Sunday, August 19, 2012

Defining Clutch: NFL Quarterbacks Edition

In my inaugural Defining Clutch series, I will highlight the quarterback position in the National Football League.  I will breakdown what I think of the words "clutch" and "choker."

How do we define clutch?  Is there really such a thing as a "choker?"  How do we differentiate between who is a clutch QB and who is a choker?  Is Dan Marino a choker because he never won a Super Bowl?  Is Joe Montana the most clutch QB of all-time because he has three Super Bowl MVPs?  If a QB leads his team to 30+ points, but he loses the game because he threw an interception down by seven points or less, is he a choker?  Let's keep in mind that he led the team to 30+ points.  Do we just forget what he did up until the point, or do we only highlight the interception?  Was it his only interception of the game?  Did they only need a FG to tie the game?  Could they have won the game with a TD?  These are all questions that you have to ask.

Quite often, I think "clutch" is thrown around too loosely as well as "choker."  I believe that if you are an elite QB, more often than not, you will play great in the playoffs.  You'll rarely have really bad playoff games or games where you come up short.  If you are a great QB, you'll have some great playoff games, but you'll have more playoff games where you come up short than you would than if you were an elite QB.

If you are an average QB, more often than not, you'll play average in the playoffs.  Every so often, you might have a really good playoff game, but more often than not, you are average in the playoffs.  I believe you are who you are.  I don't think there is any type of magical potion that can make a person "clutch."  I also don't believe a player that is labeled a "choker" can never be "clutch."  Now I do believe that there are just some QBs who rise to the occasion more than others.  But more often than not, I believe how a QB plays in the playoffs is a reflection of the type of QB he is.

I want to use an example to prove my point.  Ben Roethlisberger has the reputation of being supremely "clutch."  Believe it or not, I've seen quite a few Steeler fans who seem to think Big Ben is more "clutch" than Peyton Manning.  Here is where I prove that theory wrong.  I believe Big Ben is a great QB, but not an elite QB like some people think.  Because he's a great QB, he's gonna have great playoff games, and some bad ones.  More bad ones than elite QBs have, and less great games than elite QBs have.  Big Ben has this reputation of being clutch.  Of course, it's hard to argue with the fact that he's 10-4 in the playoffs, and 3-1 in conference championship games.  But did you know he's had six really bad playoff games?  I'll give him a pass for his rookie season, but he played pretty horrible against Seattle in the SB, against the Jets two years ago in the AFC championship game, against Jacksonville in 2008, and against Green Bay in the Super Bowl.  He won two of those games and lost two of those games.

He's had four outstanding playoff games, two good playoff games, and two solid ones.  When you look at that body of work, this really proves my theory true.  I believe Big Ben is a great QB.  He can have really good or great playoff games, but he can also put up quite a few stinkers.  Now I will admit that Big Ben does rise to the occasion more so than other great QBs such as Philips Rivers and Tony Romo.  But what I want to know is can you definitively say that Big Ben is more "clutch" than Peyton Manning because he has more rings?  Rings are what matters the most for the QB position, but Big Ben has had his share of bad playoff games.  More so than Peyton.

Frankly, Peyton Manning was just not an elite quarterback in his first few playoff games.  Like Ben, I'll give him a pass for his rookie season.  For as much as Peyton is criticized for being a choker, he's only had two or three really bad playoff games.  Conversely, he's had six outstanding playoff games, and the other ones he was good in.

Peyton is absolutely not a "choker."  He's "clutch" if anything.  He's been at least good in 15 playoff games.  And I'm counting his SB run.  Statistically, Peyton wasn't great in his SB run, but he was better than his numbers indicated.  For instance, take into account he was facing the #1 defense in football on the road at Baltimore in cold conditions in the Divisional.  He routinely led the Colts down the field for FGs.  Obviously the Colts' defense was lights out and largely responsible for that win, but Peyton more than played his part in that win.  I thought that game was one of Peyton's most brilliant games despite what he was up against.  That was one of the best defenses of all-time he was facing.

