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Article:The real "clutch" and "unclutch" of quarterbacking

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(This will first require a look at my article on QB/Passer rating, found at,_there_is_a_better_way)

For as long as there has been debating over the best and worst, there has always been a reliance on the stupid and insane to back an argument.  In the world of sports, there is but one trump card.  And that is the hydrogen bomb of "clutch" and "unclutch". See, I don't believe in clutch ability, mostly because I have no reason to.  If a great player makes a great play at a crucial time, it's really to be expected.  Was the idea of Joe Montana throwing a perfect touchdown pass really unexpected?  Of course not.  Was him doing it late in a game unexpected?  No, I can't say it was.  Was him doing it in a Super Bowl unexpected?  Based on his own abilities and those of his teammates in a variety of situations, it's really not.  If I was told "You have two minutes to go 90 yards to win a title, and you can pick any quarterback", I'm narrowing that list down to 15 or 20.  You know who those guys are?  The best there have ever been.  I'm not taking some mediocre quarterback who happened to make a late touchdown pass in a game and putting him out there in that situation.  Why?  Because, as a wise man once mused, "The sun doesn't shine on the same dog's ass every day".  Quite the sage, he was.  A better phrase, albeit less entertaining, is "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while." But I hate the term and the usage of "clutch" because it is what I said earlier: the hydrogen bomb.  Nothing ends a debate quicker than "My guy was clutch, and yours was not", although in reality that's on par with "My dad can beat up your dad."

But I'm not here to hammer on this, dumb as it may be.  I'm going to define and quantify, then I'm going to list.  It's what I do best.

The absolute average for points that a quarterback produces in a given play over the entire span of NFL history is 0.420.  There have been over 4,500,000 passing yards since stats were first kept in 1932, along with 40,665 passing touchdowns (to over 46,000 interceptions).  There have been more passing yards than rushing by close to 1,800,000.  And although you wouldn't think of it, the first year that involved more passing production than running was 1947.

Anyway, we'll start with that magic number of 0.420 PG/OO (points generated/offensive opportunity).  To me, "clutch" would involve being at least 10% better than average in the postseason, "unclutch" would involve being at least 10% worse.  That means above 0.4620 and below 0.3780 will be listed here, everyone else in between is no different than average.  As far as how it relates to each player's actual career number, that's a story for another day.

There are 40 quarterbacks that fall into that "playoff average" territory, and it's quite an impressive list.  There are no fewer than 15 Hall of Famers, including some of the best ever.  But who falls into that "postseason gagging" territory?  There are 76 on that list.  There are a few Hall of Famers, to be certain, although most of them involve extremely small sample sizes.  Sonny Jurgensen, one of the best ever, is at the very bottom, although he only played one playoff game.  Tony Banks scores the worst ever (0/3 with 1 rush for -1 yards, although that's literally his entire playoff career).  Among those with 20+ passing attempts career, Brian Sipe is worst, although that was his only playoff game and the wind chill was something like -40.

But without further ado, here are the notables.
Norm Van Brocklin (0.359)
Jim Kelly (0.358)
Phil Simms (0.329)
Fran Tarkenton (0.323)
George Blanda (0.299)
Joe Namath (0.285)
YA Tittle (0.219)
Bobby Layne (0.189)

In a perfect example of the dumbth of "clutch", Sports Illustrated's Peter King referred to Layne as the "4th-most clutch quarterback ever".  This was based on a late touchdown drive to give Detroit a 17-16 title game win over Cleveland.  Let's look at that overall line, shall we?

Layne: 4 playoff games, 46/97 passing for 568 yards (5.856 y/a), 1 touchdown, 12 interceptions, 33 carries for 120 yards and 1 touchdown

That's beyond horrifying.  That's an abomination.

