by Clark Heins
For every comeback win there is a corresponding comeback loss, and one cannot be considered without the other. A comeback win occurs when the winning team overcomes a deficit at the start of the fourth quarter, at sometime during the fourth quarter or, if necessary, in overtime. Comeback wins have little to do with “comeback opportunities,” as the latter deal specifically with a point spread of eight or fewer points and include games that are tied in the fourth quarter. A comeback win can occur from any deficit and doesn’t deal with ties.
For the purposes of this study, I have made no attempt to credit a QB’s total of comeback wins/losses based upon whether or not he deserves them, as luck always plays a role. My totals are entirely based upon one criteria---who was the QB of record when the comeback win or loss was attained, regardless of how it was attained. As an example, I didn't credit Dan Marino, John Elway, Kerry Collins, and Warren Moon with comeback wins when they were injured during a game-winning drive and replaced by another QB. To do so would ignore the element of luck. Also, my calculations are based upon “QB starts” rather than “games played”, as it would be extremely unfair to use the latter stat for many of the QBs. “QB starts” isn’t perfect either, as several of the QBs mentioned here scored comeback wins or losses in relief.
My interest in comeback wins began when I read an article about “comeback opportunities” by Jason McKinley ("Quarterbacks and Fourth Quarter Comebacks”, Football Outsiders, June 26, 2006). McKinley formulated the concept of “QB of record”. In doing so, he created a level playing field for all the QBs who could be judged by one common standard while, at the same time, eliminating any personal bias or value judgments on the part of the researcher. However, little data existed concerning comeback wins, and my frustration to find information fueled my interest. Fortune smiled when Doug Drinen published over 10,000 NFL box scores on his website, pro-football-reference.com. Given the box scores, I could easily figure out who the winning QBs of record were for about 90 percent of the games. The remaining 10 percent I had to look up in newspaper articles. Foolishly, I did not record the losing QBs of record and have had to go back and correct that mistake because I realized I had only half of the equation that would lead to the answer to the question I was interested in: “Who were the real comeback kings?”
Okay, let’s look at the raw figures: Twenty-five NFL QBs have attained 20 or more comeback wins in their careers with Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning reaching that figure in 2011. Taken together, these 25 QBs have totaled 636 comeback wins and 474 comeback losses. It should be noted that in 32 of these comeback wins (5%), the winning points were scored by either a defensive or special teams player. However, this does not diminish the role that the winning QB of record plays in the outcome as, on average, the go-ahead points in a comeback win are scored with eight minutes and ten seconds remaining in the contest---which means that the winning QB of record must help his team maintain and protect the lead for nearly eight minutes of the fourth quarter while, at the same time, the losing QB of record has nearly eight minutes to overcome a deficit which, on average is 4.8 points (see McKinley's article for a full discussion). Acknowledging the fact that football is the ultimate team sport and that QBs are merely the titular representatives of their teams, these are their comeback wins minus their comeback losses and the difference, in plus or minus terms:
|Norm Van Brocklin (one CBW from 1949)||17||9||8|
|Charlie Conerly (one CBW from 1949)||15||14||1|
|Bobby Layne (one CBW from 1949)||15||10||5|
The raw results show that, while Dan Marino has the most comeback wins and Fran Tarkenton has the most comeback losses, Johnny Unitas has the best differential – all the more remarkable in that he did not have the benefit of overtime games to pad his figures. The two big surprises have to be Joe Theismann and Jake Plummer, neither of whom is considered among the elite QBs, but both of whom performed well under fourth-quarter pressure; indeed, McKinley had Plummer as the top-rated QB in his survey which covered the years 1996-05.
Neil O’Donnell and Daryle Lamonica are the seventh and eighth NFL QBs who had at least 10 more comeback wins than losses during their careers. Currently, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Rothlisberger and Eli Manning also have at least ten more comeback wins than losses. The big disappointment has to be Brett Favre who, despite his 32 comeback wins, recorded only six of those wins on the road! Meanwhile, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning share the record for the most road comeback wins (22), while Vinny Testaverde racked up an impressive 18.
Other interesting stats include Daryle Lamonica never suffering a comeback loss at home, Tom Brady having only one comeback loss at home, and the Steelers not having a single comeback loss at home during an entire decade, the 1970s. Remarkably, Lamonica had only one comeback loss in 91 starts (ties not counted) and only two comeback losses altogether. Peyton Manning holds the record for most comeback wins in a single decade (29) while Drew Brees has the dubious record for most comeback losses in a single decade (20).
Perhaps the oddest single stat I came across occurred in the 1998 season when, from November 8 through December 6, 18 consecutive comeback wins were recorded by home teams! Overall, home teams have a slight advantage over road teams in achieving a comeback win, but this advantage is not as large as one might expect. Since 1950, there have been 12,105 games played in the NFL (ties omitted) and 2,678 of those have been decided by comeback wins: 1,252 on the road, 1,412 at home, and 14 at neutral sites.
