Pro Football Hall of Fame induction weekend is always a fun time to debate which players are the greatest in the history of the sport. And this weekend, the debate about the greatest quarterbacks of all time has been enlivened by new research indicating that Dan Marino -- and not John Elway -- is the all-time NFL comeback king.
On Elway's page at the Hall of Fame's web site, the first accomplishment listed, before his MVP award and his Super Bowl rings, is, "Led Denver to record 47 fourth quarter comebacks." That's how central Elway's image as the greatest leader of comebacks is to his status in pro football history.
But where did that statistic of "47 fourth quarter comebacks" come from? The NFL Record and Fact Book doesn't list "fourth quarter comebacks" as an official record.
It turns out that the number 47 came from the Broncos' public relations staff, and they had a fairly loose definition of "comeback," including games in which the Broncos were never even behind, a game that ended in a tie, game-winning drives on which Elway never threw a pass, games in which Elway left because of injury, and so on. The Dolphins' public relations staff also promoted Marino's comebacks, but wasn't as generous about counting them.
Now Scott Kacsmar, a researcher at Pro Football Reference, has gone back and applied a stricter definition to the term "fourth quarter comeback" and discovered that it's really Marino who deserves credit as the best of the bunch. You can read all the research in great detail here and here, but the bottom line is this:
Marino had 51 overall wins decided in the 4th quarter/overtime, and 36 of them are comebacks. ... Elway had 49 overall wins decided in the 4th quarter/overtime, and 34 of them are comebacks. ... Marino has more than Elway, and deserves to be recognized for it.As Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders writes, the point here isn't to diminish Elway's achievements in the NFL. But the bogus "47 comebacks" number should be retired, and Marino's status as the quarterback who led the most fourth-quarter comebacks should be celebrated.