Is he clutch?
That's the question I repeatedly asked myself while evaluating quarterbacks during my time as a scout with the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers. For all of the physical attributes needed to thrive at the position, the ability to make plays at critical junctures is what separates the greats from the rest of the pack in the NFL.
When I played, I had the opportunity to watch Jim Kelly, Brett Favre and Rich Gannon dissect defenses in key moments to win games. Whether it was superbly executing a two-minute drill or converting a crucial third down, those guys had the wherewithal to make plays when everyone was looking to them to produce. They all possessed an uncanny ability to deliver in the fourth quarter, when the intensity of the moment forces others to wilt under pressure.
It's important to study a quarterback's play in key spots to see if he possesses the mental fortitude to rise to the occasion. While history certainly plays a role in this evaluation, the NFL is a year-to-year league and recent performance is more important than the career résumé. With that in mind, let's continue my "Bucky's Best" series by ranking the 10 most clutch quarterbacks in the league entering the 2014 season:
10) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers: Challenged by his general manager to step up his game prior to last season, Newton responded by guiding the Panthers to the NFC South crown with a 12-4 record. Although the defense deserves a ton of credit for the team's resurrection, it was Newton's solid play in key moments that helped Carolina get over the hump. Newton carried the team to four come-from-behind wins in 2013, displaying the poise that eluded him at times during his first two seasons. If he continues to build upon last season's strong fourth-quarter showing, Newton will fly up the charts as one of the NFL's top clutch performers.
9) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: It's easy to underestimate Wilson's role in the Seahawks' success based on his relatively pedestrian numbers, but astute observers recognize his impact as an efficient game manager. Wilson is akin to a pass-first point guard in Seattle's system, which generally makes him a distributor instead of a playmaker with the ball. A closer look at his production in the clutch, however, suggests that Wilson is far more than a caretaker when the game is on the line. In 2013, Wilson compiled a 102.9 passer rating in two-minute situations, displaying exceptional awareness as a run/pass threat on the perimeter. He also posted a 6:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in this area and proved to skeptics that, in a pinch, he could move the team on the strength of his right arm. In just two NFL seasons, Wilson has piled up 10 game-winning drives and eight fourth-quarter comeback victories. Clearly, this is a guy who stays cool under pressure.
8) Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers: After a couple of subpar seasons, Rivers returned to form with a spectacular 2013 campaign. The five-time Pro Bowl QB was outstanding in the fourth quarter, completing 64.7 percent of his throws and registering a 102.4 passer rating. He also was fantastic in the two-minute drill, boasting a 99.4 passer rating. With Rivers directing the Chargers to four come-from-behind wins last season, it's clear the veteran has re-emerged as one of the premier players at the position.
7) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: There's no doubt Big Ben deserves a spot on this list, given his penchant for clutch play throughout his career. The 11th-year pro has directed 23 fourth-quarter comebacks during his tenure and single-handedly carried an offense that's struggled with pass protection in recent years. Roethlisberger's numbers in two-minute situations (98.9 passer rating and 5:1 TD-to-INT ratio in 2013) speak for themselves, but it's his innate ability to extend plays without turning the ball over that really stands out. Big Ben has mastered the art of avoiding and escaping rushers while keeping his eyes downfield, making him nearly impossible to defend in late-game situations, when defensive coaches are prone to lean on soft zone coverage (i.e., the prevent defense).
6) Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys: The sight of Romo's name on a list of clutch performers will make some Cowboys fans cringe, but the three-time Pro Bowler doesn't get enough credit for coming through in crucial situations. Romo is one of the most efficient fourth-quarter quarterbacks, completing 69.6 percent of his passes and compiling a 105.6 passer rating in the final period last season. Critics, of course, will point out some memorable interceptions with the game on the line, but the fact that he has orchestrated 11 fourth-quarter comebacks in the past three seasons suggests that he routinely comes through for the Cowboys when it matters. Now, I know these truths won't absolve Romo from the harsh criticism of some unrealistic football fans, but this should shed some light on why NFL evaluators hold the quarterback in high regard as a clutch playmaker.
5) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: In just two NFL seasons, Luck has earned the respect of his peers by routinely delivering the goods in huge spots. He has already notched eight fourth-quarter comebacks, including an unbelievable 45-44 wild-card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in which the Colts erased a 28-point second-half deficit. Last season, Luck posted a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio when trailing by eight or fewer points. That's impressive production when the game is still hanging in the balance, which is why the young quarterback deserves to be high on the list, despite some turnover issues here and there.
4) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: While Brady added five more fourth-quarter comebacks to his résumé in 2013 -- giving him 31 over his career -- the veteran recorded some inefficient numbers in critical situations last fall. See: a 79.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter of tight games (within seven points) and a 49.1 percent completion rate in two-minute situations. In the red zone, Brady finished the season with three picks and completed just half of his attempts. While some of the blame for Brady's inefficiency falls on his inexperienced receiving corps, the lackluster production is certainly not what we've come to expect from the three-time Super Bowl champion with a reputation for seizing the moment.
3) Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos: In the twilight of his career, Manning continues to shine when it matters most. The five-time league MVP was remarkably efficient in the fourth quarter last season, completing 64.6 percent of his throws and compiling a stellar 107.7 passer rating. Manning did a fine job directing the Broncos' offense when facing a small deficit (eight points or fewer), amassing an 11:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 98.5 passer rating. Sure, critics will take him to task for some postseason struggles over the years, but the Broncos' recent rise to prominence has been driven by Manning's efficiency and production in big moments.
2) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: A broken collarbone limited Rodgers to just nine games in 2013, but he continued to show the football world that he is a masterful performer when the game is on the line. Look no further than his brilliant Week 17 performance in a de facto division title game against the rival Chicago Bears. Fresh off a seven-game absence, Rodgers braved a hostile road environment to complete 25 of his 39 passes for 318 yards and a pair of scores, including a 48-yard, game-winning touchdown to Randall Cobb on fourth-and-8 with less than a minute to play. The Super Bowl XLV MVP definitely makes a convincing case for the top spot on this list, but I have him falling just short to the MVP of XLIV.
1) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: The eight-time Pro Bowler was absolutely brilliant under pressure in 2013, posting a 118.0 passer rating (69.2 percent completion rate, 15:3 TD-to-INT ratio) when trailing by eight points or fewer. Brees also sparkled last fall in the red zone (23:1 TD-to-INT ratio) and the two-minute drill (65.1 percent completion rate, 6:1 TD-to-INT ratio). Nothing new for a guy who has authored 34 game-winning drives and 23 fourth-quarter comebacks over the course of his illustrious career.