Philip Rivers, not Drew Brees, most clutch QB of 2013


(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

I love a debate. And lists. I love debates about lists, so when I saw Bucky Brooks release his list of the NFL’s most clutch quarterbacks I clicked without hesitation. After reading, one thing struck me: There was no definition of what it means to be clutch. Each quarterback was measured on different criteria over different time frames.

For example, Drew Brees was top of the list because he was “absolutely brilliant under pressure in 2013″ when trailing by eight points or fewer, and performed well in the red zone plus during the two-minute drill. However, Aaron Rodgers was second on the list because he is “a masterful performer when the game is on the line,” which in this case meant his Week 17 performance against the Chicago Bears. By my count, the 10 QBs on the list were evaluated against one or more of the following performance criteria for the 2013 season:

  • Executing a two-minute drill
  • Converting a crucial third down
  • Deliver in the fourth quarter
  • Game-winning drives
  • Fourth-quarter comeback victories
  • Performance in the red zone
  • Performance when “facing a small deficit (eight points or fewer)”

I decided to look at this a different way: Each NFL quarterback’s passer rating would be evaluated in each of the situations above (with the exception of the counting stats of game-winning drives and fourth-quarter comebacks) and then compared to the league as a whole. The more dominating the performance, the higher the QBs score for that situation, with the “score” determined by how many standard deviations from the mean (average) the performance was.

For example, Drew Brees  was 56 for 89 in the red zone last season while throwing for 328 yards, 22 touchdowns and just one interception for a 104.8 passer rating. However, the average passer rating was 91.7 in those situations, putting Brees just one half a deviation from the the mean. We would expect 65 percent of all quarterbacks to be within one standard deviation, so Brees’s performance isn’t that impressive in those situations. Peyton Manning, on the other hand, posted a 121.5 passer rating in the red zone, which is 1.1 deviations from the mean, or put another way, a much more dominating performance than Brees and everyone else in Bucky’s top 10.

Perhaps the least clutch in Brooks’s top 10 is No. 7, Ben Roethlisberger. His performance was very close to average on third downs, in the fourth quarter and when the Steelers were in the red zone. Plus, he had just one fourth-quarter comeback last season to go along with three game-winning drives.

The most clutch QB last season? Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers. Rivers was more than a half deviation from the mean in every category, and that includes his four fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives last season. He was remarkably efficient in the two-minute offense (100.7 passer rating vs. a league average of 76.6) while averaging 8.8 yards per passing attempt on third downs (103.8 passer rating). Here is how the rest of the top ten rounded out:

You will notice no Aaron Rodgers, who just missed at No. 11, and the inclusion of 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick at No. 9. Kaepernick was stellar on third downs, averaging almost nine yards per passing attempt and had a 7:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio for a 104.3 passer rating, plus was credited with three fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives last season.

As you can see, clutch performance is extremely subjective and at the mercy of small sample sizes, however, after defining the term and applying a little bit of analytic gymnastics we can make an argument for Rivers as the most clutch. Disagree? Let me know in the comments below.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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