Commentary

In NFL, it's a big year for big comebacks

Credit passing-game evolution, lockout for record number of double-digit rallies

Originally Published: October 13, 2011
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

When he retired after the 1998 season, John Elway left as one of football's most iconic figures. He had won more games than any other quarterback in NFL history, thrown 300 touchdown passes and started a record five Super Bowls. But more than the staggering quantity of his accomplishments, there was a breathtaking quality.

Late in the fourth quarter of the 1986 AFC Championship Game, he drove the Denver Broncos 98 yards for the tying touchdown. Denver would win that game in overtime and Elway's signature series became known as "The Drive." No one is more synonymous with the comeback than Elway; according to calculations by the Broncos' public relations department, Elway authored 40 game-winning drives in his career.

So do all these epic comebacks we've seen this season leave the Broncos' executive vice president for football operations longing to jump back under center?

Denver's John Elway
JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty ImagesJohn Elway, who led 40 game-winning drives during his career, on playing with a lead: "You have to bury the dagger."
Elway, sitting at his desk in Englewood, Colo., groaned through the phone.

"Wish I could jump back into a 28-year-old body," he said. "Comebacks ... it's so much of the attitude of the quarterback. You're rallying your guys, getting teammates to believe something good's going to happen."

The entire NFL, apparently, is drinking the over-the-top, Arena Football League-supplied Kool-Aid. The games, suddenly, are indistinguishable from a "Madden NFL 12" video game.

On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs trailed the Indianapolis Colts 24-7, then rallied to score the game's last 21 points, matching the biggest comeback in franchise history. In the late game, defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay spotted the Atlanta Falcons a 14-0 lead, then scored 25 unanswered points. Both eventual winners, incredibly, were playing on the road.

And this was hardly an aberration. Through five weeks of the season, there have been heart-stopping comebacks in record numbers:

  • 18 in double digits, two more than the previous five-week mark of 16, set in 1989.
  • 11 from a deficit of 14 points or more, three more than the previous five-week high of eight, set in 1979.
  • 4 of at least 20 points -- all in Weeks 2-3 -- two by the Detroit Lions, one each by the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills. That already ties an NFL record -- and there are still 11 weeks to play.
  • Buffalo, which trailed the Raiders 21-3 at the half in Week 2, scored on all five of its second-half possessions to win 38-35. The Bills fell behind the Patriots 21-0 the next week and somehow rallied to win 34-31, breaking a 15-game losing streak against New England.

    [+] EnlargeBuffalo's Chan Gailey and Ryan Fitzpatrick
    Kevin Hoffman/US PRESSWIRERyan Fitzpatrick, hugging head coach Chan Gailey, led Buffalo to a 34-31 comeback win over the Patriots in Week 3. The Bills trailed 21-0 in the second quarter.
    "If anybody told you at the half that we thought we could still come back -- especially a guy sitting where I was -- they'd probably be lying," said Buddy Nix, Buffalo's general manager. "It got to the point where you say, 'I hope we don't get embarrassed.'

    "And then we came back. When we started 0-8 last year, I think these guys learned that a deficit doesn't get too large if you keep playing hard and trying to do things right."

    No lead, it seems, is safe. With apologies to George W. Bush's educational initiative, the NFL's new philosophy: No Team Left Behind. As we've seen with Wall Street lately, it's an extremely volatile market.

    Why? The leading candidates are evolving offenses -- aided and abetted by league legislation over the years -- and the lockout. We would be remiss not to mention the Vikings, who blew leads of 10, 17 and 20 points, and Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who helped engineer the squandering of 14- and 24-point leads. History, it should be noted, could not have been achieved without them.

    Naturally, they're thrilled at the league offices on Park Avenue. Nothing succeeds like ... excess. Parity -- the NFL's egalitarian calling card -- has never been in fuller flower. Every team, on a given Sunday or Monday, can win -- even if it has the misfortune to fall behind by three touchdowns.

    In Week 4, San Francisco overcame a 20-point deficit in the third quarter at Philadelphia. It was the 49ers' largest road comeback in more than a half-century.

    "At this stage," said Trent Baalke, San Francisco's general manager, "the way the game is being played, there's no comfort in having a lead."

    It's the offense, stupid

    Aaron RodgersDaniel Shirey/US PresswireQB Aaron Rodgers led Green Bay to a win in Atlanta in Week 5 after the Packers trailed 14-0.
    Joel Bussert has been crunching NFL numbers for 37 years. The league's senior vice president of player personnel/football operations is typically the voice of restraint when some breathless reporter thinks he has spotted a trend. But asked last week what he thought of all these comebacks, Bussert momentarily gave in to the giddiness.

    "Very exciting," he said in a monotone voice.

