clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is Aaron Rodgers Really the Comeback King?

Green Bay’s dramatic win over Chicago felt inevitable when its quarterback returned to the game from injury, but Rodgers’s history shows that he’s less than invincible in late-game situations

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Aaron Rodgers went down in the first half of Green Bay’s Sunday Night Football game against the Bears, it was like watching Superman getting stripped of his powers. And when Rodgers came back in the second half — limping and unable to put any real torque on his left leg — and led the Packers to a 20-point comeback win over the Bears, it was like watching Superman under a red sun still managing to save the world.

The Ringer’s resident Bears fan, Robert Mays, called the feeling of watching Rodgers jog back onto the field for the third quarter “familiar” and “nightmare-inducing.” My colleague Rodger Sherman crowned Rodgers “the comeback king” and said that, for the Packers QB, “ there is no such thing as a lost cause.” From the moment he returned to the game, Green Bay’s 24–23 comeback win seemed inevitable.

But this comeback wasn’t scripted — Rodgers is not a superhero. He hasn’t even done this many times before. With Sunday night’s win, Rodgers now has 12 career fourth-quarter comebacks, as defined by Scott Kacsmar at Pro-Football-Reference. Rodgers has moved up the all-time leaderboard to … [squints] … 90th, tying him with … [reels in confusion] … Ryan Tannehill, Marc Bulger, and a handful of other passers.

How can a player who inspires such universal feelings of inevitability have so few actual comebacks? You might think that Rodgers is the beneficiary of a Golden State Warriors phenomenon — that he blows out his opponents so often that he rarely sees situations in which a heroic comeback is required. That isn’t it. Rodgers has had plenty of opportunities throughout his career to lead his team to dramatic comebacks, but he hasn’t converted many into wins. It may be shocking, but when it comes to potential fourth-quarter comebacks, Rodgers isn’t invincible — he’s actually below average.

To make sense of this, I looked at how other quarterbacks have performed when they have fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. That’s defined as any time a quarterback has had the football while trailing by one possession in the fourth quarter. These numbers go back to 1994 (the earliest year for Pro-Football-Reference’s play-by-play data). Here’s how it shakes out:

