What the numbers reveal about the best NFL quarterbacks in crunch time

By mmgagne
September 18, 2014

Keith Goldner,

With 1:52 left to play in the first half, the Packers trailed the Jets, 21-9, in Week 2. Aaron Rodgers then dialed up a 10-play, 97-yard drive that lasted 1:44 and ended with a Randall Cobb touchdown reception with just eight seconds remaining. This drive got us thinking: Who are the most terrifying quarterbacks to face in the two-minute drill?

We went back, starting with the 2000 season, and looked at every two-minute drill scenario in either the first or second half of every NFL game. Second-half two-minute scenarios, however, were limited to those in which a quarterback’s team was either tied or trailing by one score or less; this avoids crazy shifts in strategy from those teams trying to milk the clock or to come from very far behind.

To evaluate quarterback efficiency, we used our internal metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). A quick refresher on NEP: It compares every single play over a season to how a league-average team should perform on that play. Every situation on a football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation (given down, distance-to-go and yard line). For example, the Chiefs may be playing the Steelers, facing a third-and-two on the 50. That’s a ton of variables, but numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be “expected” to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the “expected” point value of the next play to 4.23 (still an estimated number) points. Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP total. That’s Net Expected Points.

Last Sunday, Aaron Rodgers posted +7.39 NEP during the two-minute drill (+6.82 passing and +0.57 rushing). Not surprisingly, this is the highest total of the young 2014 season in such a scenario.

But how does he stack up historically?

Top Single-Game Performances

Matt Schaub +15.29 NEP | Week 14 in 2010

Schaub led touchdown drives at the end of each half—capping each with throws to Andre Johnson—to force overtime before eventually losing to Baltimore, 34-28.

Daunte Culpepper +13.85 NEP | Week 15 in 2002

Culpepper threw touchdowns to his favorite target, Randy Moss, at the end of both halves, including the game-winner with five seconds left to defeat the Saints, 32-31.

Jay Cutler +13.17 NEP | Week 1 in 2010

Cutler led a touchdown and a field goal drive in the final minutes of the first half. He also connected with Matt Forte for the go-ahead score with 1:32 left in the game, a 19-14 win.

Matt Cassel +12.59 NEP | Week 11 in 2008

In relief of Tom Brady, Cassel threw a 19-yard touchdown to Jabar Gaffney with 15 seconds left in the first half against the Jets. He also led a game-tying drive, finding Randy Moss to send it to overtime with one second left in regulation. But the Jets won in overtime, and the 11-5 Patriots ultimately missed the playoffs.

Steve McNair +12.59 NEP | Week 13 in 2002

In a high-scoring duel with the Kerry Collins-led Giants, McNair threw touchdowns at the end of each half, including a game-tying toss to Frank Wycheck with nine seconds remaining. The Titans won in overtime.

Best Two-Minute Drill QBs Since 2000

One week is grand, but what about sustained success?

To do this, we look at every quarterback’s per play NEP contribution (including both running and passing plays) to see how efficient they are on average. Tom Brady, who has run 850 plays in the qualifying situations since 2000, is going to have a much higher total NEP than Andrew Luck, who has run just 190 in his young career.

Here are the top 11 players since 2000 (minimum 150 plays):











Total NEP

 / Plays

Drew Brees 818 189.71 21 10.99 200.7 0.239
Andrew Luck 178 31.64 12 9.35 40.99 0.216
Russell Wilson 148 23.63 19 11.46 35.09 0.210
Jay Fiedler 180 22.38 26 16.73 39.11 0.190
Vince Young 186 21.04 38 18.40 39.44 0.176
Tony Romo 516 88.05 16 4.23 92.28 0.173
Tom Brady 812 126.39 38 15.58 141.97 0.167
Peyton Manning 883 124.63 29 4.15 128.78 0.141
Rich Gannon 230 35.06 24 -0.35 34.71 0.137
Jay Cutler 377 47.81 23 6.37 54.18 0.135
Aaron Rodgers 347 28.53 21 18.55 47.08 0.128


For the most part, the list is full of the usual suspects: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers are all there. Similarly, young guns Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson already have gained the reputation of being calm-under-pressure, coming in at No. 2 and No. 3. Tony Romo and Jay Cutler—who have been criticized for their crunch-time performances—both make the list as well.

The most surprising name is former Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler. He added huge numbers running the ball (scoring four two-minute drill rushing touchdowns), posting +16.73 rushing NEP on 26 carries. For his career, though, Fiedler added just +0.030 NEP per play, way below the outlier +0.190 seen above.

So, who are the most terrifying two-minute quarterbacks?

They’re generally the same quarterbacks you don’t want to be playing in the first place. Your best chance is to keep these guys off the field—like the Chiefs tried to do last Sunday with Peyton Manning.

It also helps to not call a timeout that nullifies the game-tying touchdown. Sorry, Rex.

Keith Goldner is the chief analyst at — the leading analytics platform for fantasy sports. Follow him on Twitter @keithgoldner.


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