrated flawlessly by...a reference to senior citizens' genitalia. How can I compete with such logic? You win.

Unless, of course, you consider that even if that were true, then the pre-Super Bowl receivers and backs that Denver had (Bobby Humphrey, Steve Sewell, the Three Amigos) were either that much worse than Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey (comparable to Clayton and Duper), or Elway magically got that much better at the tail end of his career. I don't know...consult my grandfather's scrotum and come up with an answer, since that seems to be your oracle.

"Jay Cutler - he saves lives." Jerry Angelo, 2009

73 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

In case you're not familiar with the phrase, it's an old expression (originally Yiddish I think) meant to point out the silliness of using counterfactuals like that.

You're essentially saying that having a great pair of receivers contributes more to a team's success than having a great defense and a great running game (of course, when Elway finally won those 2 Super Bowls, he had all 3). I think that's a pretty tough position to defend. It's likely that Elway would have put up better passing numbers if he'd had receivers like Clayton and Duper, but in terms of team success, those guys barely even begin to compensate for (mostly) bad defenses and the absence of a running game. Super Bowls aren't won by QBs; they're won by teams.

45 Oh, so predictable

"3:58 p.m.: First play of Packers camp is a handoff to Ryan Grant. Three defenders are out of position." -Classic.

46 The real reason

The real reason they called Elway the Comeback King was not because of his prowess in the 4th quarter... it was his witty responses to the media. No one could belt out a one-liner like Elway, and these funny remarks earned him the name "The Comeback King".

Until he finally gave up on it, Matt Hassleback was known as the "Comb-back King".

"I was corrupt before I had power!" - Random

47 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

AndyB go learn about facts if you wanna talk. The Dolphins defense was ranked in the top 10, and number 1 a couple times, during most of Marinos career, from the "Killer Bees" days to Jimmy Johnson days with Sam Madison, Zach Thomas, and that other cornerback that held all the time. Also, for the first 10 years of their careers, Marino's offensive linemen and wide recievers were voted to the pro bowl a combined 30 times. Elway's 1 (Keith Bishop in 1986). Still Elway bought his team to 3 SB in those years. Meanwhile Marino's Dolphins lost many playoff games they were favored to win. The Dolphins tried to develop a running game all those years, but Marino was such an impatient, tempermental ass (many of his own teammates disliked him) that if the running game didn't start off great, he would bitch and yell and demand to throw the ball cause HE would win the game. Schula always gave in. Thats why he has all those records, because he threw the ball damn near 50 times a game his first 9 years. Jimmy Johnson didn't give in and really tried to establish the run game, and that's why Marino didn't get along with him. It's also why Johnson (2 SB rings) told an assistant coach "I can see why he's never won a Super Bowl". Even if they had Terrell Davis, he probabably would never have gotten a chance with that screaming egomaniac Dan Marino as his QB. Keep screaming at your recievers and the refs Dan, even when you make the mistake. Jerkoff.

48 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Well said.

I can understand (but not agree) why some fans may think of other QBs (Montana, Brady, Staubach, Unitis) as a better or equal comeback QB than Elway.

However those who think that Dan Marino belongs in this company probably think that Ken Anderson should be in the HOF because his career numbers and that Namath because his numbers were average does not. Statistics don't lie, but they don;t tell the whole story either.

61 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

"Well said". Seriously? That was one of the most irrational rants I've seen in some time, and in this medium that's quite a statement.

Your own argument against Marino is emptier than Bernie Madoff's soul. I might as well counter-argue with "those who don't appreciate Marino as a quarterback probably also don't appreciate Mom and apple pie, and may very well worship Hitler". One opinion does not at all predispose the other.

50 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

"because he threw the ball damn near 50 times a game his first 9 years."

Exaggerate much?

Dan Marino's attempts per game, by season:

Year A/G
1983 26.9
1984 35.3
1985 35.4
1986 38.9
1987 37.0
1988 37.9
1989 34.4
1990 33.2
1991 34.3
1992 34.6
1993 30.0
1994 38.4
1995 34.4
1996 28.7
1997 34.3
1998 33.6
1999 33.5

Marino's first nine seasons, number of games by passes attempted:

>59 1
50-59 8
40-49 25
30-39 63
20-29 35

So in 101 of his first 135 games (74.8 percent) he threw 39 or fewer passes -- nowhere near 50 per game.

51 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Let's talk facts. Here's Miami's rank in points allowed each year.
1983-1, 1984-7, 1985-12, 1986-26, 1987-16, 1988-24, 1989-22, 1990-4, 1991-24, 1992-11, 1993-24, 1994-17, 1995-10, 1996-17, 1997-16, 1998-1, 1999-19.

That's 5 years with a top 10 defense out of 17. Two of them were his first two years in the league, and another was in 1998 when he was 37 years old.