    Of course, in the very next sentence he downplayed the early returns, adding, "The longer the season goes, the more things tend to normalize."

    Well, here are some numbers that are unimpeachable:

    In the first four weeks, teams posted the four highest totals for passing yards in the 92-year history of the league. Much has been made of this, but it is a slightly slippery statistic, because the league has added teams over time. The Texans, born in 2002, brought the total to today's 32. Still, if you look at the average passing yards per game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Week 2 (496.6) and Week 4 (492.9) averages are among the five highest ever. And, the five-week average of 489.2 is more than 46 yards higher than the standard set last season. As a result, the league is on pace (712 total yards per game) to shatter the all-time record.

    [+] EnlargeDan Marino
    RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images Prolific passing games fuel a record number of comeback wins this season and could endanger Dan Marino's season passing mark (5,084 yards).
    The NFL has never aired it out to this degree, which clearly enables these huge rallies. Two years ago, through Week 5, quarterbacks had posted 300-yard games a record 31 times. When Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers torched the Falcons for 369 yards on Sunday night, it was the 50th such feat so far. Put another way, those 50 300-yard games came in 152 opportunities, meaning quarterbacks routinely hit what was once considered a milestone nearly one-third of the time. The Texans' Matt Schaub and the Giants' Eli Manning each passed for more than 400 yards in their Week 5 games, running the total of 400-yard games to 10 -- only three short of the season record set in 2004.

    Even Dan Marino has conceded that his all-time record of 5,084 passing yards, which has survived 27 years, probably will be broken, by Tom Brady, Rodgers or Drew Brees.

    "And, it's a copycat league," Bussert noted. "Look how Green Bay won last year and New Orleans won the year before. Neither had a big-time runner. That has an influence."

    We're also likely to see records set for passes per game (currently 70-plus) and the highest percentage of passing plays (around 59 percent). The current 12.16 average yards per catch is trending to become the most explosive figure in 21 years.

    There are numerous factors behind this blistering trend. In recent years, the NFL has enacted offense-friendly rules. The quarterback has been protected from undue violence and receivers have been granted space to operate. Last year's public-relations barrage and a spate of fines after a week that featured some nasty, helmet-leading hits seem to have left defenders leery and more docile than usual.

    The spread offenses that routinely feature four and sometimes five receivers have opened up the middle for slot receivers and, particularly, tight ends. At this early juncture, the numbers suggest a record number of tight ends will produce big seasons; the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, for example, are matchup nightmares for opponents.

    "When you throw it a lot, a lot of good things can happen," the 49ers' Baalke said. "A lot of bad things, too. Turnovers give the other offense good field position and that leads to even more scoring."

    Points, the ultimate bottom line, are indeed up. The current average of 46.3 points per game is a whisker behind the all-time record of 46.5, set in 1948, when the Chicago Cardinals scored nearly 33 points a game and won 11 of 12.

    "The offenses are way ahead of defenses," said Nix, Buffalo's general manager. "Spreading those guys out, with great athletes like Calvin Johnson, Ryan Fitzpatrick ... you get them in space and you can hardly get enough guys to cover them.

    "The quarterback is throwing into unbelievably tight windows. Nobody thinks they're ever covered. [Bills running back] C.J. Spiller on a linebacker -- that's a mismatch. You get a guy like Brady, who can control the tempo of the game at the line of scrimmage by using the no-huddle, and it's a complete mismatch."

    Another reason for the escalating totals is the back-shoulder throw popularized by Brett Favre and nearly perfected by Rodgers. Even relatively weak-armed quarterbacks can make this delicate timing throw, which has helped swing the power struggle in the offenses' favor. Today's quarterbacks, according to personnel men, are more comfortable in comeback mode because they've usually been playing in the shotgun their entire careers.

    No, this is no longer your father's NFL. Three yards and a cloud of dust? Today's teams can't even sustain that ground-and-pound philosophy in the final minutes when they're trying to run out the clock -- another reason for the crazy quality of these comebacks.

    "It's not like teams don't have a running game," Elway said. "It's just that when you get into that 4-minute situation, they haven't emphasized it enough in practice. The running game takes as much work -- or even more than the passing game. You get a lead, you're trying to run, and all of a sudden it's second-and-10, third-and-9.

    "That's not how you win football games."

    The lockout

    In Week 2, Eli Manning threw two touchdown passes in a span of 58 seconds to beat the Cardinals. A 29-yard scoring strike to Hakeem Nicks erased what had been a 27-17 Arizona lead with less than four minutes left to play.

    Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt seemed to be blaming the 132-day lockout, at least in part, for lapses in his defense.

    "I think this year there was a lot of transition in teams," Whisenhunt said. "I think you have to work together and understand how you communicate, how you pass those things off, how the scheme of the defense works together. When you're watching tape and you're seeing other teams where things are coming wide open or breaking down, it appears to be the same.

