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Friday, December 24, 2004
Ranking The Comeback QBs (Blast from the Past)

Here's something I posted on Usenet about 8 years ago, when Dan Marino and John Elway were still active players and Joe Montana only recently retired. If I get the chance I'll look at Favre, the current comeback king (who also led a comeback win today)

In any game where the Denver Broncos are trailing in the fourth quarter, the announcers will dutifully inform us of the number of late comebacks engineered by John Elway. The perception is that Elway is the premier comeback quarterback of all time (although lately it is often noted that Dan Marino actually has led more fourth quarter reversals).

But the comeback statistic contains a bias that actually works against great quarterbacks. Think about a top QB on a team that just steamrolls its opponents. Isn't it axiomatic that he would have fewer opportunities to lead comeback victories than Trent Dilfer?

Take Joe Montana, for example. During the 49ers' dominant years, he was frequently out of the game for the entire fourth quarter because the game was already won. There was no opportunity to mount a comeback, even if he had remained in the fray. And yet, there is a perception of him as a great comeback quarterback, perhaps even better than Elway.

I decided to research the matter. The NFL's annual Record and Fact Book contains a scoring summary and recap of every game for the previous year. My library contains every book since 1990 with the exception of 1993, so I was able to analyze the games of Montana, Elway and Marino for 1989-91, and 1993-1995.

Elway played all or most of 95 games in that span. Of those, the Broncos led by one point or more during the entire fourth quarter 33 times. There were 10 games in which the Bronco's worst position during the fourth quarter was a tie. The Broncos won 9 of those games, but there is a statistical bias here, in that if the other team
won in the fourth quarter then it would be a game that the Broncos had trailed in the fourth quarter, since the focus was always on the worst position (in points behind) that the Broncos were at any time in the last period. The only fourth quarter ties the Broncos could lose by this definition were overtime games. In 52 of the games the Broncos trailed at some point during the fourth quarter. Elway managed to win 9 of those games, or 17% of his comeback opportunities. If the ties are counted as comebacks (as the NFL does), then Elway converted 18 of 62 chances, or 29%.

Dan Marino played all or most of 82 games during the years in question. The Dolphins led by one point or more in the entire fourth quarter in 32 of those contests. There were five games where the Dolphin's worst position was a tie in the fourth quarter; they won all five. There were 45 games in which the Dolphins trailed at some point; Marino brought them back from the brink 14 times or 31% of the time. Counting ties as comebacks Marino succeeded in 19 of 50 opportunities, or 38%.

Montana missed all of 1991 and almost all of 1992, retired before the 1995 season and was injured several times in 1993 and 1994, so he only appeared in all or most of 47 games during the period covered. Of those, his teams led by a point or more in the entire fourth quarter 25 times. Look at that closely. Elway only managed to salt away eight more games in 48 more opportunities. There were three games where Montana's team's worst position in the fourth quarter was a tie; they won all of them. And there were 19 games where his club trailed at some point in the fourth quarter. Montana led them home in 10 of those games or 53% of his chances. Counting ties as comebacks, Montana succeeded 13 out of 22 times, or almost 60%.

There is still a possibility of bias. Suppose Montana was overcoming, say 3 point deficits, while Elway was leading his team back from 14 point gaps. But when I looked at the average margin overcome, Montana actually reversed an average 6.1 point deficit, while Elway on average climbed out of a 5.0 point hole. Marino took honors, leading his team to comeback wins from an average of 6.3 points down.

Another source of bias is that although the points rallied from in comebacks actually achieved weren't higher for Elway, the other opportunities might be. There is a reasonable case here, but it acts more in favor of Marino than Elway. Montana's teams trailed (at worst) in the fourth quarter by an average of 8.1 points (in games
that they actually trailed). Elway's teams were 9.6 points behind on average. But the Dolphins trailed by an astonishing average of 12.4 points at some point in the fourth quarter.

Montana had the biggest comeback in the study, rallying San Francisco from a fourth quarter, 17-point deficit against the Rams. On the theory that this represents the outside limit of comeback possibilities, I eliminated any game in which the team had a fourth quarter deficit of 18 points or more. Note that this is forgiving the
quarterback for allowing his team to fall that far behind.

Montana only had one game where his team fell that far behind in the fourth, so he led his teams to comebacks in 10 of 18 possible games or 56% of his opportunities. Counting ties, it's 13/21 or 62%. Elway, with six big losses forgiven, moves up to nine comebacks out of 46 chances, or 20%. Including ties, it's 32%. Marino shrugs off 11 maulings and ends up with 14 comebacks in 34 shots or 41%; with ties he's 19 for 39 or 49%.

Problems remaining with the study? Well, there are the missing seasons--it would be nice to fill them in. But the games surveyed make up half of Elway's and Marino's careers, and about 30% of Montana's--and Joe was rather well known as a comeback quarterback before 1989. Many will gripe that I'm giving Montana credit which is due more to the excellence of his teams. There is some validity to this. But isn't that what the announcers are doing when they point to Elway's comeback history?

Based on the evidence, Montana ranks as a significantly better comeback quarterback than Elway. Marino fits in between them, but closer to Joe than John.


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