So Bills say EJ Manuel has the clutch factor? Let's take a closer look at that
Updated 12:31 PM , June 23, 2015
I can keep an open mind about stuff.
This blog post will be an exercise in going through the process of figuring out whether selected data should change my opinion about EJ Manuel's rookie season.
BuffaloBills.com writer Chris Brown posted a story today with the headline "Manuel's play late in halves & games shows clutch factor." The team tweeted a link to the item with a triumphant photo of Manuel and the hash tag "#clutch factor."
"What's been largely overlooked," Brown writes, "is what appears to be a clutch factor to Manuel's game that simply can't be taught."
My first reaction: Wow, that's quite a statement. Brown's premise is that Manuel's performances in the final four minutes of first halves and games indicate the rookie was born with the "clutch" chromosome.
My second reaction: "Clutch" is a dangerous word.
You know who was considered clutch his first two NFL seasons? Mark Sanchez. Big-time clutch factor there. Fourth-quarter comebacks. Sudden death. Road playoff victories.
Sanchez also has really big hands and was coddled by a coaching staff and front office. The Jets didn't want him challenged by his backups or high-round draft picks. They constantly micromanaged Sanchez's psyche.
But I digress.
Back in January 2011, when I still worked for ESPN.com, I kicked around the idea of a "Clutch QB rating" with former Football Outsiders columnist Bill Barnwell, now of Grantland.com.
My thought was that a Clutch QB rating should include fourth-quarter, third-down and red-zone passing stats. Barnwell didn't disagree, although he asserted the best indicator of "clutch" came in the postseason.
Barnwell's general sentiment was people can gerrymander statistics to fit whatever definition of "clutch" they want.
The BuffaloBills.com analysis raises a point I'd quibble with. Nobody considers the end of the first half any kind of legacy-making crucible. We don't extol John Elway or Tom Brady for their heroics right before halftime.
Anyway, rather than take a lump of four-minute data and sign off on the idea an unproven rookie has demonstrated the "clutch factor," I'm about to go through Manuel's stats and game-by-game performances.
I have no clue how this will end. I'll just write whatever I come across as I encounter it and perhaps reach some sort of conclusion.
First, I'm going to look up how well Manuel performed in those critical situations mentioned above.
In the fourth quarter: 51 of 87 attempts (58.6 percent) for 520 yards and four TDs with three interceptions for a 76.8 passer rating. Manuel ranked 26th in the NFL here. His third-quarter rating was 2.3 points higher.
In the fourth quarter and winning/losing by seven points or fewer: 27 of 51 throws (52.9 percent) for 285 yards and two TDs with one interception for a 74.4 passer rating.
On third down: 47 of 99 throws (47.5 percent) for 510 yards and two TDs with two interceptions for a 61.4 passer rating.
On third down and between 3 and 8 yards to go: 24 of 55 passes (43.6 percent) for 243 yards and one TD with one interception for a 55.3 passer rating. This is the most common third-down passing situation.
On third down and 9 yards or longer: 16 of 30 attempts (53.3 percent) for 192 yards, one TD and one interception for a 70.4 passer rating.
In the red zone: 10 of 21 passes (47.6 percent) for 71 yards and six TDs with no interceptions for a 95.4 passer rating.
We also saw how much less effectively Manuel played away from Ralph Wilson Stadium. Winning on the road might be considered at least a symptom of "clutch."
Manuel had a 64.4 passer rating on the road, 27.4 points lower than his passer rating at home.
Now a look at his games ...
Week One, New England Patriots
Clutch situations: With the help of a defensive touchdown and an interception that set up Manuel's first NFL touchdown pass right before halftime, the Bills went into the fourth quarter with a 21-17 lead.
What happened: Manuel made the Patriots pay for their turnover right before the half, finding Scott Chandler for 19 yards and Robert Woods in the end zone for an 18-yard scoring strike. ... On three fourth-quarter possessions, Manuel completed two of six passes for 11 yards. The final legitimate series was a three-and-out with 4:31 to play. ... The Patriots let Manuel complete a 12-yard pass -- meant for laterals all over the field -- to end the game. ... The Bills lost, 23-21.
Week Two, Carolina Panthers
Clutch situations: With 1:38 to play, the Panthers kicked a field goal for a 23-17 lead. The Bills had to have a touchdown to win.
What happened: Manuel was impressive. He picked apart Carolina's injury-ravaged secondary. ... He completed six of his eight attempts for 51 yards. Five of his attempts were dumped to C.J. Spiller or Fred Jackson, but Manuel completed a couple nice throws downfield. ... Buffalo also benefitted from a 20-yard Luke Kuechly pass-interference call that wiped out an interception. ... Manuel punctuated the drive with a 2-yard TD toss to Stevie Johnson for the victory.
