By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
If NFL history has its way again, the 2013 season could see the cooling off of "Matty Ice" in Atlanta, the Luck running out of a young team's success in Indianapolis, and in Dallas, well no one considers the Cowboys a clutch team anyway, so business as usual.
Teams with a lot of close wins almost never repeat it in consecutive seasons.
Still, you have to admire the consistency in game flow in a NFL season.
In the 2011 regular season, there were 66 fourth-quarter comebacks and 83 game-winning drives. In 2012, there were 66 fourth-quarter comebacks and 81 game-winning drives.
In 2011, 151 of 256 games (59.0 percent) featured a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. In 2012, it was 141 of 256 games (55.1 percent). For some reason, a few big matchups were unexpected duds last year, but that’s still close.
Why shouldn’t it be close? Even in July we can accurately predict there will be 35-40 games in 2013 where a team wins after trailing by double digits. Just a few will overcome a three-score deficit.
Since 2002, a tight range of 9-12 teams have lost after leading by double digits at halftime in every season except for 2011 when 18 lost.
As long as the game is being played with time constraints of 15-minute quarters and a 40-second play clock, there’s no reason these types of numbers shouldn’t show strong consistency.
While the totals may look similar each year, the specific teams winning and losing such games can sure change in an instant.
Sure, it seems like the Falcons and Giants are always winning close games, but it was just in 2009-10 when New York went a forgettable 3-5 at game-winning drive opportunities. Eli Manning then led eight game-winning drives in 2011 alone when the Giants won the Super Bowl.
On the other side of the coin, it feels like every week in Captain Comeback we document the latest close-game failure from teams like San Diego and Carolina over the last two years. But the choke-heavy teams will have their day in the sun, or at least that’s what regression to the mean says will happen.
Today we are giving another look at the teams loading up on clutch wins and how that type of success could evaporate in 2013. It’s not like the Colts, Falcons and Cowboys will forget how to finish games. It’s just classic regression.
The Study: Updated for 2012’s Four “Clutch” Teams
Last year’s study, which you may want to read before the following, was built on the hypothesis that teams with a lot of wins decided in the fourth quarter or overtime would struggle to repeat that success the following season. When the margin for error is usually so thin and one play can decide the game in those situations, it would be hard for anyone to consistently win those close games.
By not winning as many close games, the team’s overall record would assumingly decline as well.
The study’s sample included teams who won at least six games due to a game-winning score in the fourth quarter or overtime. Playoffs were included. Any type of game-winning score (offensive or not) counted.
Including the three teams from 2012, a total of 51 teams in NFL history meet this criteria, however we only have full data on those from 1980-present. Obviously excluding last year’s teams since we have to see what they do this year, the study is now based on 40 teams after including the Giants, Cardinals, Broncos and 49ers from 2011-12.
Year N is the initial season when the team had at least six late-game wins, and N + 1 is the following season.
The “Win %” is the overall season record for these teams, which again includes postseason.
“4Q/OT Wins” is the average number of wins the teams had via a fourth quarter or overtime game-winning score.
The “4QC Rec.” is the record the teams had in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, defined as having the ball when trailing by one score.
The “4Q/OT Rec.” is the team’s record in all opportunities in the fourth quarter or overtime when the score is tied or a one-score difference.
Note: The dreaded tie has entered another dataset thanks to the 2012 49ers and Rams.
The overall winning percentage falls with the big drops coming in the close games the following season. These 40 teams went from winning 61.1 percent of their fourth-quarter comeback opportunities to a much more average 36.1 percent the next season.
The four teams with six-plus clutch wins in 2011 (Giants, Broncos, Cardinals and 49ers) all failed to win more than three games in the clutch in 2012:
Clutch Regression: Top 2011 Teams
Only Denver improved on its overall record, but go figure when you add Peyton Manning at quarterback. The Broncos’ 3-1 record at comeback opportunities was the best in the regular season in 2012.
The 2012 Broncos are just the third team to improve their record in at least two of the three categories. If not for a certain mistake by a safety in the playoffs, Denver would have been just the third team to improve its record in all three categories. The only two to do so remain the 1991 Cowboys and 2009 Colts; the latter which earned Manning his fourth MVP award.
The other Manning brother had that record-tying season for the Giants in 2011, but it was an odd one in 2012. It started on a bad note with the Week 1 loss at home to Dallas in which Tony Romo ended the game on his terms in the four-minute offense, denying Manning another comeback against the Cowboys. He would get one in Dallas in Week 8, but that was not done with the efficiency the Giants showed in 2011.
Manning’s signature comeback in 2012 was a monster game against Tampa Bay in Week 2 when he threw for 510 yards, including 229 in the final 7:41 to finish off the Buccaneers.
However, the rest of the season featured many blowouts, which went in both directions. After scoring 52 points against the Saints to get to 8-5, the Giants lost back-to-back games in Atlanta and Baltimore, getting outscored 67-14 in the process. A 42-7 rout of the Eagles in Week 17 was not enough for the playoffs despite the equal 9-7 record to the 2011 team.
