Elway May Lose His Title of Comeback King

By Scott Kacsmar
July 24, 2011 11:22 am
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Any day now the NFL Record & Fact Book 2011 will be released (Amazon has July 26 as the release date). Included in the 624 pages are plenty of all-time statistics, records, past standings, schedules, and other useful information for media and fans.
 
While the release of this book would generally exude a yawn and shoulder shrug by the casual fan, I have been looking forward to this for over a year now.
 
Why is that? It was in the summer of 2010 when I talked to the NFL about standardizing game-winning drives (GWDs) and fourth quarter comebacks for quarterbacks. In case you missed it, the gist of the story is that NFL teams have always been given free reign to print anything they want in regards to these type of statistics, and it has created a semantics mess and records for players (John Elway in particular) that they never actually deserved. You can catch up on it all at these links: part one, part two, part three, chronology, and my personal favorite.
 
Though I still feel I could have been given a better chance to make an official proposal, the Elias Sports Bureau (official statisticians for the NFL) ultimately decided that the 32 NFL teams are allowed to make their own judgments on what they print in regards to these statistics. A positive I took away from it all was that for the first time ever, the league will actually provide a list (from Elias) of the career leaders in game-winning drives in the 2011 version of the NFL Record & Fact Book. Now this is what I was told a year ago, and reaffirmed on about two months ago. If the book comes out and there’s nothing there, then I guess much of this article will look a bit silly. Que sera, sera.
 
For nearly two years you could find this data, plus fourth quarter comebacks, which Elias does not use, on pro-football-reference.com for every quarterback. The addition of a league source publishing a list that shows Dan Marino as the record holder would strengthen my case for the need to standardize these statistics. Of course, Elias has always been on the money when it comes to GWDs, but unfortunately people have not embraced their numbers for some reason. To open a can of worms, that includes the NFL themselves, who still allow a phrase like “John Elway’s NFL record 47 comebacks” to be used in NFL Films productions and on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s website.

As I detailed in the “Chronology” article, Elias used the right statistics for GWDs a couple of times in the mid-1990s on Monday Night Football broadcasts. The graphics showed Marino ahead of Elway. Now why did people listen to the Denver Bronco’s public relations staff over Elias? Not sure. Will a list in the Record & Fact Book change things? Not likely.
 
I realized that with all the information on PFR, I have never given a definitive list of the career leaders in GWDs. That is what I am going to provide here, as I try and predict what the list in the NFL Record & Fact Book 2011 will look like. Keep in mind Elias does not use postseason games. I have no idea if this list (which hopefully exists) is going to be for all time or not, or how many players it will include. I am going to provide my all-time list of the 44 quarterbacks with at least 20 GWDs (active players in bold).
Rank QB GWDs
1 Dan Marino 47
2 Peyton Manning 45
3 Brett Favre 43
4 John Elway 40
5 Johnny Unitas 38
6 Warren Moon 35
7 Fran Tarkenton 33
7 Vinny Testaverde 33
9 Drew Bledsoe 31
10 Kerry Collins 30
10 Jake Plummer 30
12 Jim Kelly 28
12 Joe Montana 28
14 Brad Johnson 27
15 Tom Brady 26
15 Boomer Esiason 26
17 Dave Krieg 25
18 Randall Cunningham 24
18 Steve DeBerg 24
18 Jake Delhomme 24
18 Joe Ferguson 24
18 Donovan McNabb 24
23 Terry Bradshaw 23
23 Drew Brees 23
23 Dan Fouts 23
23 Jim Hart 23
23 Ron Jaworski 23
23 Brian Sipe 23
23 Ken Stabler 23
23 Y.A. Tittle 23
31 Mark Brunell 22
31 Jon Kitna 22
31 Jim Plunkett 22
31 Ben Roethlisberger 22
31 Joe Theismann 22
36 Steve Bartkowski 21
36 Steve McNair 21
36 Craig Morton 21
36 Roger Staubach 21
40 Troy Aikman 20
40 John Brodie 20
40 Rich Gannon 20
40 Steve Grogan 20
40 Doug Williams 20

You can see the record is within reach for Peyton Manning, but ever since I wrote that he needed one more comeback to tie Marino, I jinxed him with a dry spell. Still, this should happen sooner than later.
 