And here's the Broncos rank in points allowed.
1983-9, 1984-2, 1985-13, 1986-15, 1987-7, 1988-20, 1989-1, 1990-23, 1991-3, 1992-19, 1993-10, 1994-25, 1995-17, 1996-7, 1997-6, 1998-8.

That's 9 top ten scoring defenses in 16 years.

Marino is 7-11 in playoff games, which I think you'll find is fair. Elway was 7-8 career in the playoffs until he lucked into Terrell Davis. Peyton Manning has pulled himself back into a 7-8 playoff record. Brett Favre hopefully finishes his career with a 12-10 record.

Marino throw 50 or more attempts in only 14 of 242 regular season games (5.8%). Tom Brady has 6 games of 50 or more attempts in 113 regular season games (5.3%). Peyton Manning has 8 games of 50 or more attempts in 168 regular season games (4.7%). What me-first QBs Brady and Manning are!

And I can find no record of that Jimmy Johnson quote, so I'm going to say it's bullshit.

62 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Even if they had Terrell Davis, he probabably would never have gotten a chance with that screaming egomaniac Dan Marino as his QB

Yeah, the real reason {Andra Franklin, Woody Bennett, Tony Nathan, Lorenzo Hampton, Troy Stradford, Sammie Smith, Mark Higgs, Bernie Parmalee, Karim Abdul-Jabar, J.J. Johnson} never fulfilled his potential was an anchor around his neck named Dan Marino. You can't hit your hole if you have to run around Marino's bloated ego first.

The running backs listed -- choose whichever one you want to make fit the argument -- are the Dolphin's leading rushers, by season, in the Dan Marino era (without repeating any names). There are ten names on the list, and Marino played 17 years. For frequency, the king is Mark Higgs (really, Mark Higgs), who led the 'Phins in rushing 3 times.

Yes, this does mean that the Dolphins reached the Super Bowl with Woody Bennett their leading rusher.

64 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Mark Higgs and Bennie Parmalee were by far my favorites from that list. They both were undrafted FAs who took a while to stick. Higgs was a great example of the kind of talent at the position those Dolphin teams had: he was very, very small, but he made up for that with his speed... Uhm no, sorry, actually he was slow, too, but he had great vision... Well no, not in particular, but he did run very hard and had a big heart... and that's the truth. But that won't gain you many yards in the NFL.

52 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Great article as always Mike.

While I appreciate the work that Scott Kacsmar put into this, comeback wins strikes me as a pretty silly metric regardless of how you define it. It has all the problems of counting wins for QBs and no other positions (don't get me started on that), with the added vagaries mentioned in the article about what does and doesn't count, and to top it off, it ignores why the team was losing in the first place, as well as the size of the deficit faced (coming back from 1-3 points down in the 4th isn't an exceptionally impressive feat). Doesn't strike me as something that's particularly meaningful.

60 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Obviously Football Outsiders prides itself on rational consideration of statistics to debunk conventional wisdom. However, I wouldn't have minded a nod to one non-statistical consideration that could fuel perception of comeback-kingness. That would be time zone. During the late 80s and early 90s especially, it seemed that regardless what game you happened to be watching in the late afternoon, as 6pm Central descended upon us, the network would finish up whatever game they had forced into the time slot, then take us out to Mile High Stadium where we would watch John Elway fight out a two-minute drill against an AFC West rival.

I was very interested to hear what goes into compiling the statistics, but also believe that the fact that Elway was so often what people saw as the day's games closed out would be a factor as well. Contrast against Marino, who often played in the first time slot, and therefore was the master of the "You'll never believe the insane game the Dolphins just played. Marino passed for 448 yards and 6 touchdowns and they still lost," experience that those of us living in flyover country would then catch in brief highlights until NFL Primetime came along in '87.

63 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

The comebacks are nice and all, but I definitely would prefer jumping out to a 20 point halftime lead and not needing to worry about coming back. Which QB's would lead in that category? My guesses are Montana for career, Manning for active.

69 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Sadly Trogdor, I'd say pre-2005 Manning did lead in that category and he also lead in "games lost" or "needing to pull his defense's fat out of the fire" after that 20 point lead.

Things have evened out for the Colts since then, but circa 2000, I'd never be comfortable with just a 14 point lead, even going into the 4th quarter. The D and ST had a gift for giving. Guys like Bethel Johnson will live much longer in the memories of Colt fans than Pats fans, not in a good way.

70 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

Very nice Pliny the Younger joke. I might have gone wtih Pliny the elder, but to each their own. Many Kudos to you, sir.

72 Re: Walkthrough: The Comeback King

You were way off on the "unwatchable" call - it was actually about 2 seconds after the replays of the fake punt TD ended.