It’s widely accepted that the quarterback position is the most important single position in major North American professional sports. In the NFL, teams with a great quarterback are often able to overcome mediocre talent throughout the remainder of the team. Teams without a good quarterback often struggle despite having talented skill position players and a strong defense. That’s why it’s so frustrating for me to see NFL teams refusing to make what I consider to be needed quarterback changes. There are three teams in particular I think need to change their starting QB: Philadelphia with Nick Foles, Kansas City with Ricky Stanzi, and yes, the New York Jets with Tim Tebow.
Those who have read my work on MMA know that I’m a numbers guy. I like using numbers to make arguments, even when the numbers themselves are somewhat flimsy. So if you’re a statistics-inclined football fan, you probably think I’m off my rocker. That’s because Tim Tebow’s statistics are almost universally dismal. As the starter for the Denver Broncos last year, Tebow completed 46.5 percent of his passes for 6.4 yards per pass attempt. His net yards per pass attempt – a statistic that includes sacks – was just 4.95, the equivalent of a good running back (and that’s not a good thing). His DVOA as a passer was -22.7%, and his DVOA as a rusher was -18.3%. His Total QBR was 29.9, which ranked 31st out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks. No matter what metrics or statistics you like to use, Tebow graded out as a bad quarterback in 2011.
Despite all the dismal numbers, I’m going to stick my neck out by arguing that Tim Tebow is good enough to be an above-average starting quarterback in the NFL. That’s right – I believe that Tebow’s true talent level is one reflective of one of the best 16 quarterbacks in the league. In a sports world that seems to have decided that Tebow is unworthy of the NFL, I’m going to make the case for him.
More than any other major professional sport, NFL statistics are dependent on context. In baseball, a player’s statistics do not need a whole lot of context. Ultimately, how well a player does has little to do with his coaches or teammates, and the strength of his opponents tends to even out over time. When considering a baseball player’s statistics, perhaps the player’s home ballpark should be considered, but there’s little else that needs to be done. By contrast, football is a sport full of context. When a quarterback completes a pass to a receiver, there are a lot of things that happen on the play. The quarterback’s statistics are dependent not just on the quarterback’s ability, but on the strength of the defense, the ability of the receivers, the quality of the offensive line, and the ingenuity of the scheme. When a pass is completed, it’s not just the quarterback and the receiver who made that happen. It was the entire offense, as a whole.
That’s why I’m a fan of DVOA on a team level, but not on an individual level. There is no one statistic that can properly account for the performance of the offensive line, the running backs, the receivers, the defense, and the play design.
Now, I’m a Minnesota Vikings fan, but I paid very close attention to Tim Tebow last season. Why? Because, from the moment he was named the starting quarterback in Denver, Tebow was also my fantasy football quarterback. I had naively thought that I could do well with Kevin Kolb, as Kolb had some good performances with Philadelphia and had the opportunity to work with Larry Fitzgerald. Needless to say, that didn’t go well for me. My fantasy football team was a dismal 1-5 when I desperately turned to Tebow in one last attempt to save the season. As a result, I watched Tebow play in at least part of almost every game he played in last year.
Anybody who paid attention to Tebow knows that the games he played in were a tale of two Tebows. The first Tebow was a truly unproductive player, to the extent that he would set records for futility in professional football if not for the other Tebow. This Tebow generally played in the first three quarters of games, and sometimes into the fourth quarter as well. He would complete very few passes for very few yards. His drives almost always ended in punts or fumbles. He got sacked a lot. And he had severe difficulty putting points on the board.
Then there was the second Tebow, the one who played late in games. This Tebow was an inspirational football player. He would move the ball down the field in a determined attempt to get his team back into the game. His completion percentage was still low, but his yards per attempt were high, and he was a much more productive runner as well. This Tebow was a deadly weapon – a player who no defense would want to face. He led the Broncos on numerous comebacks and improbable victories. He transformed from popular player to cultural phenomenon. And he left opposing teams and defenses dumbstruck. How is it that the player who was so bad in the first three quarters could be so good when the game was on the line? What was the magic behind “Tebow time?”
It wasn’t just a couple games either. It was almost every week. First, Tebow did it to the Miami Dolphins. With five minutes left in the game, Denver was behind 15-0. The final score? Denver 18, Miami 15. Two weeks later, it was the Raiders, who went from a 17-7 halftime lead to losing 38-24. Another two weeks later, it was the Jets, a team with a ferocious defense, especially to quarterbacks. Mark Sanchez watched helplessly as Tebow engineered a 95-yard touchdown drive to win 17-13. One week later, San Diego had a 13-10 lead after three quarters. Of course, the Broncos ended up winning, 16-13. My beloved Vikings were next, as a 15-7 halftime lead turned into a 35-32 defeat. In the game after that, Tebow put together perhaps his greatest comeback yet, as he trailed the Bears 10-0 with under five minutes left, and pulled off yet another comeback, winning 13-10. And against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, Tebow did it yet again, connecting to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime for an 80-yard touchdown to send the Broncos to New England.
I’ve watched football long enough to know that this is no fluke. If a comeback like the ones I described happened once, perhaps I would dismiss it as such. If it happened twice, I would give Tebow his props, but not read too much into it. But Tebow didn’t make a crazy comeback once. He didn’t do it twice. He did it SEVEN TIMES IN ONE SEASON. At that point, what Tebow was able to accomplish goes way beyond luck.