As interesting as these raw figures are, there are better ways to calculate who the real “comeback kings” were. One method simply involves figuring the percentage of comeback wins (excluding those in relief) versus the total number of games started (ties omitted) for each QB. Unitas, Favre, Montana, Testaverde, and Krieg each had one comeback win in relief; Esiason had two and Tittle had five. Among others, Earl Morrall and Chariie Conerly also had five comeback wins in relief. The following percentages emerge for the QBs listed above:
|Comeback Wins||Total Starts (less ties)||Percentage|
Johnny Unitas is the runaway winner here, even more so when we consider that during the 1950s and 1960s, the NFL average for all games was only 10.2 percent, which includes comeback wins by QBs who came off the bench. The AFL average was only 8.8 percent during the 1960s. Compare those figures with 11.7 percent, the percentage attained by NFL QBs (including those in relief) for all games over the last 30 years. Aside from Unitas, Y.A. Tittle also played during the 1950s and 1960s. Of the 25 QBs considered, only Joe Ferguson, Fran Tarkenton and Dan Fouts spent a significant portion of their careers during the 1970s when the percentages were 8.4 percent from 1970-73 (no overtime) and 10.7 percent from 1974-79 (overtime). The big surprise on this list has to be Joe Theismann, while the biggest bust is, once again, Brett Favre.
There is another way to look at these figures – namely, by comparing the number of comeback wins (as starters) against career victories. These numbers represent the fact that some QBs just had to work a lot harder than other QBs to attain their wins. The 25 QBs from above:
|Comeback Wins||Total Wins||Percentage|
In this case, Brett Favre being at the tail-end of the pack may be a good thing, because it could represent dominance on Favre’s part. In other words, Favre’s teams were often so far ahead by the time the fourth quarter rolled around that there was little need for a comeback win. Remember, among the things that comeback wins tell us is that the losing team actually dominated the game through the first three quarters – which really is a very good thing, as teams that have the lead after three quarters will win well over 70 percent of those games. Bucking this trend was Warren Moon, whose teams held the lead entering the fourth quarter only once in his 25 comeback wins! On the opposite end of the spectrum, in Brett Favre’s 32 roller-coaster comeback wins, his teams had the lead in 15 of those games after three quarters, lost a fourth quarter lead in 17 of those games, only to regain it by game’s end.
|Comeback Losses||Total Starts||Percentage|
Again, the NFL average over the last 30 years (which includes comeback losses in relief) is 11.7 percent. Tom Brady is a big winner here, but, as noted below, he had certain advantages that many others did not. Joe Theismann is once again the big surprise. Y.A. Tittle deserves recognition among the old-timers. Steve Bartkowski lived on the razor’s edge, as he had only 131 starts, but 42 of them were decided by a comeback win or loss. Ironically, Elway and Favre, famous for comeback wins, were actually superior at preventing comeback losses. As Joe Montana once wisely commented, “It is much harder maintaining a slight lead in the fourth quarter than overcoming one.”
Kurt Warner suffered only five comeback losses in 129 starts and Jack Kemp had only three comeback losses in 108 starts!
Okay, so what does this tell us? We can probably narrow our candidates for the all-time “comeback king” down to three selections – the brilliant all-around achievements of Unitas, who ranks at or near the top in every category and towers over all the other QBs from his own era. Also, Unitas had a personal hand in 21 of his 35 comeback wins (20 game-winning TD passes and one rushing touchdown), although it should be noted that his contemporary Y.A. Tittle had a personal hand in 15 of his 20 comeback wins (12 game-winning TD passes and three rushing TDs). Unitas and Tittle had a big advantage playing during an era that featured man-to-man defenses, rather than zones. Then there is the remarkable comeback ability on the road of Montana and Manning. After all, the single most difficult feat for any QB is to win consistently on the road before a hostile crowd and on a foreign field. Montana and Manning are both exceptional in this capacity. Unitas wasn’t shabby on the road either, as he had 15 comeback wins away from home. Of Montana’s 31 comeback wins, he had 14 game-winning TD passes and one TD run. Of Manning’s 36 comeback wins, he has twelve game-winning TD passes and three TD runs.
Honorable mention goes to John Elway, Dan Marino and Tom Brady. Elway gets eliminated because he had a tremendous physical and psychological advantage playing at Mile High, which greatly padded his figures; 21 of his 33 comeback wins occurred at home and he had a personal hand in only eleven of his comeback wins (nine game-winning TD passes and two rushing TDs). Marino gets eliminated because, while he was very good in all areas (16 game-winning TD passes in his 37 comeback wins), he doesn’t overwhelm you in any particular category and, like Unitas, he had a very lackluster career winning percentage (44.7%) against winning teams; this latter factor is further emphasized by the fact that only twelve of his 37 comeback wins were achieved against teams with a winning record.
