In 1994, I had only been watching the NFL for a couple of years. I lived in Hawaii, where the closest thing to a home team we had was the Pro Bowl — which pretty much made me a Dallas Cowboys fan. I griped when it seemed like the Miami Dolphins were on TV every week.
But that changed on Nov. 27, when I watched the Dolphins come back from a 17-0 third-quarter deficit against the New York Jets, culminating with Dan Marino’s legendary “Clock, Clock, Clock” play with 30 seconds left that led to the game-winning touchdown. It made me a Dolphins fan for life.1 It blew my young mind.
Marino’s fake-spike and pass to the end zone was thrilling and unexpected, but it made so much sense! After getting a first down with little time left, teams always spiked the ball. This is something that an ideal team would never do, as it would always have its next play ready. Yet it was so routine that defenses mostly took the play off, something the Dolphins eagerly exploited. This was the moment at which my long journey toward skeptical sports analysis began.2
As my obsession with football increased, my passion for the Dolphins did as well.3 But in the decades since, I’ve had my heart broken one too manytimes, and I’ve become numb to Dolphins results.
For a few minutes on Sunday, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers brought those feelings back. With 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter and trailing by four points against the — my! — Miami Dolphins, Rodgers completed a pass inbounds. He rushed to the line and snapped the ball with 13 seconds left, on what everyone seemed to think was going to be a spike — he was selling it so hard he deserved a Razzie4 — but it wasn’t. Rodgers flung the pass down the right sideline to Davante Adams, and Adams ran it out of bounds at the 4-yard line. First-and-goal, seconds remaining.
The Dolphins took a timeout, and in the minute or so between that completion and their final play, I was a young Dolphins fanatic, hoping that I wouldn’t have my heart broken again. On the next play Rodgers threw a game-winning touchdown.
Aaron Rodgers is something of an enigma. I’ve written about him severaltimes before, pointing out that he’s statistically one of the best quarterbacks in football — maybe ever — but he takes few risks when his team is down and rarely leads the Packers to comeback victories.
But with this win against the Dolphins, along with his Week 2 comeback against the Jets, it appeared my theory of Rodgers was on shaky ground. So I decided to look into his comeback conundrum more deeply — was it due to bad play? Or bad luck? Bad defense? Something else? Nothing at all?
In a surprise, I found that Rodgers actually has a history of being great in comeback situations like the one he faced against the Dolphins. In the fourth quarter, with his team needing a touchdown to tie or take the lead (that is, down 4 points to 8 points), only Peyton Manning has led his team to a higher percentage of touchdown drives:
So bravo, Aaron. The Hacker Gods, who rule over this terrestrial simulation from their higher order reality much as Odin rules over Midgard from his perch in Valhalla, did everything in their power to get me to recognize your brilliance. They’ve sent me the ravens Huginn and Muninn to change my thought and mind. Perhaps they’re even daring me to eat them. And perhaps someday I will, but not today.
Chart of the week
While I applaud Rodgers’s fourth-quarter driving efforts, breaking down his game more thoroughly has made me more convinced that he’s too cautious.
For this chart, I’ve taken quarterback drives in the second half of games and broken them down into four categories: 1) games in which the quarterback’s team is more than a touchdown behind (down 9 or more points); 2) games in which the quarterback’s team needs a touchdown to tie or take the lead (down 4 to 8 points); 3) games in which the two teams are within a field goal of each other; and 4) games in which the quarterback’s team is ahead by 4 points or more. I’ve then plotted the percentage of such drives that end with a touchdown versus the percentage of those games won. (The bubble size is the number of drives.) I’ve highlighted the results for Rodgers and Manning, and noted their interception percentages.
A few things pop out of there:
- When leading by 4 or more points in the second half, both Rodgers (6.2 percent) and Manning (7.9 percent) throw a pretty low percentage of interceptions. About 30 percent of their drives end in touchdowns (29.8 percent and 29.5 percent, respectively) and both win at a very high rate (90.9 percent and 92.9 percent of the time, respectively).
- When the game is close — up or down 3 or fewer points — Manning’s interception rate drops a little (to 5.8 percent), while his touchdown percentage goes up a little (to 31.4 percent). Overall, Manning is still winning 77.7 percent of these games, while Rodgers’s (8.3 percent interception rate, 26.6 percent TD rate) winning percentage drops all the way down to 55.1 percent.
- When their teams are down 4 points to 8 points (i.e., they need a touchdown to win), both Rodgers’s and Manning’s TD rates shoot way up (Manning: 45.7 percent, Rodgers 40.0 percent). Manning’s interception rate also climbs (10.9 percent), while Rodgers’s drops (7.3 percent). Rodgers is winning a smaller share of these games (31.3 percent vs. Manning’s 44.9 percent), but it’s one of his best showings overall (and includes the scenarios in the intro above).
- It’s when the quarterbacks’ teams are down 9 or more points in the second half that you really see the difference. Peyton Manning throws interceptions on 15.6 percent of his drives, compared to Rodgers’ 8.1 percent. And for that, Manning is punished … by winning 28.6 percent of these games. Rodgers, meanwhile, wins 0 percent. That’s right, Rodgers has zero comebacks of 9 or more points in the second half. Ever.
Judging any QB in relation to Peyton Manning is setting him up for failure. But the starkness of the difference is pretty amazing. Rodgers has zero wins in 21 games while Manning has 14 wins in 49 games, with Manning throwing interceptions nearly twice as often. If you need one stat to demonstrate the gunslinger hypothesis (i.e. that you can throw too few interceptions as well as too many), that would probably be it.