Fourth-Quarter Comeback Success

Player Team 4QC 4QCO Success Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Yds Y/A Passer Rating
Player Team 4QC 4QCO Success Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Yds Y/A Passer Rating
Andrew Luck CLT 13 25 0.520 114 197 57.9 1340 11 4 6 -33 6.8 88.8
Tom Brady NWE 34 66 0.515 307 534 57.5 3768 25 15 28 -178 7.1 83.3
Peyton Manning TOT 43 88 0.489 362 591 61.3 4370 34 27 23 -121 7.4 84.1
Tony Romo DAL 24 51 0.471 213 338 63.0 2537 18 7 6 -40 7.5 95.0
Jake Delhomme TOT 19 43 0.442 165 286 57.7 2059 15 14 13 -100 7.2 77.2
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 29 68 0.426 294 473 62.2 3777 27 14 33 -207 8 93.8
Derek Carr RAI 13 31 0.419 105 195 53.8 1212 15 5 6 -49 6.2 87.8
Andy Dalton CIN 18 43 0.419 159 295 53.9 2095 10 12 17 -105 7.1 70.9
Jay Cutler TOT 23 55 0.418 234 406 57.6 2962 22 17 23 -134 7.3 81.1
Tim Couch CLE 10 24 0.417 92 159 57.9 1132 8 9 16 -88 7.1 73.2
Matthew Stafford DET 26 65 0.400 262 478 54.8 3073 20 13 17 -125 6.4 77.2
Matt Ryan ATL 26 65 0.400 309 515 60.0 3578 19 17 21 -157 6.9 79.6
Jay Fiedler MIA 8 20 0.400 60 121 49.6 736 3 10 9 -69 6.1 42.6
Alex Smith TOT 18 46 0.391 164 289 56.7 1875 10 14 21 -118 6.5 67.8
Charlie Batch TOT 9 23 0.391 82 150 54.7 1228 7 10 7 -30 8.2 69.5
Russell Wilson SEA 15 39 0.385 167 279 59.9 2090 19 10 12 -81 7.5 90.9
John Elway DEN 9 24 0.375 86 151 57.0 959 6 5 10 -84 6.4 75.5
Jake Plummer TOT 20 54 0.370 173 338 51.2 2284 13 13 17 -95 6.8 69.7
Marc Bulger RAM 12 33 0.364 135 247 54.7 1615 8 9 17 -119 6.5 70.5
Neil O'Donnell TOT 10 29 0.345 130 237 54.9 1618 13 4 22 -153 6.8 87.5
Cam Newton CAR 13 38 0.342 144 268 53.7 1940 12 4 23 -167 7.2 85.7
Matt Hasselbeck TOT 15 44 0.341 181 310 58.4 2075 15 16 15 -106 6.7 73.3
Vinny Testaverde TOT 20 59 0.339 207 389 53.2 2492 15 16 25 -139 6.4 68.8
Drew Brees TOT 28 83 0.337
Jon Kitna TOT 18 54 0.333 210 393 53.4 2353 17 20 13 -87 6 64.8
Michael Vick TOT 14 42 0.333 126 223 56.5 1627 7 3 24 -126 7.3 84.4
Trent Dilfer TOT 14 42 0.333 144 298 48.3 1620 10 16 17 -83 5.4 53.8
Ryan Tannehill MIA 12 36 0.333 105 196 53.6 1320 8 6 23 -151 6.7 75.6
Aaron Brooks NOR 12 36 0.333 139 253 54.9 1765 14 11 12 -79 7 77.3
Dan Marino MIA 10 30 0.333
David Garrard JAX 10 30 0.333 110 206 53.4 1321 6 6 23 -162 6.4 70.9
Josh Freeman TAM 9 27 0.333 104 182 57.1 1463 10 7 6 -50 8 85.5
Marcus Mariota OTI 7 21 0.333 85 156 54.5 828 6 5 8 -38 5.3 69.1
Kerry Collins TOT 21 65 0.323 246 479 51.4 3049 16 18 20 -136 6.4 66.9
Joe Flacco RAV 18 56 0.321 269 466 57.7 3048 15 18 19 -115 6.5 72.1
Kirk Cousins WAS 8 25 0.320 109 178 61.2 1199 9 11 3 -22 6.7 72.3
Sam Bradford TOT 7 22 0.318 118 196 60.2 1097 6 6 15 -105 5.6 73.0
Rich Gannon TOT 12 38 0.316 164 279 58.8 1848 10 9 15 -70 6.6 77.2
Eli Manning NYG 26 83 0.313 341 572 59.6 4281 35 27 22 -165 7.5 83.7
Trent Green TOT 15 48 0.313 170 301 56.5 2137 10 16 23 -131 7.1 67.7