Those close losses in Philadelphia and Washington were the type of games the Giants found a way to win in 2011. They did not do it in 2012 and that’s why they lost the NFC East and missed the playoffs.
San Francisco did not regress exactly as predicted, but the close games were way down. After six game-winning drives in 2011, the 49ers had just two in 2012. They also have these awful-looking (to a data analyst) records like 1-1-1 at comebacks and 2-2-1 overall due to that Week 10 tie against the Rams.
So many blowouts (both ways like the Giants) led to the 49ers not facing a game-winning drive opportunity until that Week 10 tie. The 49ers’ offense always trailed by multiple scores in the fourth quarter in losses to the Vikings (24-13), Giants (26-3) and Seahawks (42-13).
They did pull off a record-setting comeback for a road team in a championship game, erasing a 17-0 deficit in Atlanta in the NFC Championship. The Super Bowl deficit grew as large as 22 points, but San Francisco fought back in the second half from that one as well.
However, it was a failed game-winning drive, one that just needed five more yards, which ultimately ended the 49ers’ season in Super Bowl XLVII.
The Cardinals were nowhere close to the Super Bowl. Despite a Week 1 comeback/game-winning drive engineered by the dastardly duo of John Skelton and Kevin Kolb, Arizona’s improbable run of clutch success finally went bone dry after eight late wins in 2011.
Despite the 11 losses, Arizona only had three losses that were even close enough for them to have an opportunity late in the game. This was a bad team, likely the worst 4-0 team in NFL history.
It was tight with the 5-11 record, but we did indeed get it right with the final line of “it is hard to imagine the Cardinals win more than five games in 2012.”
In the end, not only did these four teams win less in the clutch, but as this study has shown, the number of close games the following year often decrease dramatically.
For these four teams, they went from an average of 11.8 games with a game-winning drive opportunity in 2011 down to just 5.5 in 2012.
2013 Regression: Colts, Falcons and Cowboys in Trouble?
So what does this mean for the Colts, Falcons and Cowboys?
Of the 40 clutch teams studied, only eight improved their overall winning percentage in the next season. That’s a one-in-five shot.
Historically, the data strongly suggests they will not repeat last year’s success, or like in the case of the 2011-12 49ers, they will have to win more games in blowout fashion.
It also might mean they are blown out more often.
Indianapolis Colts (11-6 overall, 4-3 at 4QC, 7-3 overall 4Q/OT wins)
By now I think we all know about the Colts’ statistically-improbable 2012 season. They were the worst 11-win team in NFL history based on most numbers. In the regression model we have used in the past, the Colts exceeded their expected wins by 3.97 wins; the largest for any team since 1995 (and perhaps ever).
But where this team shined was in the fourth quarter, which was surprising given a rookie quarterback at the helm. Andrew Luck tied the NFL regular-season record by leading seven game-winning drives.
Luck was nearly flawless in the process. In crunch time of those seven game-winning drives, Luck had this stat line: 40-of-62 (64.5 percent) for 469 yards, 4 TD, INT, 102.2 passer rating and 4.27 points per drive.
That’s well above his other stats. It wasn’t about luck in Indianapolis. It was about Luck.
There were even three spikes included in those numbers. On the 11 drives, Luck led the Colts to a score on nine of them. One of the two failures was a drive to run out the clock for overtime in Tennessee when Luck threw the first game-winning touchdown pass under the new overtime system in the regular season.
The Colts were all about execution in the clutch. They weren’t winning on 60-yard field goals or absurd return scores. Not only did this team go 9-1 in games decided by one score thanks in large part to the seven game-winning drives, they led the league with four drives to run out the clock in the four-minute offense.
Luck was 7-3 at his game-winning drive opportunities, but the three losses don’t even speak that poorly of him. He did lead the Colts to a go-ahead field goal against Jacksonville with 0:56 left, but an improbable 80-yard touchdown pass from Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts won the game for the Jaguars.
Against Houston, the Colts did not try a pass until it was 3rd-and-15 and Luck was under siege all day from J.J. Watt. Even a completion would have been wiped out because of holding. Houston added another score to take a 26-17 lead with 8:30 left.
Similarly in the playoff loss in Baltimore, Luck threw a pass to Donnie Avery on 3rd-and-9 that was dropped. It forced a field goal attempt, which Adam Vinatieri shockingly missed from 40 yards away. Baltimore tacked on a touchdown for a daunting 24-9 lead with 9:14 left.
The Colts have a lot of young players, a new offensive coordinator in Pep Hamilton, but putting the ball in Luck’s hands should still be the basis of operation. He proved he could handle it last year.
Indianapolis had some horrific losses, especially early in the season, but this does appear to be a team on the rise. Luck likely will not run out yet, but this many game-winning drives may never be repeated again in his career.
Expect to see a few more failed game-winning drives from Luck in 2013, but also some more comfortable wins where he can just hand off in the fourth quarter.
