Friday, April 13, 2012

Comeback Wins/Losses: The Comeback Kings

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, 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:

Dan Marino372611
Peyton Manning362412
Johnny Unitas351718
John Elway331815
Brett Favre32266
Joe Montana311615
Vinny Testaverde29281
Fran Tarkenton2930-1
Drew Bledsoe27225
Warren Moon25250
Tom Brady251015
Dave Krieg24177
Jim Kelly24195
Dan Fouts23230
Randall Cunningham22193
Jake Plummer211110
Joe Theismann21813
Steve Bartkowski2022-2
Boomer Esiason2026-6
Y.A. Tittle20119
Joe Ferguson20173
Kerry Collins20173
Eli Manning221012
Ben Roethlisberger201010
Drew Brees2022-2
Terry Bradshaw19118
Ken Stabler19136
Jim Plunkett19145
Jon Kitna19190
Donovan McNabb1822-4
John Brodie18162
Jake Delhomme18135
Ron Jaworski1720-3
Steve DeBerg1722-5
Norm Van Brocklin (one CBW from 1949)1798
Doug Williams1798
Jim Hart17170
Brian Sipe17152
Steve McNair17143
Mark Brunell1720-3
George Blanda16124
Roger Staubach16115
Trent Green16133
Bart Starr16115
Rich Gannon1625-9
Troy Aikman1619-3
Neil O’Donnell16610
Jay Schroeder16124
Tommy Kramer16133
Charlie Conerly (one CBW from 1949)15141
Bobby Layne (one CBW from 1949)15105
Danny White15105
Bernie Kosar15141
Jim Harbaugh1518-3
Steve Young1415-1
Sonny Jurgensen14131
Steve Grogan1418-4
Ken O’Brien14122
Brad Johnson14131
Trent Dilfer1486
Dan Pastorini14104
Bob Griese14140
Steve Beuerlein14131
Daryle Lamonica14212

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 WinsTotal Starts (less ties)Percentage
Johnny Unitas3419017.9
Eli Manning2213016.9
Joe Montana3018716
Peyton Manning3622615.9
Joe Theismann2113215.9
Ben Roethlisberger2012715.7
Randall Cunningham2214315.4
Steve Bartkowski2013115.3
Jake Plummer2014214.8
Dan Marino3725814.3
Tom Brady2518113.8
Drew Bledsoe2719913.6
Jim Kelly2417713.6
John Elway3325113.1
Dan Fouts2317713
Vinny Testaverde2821812.8
Dave Krieg2318412.5
Drew Brees2016212.3
Fran Tarkenton2924411.9
Warren Moon2521311.7
Joe Ferguson2017511.4
Y.A. Tittle1513411.2
Kerry Collins2018710.7
Boomer Esiason1817810.1
Brett Favre313229.6

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 WinsTotal WinsPercentage
Steve Barkowski206033.3
Vinny Testaverde289230.4
Jake Plummer217129.6
Eli Manning227728.6
Johnny Unitas3412427.4
Drew Bledsoe2710126.7
Randall Cunningham228525.9
Dan Fouts238925.8
Joe Theismann218325.3
Joe Ferguson208025.0
Peyton Manning3615024.0
Dan Marino3715523.9
Warren Moon2510523.8
Kerry Collins208423.8
Dave Krieg2310122.8
Joe Montana3013322.6
Fran Tarkenton2913022.3
Ben Roethlisberger209022.2
Jim Kelly2411021.8
Boomer Esiason188321.7
Drew Brees209720.6
John Elway3316220.4
Y.A. Tittle157819.2
Tom Brady2514017.9
Brett Favre3119915.6

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 LossesTotal StartsPercentage
Joe Theismann71325.3
Tom Brady101815.5
Jake Plummer101427.1
John Elway182517.2
Y.A. Tittle101347.5
Eli Manning101307.7
Ben Roethlisberger101277.9
Joe Montana151878.0
Brett Favre263228.1
Dave Krieg161848.7
Johnny Unitas171908.9
Kerry Collins171879.1
Joe Ferguson171759.7
Dan Marino2625810.1
Peyton Manning2422610.6
Jim Kelly1917710.7
Drew Bledsoe2219911.1
Warren Moon2521311.7
Fran Tarkenton3024412.3
Vinny Testaverde2721812.4
Dan Fouts2217712.4
Randall Cunningham1914313.3
Drew Brees2216213.6
Boomer Esiason2617814.6
Steve Bartkowski2213116.8

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, 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.”