He did throw the back-breaking pick six in the SB against the Saints, but that was not a game you can say he was bad in or "choked."  You can't just look at that game in a vacuum.  Without Peyton, the Colts are likely not in the game.  This notion that Peyton is a "choker" is hilarious to me.  If anything, Peyton is typically Peyton in the playoffs.  There is not some huge drop off from the regular season to the playoffs.  A QB rating just under 95 in the season and a little over 88 in the playoffs.  That's not some huge drop off considering playoff play is much more intense than in the season.  Single game elimination makes playoff games a much tougher environment than regular season games I'd say.

So what is this notion that Big Ben is more "clutch" than Peyton?  Peyton typically plays like an elite QB in the playoffs.  Big Ben typically plays like a great QB.  And this is not to mention what Big Ben has had around him and what Peyton has had around him.  I won't play the what if game, but there's no doubt that Big Ben has had better teams around him than Peyton.  Yet Peyton is usually elite in playoff games, and with a better supporting cast, he probably has more than one ring.  

You are who you are.  But quite often, how good you are doesn't matter in the playoffs.  Sometimes luck can play a huge factor.

Let's take a look at this video for a second:

That is the great Tom Brady of course in the controversial tuck game.  Let's not delve into whether or not the call was legitimate.  Let's look at the critical mistake Brady made.  With a blitzer coming from his strong side, he makes a rookie mistake and gets blindsided on his strong side.  Understand?  No QB should ever take the hit that Brady took on his strong side that caused a fumble.  If that happens on his blindside, that is understandable, but that should never happen coming from your strong side.  If you look closer, you can see that Brady never even noticed Woodson was coming.  That is a game-killing mistake.  Brady was bailed out by one of the more controversial calls in NFL history.  That's an example of sometimes how it's better to be lucky than good.  That also goes to show how one play can be the difference between having a "clutch" legacy or having a "choker" legacy.  

I believe in that season and playoffs, Brady was just a slightly above average QB, and it showed on that play.  Luckily for him, that didn't stain his legacy.  Had that been ruled a fumble, Brady would have been seen as a huge choker, because a high school QB can even recognize the blitz there on that play. Brady was just a little bit above average that year and it shows that just because a QB is average or a little above it like Brady was, that doesn't mean they can't play well in the playoffs and advance far in the playoffs.

For instance, let's look at Mark Sanchez.  He has great playoff numbers despite the fact that he's average for the majority of the season.  If Mark Sanchez can rise to the occasion when it matters most, then any QB can.  But is Mark Sanchez really that clutch because he has good playoff stats?  No.  Those numbers will even out at some point, and you will start to see more of the real Mark Sanchez in the playoffs.  You are who you are.  That is unless Mark Sanchez transforms into an elite QB down the road like Tom Brady did.  I don't believe there is something that changes you that much in the playoffs.  There is more pressure, and some QBs handle it better than others.

Enough of this labeling.  I've come to the conclusion that you are who you are.  If you are usually elite in the season, more often than not, you'll play that way in the playoffs and bad playoff games will be few and far in between.  If you are usually great in the season, more often than not, you'll be good in the playoffs, but more susceptible to bad playoff games than elite QBs.  If you are average, more often than not, you'll be average in the playoffs, and you'll be more susceptible to bad playoff games than good ones.  The law of averages takes care of everything.  

There are so many ridiculous perceptions out there as well.  Far too often, people look at QBs in a vacuum rather than looking at the intricacies of their situation.  Here's one of my favorites:  "Rivers is a failure and will never win anything." 

Let's just not forget that the best team Rivers had, he was just a mere rookie.  In no other year have the Chargers put a team on the field that could win enough playoff games to win a SB.  Ever since Rivers has become an elite QB he has never had teams good enough to win Super Bowls.  Far too often, observers don't realize that winning Super Bowls is a franchise sport.  It's not the easiest thing to do.