But I don’t believe in magic either. I don’t believe for a second that Tebow is a mere mortal in the first 55 minutes of a game, and a superhuman when things get down to crunch time. In fact, I’ll say right now that the Tim Tebow we saw late in games, making frenzied comebacks, is the REAL Tim Tebow, not the man who struggled throughout the first three quarters of games.
To emphasize the contrast between the two Tebows, here are his statistics as a starter in 2011:
First three quarters per game: 5.39 completions, 13.38 attempts, 75.5 yards
Fourth quarter: 5.15 completions, 9.69 attempts, 75.3 yards
That’s right, Tebow was just as productive in terms of completions and yardage in the fourth quarter of games as he was in the FIRST THREE QUARTERS of games combined.
What explains this dichotomy? What explains how Tebow was able to transform from awful to good?
The answer is simple: Broncos head coach John Fox was terrified of letting Tebow throw the ball. Like most of the football world, Fox saw Tebow’s flawed throwing motion and mechanics and decided he wasn’t a good passer in the NFL. As a result, he severely restricted the Broncos offense when Tebow was the quarterback. When the Broncos would run a passing play, instead of there being a myriad of options, there would be only a couple. Tebow would have three options: force the ball to a covered receiver, throw a “safe” pass that had a low chance of being either completed or intercepted, or run the ball. Given the available options, running the ball sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Tebow will always be a quarterback who runs a lot, but I believe he was often put into the position of running the ball because there was simply no other acceptable option.
Want some tangible evidence of the restricted game plan? Just look at the statistics! Against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tebow had a passing line of 2/8 for 69 yards and a touchdown. Most would fixate on the two completions as a sign of Tebow’s lack of passing ability. But every quarterback in the league will have stretches of 2/8 passing at some point. The real stories are: one, Tebow got 8.6 yards per attempt despite only completing two passes, and two, John Fox only let Tebow pass the ball eight times in a whole game! In the same game, Fox rammed Lance Ball into the line of scrimmage 30 times for just 96 yards. Despite the extremely conservative (scared) game plan, no Tebow time was needed, as the Broncos led throughout and won 17-10.
Overall, Tebow averaged just over 13 pass attempts in the first three quarters of football games. This is a level of distrust typically reserved for raw rookies, third-stringers, or Tarvaris Jackson. It’s a serious sign of the argument I’m making: that Tebow’s utter lack of passing offense was a reflection of a badly restricted passing game in Denver, because of the organization’s opinion that Tebow really was no good.
What explains Tebow’s sudden heroic performances late in games? The answer is very simple: trailing late in a game, the Broncos had no choice but to open up the offense! Teams that trail by two scores with five minutes left have nothing to lose, and neither did John Fox. With his team behind late, the coaches relented, and gave Tebow an honest-to-goodness NFL offense to work with. And the results were seemingly magical: Tebow completed more passes for more yards, got more first downs, led longer drives, and put points on the board. In other words, Tebow was a good NFL quarterback.
If Tebow’s average statistics in the fourth quarter are extrapolated over a full game, his average passing line would look like this: 21/39 for 301 yards. Of course, Tebow wouldn’t have so many pass attempts throughout games, because he wouldn’t have to play catch-up all the time. So let’s say an unrestricted Tebow would average 28 pass attempts per game (an admittedly arbitrary number). Tebow’s resulting passing line would be 15/28 for 216 yards. This of course doesn’t include Tebow’s inevitable rushing contributions.
Now, it’s a year later, and Tebow is languishing on the Jets as their backup quarterback. Once again, Tebow is in a situation where the coaching staff clearly thinks he’s a terrible passer. That’s because Rex Ryan keeps putting Tebow on the field in ways other than as a passer – sometimes Tebow is a running back, sometimes a wide receiver, sometimes a fullback, and sometimes he’s even a blocker on a punt play. If this is what Tebow is destined to do for the remainder of his career, it will be a tremendous waste of a unique NFL talent.
What Tim Tebow needs is very simple: the opportunity to be the quarterback for an offense that doesn’t limit him. I believe that if a team names Tim Tebow their starting quarterback and lifts the restrictions that coaches so frequently place on him, Tebow will show the world that he is, in fact, a good quarterback, one who is capable of scoring a lot of points and winning a lot of games.
One person who thinks Tebow is a valuable player? None other than New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, arguably the most brilliant football mind in a generation. The Patriots were said to be interested in taking Tebow in the 2010 NFL draft, and Belichick recently made headlines for praising Tebow. And before you say that Belichick says things like that just to get the Jets to play Tebow, consider that Belichick isn’t one to heap praise on players often. Is that the reason Belichick heaped praise on Ed Reed too? Don’t be shocked if the Patriots acquire Tebow at some point – as the heir apparent to Tom Brady himself.
As for my fantasy team… well, after making Tebow my starting fantasy quarterback, my previously 1-5 team went 9-1 the rest of the way and won the league championship. Just another comeback for Tebow.
Football is a sport about context. Context is what has defined the career of Tim Tebow. Scouts and coaches have seen the way Tebow throws the ball, and dismissed him as somebody who doesn’t have what it takes to be a quarterback in the NFL. Offensive restrictions, borne out of a distrust of Tebow’s passing, have created the dichotomy in Tebow’s game, and created the idea that there are two Tebows. The reality is that there is only one Tim Tebow. He’s not an elite quarterback, but he’s a good one. And he’ll prove it if a head coach finally gives him the chance.