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The Open Field: How should ‘clutch’ quarterback play be defined?

Geno Smith was clutch late in the 4th quarter against the Browns, but not clutch in other parts of the game. Maybe we should examine what “clutch” means in the NFL.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Geno Smith had a strong start, a horrid middle, and a clutch finish against the Cleveland Browns. It’s that horrid middle portion of the contest that largely necessitated the need for a game-winning touchdown drive, but that goes into the books as Geno’s second game-winning TD of the season.

Of the many valid concerns about Geno, there have been questions about his ability to perform in “clutch” situations. We have traditionally accepted that “clutch” moments in the NFL are always in the 4th quarter and typically in the final two minutes when the score is close. The NBA literally defines “clutch time” as a game within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining in a game. There is no similar official statistic for the NFL.

However, there are two definitions of what would ostensibly be clutch play attributed to the quarterback:

  • 4th Quarter Comeback: “Team must, at some point, have an offensive scoring drive while trailing in 4th quarter or OT.”
  • Game-Winning Drive: “Team must, at some point, have possession of the ball tied or down by one score in 4th quarter or OT.
  • In both instances, “The scoring play to put the winning points on the board must be the result of an offensive drive.” A game-winning drive must put the team ahead for the last time.
  • You can have a GWD without a 4QC (aka the game is tied). Only a tie result can give a QB a 4QC but no GWD.

Under the widely accepted viewpoint of a clutch quarterback, Geno’s track record is/was dismal. Up until December 2022, Smith’s record in 4th quarter comeback opportunities was just 3-15, one of the worst records of all time according to Scott Kacsmar.

Since then? Geno is 4-2.

  • 4th quarter comeback/game-winning drive at Los Angeles Rams (2022).
  • 4th quarter comeback/game-winning drive vs. Los Angeles Rams (2022).
  • 4QC/GWD at Detroit Lions (2023).
  • 4QC/GWD vs. Cleveland Browns (2023).

Smith also has a game-winning drive against the New York Giants through this touchdown to Tyler Lockett. Is that not a clutch play, or is it not clutch enough because it happened with 9 minutes in the 4th quarter?

The two failures, by the way, were the 2022 home loss to the Carolina Panthers and the 2023 road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. All other defeats or victories did not involve a 4QC or GWD opportunity.

So through these parameters, independent of his performance in the rest of the game, Geno’s been more clutch than you think. In fact, this would’ve been a game-winning touchdown pass for Geno Smith if the Seahawks defense had done their job. Alas, they didn’t, and Geno was unable to lead another scoring drive.

On the flip side, this (audibled) touchdown run by Kenneth Walker would’ve counted as a 4QC/GWD for Geno even though Walker accounted for all but 9 yards on this two-play series. Taysom Hill made sure this wouldn’t go on the ledger. The preceding TD to Lockett might have been enough to warrant some credit for what was a 31-18 rally.

You will notice atop the 4QC and GWD all-time leaderboards that current and future Hall of Fame quarterbacks populate the list. They’ve also won a lot of games without requiring late-game heroics. There are also QBs like Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr, Kerry Collins, and Jay Cutler in the top-25, none of whom has a case for Canton. Somehow I doubt a convincing argument can be made for Derek Carr to be statistically more clutch than Jim Kelly or Joe Montana.

Just within the context of this season, Desmond Ridder has four game-winning drives and he just got benched for Taylor Heinicke. Zach Wilson has three 4th quarter comebacks, which leads the entire NFL. One of those drives was literally a handoff to Breece Hall for a touchdown when the Eagles were deliberately letting the Jets score. See how goofy this stat can be?

This is not to say 4th quarter comebacks or the ability to lead game-winning drives are valueless. Tom Brady is Tom Brady because you trust him more often than not to get the winning points in a one-score situation. The legend of Russell Wilson spawned from the winning touchdown drives against the Patriots and Chicago Bears as a rookie. But there can be a lot of white noise when relying on these metrics to determine whether a QB is reliable in crunch time, even if you factored in the win percentages when given 4QC/GWD opportunities. Does anyone seriously think highly of Jimmy Garoppolo at this point? He’s one of the best at 4QC win rates.

In my opinion, “clutch” should be used more broadly. Why should a 4th quarter touchdown drive that puts your team up by two scores not be considered clutch? I’d rather avoid a situation where a GWD is even required. In which case, the Seahawks offense as a whole was certifiably clutch during their four-game winning streak last season. A game-clinching 3rd down resulting in kneeldowns from a winning position? Just as clutch as a winning TD drive.

This is not a game-winning drive but it’s sure as hell clutch.

“Clutch” weighs more in the 4th quarter understandably because of time and score, but you can make key plays in the opening quarter that eliminate clutch time completely in the 4th.

Now... short of getting a quarterback who’s as good as or better than prime Russell Wilson, we will be having this same “clutch” discourse in the current Geno and post-Geno world for potentially years to come. I’m not looking forward to that.

But those are just my two cents. Feel free to leave yours in the comments! What is “clutch” quarterbacking to you?