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
(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
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:
Here's the play by Kyle Fuller that could've won the game for the #Bears, just before the Cobb touchdown, he dropped the INT by Aaron Rodgerspic.twitter.com/ES7L5wWxm6— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 10, 2018
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.