The Clutch Enigma: Tom Brady

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. 

Reg. Season

Comp. % YPA Yards/Game Touchdown % Int. % Sack Rate QB Rating
2001-2004 61.64% 6.91 220.9  4.81% 2.58% 6.06% 87.67
2005-2011 65.21% 7.89 268.6 6.15% 1.91% 4.23% 99.16

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
2001-2004 62.5% 6.42 216.8 3.62% 1% 3.8% 91.52
2005-2011 63.19% 6.82 256.5 5.52% 3.48% 5.23% 87.98

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.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.