Steven Swain said...

This was a really informative article, Mr. Heins. Interesting that Fran Tarkenton had the most comeback losses. I have not fully "digested" the whole article yet, but will study it a little more in the future.

Sampo said...

A very nice read. Thank you for this Clark!

Joseph said...

One thing about the comeback losses: they tell you that QB X's DEFENSE wasn't very good, which somewhat explains why said QB had plenty of comeback wins in the first place. In other words, whichever team had the ball last got the win. (See Drew Brees, Saints; specific example his last game to date, against SF49ers. TWICE!!!)

On another note, as of this moment, I would say that Johnny U is the comeback king, with the YOUNGER Manning on his tails. (And I am a big PM fan).

Clark, may I make a suggestion related to my first point: check the final scores on the games in question, esp. for the top-5 or so. IMO, it is easier to get a comeback win (or loss) in a 20-17 game than a 38-35 game. That is where I think Tom Brady is (somewhat rightfully) docked points, as at times his teams needed just a GW FG vs. a TD. In fact, you might want to "revise/adjust" the comeback record by giving 1/2 credit to a GW/GL FG, and full credit for the TD. Or maybe full credit for the FG if it came with less than :30 (if you only have 1 min. to get your team in GW FG range, and you do, you definitely deserve the comeback win; if your kicker makes a 45+ yarder with 4:00 left, you could have done better, and prob. had another chance to do so.)

Anonymous said...

Re: Reply #3
Dear Joseph,
One of the theme's of my post was how do we qualtatively separate the merits of the QB from the merits of his team. The only person (aside from Higgins) I know of who has tackled this daunting task is "Captain Comeback" Scott Kacsmar who is making a study of fourth quarter "drive stats". If successful, Scott's endeavors should help unlock the "mystery" I spoke of.
Oddly, Scott doesn't believe in the importance of comeback losses, but if his "drive stats" can tell us why QBs win close games, they can also tell us why QBs lose close games. In the comments section (Reply Nos. #22 & #26) of an Aug. 7, 2009, article in, researcher Jim Glass points out why it is important to study comeback losses---basically, as I paraphrased in the first sentence of my post---"one cannot be considered without the other". Scott's studies provide us with this opportunity.
Mr. Glass makes another point in Reply #36 in the above article. He indicates that the majority of close games are decided purely by luck while the majority of "butt-kicking" games show just how good a QB really is. I'm not sure whether I agree with Mr. Glass, but I've always firmly believed that the issue of "dominance" plays a very important role in quantitative studies of comeback wins/losses. I hinted at this prospect when I mentioned Brett Favre's low percentage of comeback wins vs. career starts. Other QBs this idea might apply to are Bart Starr, Len Dawson, Steve Young, and even Tom Brady---these QBs were just so dominant, they had little need for comeback wins. Unfortunately, no study has ever been made on this subject. I hope someone will take up the quest.
Best, You know who

SportsGuy said...

Is the community site dead?

Andrew Foland said...

Re: Manning--for my money, over the last three decades of football, the Monday night comeback against the Tampa Bay Bucs was the greatest comeback game I can recall.

Anonymous said...

Re: Johnny Unitas
It has come to my attention that Unitas actually had two comeback wins in relief (12-23-56 and 11-23-69) instead of the one I credited him with. Also, he had one fewer start (12-14-58 vs SF) as George Shaw started that game. Therefore, Unitas had 33 comeback wins as a starter and two in relief and 189 career starts (minus ties) instead of the 190 I credited him with.

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