Kordell Stewart TOT 9 29 0.310 69 122 56.6 611 4 4 3 -16 5 67.3
Donovan McNabb TOT 16 52 0.308 196 368 53.3 2352 14 7 25 -138 6.4 77.9
Steve McNair TOT 15 49 0.306 212 390 54.4 2382 8 15 24 -152 6.1 63.6
Jeff Garcia TOT 11 36 0.306 161 299 53.8 1739 15 13 9 -34 5.8 69.8
Brad Johnson TOT 14 46 0.304 202 351 57.5 2185 12 17 24 -145 6.2 67.2
Byron Leftwich JAX 7 23 0.304 102 192 53.1 1177 5 9 15 -74 6.1 61.0
Rick Mirer TOT 7 23 0.304 62 129 48.1 650 1 6 15 -78 5 46.3
Jeff Blake TOT 12 40 0.300 119 229 52.0 1368 12 6 13 -82 6 76.8
Carson Palmer TOT 22 74 0.297 300 497 60.4 3325 23 14 31 -231 6.7 83.9
Warren Moon TOT 8 27 0.296 128 231 55.4 1441 9 7 17 -118 6.2 74.6
Elvis Grbac TOT 8 27 0.296 104 198 52.5 1119 7 8 13 -175 5.7 64.4
Mark Sanchez NYJ 8 27 0.296 94 200 47.0 1174 5 10 15 -105 5.9 53.2
Drew Bledsoe TOT 22 77 0.286 319 609 52.4 3638 22 19 45 -329 6 69.7
Aaron Rodgers GNB 12 42 0.286 200 343 58.3 2514 19 11 24 -136 7.3 86.3
Kyle Orton TOT 8 28 0.286 112 206 54.4 1379 8 9 14 -84 6.7 70.0
Matt Schaub HTX 11 39 0.282 202 325 62.2 2303 12 11 20 -140 7.1 81.6
Daunte Culpepper TOT 11 39 0.282 155 253 61.3 1985 11 14 19 -114 7.8 77.3
Matt Cassel TOT 9 32 0.281 120 228 52.6 1561 13 11 15 -76 6.8 73.4
Philip Rivers SDG 23 83 0.277 337 625 53.9 4267 21 28 42 -271 6.8 68.0
Troy Aikman DAL 8 29 0.276 123 217 56.7 1475 6 12 8 -83 6.8 63.8
Mark Brunell TOT 16 60 0.267 221 403 54.8 2847 14 20 32 -175 7.1 68.1
Brian Griese TOT 9 34 0.265
Brett Favre TOT 22 84 0.262 353 633 55.8 4144 18 34 42 -285 6.5 62.9
Jim Harbaugh TOT 8 31 0.258 115 218 52.8 1368 7 10 24 -138 6.3 63.8
David Carr TOT 7 28 0.250 69 124 55.6 804 5 5 20 -121 6.5 72.1
Scott Mitchell TOT 6 24 0.250 78 144 54.2 927 7 6 10 -63 6.4 72.9
Doug Flutie TOT 6 24 0.250 88 172 51.2 951 6 5 9 -142 5.5 67.3
Gus Frerotte TOT 8 33 0.242 134 244 54.9 1511 7 10 15 -107 6.2 66.1
Rex Grossman TOT 6 25 0.240 77 143 53.8 836 7 9 8 -45 5.8 61.4
Jameis Winston TAM 5 21 0.238 83 151 55.0 1058 8 3 9 -58 7 86.5
Erik Kramer TOT 5 21 0.238 105 178 59.0 1091 3 8 9 -68 6.1 63.7
Chris Chandler TOT 6 26 0.231 79 144 54.9 1041 9 9 12 -71 7.2 72.7
Steve Beuerlein TOT 8 36 0.222 119 227 52.4 1368 9 12 27 -151 6 62.1
Kurt Warner TOT 7 33 0.212 142 247 57.5 1687 6 11 19 -116 6.8 68.0
Chad Pennington TOT 7 34 0.206 139 237 58.6 1358 6 14 12 -91 5.7 58.7
Blake Bortles JAX 6 30 0.200 100 198 50.5 1010 6 11 25 -142 5.1 52.4
Joey Harrington DET 6 30 0.200 103 210 49.0 1096 4 6 9 -48 5.2 59.1
Jim Everett NOR 4 20 0.200 82 144 56.9 807 4 8 10 -79 5.6 59.0
Jason Campbell TOT 7 36 0.194 119 219 54.3 1339 5 7 12 -72 6.1 67.1
Tony Banks TOT 5 26 0.192 89 168 53.0 1374 9 4 19 -103 8.2 88.2
Chad Henne TOT 4 21 0.190 93 180 51.7 1110 6 10 2 -13 6.2 58.8
Ryan Fitzpatrick TOT 9 48 0.188 158 278 56.8 1607 12 24 12 -83 5.8 51.9
Josh McCown TOT 6 42 0.143 145 236 61.4 1678 10 10 30 -204 7.1 79.4
Jeff George TOT 3 26 0.115 101 196 51.5 1404 5 3 13 -75 7.2 77.0

