I have been staring at this computer screen for the past 8 to 9 hours or so. Pretty much been data wonking all night. I lost a little bit of my sanity I think: went to type "facebook.com" at one point, just to escape the data for a quick second, and accidentally typed "football.com" instead - which may or may not be a real website, but it tells you what's been on my mind. Regardless, I also found some interesting information.
Scott Kacsmar of Cold, Hard Football Facts writes a weekly blog over there entitled "Captain Comeback", where he goes through the various games of the week that featured come-from-behind victories. Turns out he is the same gentleman who did a godly amount of research concerning comebacks throughout NFL history and provided it to pro-football-reference. Really invaluable stuff.
In Kacsmar's article linked above, he linked to Jim Harbaugh's comeback page. I checked it out, saw that there was a complete list for all players, and immediately wanted to see Alex Smith's as well. Smith's had something very interesting that popped right out at me. He only has 7 fourth quarter comebacks in his career, and three of them came within the first six weeks of this season - all on the road.
I thought that might just be impressive enough to stand as some kind of record, so I ended up perusing every single player comeback page they had on the site. Gonna share the interesting Niner-releveant bits with you after the jump.
Peyton Manning is the only person in history to put up seven fourth quarter comeback (4QC) / game winning drive (GWD) performances in a single season. This means at some point in the 4th quarter his team had a deficit, and that Manning helped contribute points to overcome the deficit, including the game-winning points. He did this seven times. Four of those came on the road, which is another NFL single-season record, and three of those road victories came within a time-span of five games or less.
Here are the Manning records from his fantastic, though ultimately disappointing, '09 season along with any NFL quarterbacks who share the record with him:
3 consecutive on the road in 5 games or less. (Montana and Jim Everett, '89; Mike Phipps, '72)
7 total on the season (home or away).
4 total on the road in season. (Montana, '89)
Phipps did not accomplish two of the above three feats, just one. His Browns finished 10 - 4 and made the playoffs, but they had the unfortunate luck of playing the Dolphins (the '72 Dolphins, mind you) in the first round.
Montana almost matched Manning in every way in ‘89, but his four 4QC / GWD games on the road were also his only ones in the season. Still, Montana, as we all know, would not be denied his 4th ring that year.
Manning in '09 made it to the Superbowl, but lost to the Saints after an unfortunate pick 6 ruined what would otherwise perhaps have been another comeback victory.
The real story here is that only Montana, Manning, Phipps, and Everett have won three consecutive road games in such a fashion, in five weeks or less, and they all went on to have objectively successful years: two Superbowl appearances and two losses to the eventual champs.
Of those four, only Montana holds the record for being able to accomplish the feat in four games. He was the only one in NFL history to have done so, until October 16th at Ford Field. Then another 49er joined him in that distinction: Alex Smith.
Now, let me just say right away I do not want anyone to think that I am comparing Smith to Montana or Manning or Everett (who was a good quarterback, just so we're clear), but I am saying that what the 49ers, as a team, did over these first three road games is nothing short of amazing - and Alex Smith deserves as much credit as anyone. Being on a small list like this, with Hall of Fame quarterbacks who took their teams to Superbowls that very same year, might just say something special - about Alex, about this team, about this organization.
Maybe Harbaugh will pass the title of "Captain Comeback" on to #11 in these next few years. That remains to be seen. We are only 6 games in to the season, which makes Alex's performance even more amazing. How can we not expect to see more as the season moves forward and everyone (theoretically) improves?
A big part of Alex's historic accomplishment is, as I mentioned above, stellar team performance.
The Niners currently lead the league in 4th quarter points with 61, averaging about 10.2 per game. We are 7th in 4th quarter points given up, at 5.2. Minus those numbers and we get a +5.0 point advantage on average in the game's last 15 minutes. The only teams ahead are the Saints and Falcons, at 5.3 and 5.2, respectively.
We are finishing games really well right now. But, unlike Detroit's comeback wins this season, San Francisco's are not the product of eccentricities (read: blind luck). There's no double pick returns for touchdowns from Romo during one of his arbitrary choke weeks; no playing a weak team that doesn't know how to finish and that you should have been beating to begin with (Vikings). No, instead, the Niners are wearing teams out. We are doing really well in the 4th quarter, on offense and defense, as a result of executing a game plan through all four quarters.
So while I understand the talk of us "not putting together a full game" on the road this year, at the same time I think it's important to understand that a team like ours that does not put up gaudy numbers, but plays very efficiently (more so than anyone else in the league, on both sides of the ball, according to CHFF); and so the only reason these 4th quarter statistics make any sense is because we have been putting full games together. The 49ers do not, at this moment, seem capable of playing terrible for three quarters and then turning it on in the 4th for a win with rare, big plays. The fact that we are doing well in the final 15 minutes is a testament to us doing well the first three quarters and sticking to a game plan.
I think this makes things much more exciting for us as fans. We have a team that is playing good football for all 60 minutes and, as our opponents tire out, we finish strong. That is exactly what the West Coast Offense is designed to do.
As long as Alex and the rest of the team continue to play clutch in those all-important closing minutes, we will continue to impress in the 4th quarter and, more importantly, we will continue to win games.