The concept of clutch might fade away, but if it does, I think it will take a generation or two.
It remains a giant piece of our sports consciousness: Does a player fare well at the biggest moments of his biggest games? If he does, we treasure him. If he doesn’t, we hold him in contempt.
Sabermetricians will tell you there really is no such thing as clutch when it comes to quarterbacking. Or more precisely, a good quarterback is good in most situations and a bad one is bad in most situations.
“Baseball analysts have generally dispelled the idea of the clutch hitter, a player who routinely raises his game in late and close situations,” Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders wrote in 2009. “Now it's time to retire the myth of the clutch quarterback. We looked both at conventional NFL passer rating and our advanced metrics, and there was no year-to-year correlation in the difference between a quarterback's overall performance, and his performance when the game was on the line.
“It apparently matters not that clutch situations in the NFL feature an element that baseball players don't have to worry about: clock management. Bad QBs overall, such as Kyle Orton, are bad in the clutch. Good QBs overall, such as Ben Roethlisberger, are good in the clutch. Same goes for backs and receivers.”
Nevertheless, the two biggest questions that hang around the neck of Houston quarterback Matt Schaub are: Can he stay healthy? And is he clutch?
With regard to the second question, after he recently signed a four-year contract extension worth $62 million, including $24.7 million guaranteed, the answer from a lot of us is, he better be.
Based on his résumé so far, if we’re still buying the conventional definitions, the answer has to be we don’t know yet. He’s won games in big moments. He’s lost games in big moments. And since he missed the stretch run and playoffs last season, we simply haven’t seen him in the big settings enough to know.
I talked with Schaub and several of his teammates about this during the preseason. Though he might have cause to be a bit defensive about a subject that is brought up so often, I think his thoughts on the issue were on point.
“Yeah, I missed the playoffs last year,” he said. “Had I been in there, we’d know a lot more. I know what I am capable of, I’m confident in my abilities had I been out there. But there have been games in my tenure here where we needed to go down late and score and we were able to do it. Now there are games where it didn’t fall on the right side of the coin for us and we lost …
“It’s about doing it in January and February in this league, and until we do that, you’re always going to have people that talk about things like that. You’ve just got to go out and play and get your team there.”
I asked Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information for evidence that Schaub is, or is not, clutch.
Hawkins also provided these two nuggets:
From 2007-2011, Schaub is one of 13 quarterbacks who has been credited with at least 10 game-winning drives. That’s as many as Tom Brady (although Brady missed the 2008 season), but it’s also four fewer than David Garrard, who didn’t play in 2011.
Since 2007, in 31 games the Texans lost by no more than 7 points or won by no more than 7 points, Schaub threw for 9,201 yards. Only Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Tony Romo had more passing yards in such games. But in those 31 games, the Texans were just 16-15.
Is that 16-15 record on Schaub? Only partly. We’re coming to realize that quarterback wins, like the concept of clutch, are a flawed way to measure a signal-caller's success. A guy can play great and not have enough around him to win. He can play poorly and benefit from a running back or a defense and win. One missed assignment can lead to a strip sack and a fumble that lose a game. One diving catch of a misplaced pass can save the day.
The expectations in Houston are high. The Texans are a team that should be in the playoffs. Schaub should guide them there. If and when he does, we’ll get much more evidence about his ability to perform in the NFL’s biggest moments.
Schaub’s top weapon, receiver Andre Johnson, said he thinks clutch for a quarterback has come to be too narrowly defined.
“I think you have to be clutch to be a successful quarterback,” Johnson said. “But there are different ways you can be clutch in the game of football. It may be a drive where you just need to hold the ball and run the time out on the clock, just making that key pass or putting the offense in the right play to get that first down. I mean, that’s clutch. It’s not always just going down and scoring the game-winning touchdown. I think that’s where people get caught up a lot of the times.”
I can’t talk of Schaub and the clutch question without thinking back to Dec. 10, 2010. The Texans were behind by three touchdowns to Baltimore on a Monday Night Football game at Reliant Stadium. Schaub helped rally the team back to force overtime with fourth-quarter touchdown drives that covered 99 and 95 yards.
But under pressure from defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in his own end zone in OT, Schaub threw a poor pass for Jacoby Jones. Josh Wilson picked it off, ran 12 yards with it and had a game-winning touchdown.
So he was clutch ... until he wasn't.
Schaub is a better quarterback now, and he’s running a better team.
Bigger chances for clutch performances should arrive.
The Texans, with the contract they just gave him and the things they say, expect he’ll show up big in the big games.
“If you want to base it off his regular-season games, he’s had clutch performances when need be at certain times,” center Chris Myers said. “That’s the one position where there is going to be the most scrutiny. He’s the leader of the team, and we go as he goes, and Matt understands that.
"The coaches understand that Matt’s the guy, or they would have gone in another direction, and we understand as an offensive line and offense that he is the leader of our team. I will take him taking snaps from me any day over any other quarterback.
“Granted, he hasn’t made it to that spot in the playoffs yet. Unfortunately, that injury prevented him from it last year… He’s ready. We’ve just got to get to that point.”