The Best 4th-Quarter QBs in the NFL

Matt Ryan and Tony Romo may be better than you think in crunch time.


I decided to take a look at how current NFL quarterbacks have done in the fourth quarter, since that seems to be the biggest thing talked about every NFL Sunday. Sure, you threw for 300 yards and 3 TDs, but how’d you do when it mattered most?

Taking into account regular-season figures on game-winning drives, fourth-quarter comebacks and TD passes thrown in the 4th quarter and overtime, the formula gave me a ranking that pretty much reads like a longevity of career list.  I had to change the methodology to encapsulate how many times they were able to pull of these feats with the amount of opportunities they’ve had. Here’s the original ranking, without anything to factor-in games played:

  1. Peyton Manning
  2. Tom Brady
  3. Drew Brees
  4. Eli Manning
  5. Ben Roethlisberger
  6. Tony Romo
  7. Carson Palmer
  8. Philip Rivers
  9. Jay Cutler
  10. Matt Ryan
  11. Matt Schaub
  12. Joe Flacco
  13. Michael Vick
  14. Alex Smith
  15. Matt Stafford
  16. Aaron Rodgers
  17. Josh Freeman
  18. Sam Bradford
  19. Andy Dalton
  20. Chad Henne
  21. Cam Newton

When using the numbers without taking into account how many games each of the quarterbacks have played, it makes sense someone that has been in the NFL since 1998, Peyton Manning, would be #1. The ranking corresponds closely with the amount of games played, except for someone like Vick who has been in the league since 2001 and is 13th. This isn’t to say Manning and Brady aren’t two of the best in the business in clutch situations, but when you take the amount of fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives relative to the amount of games started, you get a better look at who has done a lot with less time. Also, instead of just going by touchdowns thrown, I used a TD-to-INT ratio in the second go-around. Here’s the final ranking after taking games played into account, indexed from 100:

  1. Tony Romo                           100.0
  2. Matt Ryan                              98.3
  3. Tom Brady                            92.7
  4. Matt Stafford                         91.4
  5. Peyton Manning                     91.1
  6. Ben Roethlisberger               84.7
  7. Drew Brees                          83.9
  8. Eli Manning                            81.1
  9. Jay Cutler                              79.4
  10. Josh Freeman                        74.5
  11. Philip Rivers                           70.5
  12. Joe Flacco                             69.1
  13. Andy Dalton                            68.8
  14. Alex Smith                              65.9
  15. Carson Palmer                     65.1
  16. Matt Schaub                          64.2
  17. Aaron Rodgers                      63.0
  18. Michael Vick                           62.6
  19. Sam Bradford                       58.1
  20. Chad Henne                          37.9
  21. Cam Newton                          33.2

Most wouldn’t expect to see Romo’s name at #1. He was 2nd in fourth-quarter comebacks per start behind Matt Ryan, 8th in game-winning drives, and 1st in TD-to-INT ratio. Ryan was 1st in comebacks and game-winning drives, but his TD-to-INT (31 to 21) ratio was only good enough for 9th.

Manning dropped to 5th in 4Q comebacks, 4th in game-winning drives and 5th in TD-to-INTs, putting him at #5 overall. Brady stays high at #3, with the aforementioned Vick predictably dropping to #18. Here’s the top and bottom five in each category:

Top 5, 4th-Quarter Comebacks  (% of games played)  

  1. Matt Ryan         19.3%
  2. Tony Romo      18.2%
  3. Matt Stafford   18.0%
  4. Eli Manning      17.0%
  5. Peyton Manning   16.9%

Bottom 3 were Chad Henne (7.5%), Aaron Rodgers (6%) and Cam Newton (5.4%).

Top 5, Game-Winning Drives (% of games played)

  1. Matt Ryan  27.7%
  2. Ben Roethlisberger  22.1%
  3. Matt Stafford   22.0%
  4. Peyton Manning   21.7%
  5. Tom Brady   21.5%

Bottom three were Sam Bradford (10.4%), Chad Henne (10.0%) and Cam Newton (5.4%).

Top 5, TD-to-INT ratio in 4th Quarter

  1. Tony Romo  2.5-1
  2. Aaron Rodgers   2.39-1
  3. Drew Brees   2.32-1
  4. Tom Brady  2.16-1
  5. Peyton Manning   1.84-1

Bottom three were Cam Newton (1.0), Andy Dalton (0.93) and Chad Henne (0.63).

Again, this is only the regular season. There are cases to be made for guys like Brady, the Manning brothers, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees – all of which had to perform in the postseason to get their coveted Super Bowl rings. However, to compare everyone equally, I used the regular season. The NFL playoffs is a whole other thing that’ll I’ll try to tackle later.

I wanted a good sample size, so I made the cutoff 32 games started – two full NFL seasons. When you add in those that started all of 2012 and 2013 so far, Russell Wilson jumps to #1 overall while Andrew Luck is #2. They’ve certainly started off their careers as two of the most clutch performers in the NFL thus far, and the Seahawks and Colts are certainly reaping the benefits.

There’s no perfect way to determine who’s the best quarterback is late in games because football is a team sport and there’s so many mitigating factors that makes it impossible. Is Tony Romo really the best quarterback in the 4th quarter? General football knowledge tells you no. But is the stigma attached to him overblown? Absolutely. He’s lost his share of close games, but he’s also led 18 fourth-quarter comeback wins in only 99 career starts.

Matt Ryan might be the real star of this study. When it comes to bringing your team back late in the game and leading game-winning drives, there’s no one better. He’s only second because of his TD-to-INT ratio, and it doesn’t look to be hurting him or the Falcons very much. Everyone talks about Brady, Manning and Brees, but with the game on the line right now, give me Matt Ryan.



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