Now, who would be considered "clutch" (0.462 PG/OO)?  Here's the list of all 24 of them, and why most can be dismissed)
Rodney Peete
Don Majkowski
Lynn Dickey
Tobin Rote
Bart Starr
Gary Kubiak
Sid Luckman
Tony Eason
Jeff Hostetler
Daryle Lamonica
Jeff George
Frank Ryan
Don Strock
Terry Bradshaw
Mike Pagel
Kurt Warner
Joe Montana
Charlie/Charley Conerly
Ben Roethlisberger
Joe Theismann
Daunte Culpepper
Ken Anderson
Ken Stabler
Jack Trudeau

The bizarre thing is that former Packers make up four of the top five spots.  That's just weird, and I have no explanation.

But, who to dismiss as "clutch". First to go are Peete (32 passes in three games), Majkowski (one game), Dickey (two games), Kubiak (four games, 19 passes), Strock (six games, 64 passes), Pagel (one game), and Trudeau (one game).  I'm tempted to boot Theismann for being a terrible commentator, but I won't.  So here's who's left.
Tobin Rote (four games, 0.605)
Bart Starr (six games, 0.556)
Sid Luckman (six games, 0.552)
Tony Eason (five games, 0.548)
Jeff Hostetler (five games, 0.535)
Daryle Lamonica (eight games, 0.518)
Jeff George (three games, 0.517)
Frank Ryan (three games, 0.513)
Terry Bradshaw (19 games, 0.505)
Kurt Warner (seven games, 0.494)
Joe Montana (23 games, 0.490)
Charlie/Charley Conerly (six games, 0.484)
Ben Roethlisberger (seven games, 0.477)
Joe Theismann (eight games, 0.476)
Daunte Culpepper (four games, 0.475)
Ken Anderson (six games, 0.471)
Ken Stabler (13 games, 0.470)

I know, you're wondering how all these old-timers ended up on the list with so few games.  Well, there didn't used to be this many playoff games.  Rote's four games were a division playoff (with the winner playing for the title) and three title games.  Frank Ryan had only three playoff games, but all were for the league title.

But let's go back and compare.  Tobin Rote and Bobby Layne were contemporaries and very similar players.  The difference is that Rote scored much higher on the various indicators I use (ranking him as the 20th-best quarterback ever) than Layne (30th-best on the same rankings scale).  Rote did it on much worse teams than anything Layne could have imagined as well.  When considering playoffs, Rote ranks as the best playoff quarterback in professional history, Layne as the worst.  Layne is in Canton, Rote probably never will be.  Belief in "clutch ability" is how garbage like that happens.  Peter King didn't do 15 seconds of research before putting Layne among the five best ever in the "clutch" in a fairly popular book, and the legend of Bobby Layne will always include that, "He never lost a game, time just ran out on him".

Well folks, now you know who the real playoff performers and duds are.  Oh, you wanted that middle list of the "average"?  Of course. Frank Reich
David Woodley
Mark Malone
Bernie Kosar
Troy Aikman
Steve Young
Brett Favre
John Elway
Tommy Maddox
Peyton Manning
Jim McMahon
Earl Morrall
Jim Plunkett
Marc Bulger
Boomer Esiason
Roger Staubach
Otto Graham
Steve Fuller
Johnny Unitas
Chris Chandler
Len Dawson
Rich Gannon
Bob Griese
Babe Parilli
Drew Brees
Tom Brady
Paul McDonald
Dan Marino
Dan Fouts
Neil Lomax
Chris Miller
Kerry Collins
Dan Pastorini
Steve Beuerlein
Warren Moon
Donovan McNabb
Bob Waterfield
John Brodie
Steve DeBerg
Bill Wade

Now what makes this whole thing bizarre?  Out of the "unclutch", there are seven HOFers and one semi-serious candidate (9.2%,13.2% if Simms gets in) .  Out of the average, there are 15 that are or will be in Canton (37.5%).  And out of the "clutch", there are just four of 24 (16.667%).  Perhaps now you can see "clutch" for what it is...a tool of the image and shallow argument rather than something that can actually put someone into or take them out of consideration for the Hall of Fame.

        • Playoff stats for Cecil Isbell, Arnie Herber, and Sammy Baugh are still incomplete; this page will be updated when those are tracked down

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