(A couple quick notes about this table: For whatever reason, the passing stats for Drew Brees, Bob Griese, and Dan Marino would not load, but their fourth-quarter comeback opportunities would, and those are still included. Quarterbacks needed at least 20 4QC opportunities to qualify for this list.)

Rodgers has had 42 opportunities to stage a fourth-quarter comeback, and has found success in 12 of them, a 28.6 percent win rate, which ranks 54th out of 84 qualifying QBs. He’s far behind most of his peers: Andrew Luck has the highest such conversion percentage, at 52 percent, though Tom Brady’s 51.5 percent may be more impressive given his larger sample size. Peyton Manning sits at 48.9 percent, Tony Romo is at 47.1, and Ben Roethlisberger is at 42.6. Longtime fellow NFC North quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler are at 40 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively. Even Jake Delhomme, Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, and Tim freaking Couch crack 40 percent.

There are only a few high-level passers near Rodgers’s spot on the list: Kurt Warner went 7-for-33 (21.2 percent), Brett Favre went 22-for-84 (26.2 percent), and Troy Aikman clocked in at 8-for-29 (27.6 percent). Warner, while a Hall of Famer, isn’t quite in the same tier of passers as Rodgers; Favre was always a reckless player; and the first five years of Aikman’s career (which began in 1989) get cut out of this analysis. Virtually every other great passer — and many, many mediocre ones — has outperformed Rodgers in fourth-quarter comeback situations. What the hell is going on here?

One of the things affecting Rodgers’s fourth-quarter comeback numbers is that he dug himself into a hole early in his career. Here’s how he’s done in these situations, broken down by season:

Aaron Rodgers’s Career Fourth-Quarter Comebacks

Year 4QC 4QCO Success Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Yds Y/A Passer Rating
Year 4QC 4QCO Success Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Yds Y/A Passer Rating
2007 0 1 0.000 2 3 66.70 20 0 0 1 -9 6.7 85.4
2008 1 8 0.125 19 37 51.40 310 2 4 2 -12 8.4 58.2
2009 2 6 0.333 21 36 58.30 297 2 1 7 -36 8.3 92.0
2010 0 3 0.000 27 38 71.10 309 1 0 1 -5 8.1 103.9
2011 0 1 0.000 1 4 25.00 22 0 0 1 -9 5.5 50.0
2012 2 6 0.333 36 56 64.30 400 4 1 4 -28 7.1 101.8
2013 1 3 0.333 17 31 54.80 284 1 0 1 -3 9.2 96.7
2014 1 2 0.500 12 20 60.00 128 1 1 2 -8 6.4 74.6
2015 2 6 0.333 35 67 52.20 416 3 3 3 -16 6.2 67.8
2016 0 2 0.000 12 21 57.10 110 1 1 2 -10 5.2 67.6
2017 2 3 0.667 17 27 63.00 143 3 0 0 0 5.3 113.7
2018 1 1 1.000 1 3 33.30 75 1 0 0 0 25 121.5

From 2007 through 2011, Rodgers went 3-for-19 (15.8 percent) when presented with a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, including an abysmal 1-for-8 in 2008. But since then, he’s gone 9-for-23 (39.1 percent), a success rate that won’t blow anyone’s socks off, but is much more respectable.

That 2008 season, in which the Packers went 6–10, stands out. Having eight fourth-quarter comeback opportunities is unbelievable — to go 1–7 in them is equally shocking. The Green Bay defense often let down the team in 2008, blowing several fourth-quarter leads, but Rodgers was also clearly a long, long way from becoming the late-game hero we saw Sunday night. He threw fourth-quarter interceptions against Tampa Bay, Carolina, Atlanta, and Jacksonville, and squandered potential scoring drives in games against the Titans, Texans, and Jaguars.

Even if we give Rodgers the benefit of the doubt and discount his first year as a starter, he hasn’t been much better since. He went 2–6 in both 2009 and 2012 and was 0-for-3 in 2010. In 2011, Rodgers’s first MVP year, he touched the ball in a fourth-quarter comeback situation just once, but Green Bay’s drive stalled and the Packers lost to the Chiefs. In more recent seasons, he’s still generally failed far more often than average; his only year with a winning record in such situations is last season, when he was mostly on injured reserve. Overall, this is a thoroughly underwhelming record for a quarterback who is supposed to be an all-timer.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Rodgers isn’t “clutch” or “elite” or whatever adjective is used to describe good quarterbacks now. Wins aren’t solely a quarterback stat, and 42 opportunities isn’t the largest of sample sizes. But the numbers show how moments like Sunday night’s are in no way inevitable. Even if Rodgers did excel at fourth-quarter comebacks, the best passers can convert on those opportunities at only a roughly 50–50 rate. It’s a coin flip.

And Sunday night wasn’t a coin flip. Not only did Rodgers’s three-possession comeback have a much higher degree of difficulty than a one-possession game, but just the chances of Kyle Fuller catching this would-be-game-sealing interception were way higher than 50–50:

If the Bears had scored just once more in the final frame, any of the Packers’ drives had stalled, or Chicago had decided to actually play defense on Randall Cobb’s go-ahead touchdown, the game would have been put out of reach. A million things needed to go right for Rodgers’s legend-making moment, and most of them had nothing to do with him. That just makes the series of events all the more incredible.

Rodgers’s one-legged comeback was magic — but not because Rodgers at QB made it a scripted, inevitable event. The moment was magic because even with Rodgers at the helm, nothing was ever certain.