It’s a statistic we’ve seen too many times on broadcasts of NFL games.
The quarterback kneels in the huddle as he prepares to start a drive late in the fourth quarter, his team tied or trailing by a slim margin. Almost inevitably, a graphic appears on-screen telling us how many game-winning drives the QB has led in his career.
Just what does this number mean?
It’s certainly not a shock that young stars such as Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson have fewer game-winning drives than veterans like Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan, who in turn have fewer than graybeards Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The point is, out of context none of those numbers tells us anything useful. After all these years, can’t we come up with a better measure for a quarterback’s performance in the clutch than simply his total of game-winning drives?
Think of it this way: Knowing how many completions a QB recorded in a game means very little if we don’t have the number of passes he threw. A 25-for-30 performance is quite different from 25 for 50. So why assess clutch performance for QBs without including the number of opportunities they had to come through in the clutch? Stats Perform’s rich NFL data allows us to do just that.
We define clutch drive opportunities using the following parameters:
– Time remaining at start of drive is between 1:00 and 5:00 in the 4th quarter or 1:00+ in overtime;
– Drive starts on offense’s side of midfield;
– There was not a QB change during the drive.
We use this logic to weed out desperation drives when a quarterback is put in a nearly impossible situation such as the one Tom Brady faced in a wild-card loss to the Tennessee Titans in January of 2020 when the New England Patriots took possession on their 1-yard line trailing by one point with 15 seconds remaining.
Conversely, we disregard drives when the offense takes over on the plus-side of midfield so that we can restrict our study to cases in which the QB was asked to lead a significant drive to reach scoring range. No set of parameters is perfect for defining clutch drive opportunities, but these will get us very close to identifying those situations.
Within those parameters, there are multiple types of situations in which clutch drives are needed, dependent on the game score as the possession starts. We break them down as follows:
1) Offense needs only an FG to go ahead (trails by 1 or 2 points or game tied)
2) Offense needs FG for tie, TD for lead (trails by 3 points)
3) Offense needs TD to tie or go ahead (trails by 4-8 points)
Also, we want to limit the study to the results produced by the offense, independent of what might happen on a field-goal attempt that ends the drive. If the offense needs a field goal and moves into position for an attempt under 55 yards, we credit the QB with a successful clutch drive – regardless of whether the kick is made.
The 54-yard cutoff is based on the leaguewide breakdown of field-goal accuracy from 2000-19 (including postseason): attempts inside 55 yards are converted at a rate of 83.2%, compared to 43.4% from 55 and beyond. Thus, if the quarterback gets the team in position for an attempt of 54 yards or shorter, he’s done his job.
Similarly, if the offensive team trails by seven or eight points and marches for a touchdown, the drive is considered successful regardless of what happens on the ensuing PAT attempt, be it for one point or two. Our numbers are based on the success of the offensive possession, not the conversion that follows it.
Using those specs, we will first look at the leaders in converting clutch drive opportunities over the past 20 seasons when a touchdown was needed. Note that postseason games are included.
Highest Success Rate in Clutch Drives w/TD Needed for Tie/Lead
(2000-19 regular season & playoffs; min. 15 opportunities; NFL avg. 26.2%)
It’s perhaps surprising to see Derek Carr with the top success rate in converting clutch drive opportunities, in light of his 47-63 career won-lost record. But a closer look at the numbers backs up the notion that the Raiders’ QB is strong in the clutch. Carr’s career record in games decided by a single score (eight or fewer points) is an impressive 36-25 – a far cry from his miserable 8-38 mark in all other games.
Between 2016-19, when Carr was on the field at any point in the fourth quarter with the score within eight points, or at any point in overtime, he’s thrown 21 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Those sound like numbers you can take to Vegas.
On the opposite end of the scale, two very good quarterbacks have had the least success when needing a touchdown on a clutch drive. Kurt Warner went 2-for-17 in such situations (11.8%), while Ben Roethlisberger was just 3-for-19 (15.8%). One of Warner’s successful clutch drives came at the expense of Roethlisberger’s Steelers – in the Super Bowl, no less. In the last three minutes of Super Bowl XLIII (2008 season), Warner threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald to wipe out a four-point Pittsburgh lead. Of course, Roethlisberger – needing a field goal to tie or a TD to win – took the Steelers 78 yards on the ensuing drive for the winning touchdown.
And while Big Ben ranks poorly in drives in which the Steelers needed a touchdown, he’s one of the best in clutch situations when only a field goal was required to give Pittsburgh the lead. In those situations, he has led drives that resulted in TDs or makeable field-goal tries – i.e., less than 55 yards – on 55.9% of his opportunities. Only Russell Wilson performed better during this span.
Highest Success Rate in Clutch Drives w/FG Needed for Lead
(2000-19 regular season & playoffs; min. 15 opportunities; NFL avg. 40.4%)
It’s noteworthy that when we adjusted the number of points needed on the drive, we produced a list with five different names. Three of the five quarterbacks on this list – Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Drew Bledsoe – are retired, with only Wilson and Roethlisberger still active.
Wilson was superb in very close games in 2019, leading Seattle to a 5-0 record in games decided by three or fewer points and/or in overtime. On four occasions, he led the Seahawks back from a fourth-quarter deficit to win. That tied Wilson for the league lead, as did his five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in the regular season.
He helped the Seahawks win two of their three games in those situations in 2020. Between 2017-20, and including the postseason, Wilson has tossed 50 TD passes and only 13 interceptions in the fourth quarter and overtime. Considering those numbers along with his success rate on clutch drives, you’d have to rank Wilson as the NFL’s top quarterback with the game on the line.
Finally, there is one more type of clutch drive situation – one where the offense trails by exactly three points, creating two potential “levels” of success for the quarterback: a reasonable field-goal attempt to tie the game, or a touchdown to take the lead. Unfortunately, very few quarterbacks have had enough of those opportunities between 2000-19 to make the numbers all that interesting.
But consider this: the league average in producing go-ahead touchdowns in those situations is 17.6%, but two-time Super Bowl hero Eli Manning led the Giants to touchdowns on five of eight such opportunities – none of which occurred in the Super Bowls.
The Giants trailed by four and two points to start their winning drives in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, respectively – but Eli’s performance in other clutch situations tells is that those two drives that produced Lombardi Trophies were not flukes.
Research support provided by Jacob Jaffe; Sam Hovland and Chase Weight also contributed.