NFL choke artists

My friend and evil waster of my work productivity Will recently replied to one of my numerous defenses of Cowboys QB Tony Romo with the following harrumph:

I’m sorry dude, but his QB rating notwithstanding, Romo’s CV is full of ill-advised throws in the 4th quarter. More than I can remember. Are they exclusively his fault? Of course not, but he’s the QB and should accept complete responsibility. His legacy to date is that of a choke artist. I love and root for the guy, and he’s a great fantasy QB, but IRL he has some issues.

Let’s leave aside the “complete responsibility” aspect, because it’s ridiculously broad and is exactly why sabermetrics and value-above-replacement metrics were created. The perception that Romo—he of the 100+ 4th quarter & overtime QB rating—is weak in the clutch is just not true. I decided to dig further into the numbers to pull out a couple of specific periods in a given game: 5:00 left or 8:00 left in the 4th quarter, and situations within those timeframes where the game is within one score (+/- 8 points). These cover the 7.5-season period since Romo became a starter, and includes the best seasons most of these guys have had (including Brady’s 18-1, the Mannings’ 3 combined rings, etc.). I also limited the analysis to players who own a SB ring, because of Will’s earlier contention that the exclusive hallmark of a great QB is a ring.

The numbers don’t show that Romo is the Greatest of All Time candidate, but they certainly show that he’s no worse than some established candidates for GOAT.

Late Fourth Quarter

In the last half of the fourth quarter, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning are the gold standard, and you’ll see them stay that way throughout these stats. When you limit the scope to one-score games, Kurt Warner and Eli Manning do pretty well, too. Romo’s in the middle of the latter pack, he’s been put in close, late-game situations more than any other QB, save for Ben Roethlisberger. Incidentally, Roethlisberger has been sacked way more often than anyone else on this list, as defenses seek to treat him the way he treats the ladies.

The frequently made comparison between Romo and his (and Nies’s) boyhood hero Brett Favre just makes Romo look considerably better in tight games: Favre is tied with Eli for the worst interception percentage, and has dismal accuracy to boot. And then there’s Tom Brady, who comes in dead last in passer rating the last half of the 4th, and is especially bad in close games. More on this later.

Last Five Minutes

But when you think “clutch”, you’re likely thinking of the last drive or two in a tight game. The last 2 minutes are often just kneeldowns after the other side failed to perform in the fabled clutch situation, so I expanded the time to include the last five minutes—enough for the final two drives of the game.

In the last five minutes of any game, Romo comes in as the third-best QB in the list of Super Bowl-winners he’s snuck into. BUT WAIT—THE CLOSE GAMES SHOW HOW HARD HE CHOKES ALL THE GAMES AWAY!!11 Not so fast. There are a couple of factors at play:

  • First, again, Romo is put in close end-of-game situations more often than most other quarterbacks here. And these numbers don’t even count comeback attempts from 2+ scores down, where Romo has a 95.7 rating for his career and a 100+ passer rating in each of the last 4.5 seasons.

    Note that the only guy with as many attempts in those situations is Big Ben, who holds onto the ball long enough to get sacked twice as much as the next guy here. (Even calculating on a per-season basis, Big Ben gets sacked 50% more than Flacco.) He’s losing yardage to the turf instead of turning the ball over, but both hurt the team in tight situations. To wit: if you’re constantly forced to try to make things happen, sometimes those things will be bad.
  • Second, let’s point out that in both sets of close-game numbers, Romo is among the most accurate QBs. (This holds true against non-SB winners, as well.) Unlike, say, Eli or Easy Hands Ben, Romo is finding ways to get it to his receivers. However, his high accuracy combined with the INTs back up my lament about poor route running: this is a guy whose receivers are using compasses to navigate a magnet factory.

    If you want a guy who really did carelessly chuck the ball down field, look no further than Brett Favre. His spectacularly bad completion rates and high interception percentages show a guy who was hoping to will the chains forward…and often failed. Since 1999 (the earliest game situation stats Pro Football Reference has available), Favre has only completed 53.1% of his completions with a 57.7 passer rating, so this isn’t a case of a star on the downswing. This is who Brett always was.

Other Factors

There are three other key factors in clutch QB success, both relating to other people as you might expect:

  • First, the strength of the running game makes a big difference when you’re maintaining the lead. Roethlisberger, Favre, Flacco, and the Mannings get help for all or part of this sample set. On the other hand, when you have to decide between Tashard Choice and Felix Jones, you lob it to Witten in the flat.
  • Second, there’s the gift of a strong offensive line, which can turn a run-out-of-town Alex Smith into an undefeated Alex Smith. Eli Manning and Joe Flacco have had arguably had good protection in front of him every year until this year—with predictable results. If Romo couldn’t run, he would now be David Carr with nicer golf clubs.
  • Finally, there’s the defense, which I started to look at further. In both close game situations, Dallas’s defense has performed in the bottom third of the league in both % of plays resulting in a first downs and % of plays resulting in a turnover. Other QBs at least have the luxury of defenses that hold tough (like the Giants and Steelers) or get the ball back (Patriots, Colts, Saints), so they can afford to be choosy with their pass plays.

tl;dr

That was a lot of words. Here’s the most important selection of those words:

  • Tony Romo is not the Clutch God of Lore, but he certainly fares better than some of the most celebrated QBs in the league. Where he is forced into turnovers, he is frequently bailing out terrible defensive performances only to be undone by poor route running and the occasional O-line sieve.
  • Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning are pretty damned good in the clutch. Kurt Warner is actually really underrated, considering he did some great work in close games with the Arizona Cardinals.
  • Big Ben’s passing progressions really do take as long as they seem to.
  • Tom Brady is shockingly bad late in close games. There are definitely some missing variables here. The Pats’ defenses during these years got much more lax than in the early Belichick years, so these may have been games with complete defensive collapses. I also suspect that some of it is because he’s rarely had all-star receivers, but these games include some of his most prolific passing years. It’s possible that since 2006, the Pats don’t even know how to win without blowing teams out (cf., the rainy Bengals game).
  • Brett Favre really did play like a kid out there. A moody, undisciplined kid who really just wants you to look at his junk.

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