    "It's definitely, I think, easier to complete it [with less preparation] than it is to defend it. Defensively, a lot of times, it's a team concept and if two guys make the wrong decision, all three guys could be running wide open. I think it's easier offensively because your margin of error is so much bigger."

    The Cardinals, to be fair, lost two starting cornerbacks, and they also hired a new defensive coordinator, Ray Horton from the Steelers. While few in the NFL want to acknowledge the elephant in the room, the lockout, more than a few teams with new defensive coordinators -- who had little time to install their schemes -- have been on the wrong side of comebacks: Dallas (Rob Ryan via Cleveland), Philadelphia (Juan Castillo, promoted from offensive line coach), Minnesota (Fred Pagac, elevated from linebackers coach). At the same time, the staffs in Detroit and Buffalo, for example, have enjoyed the fruits of continuity.

    "Where does the most communication have to take place on the field?" the 49ers' Baalke said. "The offensive line and the back half of the defense. With the lack of an offseason, the inability to prepare means it's naturally going to take longer for the O-lines and defenses to jell. Those two areas are where you're seeing the most breakdowns.

    "Big plays generally occur, on either side of the ball, when there's a mental breakdown."

    With no offseason conditioning programs, the absence of minicamps and a truncated preseason, what has been described as deteriorating tackling technique -- this is a common complaint from league personnel men -- seems to have gotten worse. At least through the first month, perhaps because of a lack of enforced conditioning, defenses looked tired in the fourth quarter.

    Buffalo's general manager isn't feeling it. Buddy Nix was born in Carbon Hill, Ala., and played high school and college football in the state where Paul "Bear" Bryant was a legend.

    "Coach Bryant always said the things that win for you in football never change," Nix said. "The only thing that's changed is we come up with new excuses. That is what we're talking about now.

    "You always think the defense is ahead of the offense, because offense is timing and precision. Now, all of a sudden, they're scoring points and the defense needs more time. I thought the lockout would really hurt offenses. I'm actually shocked the offenses have been so effective."

    JohnsonMatthew Emmons/US PresswireCalvin Johnson snagged two TD passes in the Lions' comeback win over the Cowboys in Week 4. Detroit trailed by 24 points in the second half.

    Risk and reward

    Romo was heroic in Week 3, overcoming a broken rib, two pain-killing injections and the Washington Redskins, 18-16 on a Monday night. The following week, Dallas fans saw the (eerily familiar) dark side of their quarterback.

    The Cowboys led the Lions 27-3 in the third quarter, but Romo threw three interceptions -- two of them returned for touchdowns, one by former Cowboys linebacker Bobby Carpenter, the best man at Romo's wedding. Thus, Romo became the first Dallas quarterback to have two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a single game since Ryan Leaf. It was the biggest blown lead in franchise history and tied the league record for a losing home team.

    "It hurts," Romo said, not referring to his rib. "The games obviously turn on turnovers. That is why you protect the ball. It's my No. 1 job, and I didn't do a well enough job of that."

    [+] EnlargeAndy Reid
    AP Photo/Derek GeeSitting on a lead is not an option, Eagles coach Andy Reid said, after the 49ers' comeback win over Philadelphia in Week 4.
    Lost in that meltdown was the terrific performance of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. Even after the twin pick-sixes, Detroit still trailed 30-17 in the fourth quarter. Stafford and Johnson combined for two touchdown passes, the last one coming with only 1:39 left.

    "Detroit had the mentality you need to come back," Elway observed. "It's never over until the clock is at 0:00. You've just got to find a way to get the job done and believe that good things are going to happen, not bad things.

    "I never ran on the field ... thinking I couldn't get it done. When you're down like Detroit was, you have to take more risks. I mean, if you don't do something you'll still be in that same bad spot you were in when you ran onto the field. And when you're up, even by 20 points, you have to bury the dagger."

    After the Eagles squandered a 20-point third-quarter lead to the 49ers in Week 4, head coach Andy Reid acknowledged that he wasn't aggressive enough.

    "You can't sit on leads," Reid said. "That's what I did with our team here, and we lost the game."

    The Eagles were outscored 36-0 in fourth quarter during their first three losses, blowing leads in every one.

    After stunning the Raiders and Patriots with double-digit comebacks, the Bills felt the sting of a reversal in Week 4 against the Bengals. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton somehow carried Cincinnati back from a 17-3 halftime deficit.

    "This year, it seems you're never out of the game," said Buffalo's Nix. "One play at a time. Then make another one and another. The fans love it. The league office loves it.

    "Let's hope we can keep it that way."

    Greg Garber covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

    Greg Garber

    Writer, Reporter
    Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.