Atlanta Falcons (14-4 overall, 5-3 at 4QC, 7-3 overall 4Q/OT wins)
Like the Colts, the Falcons were 7-3 at overall game-winning drive opportunities. They were the third team in our list of top 2012 overachievers based on stats versus record. It’s not like we haven’t seen this before with Atlanta. In 2010, the Falcons also had the NFC’s No. 1 seed with Matt Ryan leading five comebacks and six game-winning drives.
Last season Ryan led his first game-winning drive in the playoffs, which was another last-minute thriller against Seattle. Ryan owns the one-minute drill with five in his career (three in 2012 alone).
Here is how Ryan’s done by season at comebacks and overall game-winning drive opportunities:
Matt Ryan: 4QC/GWD Records
Remember, Ryan’s 23-14 record is the best ever (minimum 30 games), but even he fell back to earth in 2011, which was sandwiched between these two seasons with six-plus clutch wins.
Atlanta is all about superior execution in these situations. Matt Bryant is a very good kicker. Outside of Vinatieri, there may not be anyone else you pick to kick a game-winning field goal right now.
The defense has been fairly strong in these situations as well. Add it all up and it’s no wonder Mike Smith has only lost four games with a fourth-quarter lead in five seasons.
There have been some big changes in Atlanta with John Abraham and Michael Turner gone, but the team has restocked with veterans like Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora. This team is Super Bowl or bust with Tony Gonzalez expected to call it a career after one more shot at a ring.
It’s going to take some clutch drives along the way to reach that goal, but as Atlanta showed in the postseason where it could have easily been 0-2 or 2-0 in those games, you don’t want to rely on these as often as the Falcons have. Sometimes you just come up short like in the NFC Championship. Sometimes it’s an arguable no-call on fourth down.
Sometimes you just don’t make the play.
Dallas Cowboys (8-8 overall, 5-5 at 4QC, 6-5 overall 4Q/OT wins)
What more can we say about Tony Romo and the Cowboys that wasn’t already said in last week’s piece?
The 2012 Cowboys set franchise records with five fourth-quarter comebacks in a season. They won six games with a game-winning score in the fourth quarter or overtime, which includes Dwayne Harris’ 78-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Eagles to break a 17-17 tie.
At one point (Weeks 10-15) the Cowboys had gone 5-1 with a game-winning score in the fourth quarter or overtime in all five wins.
This was a resilient Cowboys team, but people will only remember the comeback they failed to make in Washington in Week 17 with the season on the line.
We know Dallas has had a ton of practice at the close games in recent years. Perhaps too much when you look at it.
Jason Garrett has coached 40 games in Dallas after taking over for Wade Phillips halfway through the 2010 season. In 28 of those 40 games, the Cowboys or their opponent had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. That’s 70 percent. Remember from the beginning, the league average is 55-59 percent the last two years.
That includes a record streak of 11 straight games decided by 1-4 points from 2010-11.
Dallas was not incredible in these games last year with a .500 record at comebacks, but obviously the record could have been much worse overall without the clutch wins.
The key thing is how much the Cowboys competed with almost everyone on the schedule not named Seattle or Chicago. If they can improve their play along the offensive line and generate more turnovers, this team should do better.
It just may come in the form of more blowout wins, as Romo’s unlikely to lead five game-winning drives in 2013 again.
So you’re looking at a Dallas team with a good shot to play in fewer close games, which could mean a better record overall. This doesn’t feel like 1991 all over again, but there’s an opportunity here for the playoffs.
Of course, there’s also the disaster scenario where the Cowboys lose most of their close games and finish 2013 with a losing record. Romo’s physically branded as a choker in that case.
Either way is more likely than a repeat of last year, though we probably would have said the same thing after 2011 when Dallas finished 8-8 with a 4-5 record at game-winning drives.
Sound familiar? At least we know having the same kind of season three years in a row is even less likely.
Then again, there’s the Dave Campo era (2000-02) that was nothing but three straight seasons finishing 5-11.
Come on Dallas, throw us a bone here. Don’t choke on it.
Last year was a bit different in that we knew Peyton Manning was going to have a huge impact in Denver, and we were already predicting gloom for John Skelton. He’s not looking for handouts in Vegas yet, but he is out of the desert and in Cincinnati.
It will be interesting to see how Luck and Ryan, the top two quarterbacks in game-winning drive win percentage, handle things in 2013. There’s much more of a track record for Ryan, which “Matty Ice” knows about now thanks to NFL writer Steve Gallo passing it onto him last month.
Realistically, there’s no reason any of these teams can’t go out and win at least six more close games again in 2013. Matt Bryant’s not going to suddenly choke on a game-winning field goal for Atlanta just because some numbers say the Falcons aren’t likely to win these close games again.
It’s just simple regression.
Someone either makes a play or they don’t. The team who does usually wins the game. Just because you made a lot of these plays one year does not mean it will carry over into the next.
That goes for every NFL team and not just the Colts, Falcons and Cowboys.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.