Clutch doesn't exist.
There. I said it.
Ever since the 2011 playoffs began, I've been barraged (as have you) by the notions of "clutch" quarterbacks. Whether it was Tim Tebow in the Wild Card round, Alex Smith in the divisional round, or Eli Manning and Tom Brady since, the word clutch has gotten tossed around more than the "Peyton's a choker" moniker did in 2003.
After reading a few interesting/frustrating articles and fan threads, I've realized just how much of a misconception "clutch" really is. While it's entertaining to think about, and can be fun to idealize about, the stark reality is that "clutch," at least in the ways we often think of it, makes little sense when evaluating quarterbacks. I'm not sure as of now what I think of it as a whole, but for quarterbacks, "clutch" is something that is created in our heads, but in reality has very little, if any, bearing.
First, let's look at what "clutch" and "choke" really mean, at least, how we use them as fans or media.
"Clutch" really just means pressure. A player who is "clutch" performs well under pressure. A player who "chokes" is simply a player who doesn't get the job done under pressure.
Unfortunately, we as fans and media members often exaggerate the monikers of "clutch" and "choker," making it seem that any player who has succeeded at the end of a game (or in a big game) has a magical essence about them that allows them to do things that normal players wouldn't, and that other players turn into bumbling idiots just because the clock clicked past the two minute warning.
In reality, it seems that the players who are "clutch" are most often simply the players who are the best in the game, along with other factors, such as the teams they've faced and their own supporting cast (especially in football, where one player doesn't have near the effect on a game as they would in a game like basketball).
So, let's take a look at four quarterbacks who have had key parts in the "clutch" debate over the last 10 years, starting with Tom Brady.
The first few four years of Tom Brady's career were the glory days of "clutch." Tom Brady, a seemingly average quarterback during the season, somehow led the Patriots on three Super Bowl runs in four years. The popular myth was that Brady was a winner, a clutch quarterback, while Peyton Manning, who's Colts continued to lose in the playoffs, was a choker who couldn't get it done in the big games.
Since that last Super Bowl, Brady has become a stellar quarterback, one of the top two in the league year after year, but the Patriots have failed to pick up another Lombardi trophy. After losing the Super Bowl to the Giants and Eli Manning (again), Brady now is faced with the "choker" label, especially when contrasted with Eli Manning's late game heroics. So, has Brady actually become less "clutch"? Let's take a look at the numbers.
|Comp. %||YPA||Yards/Game||Touchdown %||Int. %||Sack Rate||QB Rating|
Obviously, as should be apparent to everyone by this point, Brady has become a much better quarterback overall since the Patriots Super Bowls. However, the question isn't in his regular season play, but the playoffs. What do those numbers look like?
|Playoffs||Comp. %||YPA||Yards/Game||Touchdown %||Int. %||Sack Rate||QB Rating|
It's clear from watching Brady that he hasn't gotten worse, and when you look at the statistics you get the same picture. While Brady has thrown more interceptions, and taken more sacks, I'd say that that is not because Brady has lost his "clutch" attributes, but because he's being asked to do more now, and has also faced some stellar defenses. In the last five years, four teams have kept Brady below a QB rating of 90. Baltimore (twice), the Jets, the Giants (in 2007), and San Diego. Baltimore and the Jets both had top five defenses (DVOA) when they played them, while San Diego was sixth. The Giants were only 14th in the league in the 2007 regular season, but were great in the post season, not allowing any of their opponents to score over 20 points.
The defenses Brady faced in 2001-2004 were not nearly as daunting, only facing two teams higher than tenth (2000 Rams and 2004 Steelers). In neither of those games was Brady asked to do much, only having 30 total completions in the two games, while having a defense that forced 7 turnovers.
No, Brady found out what Manning has known his entire career: It's really hard to sustain winning when you are carrying the team. Brady had some incredible defenses during his Super Bowl years (only allowing over 21 points twice), along with some incredible luck (Tuck Rule, Carolina kicker shanking the kickoff in 2004, Vinatieri never missing, etc.).
It's not that Brady has lost his "clutchness," it's simply that the Patriots' teams (namely the defenses) have gotten worse, and Brady has become the focal point. Brady was never a great playoff quarterback. He had a very good playoffs in 2004 (QB ratings of 92, 130, and 110), but other than that has had very mixed performances.
Tom Brady shouldn't be labeled as clutch for half his career, and choker for another half. He shouldn't be labeled as clutch or choker overall either (nobody should really). Brady is a very good quarterback, in the regular season or postseason.
Next up: Eli Manning.
Wow! Have you ever played sports? There is clutch players and some players do wilt. I think you have been starring at numbers to much-I detest Brady --but he is clutch! I have not heard anyone say he choked. Even those of us who dislike him-Wow.
Why does having played sports matter?
If "clutch" exists, and I noticed you didn't define what you mean by that, wouldn't we see an increase in stats in close game situations?