Week Three, at New York Jets
Clutch situations: The Jets dominated the action but committed 168 yards in penalties and two turnovers to jar the door open. The Bills tied the score at 20 with 10:39 left.
What happened: Manuel hooked up with Chandler for a 33-yard touchdown. ... The Jets answered with a touchdown to retake the lead. ... The Bills had four more possessions, but got past the 50-yard line once. ... Manuel completed five of his final 15 throws for 15 yards, not counting a spike to stop the clock.
Week Four, Baltimore Ravens
Clutch situations: None to speak of, really. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw a career-worst five interceptions. The Bills took a 20-7 halftime lead and fended off a late rally.
What happened: Manuel could've been far better in the second half. Buffalo added only a field goal in the third quarter, nothing in the fourth quarter. ... A pair of second-half Manuel interceptions helped Baltimore get back into striking distance. ... Buffalo's fourth-quarter possessions were interception, three-and-out, three-and-out and kneel out the clock. ... Manuel also fumbled, but Johnson recovered.
Week Five, at Cleveland Browns
Clutch situations: None for Manuel.
What happened: Manuel managed the game nicely, but the Browns scored 17 straight points before halftime. ... He injured his knee in the third quarter. ... Manuel missed the next four games.
Week 10, at Pittsburgh Steelers
Clutch situations: None again. The Steelers won with ease, 23-10.
What happened: Manuel, returning from his knee injury, made the game easier for Pittsburgh with a discouraging display. ... Nearly half of the completions BuffaloBills.com used to show Manuel's clutchiness came in garbage time at Heinz Field. ... Taking over with 4:34 to play, Manuel went 12 of 15 for 87 yards and a TD toss to Chris Gragg. ... Prior to that drive Manuel was 10 of 25 for 62 yards and an interception.
Week 11, New York Jets
Clutch situations: None again. The Bills, propelled by a defense that toyed with Jets rookie Geno Smith, were up 20-0 at halftime and cruised to victory.
What happened: Manuel had his best game of the year, going 20 of 28 for 245 yards and two TDs. ... He posted a 121.9 passer rating. ... None of it could be considered clutch.
Week 13, Atlanta Falcons
Clutch situations: Some interesting moments in Toronto. The game was close throughout. Manuel can't be blamed for the demoralizing overtime defeat, but did he do enough?
What happened: Buffalo took a 31-24 lead on Spiller's 36-yard touchdown dash with 11:48 remaining. ... Buffalo had four possessions after that. The first two were three-and-outs, with Manuel completing one of four passes, almost getting intercepted by William Moore and blamed for delay of game. ... Manuel moved them on their next drive, but Johnson fumbled. ... Chandler fumbled on the second play of overtime. Atlanta kicked a 36-yard field goal to win.
Week 14, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Clutch situations: None. At all.
What happened: With the Bills' playoff hopes still alive, the Bills curled up in a fetal position. ... Buccaneers running back Bobby Rainey went 80 yards on the second play for all the points they would need. ... Manuel was 18 of 33 for 184 yards and no TDs with four interceptions. He got sacked seven times.
Week 15, at Jacksonville Jaguars
Clutch situations: On the road, the Bills were down in the second quarter and tied early in the fourth quarter.
What happened: Manuel picked up his second fourth-quarter comeback of the season and won his first road game. ... In an otherwise quiet second half for Manuel, he got the ball to fullback Frank Summers for a 1-yard TD with 9:35 on the clock. That capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive. ... Manuel didn't throw another pass the rest of the game. ... The clutch play was Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepting Chad Henne in the end zone with 3:15 left. ... Manuel hurt his knee during the game and missed the final two games.
So how do I feel about Manuel's "clutch factor" now?
One of my suspicions was proven correct. A large portion of BuffaloBills.com's data occurred in games that were already decided and didn't impact the outcome.
Pittsburgh was one of Manuel's worst two games, but almost half of his four-minute, end-of-game success took place at Heinz Field against defenders just trying to finish without getting hurt.
We saw glimmers from Manuel, though. He has posted two legitimate fourth-quarter comebacks, one on the road and the other against a team that earned a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Because of that, I can't say Manuel won't become a clutch quarterback someday. He could be the circle-the-wagonest wagon-circler we've ever witnessed around these parts.
Maybe he will turn into the next Brett Favre.
Or perhaps he'll be another Mark Sanchez.
But the idea of declaring that Manuel might possess "clutch factor" DNA after 10 games makes me hope the Bills' new analytics department will go deeper with its evaluations.