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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman has knack for the comeback

By now, you are used to his calm. You have seen his confidence before. You have felt his competitiveness.

By now, there is nothing unusual about the sight of Josh Freeman taking ownership of another fourth quarter.

This is what happens when beauty becomes commonplace. It doesn't matter how high a mountain might be or how brightly the bay shimmers in the morning sun. When you see it fairly regularly, you tend to take it for granted.

It is the same with a quarterback. The more often he turns defeat into victory, the more you come to expect it and the less you realize just how difficult this is supposed to be.

In the case of Freeman, Kid Comeback, what Tampa Bay is seeing is historic.

He has played only 23 games (22 starts), and he has won only 11, and still, seven of those victories have been fourth-quarter comebacks. You know the drill. Freeman spends the first quarter playing like Craig Erickson, and the second playing like Trent Dilfer and the third playing like Jeff Garcia. Then the fourth-quarter bell rings, and he becomes Joe Montana.

According to Scott Kacsmar, a researcher for the Pro Football Reference website who has done the definitive research on fourth-quarter comebacks, no quarterback in NFL history has had seven comebacks in his first 23 regular-season games. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger holds the record by getting to seven comebacks in his first 22 games, but one of those was a playoff game. In the regular season, it took Roethlisberger 35 games to notch his seventh comeback.

The only other quarterbacks to have seven comebacks in their first two seasons in the league were Peyton Manning (who took 31 games) and the rather surprising Jake Plummer (who took 25 games).

One more comeback, in other words, and Freeman would become the first NFL player to record eight comebacks in his first two seasons. It kind of makes you think back to last year's games against Miami and Atlanta, when Freeman gave his team a fourth-quarter lead only to see a defense give it back on a final drive. It makes you think of Freeman sitting out the first seven games of last year.

In many ways, the fourth-quarter comeback statistic is the one that defines quarterbacks. Yardage can fool people, because a lot of quarterbacks stack up yards once their teams fall behind. Quarterback rating is deceptive, because there are so many factors it doesn't consider. On the other hand, a quarterback doesn't get credit for a comeback unless he wins, and isn't that supposed to be the point?

"I think the difference is anticipation," said Sam Wyche, the former Bucs coach who was once Montana's quarterback coach. "I think if you're in that position, you have the confidence and the smarts and the ability. But the good quarterbacks are always thinking ahead when it comes to where the ball is, and how many timeouts there are, and whether you need three points or seven. That anticipation saves you two or three seconds. You do that a couple of times, and you buy enough time for another play.

"When it gets to the fourth quarter, people in the huddle are looking at your face to see if it's calm or if it's panic time. I'm not going to name names, but I've had players tell me, 'Get that guy out of there. He's scared to death.' You better believe other players feed off of him."

It is a fourth-quarter league, the NFL, and it's when legends are made. Fourth quarters are for Montana, noticing comedian John Candy in the stands before taking his team downfield to rip the heart out of the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.

Fourth quarters are for John Elway and the Drive and Dan Marino faking a spike then throwing for a touchdown against the Jets. They are Roger Staubach and the Hail Mary, and Kenny Stabler and the Holy Roller, and Terry Bradshaw and the Immaculate Reception, and Montana and the Catch.

"The fourth quarter is the most unforgiving part of the game," Wyche said. "Make a mistake then and there isn't much recovery time. It's a last-gasp situation."

All of that said, comebacks are an unofficial statistic, and for a while, teams seemed to be playing liar's poker when it came to the numbers. Dallas gave Staubach credit for 23 comebacks. Various teams gave Brett Favre credit for 43. Denver said Elway had 47.

Enough, Kacsmar said. He standardized the formula. For one thing, he took away the "comebacks" that teams listed when the score was tied. (You can't come back if you weren't behind; taking your team to victory from a tie is referred to as "a game-winning drive" in Kacsmar's research.) He took away the comebacks when teams scored on defensive or special-teams plays. He took away a game that ended in a tie.

The results? Marino has the most comebacks at 36. Manning has 35. Elway and Johnny Unitas have 34. And Staubach, old Captain Comeback? He finished his career with 15.

Scan Kacsmar's results, and there are other surprises, too. For instance, Vinny Testaverde finished his career with 29 (21 coming after he left Tampa Bay).

Then there was Favre, who has a reputation as a quarterback who leads his team from behind often. And, yes, Favre has 27 comebacks. On the other hand, Favre has played in 325 games, which makes his comeback percentage 8.3 percent, one of the worst numbers of the elite quarterbacks on the list.

So how many is seven comebacks in 23 games?

Remember Ken Anderson, the old Bengals quarterback who has received consideration for the Hall of Fame? He has 10 in 198 games. Do you think of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers as a pretty good quarterback? In 53 games, he has three. Tony Eason, who reached the Super Bowl with the Patriots, has seven in 95 starts.

Think of it like this: Roughly 48 percent of games are decided in the final period. For Kacsmar, that means a quarterback should have a comeback percentage of around 12. Anything above 15 is excellent.

Roethlisberger is at a 17.9 comeback percentage. So is Doug Williams, a former Bucs quarterback. Jake Delhomme is at 17.3. Manning is at 15.7. Unitas and Tom Brady are at 15.5.

Freeman? He's at 30.4.

Granted, it is early in Freeman's career, and so his sample is small. Granted, he is not on a team that has won a lot of games with a huge first quarter or a third-quarter outburst.

But consider this: Only six players have 30 or more career comebacks. Only 16 more have 20 or more. In fact, 13 of the 23 "modern era quarterbacks" in the Hall of Fame have more than 20.

Freeman is at seven. And counting. He's 22 years old, and his career is still at the start.

Already, he seems to know how to finish.

.Fast facts

Most quarterback comebacks

Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman has seven fourth-quarter comebacks in 23 games (30.4 percent). How others have fared:

Quarterback Games Comebacks Pct.

Dan Marino * 260 36 13.8

Peyton Manning 223 35 15.7

John Elway * 255 34 13.3

Johnny Unitas * 219 34 15.5

Joe Montana * 215 31 14.4

Fran Tarkenton * 257 30 11.7

Five surprisingly good

Vinny Testaverde 238 29 12.2

Dave Krieg 222 24 10.8

Doug Williams 95 17 17.9

Jake Delhomme 110 19 17.3

Jay Cutler 65 11 16.9

Five less than reputation

Brett Favre 325 27 8.3

Roger Staubach * 148 15 10.1

Phil Simms 174 11 6.3

Ken Anderson 198 10 5.1

Aaron Rodgers 53 3 5.7

* Hall of Famers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman has knack for the comeback 12/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 18, 2010 5:26pm]
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