This argues that clutch and choke don't exist. You're arguing that he is clutch because he didn't joke. It is circular. You can't use what we're arguing about to prove it exists. Evidence must come from outside.
@theinfelix Playing a sports might give one a frame of reference-experience-try convincing players there is no clutch-that is players who perform consistently at a high level under great pressure. Some things are to see in stats in such a team sport-but baseball tracts two out hits-it is there for sure,
Are players in the best position to analyze what happens in their sport? I'm not sure that's the case.
If players consistently play at a high level under great pressure, their stats will bear that out consistently. Here, they don't.
While I agree fundamentally with the argument of the article (I think there is certainly such a thing as being a "clutch" QB, and it has only to do with performance in specific pressure situations), I think the method you've chosen to make your argument is really not that appropriate. You argue clutch is performance under pressure, but then you use general measure statistics that really have no business being in a discussion about clutchness.
Simply comparing playoff stats to regular season stats, while a semi-decent base starting point, is really a completely ineffective way of demonstrating clutchness. "Clutchness" should be argued with things like:
- Stats when your team is trailing by 10 points or less
- Stats when your team is leading by 7 points or less
- Stats in the final 4 minutes of a half
- Stats against divisional teams vs. non-divisional teams
- Stats in do-or-die situations
These are really the only things that matter when arguing clutchness. Overall statistics are a meaningless measure of clutchness. Consider 2 situation:
Tom Brady is in a playoff game and throws 1 TD vs. 2 INTs off passes his WRs should have reeled in, but his 1 TD comes in the final 30 seconds of a game with his team down 4 points to win the game 17 - 14 against the best pass D in the league, I would say he played clutch football.
If Tom Brady throws 3TDs and no INTs after his defense returns an INT for a score and his RB scores off a 70-yd running play on their next possession, leading the Pats to a 48-13 rout of some wildcard team in the playoffs, I would say he didn't play clutch because he never faced a clutch situation.
Clutch is entirely situational, and not a measure of total-game performance.
Obviously, great players are good in all situations, whether they're winning big or down by a bit, but clutch is being able to do things when the odds are against you. Being statistically good is not the same as being clutch.
Being clutch means that when the outcome of the game hangs in the balance of precisely what you accomplish in that moment, you are successful.
@darryl.yao I have those stats as well. There's no pattern for them, for any quarterbacks that I've looked at so far.
Seems like the data presented isn't exactly evaluating the pronesses to clutch or choke. Its simply looking at playoffs vs regular season performance, just as much of a sin as ESPN analysts not even acknowleding as much. As you pointed out defense plays a big role, so can a running game, in-game situations (blow-outs in either dircection), etc. If the point was to disprove the media's general assumptions of clutch based on playoff performance, the study seems adequate.
I'd be more interested in the performance of these QB's in pressure situations. Situations that require them to a make a play either by passing the ball or making the correct audibles to check in/out of a play. 3rd and 4th downs, red zone, last drive of the half, 4 qtr drives of close games (to go ahead or close out a close game). Any chance someone can get an artical on this? I'm sure its a lot more work to find the data since it would require deep dive in every regular season and playoff game.
@Westhoff I have that data as well, but it's all over the place, varying from year to year. I was planning on using it for these articles, but it's tough to discern any recognizable patterns in the data.
@Kyle Rodriguez I can see that... any bone-head play from a teammate (Edgerrin fumbles, Tarik Glenn false start, Ryan Diem holding, Garcon drops) or great play by an opponent can impact the game and negate how well a QB plays (Scifres punts). Maybe there's opportunity to normalize the data, taking out bonehead mistakes or something. I'm looking forward to your follow up!
I would definitely agree with the assertion that "clutch" and "choke" get thrown around WAY too much. That said, is it not possible that they do exist, just to a much smaller extent than pundits would have us believe? What about different sports with much larger sample sizes? Situations like Jerry West and Michael Jordan vs. Karl Malone and Wilt Chamberlain? I'd say that context has to be taken into every single series (if not game) to truly say, but over the course of hundreds of games I think solid statements could be made one way or the other.
@Fondue I guess I think clutch moments exist in the sense that there is more pressure in certain moments. But, as a whole, I think that it's near impossible to use "clutch" or "choke" to describe a player, especially NFL quarterbacks.
@Fondue Basketball is a whole different beast. Although I'd still say that clutch is mostly just great players being great.
@theinfelix The system is not letting me respond to you directly. Oh well. That was meant to be tongue-in-cheek more than anything. I can see how that would be confusing. I'll change that. Thanks for the feedback!
I noticed that this article claims "clutch" doesn't exist, then labels Vinatieri being clutch. Perhaps there should be a caveat for kickers explained somewhere? Otherwise, this seems to contradict itself.
@theinfelix I think there are less external variable for kickers than QBs. Unless there's a bad snap or something like that, he's almost solely responsible for a hit or a miss. Plus Vinatieri never missed in a clutch situation, hence being labeled as clutch. But I agree with you that it should have been specified in the title of the article.