From that classic shootout between Montana and Elway on 10/17/1994, the graphic from Elias appeared as follows:
 
“Since 1975: Most GW drives in 4th QT/OT
Marino - 35
Elway - 26
Montana - 26
DeBerg - 24
Esiason - 24
Jaworski - 23
 
GW Drive: Winning team takes lead for final time”
 
From those six data points I learned that Elias’ methods for GWDs are practically identical to my own. I will spare the details, but don’t fret. I am going in-depth on some methods to my madness as I caution you on the few quarterbacks where I may have a different number than Elias.
 
Troy Aikman – Originally I had Aikman with 21 GWDs in the regular season. Then I found that in the 11/01/1992 game against the Eagles, the winning points were provided by a Dallas field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter. I have always left those “first play of the fourth quarter is a FG” drives out when talking about comebacks and GWDs. It’s the only situation where you can end up giving a player credit for a scoring drive in the fourth quarter when he never even plays in the fourth quarter. For example, the last play of the third quarter will always be a failed third down conversion, hence the FG attempt to start the fourth quarter. But what if the QB was injured on that failed third down and does not return? Then you would be giving him a fourth quarter GWD/CB in a game he never plays in the fourth quarter. That’s silly. You cannot give it to the QB that replaces him, seeing as how he never participated in the scoring drive. It all comes back to the QB/offense being on the field in the fourth quarter, tied or down one score. When the quarter starts with the FG unit out there, that is not the same thing, and not in the spirit of what these stats were created to illustrate.
 
Steve DeBerg – My 24 agrees with their 24, for now. I came across a tricky game, one which NFL fans should remember as a 1993 Thanksgiving classic when Leon Lett decided to act the fool (again) and touched the blocked FG at the end of the game. Steve DeBerg led the Dolphins down the field in position for the winning kick. Dallas blocks it, but Lett decides to touch it. What happens here is Lett gets credited with a fumble, meaning that possession did change. When Miami recovers at the 1-yard line and kicks the FG, then that is technically a “1 play, 0 yard” scoring drive. You do not give the QB/offense credit for that GWD, as they were never on the field. It was a non-offensive FG drive, and Elias does not count those as Elway’s stats prove. The reason I think Elias had 24 GWDs for DeBerg in 1994 is that this game was just a year earlier, and in the official NFL Gamebook there are inconsistencies. The play-by-play shows “1 plays, 0 yards” at the end. But the “Ball Possession and Drive Chart” section of the Gamebook says Miami’s last drive was 13 plays, 79 yards and ended with a FG with no time left. Someone at Elias may have glanced over that part when crediting the GWD, and forgot that it was technically a non-offensive drive that won the game. This is based on 1994. The stats they have today may very well show 23 GWDs for DeBerg. I have held off on making the change.
 
Mark Brunell – In yet another unique situation involving field goals and the Dallas Cowboys, there’s a Cowboys/Redskins game from 11/05/2006 that may be incorrectly credited as a GWD for Mark Brunell. Mike Vanderjagt, playing for Dallas, has his 35 yard FG blocked. The late Sean Taylor returns it to the Dallas 44 with no time remaining. A face mask penalty on Dallas moves the ball to the Dallas 29, and since the game cannot end on a defensive penalty, Washington receives one untimed down. The Redskins send their FG unit out and win the game on Nick Novak’s 47 yard FG. This is not a GWD for Brunell; his total should be 22. The only reason I think this one may come up is because it was incorrectly added to Brunell’s total in an ESPN game recap from 2009. This might just be ESPN making a mistake rather than Elias.
 
I am anxious to see what Elias has put together. I am even more anxious to get the season started on time and see what happens if Peyton Manning can hit these milestones. For changes to happen, he’s the first domino that needs to fall.

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By Scott Kacsmar
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3 years ago
Update - what was added in the R&F book is a list that goes back to 1970 and does reflect a top 5 ranking of Marino (47), Manning (45), Favre(43), Elway (40) and Moon (35).
3 years ago
Dear Scott,
Thanks for all this data. You took a big chance at expressing it before the NFL came out with their list. One problem I have with the three scenarios you described is that the QB could not possibly be on the field of play when the winning points were scored by a FG. A FG is regarded as a "drive" by the NFL. That the QB was unable (by circumstance) to be on the field should not deprive him of being credited with a GWD. Otherwise, we are faced with an even worst scenario---a GWD for which no credit is given to anyone. In other words, the GWD is erased from the record books altogether. It might as well have not taken place. The easiest and most logical "fix" is to simply credit these GWDs to the "QB of Record".
Best, Clark

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