Our man in the US - Week 16

Audiences in the US have heard a lot about ‘clutch’ performances in the last few days.  Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker delivered one on Monday Night Football – converting all six of his field goal attempts, but most importantly a 61-yarder to seal an 18-16 win over the Detroit Lions with less than 40 seconds left to spare.

In fact, Tucker had demanded this opportunity. Faced with third-and-10 at the Detroit 45, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh had been uncertain of whether to call for another passing play or just run the ball and see if he could get his kicker into range. “[Tucker] said, ‘I got it,’” recalled Harbaugh after the game. “He kind of ordered me to kick it. So we got him two more yards."

It was an act of brilliant bravado from Tucker, whose previous career long was 56 yards. Not quite on a level with Joe Namath guaranteeing a Jets win at Super Bowl III, perhaps, but we are dealing with a kicker here, not a quarterback. The Baltimore Sun went as far as to describe Tucker as the Ravens’ “undisputed Most Valuable Player” for 2013.

At the other end of the spectrum was Tony Romo, serving up two interceptions inside the final three minutes as the Cowboys blew a 23-point lead at home to Green Bay. As if the throws themselves were not bad enough, it soon emerged that the first of those plays was never supposed to involve a pass in the first place. Cowboys coaches had called a run on second-and-six at their own 35, albeit one that included the option for Romo to change things up at the line.

That disastrous decision fit perfectly with widely-held perceptions of the quarterback. Ask most NFL fans and they will tell you that Romo is a choker – the opposite of clutch – someone who always finds a way to mess things up when the game is on the line. They will point to the many past examples of his self-destruction, from his botched hold on a potential game-winning field goal in a Wildcard game against Seattle in January 2007 through to his three interceptions in last season’s NFC East decider against Washington.

Some journalists had attempted to challenge that narrative in recent weeks. Many noted that Romo led six fourth-quarter comebacks last season. Bleacher Report’s Brad Gagnon pointed out that the player had put up better passing statistics in the month of December than almost every other quarterback in the league since 2009.

In the end, though, most people’s definitions of what actually constitutes a clutch performance – or perfomer – are highly subjective, and often skewed towards recent events.

Speaking anecdotally, I can say that my Twitter timeline was flooded with comments calling Tom Brady a choker in the wake of the Patriots’ loss to the Giants at Super Bowl XLVI. His opponent, Eli Manning, was defined as the king of clutch, one who had outwitted New England twice on the biggest stage. And yet that same Brady has three Super Bowl rings of his own, while Manning has now thrown 25 interceptions so far in 2013.

At a time when advanced metrics are all the rage, you might expect that someone would have come up with a statistical measure for clutch performance – one which could prove once and for all which players save their best for those moments when the pressure is highest. But the truth is that nobody has, in part because it is so difficult to define which situations should qualify for consideration.

Ought we to consider fourth-quarter performance, or only that in the final five minutes of a game? Should we include numbers from the regular season at all? Perhaps we should look only at match-ups decided by fewer than seven points? Or five? Or maybe even three?

On top of all those considerations is the fact that football is a team sport, in which every play involves countless moving parts. Some quarterbacks play behind better offensive lines than others, and with more reliable receivers. Romo’s second interception on Sunday was, apparently, not his fault – with his intended target, Cole Beasley, telling reporters afterward that he had stopped his route prematurely. How do we account for such errors by team-mates?

Even in baseball, a sport which lends itself more easily to advanced statistical analysis, there is much debate about whether clutch performers really do exist. For a long time the consensus was that they did not – evidence suggesting that a player who starred at key moments in one season might not do so in the next. Recently, some analysts have sought to challenge that assumption, but most remain unswayed.

In American football, the most straightforward place to measure such performance is, in fact, in the kicking game. Research by advancednflstats.com found that, on average, kickers performed just as well in the clutch as they did during normal circumstances. The website deemed it impossible to assess the players on a one-by-one basis, due to the relatively small sample size that each one produced in a given season.

While it is possible, then, that Justin Tucker truly is a clutch performer, it seems equally likely that he is simply good at his job. A run of 33 consecutive successful field goal attempts suggests that he is just as reliable when the game is not on the line.

Likewise, perhaps Romo is not a choker so much as he is a sub-elite quarterback, playing for a franchise whose coaching and overall management leaves a lot to be desired. Unquestionably, his mistakes are magnified by the fact that he plays for Dallas, still the most popular team in the nation.

But legacies are defined by wins and losses, and no statistic could dispel that gut reaction that most fans have when they see Romo throw another late-game pick. The only way for him to change perceptions would be to go out and claim a championship. And it does not look like that will be happening any time soon.

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Making headlines

A few more stories that have dominated the agenda over the last seven days:

“Ashley [Manning’s wife] and I actually had those conversations. More than one. Because, you know, you don’t want to embarrass yourself. Because, they’re signing you and people are thinking they’re getting the player they had always seen before. And so, Ashley was the one that was saying, ‘Peyton, you’ve got to try. You’ve got to try.’ With this injury, nothing was happening. Nothing. For weeks. There was no progress. It was so frustrating. And really, I had a peace about it. I had a peace. Because, I had this unbelievable string of health for 20 years—since I was 15 years old as a sophomore in high school. So who was I to complain now that I’m injured? I’ve given it as good a run as I can give it. I’ve got kids now. I had a peace about it. So I didn’t feel like I had to play to get another win or a touchdown. But she’s like, ‘You’ve got to try.’ So I was glad that she pushed me to do it. Once I did it, I was going at it, and then I started seeing a little bit of light there. So, yeah, she was the one who kind of pushed me through it.”

  • Colts linebacker Andy Studebaker has officially confirmed his status as A Good Egg in the Indianapolis community, after word got out of how he had stopped to help a motorist who had broken down – helping to arrange a tow truck before driving the man in question around town to help him run some errands while the car was being repaired. The incident came to light after the motorist posted about it on Facebook. "I didn't do it to draw attention to myself or for a story,'' said Studebaker when the story was raised during an open locker room session. "It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.''

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Quote of the week

“My Fantasy team is benefitting from it as well, so I’m happy about that. Fantasy owners around the world, I hope you guys appreciate the points as well” – Justin Tucker gets his priorities straight after kicking those six field goals for Baltimore against Detroit.

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Three-and-out

• Rob Gronkowski might be injured, but that is not enough to stop him from picking up some additional Christmas employment as one of Santa’s elves. 

• A (rather strange) Christmas song about Peyton Manning, by US funk legend Bootsy Collins.

 Never bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Giants to score points. And especially not when they are playing the Seahawks.