NFL Analysis: Is Patriots Tom Brady Really More Clutch than Colts Peyton Manning?

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In basketball, we have the popular “clutch statistics,” which are often defined as performance in five-point games with less than five minutes remaining. Pro-football reference has come up with some definitions for “fourth-quarter comebacks” and “game-winning drives” for quarterback, but these are the fuzziest of fuzzy stats* for a number of reasons:

  1. What if a quarterback doesn’t play in many close games?
  2. What if a quarterback has multiple options to win a game but only succeeds on the fifth or sixth attempt?

*They are fuzzy already because football is a highly complex and chaotic game, with 22 moving parts on the field at all times. Only we don’t measure a lot of what goes on: How open are the receivers? How good is the protection? How much does the defense play the run? I’m not going to solve those questions in this post – just know that they are relevant everytime evaluating QB play comes up and they certainly are in play here.

As an attempt to get a better indicator of “clutch” performance, I dug through Peyton Manning and Tom Brady‘s results on drives starting in the 4th quarter or OT with at least one minute to play, tied or trailing by no more than 8 points. It’s not a perfect measurement of clutch play — it ignores multiple score comebacks, length/difficulty of drives and performance while trying to hold a lead. But it does give a significantly more accurate measurement than the archaic (and essentially useless) game-winning drive figure that TV producers love to advertise.

It tries to answer the question “how frequently does this QB lead a successful drive late in the game when he has the ball and is trailing by a score?” I say almost because teammates could fumble, kickers can miss FG’s and occasionally drives start near the enemy goal line thanks to turnovers. (We’ll try and note those for the purpose of this study as well as examine some of the drives in greater detail). Again, as is the case with all basic QB statistics, there is no attempt to control for strength of wide receivers or rushing attack.

According to PFR, Brady has 17 4th-quarter comebacks and 25 game-winning drives since 2003 (excluding 2009). Manning has 22 4th-quarter comebacks and 30 game-winning drives since 2003, and he received extensive coverage about his late-game performances after reeling off 14 qualifying drives from 2008-2009. I’ve ruled out 2009 for Brady because he clearly was a hobbled player coming off of knee surgery. And frankly, I don’t care much about his play as much that year since part of the fun here is a level playing field (or else this would be a career retrospective).

Here are the results when trailing by 8 or less (or tied) in the 4th-quarter...

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