Meanwhile, Brady appears likely to overtake Unitas in comeback win/loss differential and, among his many records, also has the best winning percentage against winning teams in NFL history – and 14 of his 25 comeback wins have come against teams with a winning record, which is tops among the 25 QBs considered, followed by Fouts (12 of 23), Montana (see below) and Kelly (12 of 24). However, he has had a personal hand in only ten of his 25 comeback wins, as nine of them came via a field goal and one by a defensive score. Also, a recent study by Nicholas Higgins ("Adjusted Comeback Efficiency”, Football Outsiders, February 2, 2010) indicates that Brady, despite having the highest percentage rate of converting “comeback opportunities”, had the third easiest “degree of difficulty” in achieving his remarkable record when compared with 59 other QBs who were active from 1998-2009. In contrast, Jake Plummer had the fifth harshest “degree of difficulty” during this same period, and thus Higgins has Plummer and twelve other QBs (including Peyton Manning) rated ahead of Brady in “Adjusted Comeback Efficiency”. Eli Manning, who has had 12 game-winning TD passes among his 22 comeback wins, was the top-rated QB in Higgins' survey.
Unfortunately, we can only measure “degree of difficulty” for QBs who were active over the last 15 years or so, as it requires documenting the time and outcome of every single play. However, we do know that Brady, like Montana, had the advantage of playing in a poor division and, as a result, his overall strength of schedule is fairly weak. Also, as McKinley and Higgins pointed out, Brady has greatly benefited from having a defensive genius as his head coach, one of the best, if not the best, teams of all time, the best field goal kickers, among the easiest of on-the-field situational circumstances, and, beginning with the infamous “tuck” game, an extraordinary run of luck that borders on the unbelievable. With Brady, more than any other QB, it is extremely difficult trying to separate the “dancer from the dance”.
But, have we gone far enough in our analysis? Well, as usual, the answer is no. We have barely touched the tip of the iceberg. Among the many nuances we have not even fathomed are these two factors: the ability of a QB to put his team in a position to win the game, and the ability of a QB, once he has attained a lead, to hold onto it. Both of these abilities are difficult to measure statistically, yet each plays a very important role in comeback wins and losses.
There are two other factors that should be obvious, but are often overlooked when trying to determine who the “comeback kings” really are. Simply stated, they are the relative strength of the teams the QB is pitted against during the course of his career and the relative strength of the teams he plays for. Fortunately, Doug Drinen has provided us with avenues to explore these two factors.
The relative strength of the teams that a QB opposed during his career has been given to us not once, but twice in recent articles (March 30 and April 12, 2009) by Mr. Drinen. Sadly, the great disparity between the results of these two articles draws into question the validity of either. However, both appear to show that Peyton Manning had a much more difficult strength of schedule than Unitas, who had a more difficult strength of schedule than Montana. As pointed out above with Tom Brady, strength of schedule, inherent in “degree of difficulty”, must, of necessity, be a major consideration. This latter factor suggests that Manning, given everything else, might be the one true “comeback king” – although it should be pointed out that, in another one of Drinen’s articles (August 6, 2008), Montana is given credit for a far better winning percentage (65.2%) against winning teams than Manning (49.1%) or Unitas (42.0%). Of Montana’s 31 comeback wins, 16 were achieved against teams with a winning record; Manning’s figure is 16 of 36, while Unitas totaled a lowly 9 of 35! Montana, as usual, was at his best when the pressure was greatest.
The second factor is much more difficult to analyze. The relative strength of the teams that a QB plays for can be loosely determined by examining the “expected” won-loss records of those teams from year to year against their actual won-loss records and then determining the variance between the two. Any variance between “expected” and real won-loss records can, in large part, be explained by just how good or how bad that team really was. Using data from pro-football-reference.com, Manning has had thirteen full seasons with the Colts, who have managed to win thirteen more games than expected, Montana had ten full seasons with the 49ers and Chiefs, who won 3.4 more games than expected, and Unitas had thirteen full seasons with the Colts, who won 0.4 more games than expected. Inversely, these figures seem to tip the scales toward Unitas as the NFL’s one true “comeback king”, as Unitas’ teams were inferior to those of Montana, whose teams were inferior to those of Manning – thus making Unitas’ comeback win/loss differential all the more impressive.
What all of this suggests is that, while Manning may have had a tougher schedule than either Unitas or Montana, he also had a better team surrounding him; thus, these two facets tend to offset each other. Team success and QB success most often go hand-in-hand. How to qualitatively separate the two presents us with our greatest mystery. When and if we are finally able to overcome this mystery should provide us with the last chapter to our story, but my suspicion is that Peyton Manning will eventually emerge as the NFL’s true “comeback king”.
Until then, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, I shall continue to “Follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”