Oct
19
2020

Stupid Stats: Football’s Game-Winning Drive

Welcome to the second installment of Stupid Stats. For the first installment, click here. Stats in sports help fans, players, coaches, scouts, and executives attach a numerical value to a player or team’s performance. Some stats provide a clear representation of a player’s performance. On the other hand, some stats are entirely misused and generally fail to accurately portray a player.

Football’s main culprit? Game-winning drives.

A quarterback earns a game-winning drive for taking his team from a trailing or tied position and putting them into the lead. As long as the quarterback does something on the drive such as a rush attempt or a pass attempt, the quarterback will get credit for a game-winning drive.

Why is it stupid?

There is no distinction between kinds of game-winning drives. For example, Joe Flacco had a game-winning drive during the game he tore his ACL in 2015. On the final drive, Flacco threw two passes, both of which felt incomplete. By the same token, Tom Brady’s Super Bowl 51 performance gets a game-winning drive after the Patriots were down 25 in the third quarter. These two games are very different, but they both count as game-winning drives.

One of the most important factors to the game-winning drive is the circumstance. If a quarterback plays too well in the first three quarters, they may not be eligible for a game-winning drive. For example, the 2019 Ravens rarely needed to have a game-winning drive because they were so dominant. Is Lamar Jackson a worse quarterback for only having two game-winning drives in his MVP season?

On the other hand, poor quarterback play could potentially lead to game-winning drives if a defense plays well. As long as the quarterback’s defense does not struggle, the quarterback may always have a chance of having a game-winning drive if they have one good drive in the fourth quarter.

At a certain point, one must wonder if they would rather have their quarterback not turn the ball over or turn the ball over but get credit for game-winning drives. The main culprit of this is Josh Allen. Allen, notorious for his high number of game-winning drives through his first three seasons, generally turns the ball over at least once in his game-winning drive games. If Allen doesn’t turn the ball over in the second quarter, the Bills probably would not need to have some massive comeback in the fourth quarter.

Playing well in the fourth quarter is important, but game-winning drives devalue the first 45 minutes of action. If a quarterback plays well for three quarters, a game-winning drive may not be necessary depending on how well the defense plays.

The problem arises when fans use game-winning drives to measure how well the quarterback played. While some game-winning drives might be clutch performances by the quarterback, there are many that the quarterback is taken along for a ride as the defense or other offensive playmakers give the quarterback’s team an advantage. Jumping back to the Ravens for an example, Jackson had a game-winning drive after completing zero passes on the final drive in overtime against the Steelers in 2019. Jackson and the Ravens were in field-goal range because of a Steeler fumble.

There should be some delineation between the kinds of comebacks. The comebacks, such as the ones by Flacco and Jackson mentioned earlier, should be in a separate category from those such as Brady’s comeback in Super Bowl 51. These games are not the same.

Again, stats such as game-winning drives and fourth-quarter comebacks penalize quarterbacks who play well for three quarters because they don’t have an opportunity to have a game-winning drive or a comeback in some cases. If a quarterback plays well enough, most times, he will not have to lead a game-winning drive. If a quarterback turns the ball over multiple times, he will be more likely to be forced to have to lead a fourth-quarter comeback or a game-winning drive to pull out of victory for his team.

Also, the notion of a game-winning drive in football only applies to the fourth quarter and overtime. Patrick Mahomes would only get credit for one game-winning drive and one fourth-quarter comeback during the 2019 playoffs because the Chiefs erased early deficits before the fourth quarter. Mahomes receives praise for playing well under stress, but those performances are not counted as game-winning drives because they took place before the fourth quarter.

Verdict:

The idea behind game-winning drives is sound, but in practice, it can reward players for struggling early and games. For example, if Jackson had thrown a game-winning touchdown pass to beat the Chargers in the 2018 playoffs, he would get credit for a game-winning drive. However, had Jackson not played like the worst playoff quarterback in NFL history for the first three quarters, the Ravens would likely not have been trailing in the fourth quarter in the first place. At a certain point, playing well in the first three quarters is just as valuable as pulling out one miracle drive after struggling for most of the game.

Playing well in the fourth quarter is critical, but game-winning drives de-incentivize playing well in the first three quarters. Also, there is no distinction between game-winning drives, so quarterbacks that do the bare minimum to get a game-winning drive are in the same category of quarterbacks that are engineers to some of the greatest comebacks in NFL history.

There are times that game-winning drives and comebacks can be useful to look at, however, they require context. Not all game-winning drives are created equal.