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NY Jets: Playoff QBs For the Ages

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A look at how the quarterbacks with the most playoff experience have performed over the years.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In a prior article we looked at Tom Brady's clutch factor.  One of the things we looked at was how Brady performed in the postseason compared to how he performed in the regular season, as measured by passer rating.  As the article noted, Brady has significantly underperformed in the playoffs in comparison to his regular season numbers.  An interesting question was posed in the comments to that article; to wit, don't almost all quarterbacks underperform in the postseason?  It was a very good question, and one to which I did not know the answer.  I do now.

As a common sense matter one would expect quarterbacks to perform significantly worse in the playoffs than in the regular season.  After all, the weather in January is on the whole significantly worse for the passing game than it is over the course of the regular season.  In addition, in the playoffs quarterbacks face a succession of mostly well above average defenses, presumably significantly better as a group than the defenses they face in the regular season.  Tougher conditions, tougher defenses; it would be surprising if quarterbacks could manage to perform as well in the playoffs as they do in the regular season.  Yet, the answer surprises.  In fact, at least among the 20 quarterbacks who have thrown the most career playoff passes, there is no significant difference between playoff passer rating and regular season passer rating.  Among the top 20 quarterbacks in career playoff passes, exactly 10 have higher playoff passer ratings than regular season passer ratings, and exactly 10 have lower playoff passer ratings. The average quarterback declined an insignificant 1.2% in his career playoff performances compared to his regular season performances.

These results should be taken with a grain of salt.  Only seven quarterbacks in NFL history have passed for more than 4000 yards in the postseason, and only 16 have passed for more than 3000 yards, so we are talking for the most part about roughly one regular season's worth of passes.  Clearly the sample size is not ideal.  Still, the results are fascinating. When taken together, we are talking about well over 80,000 yards of playoff passing, seemingly more than enough to draw some decent conclusions. So while the individual order of the quarterbacks may suffer from sample size uncertainties, the overall performance level that is almost identical to regular season numbers does not.  That presents a fascinating conundrum.  How did these 20 quarterbacks maintain their passing success in the postseason in the face of overall significantly worse weather and significantly better defenses?  It may just be an illusion, but the results hint that this list of quarterbacks, a majority of whom are on everybody's lists of all time greats, actually upped their games in the postseason in the aggregate.  In short, it may well be that these quarterbacks in the aggregate really were clutch performers.  Maybe clutch exists after all.

If indeed clutch is a thing, the results point to two old timers as the kings of clutch. For those lucky enough to have memories of these guys, it may come as no surprise that Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler top the list of quarterbacks who have raised their games in the postseason.  One rarely mentioned fact about Bradshaw: he has the highest postseason winning percentage of any quarterback with ten or more playoff starts.  Bradshaw was not the greatest of regular season quarterbacks, but in the playoffs he was as clutch as there has ever been, assuming clutch even exists.

On the flip side, there is a reason guys like Steve Young, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly are rarely mentioned in the discussion of the great clutch performers.  These guys have been the most severely underperforming quarterbacks in the postseason.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this trio of Hall Of Fame quarterbacks has only one Lombardi trophy in the aggregate.

Here's the full chart of the 20 quarterbacks and their postseason performances compared to their regular season performances:

QB

Playoff Games

Career Passer Rating

Playoffs Passer Rating

Playoffs +/- %

.

Terry Bradshaw

19

70.9

83.0

+ 17%

Ken Stabler

13

75.3

84.2

+ 11.8%

Kurt Warner

13

93.7

102.8

+ 9.7%

Troy Aikman

16

81.6

88.3

+ 8.2%

Drew Brees

11

95.8

100.7

+ 5.1%

Warren Moon

10

80.9

84.9

+ 4.9%

Joe Flacco

15

84.7

88.6

+ 4.6%

Joe Montana

23

92.3

95.6

+ 3.6%

Matt Hasselbeck

11

82.4

84.2

+ 2.2%

Brett Favre

24

86.0

86.3

+ 0.3%

John Elway

22

79.9

79.7

- 2.5%

Aaron Rodgers

14

104.1

98.2

- 5.7%

Donovan McNabb

16

85.6

80.0

- 6.5%

Tom Brady

31

96.4

88.0

- 8.7%

Roger Staubach

20

83.4

76.0

- 8.9%

Peyton Manning

27

96.5

87.4

- 9.4%

Ben Roethlisberger

17

94

84.6

- 10.0%

Dan Marino

18

86.4

77.1

- 10.8%

Steve Young

22

96.8

85.8

- 11.4%

Jim Kelly

17

84.4

72.3

- 14.3%