Is it just a coincidence that when Brady was not an elite QB, he won three Super Bowls, and since he's been an elite QB, he's won none?   He's lost two Super Bowls while being the favorites in both.  That tells me that winning a SB is a franchise accomplishment, and also that Brady's supporting cast isn't as great as it was when he was winning Super Bowls.  QBs absolutely have the most control over where their team goes, but it's still a franchise accomplishment.  It's hard work and 100% dedication from 53 men on the field and the guys behind the scenes such as the owner, the front office, the trainers, and so forth.

Rivers just simply hasn't had enough good teams.  The Chargers themselves haven't been a highly successful franchise.  I think it would be more fair to call the franchise a failure rather than Rivers, because they haven't won anything.  And that's dating back to long before Rivers was the QB.  So maybe Rivers doesn't ever win anything, but it won't be because of him.  The Chargers have never won anything.  Let's be fair to Rivers here.  Has he come up short?  Of course.  But the Chargers wouldn't be where they are now without Rivers.

Here's another one of my favorites, "Romo is a choker and will never win anything."  Has Romo come up short?  Absolutely.  But is all of that his fault?  Should we ignore how bad of a GM Jerry Jones has been since the Jimmy Johnson era?  Should we ignore that Bill Parcells left too soon and never had the opportunity to coach up Romo?  That really hurt Romo's progress when Parcells left.  You know who took over for Parcells?  Wade Phillips.  That's right.  The Cowboys were supposed to win a SB with a coach who's been in the league for decades and never has won a playoff game as a head coach?  He's supposed to win with that?  Was the Giants' playoff game loss really a surprise?  Many people blame Romo and Witten for that Mexico fiasco.  But has anybody once blamed the head coach?  

Let's be fair to Romo.  The Phillips Cowboys were poorly coached in that playoff game, and Wade should have never let Romo and Witten go to Mexico.  He should have had them 100% focused on football.  Was it really surprising that Romo had immaturity issues when he had Wade Phillips as coach?  The most hilarious thing to me is Romo's December record criticism.  I guess people ignore that the Cowboys were horrible in December long before Romo got there.  Perhaps the Cowboys December woes is a reflection on management and poor conditioning?  Anybody ever think of that?  The fumbled snap was absolutely hilarious, and there is no excuse in the world for that.  But that fumbled snap has somehow became all that Romo is known for.  Because of that fumbled snap, he can't erase that unfair "choker" label.

Romo deserves criticism, and so does Rivers, because they both have come up short.  Romo more so than Rivers.  However, neither of them have been in the best position to advance in the playoffs.  They've both had poor coaching, and inconsistent defenses.  They both are part of franchises that have been pretty bad for over decades.  Especially Rivers.  The Chargers  have never won anything.  The Cowboys have won 5 titles, but one playoff win in 15 years isn't exactly good at all.  The Cowboys have been on the down slope for almost 20 years.  So let's be a little bit more fair to Romo and Rivers.

Matt Ryan is also getting this type of criticism.  The Falcons have been really good since Ryan came along, but I'll say the same thing for Ryan that I said for Romo and Rivers.  The Falcons have never really put a playoff team on the field that could advance in the playoffs.  Their defense has never been good enough for a playoff setting.  They have the offense, but they've never had the defense to win many playoff games.

In the regular season, offense probably means more than defense, but in the playoffs, defense matters the most.  Games are closer, and yards are hard to come by offensively.  That makes playing great defense in the playoffs even more important.  The Falcons just haven't had that.  That was evident in every single playoff loss with Ryan.

Enough of the senseless bashing of players.  Winning championships is a franchise accomplishment.  There's a reason why Dan Marino and Dan Fouts have no rings.  Some of it was because of them, but most of it was because, more often than not, they weren't put in position to win.  I don't believe in labeling QBs "clutch" or "choker."  Some QBs rise to the occasion more than others, but that doesn't make them supremely more clutch than others who have the "choker" label.  Every team can't win Super Bowls, and far too many QBs without rings get bashed.  There are 31 failures every year.  It's not a surprise that only a handful of QBs in the league have rings.  Those just happen to also be the best ran franchises.  When you label "clutch" and "choker," start with the franchises first, not the QBs.

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