The idea of “clutch” performance has been hotly debated in the baseball analytics community for quite some time. It’s been argued that there’s little evidence, psychologically, physiologically or analytically, to suggest that a player can consistently improve their game when the pressure is at its highest.
In fact, anyone who has played a sport at any level will tell you that it’s the opposite that has a legitimate basis — with stress mounting and the heart rate rising, athletes can often suffer a decrease in performance in crunch time.
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That brings us to second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, who just led the Cincinnati Bengals to their third consecutive nail-biting win and has carried the franchise to places it hasn’t gone to since before he was born.
This is nothing new for the young passer, whose killer instinct dating back to his time at LSU is the stuff of legend. So, just how “clutch” is Burrow? And where does his “clutchness” fall in the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks?
I would argue there are two aspects of supposed clutch play. One aspect is tight-game situations, while another is rising to the occasion in big games. And you may not be surprised to see that Burrow has excelled at both.
Here are the NFL's highest-graded quarterbacks on dropbacks when the game was within one score this year:
|Rank||QB||PFF Passing Grade|
He didn't just ball out in tight games, however, as he was also elite when it mattered most. Here are the NFL's highest-graded quarterbacks in the fourth quarter and overtime this season:
|Rank||QB||PFF Passing Grade|
In Cincinnati's AFC North-clinching Week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs and the two subsequent playoff games, Burrow has gone 22-of-24 for 271 yards, one touchdown and no picks in the fourth quarter. Oh, and one of those incompletions was a drop. So, at first glance, I’d say tight game situations don’t particularly faze him.
The thing is that Burrow is even more impressive in the “bright lights” portion of clutchness — the man has been a stone-cold killer since he was at LSU.
Back in 2019, Burrow’s Tigers had four games that qualified as “must-win” if they were going to take home the national championship: the regular-season matchup against undefeated Alabama, the conference championship against Georgia, the College Football Playoff bout against Oklahoma and the national championship game against Clemson.
Here are his stats from those four games, which, don't forget, came against the best teams in college football:
|PFF Passing Grade||91.4|
|Yards per attempt||10.3|
Those stats are just diabolical.
It’s also the reason why there really wasn’t a debate with the first overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft — when you’ve seen a guy dominate the best defenses in college football, you feel better about that continuing to be the case in the NFL.
And continue it has. Against the five best defenses he faced this season — in terms of expected points added (EPA) allowed per play — Burrow earned a ridiculous 92.3 passing grade. In two playoff games this year, only Josh Allen’s Superman impersonation earned a higher PFF passing grade than Joe Burrow’s 84.8.
And the Bengals signal-caller has done it all with the eighth-worst-graded pass-blocking line in the NFL. The other three teams left in the playoffs rank first (Rams), sixth (Chiefs) and seventh (49ers).
It’s safe to say that Burrow is decidedly an outlier. He may not be “better” under the bright lights, but there’s no drop-off in his game when the moment is the biggest. Already a full seven-point underdog traveling to Kansas City next Sunday, you can bet Joey will only be rising to the occasion.