What is Tebow Good For?
First off I want to say that I love having Tebow in the league. I find this type of old-timey football immensely entertaining, and I’ always glad to see someone try unorthodox strategies. If someone is running Single Wing I’m happy. If someone tries having 2 QBs on the field simultaneously I’m really happy.
Second, I think the Broncos will win the West and perhaps even a playoff game even though I’m about to rip Tebow, but we’ll get to that (and why it doesn’t really matter) in a sec.
Tim Tebow does offer some positives and they are covered by this article. He does not turn the ball over that much for two reasons: 1. Low-risk plays and 2. Limited possessions. With a good defense that can work, and we know this already because we’ve seen it with Trent Dilfer and with Brad Johnson.
Tim Tebow is Bad At Passing. That’s a Bad Thing.
This raises the question: Is Tim Tebow really that novel? I’d assert that he is not. Michael Vick has been around for quite some time now, and while he hasn’t been running “the option” (and by the way, Tebow is not running “the option” in the conventional sense either, at least not yet. He runs the spread option which is actually pretty similar to a conventional passing offense with more QB runs. People talk about it like it’s the true, old-school triple option. It’s not. STOP CONFUSING THE OPTIONS.) he has forced defenses to account for a speedy QB. Ben Roethlisberger’s huge ass has required defensive coordinators to account for a QB who can shrug off lineman and buy time (as did Dante Culpepper before his catastrophic knee injury).* The difference is that these guys CAN pass, and this is where all the Tebow praise needs to take a step back. Tebow is a running QB who cannot pass, and this weakness is becoming a strength in the eyes of some. That’s dumb for the simple reason that teams that can pass are (almost always) more efficient than teams that run.**
Let’s use Football Outsider’s stats here since they’re context driven and incorporate things like turnovers. The top 6 offenses are: GB, NE, Hou, NO, Pitt, and the NYG. All of these teams rank highly in passing efficiency (even the Texans, who are 4th in rushing efficiency are 3rd in passing). In fact, their passing rankings almost perfectly sync up with their overall offensive rankings with Pitt the lone outlier (they are 7th in passing, 5th overall). The best rushing team (the Eagles) rank 9th overall, and the 2nd best rushing team (the Panthers) ranks 7th.
Let’s talk about the Panthers for a second because Cam Newton is an excellent runner in his own right. He is, in some ways, the Panther’s most valuable runner and you can make the case (as you can with Tebow) that his presence opens things up for his RBs. The difference is that Newton is also a decent passer (the Panthers are 12th in passing DVOA, not too shabby.) Here’s a question: Does anyone think that Carolina should run the option? They have talented RBs, and doing so would probably reduce turnovers. The obvious answer is no, because Carolina’s defense has been laughable (dead last in DVOA, behind even Indy). To win games the Panthers need MORE offense, and so Cam Newton needs to pass, because that is ultimately how you score points. This also means that the primary reason that Denver has been winning while scoring fewer points is their defense, and indeed, this appears to be the case.
The Denver Defense Is The Reason The Broncos Win.
On October 9th Tim Tebow entered the game against the San Diego Chargers and had a minor role in a stirring comeback that came up just short. The Broncos then had a bye and declared Tebow the starter. He subsequently managed an 18-15 win over a pretty bad Dolphin team (in front of a very friendly crowd) and in his next start was destroyed by a pretty good Lions team. (People tend to gloss over this game.) Anyway, something else interesting happened in their next game on November 6th against the Raiders. The day before Rotoworld wrote the following about Elvis Dumervil:
"Broncos RE Elvis Dumervil has yet to record a sack this season.
Dumervil has been active for only five games with nagging shoulder and ankle injuries that have impacted his ability to get to the corner with his signature up-and-under move. Dumervil will look to get on the board against Raiders left tackle Jared Veldheer this week. Nov 5 - 10:15 AM"
Elvis Dumervil*** started the season dinged up. He missed time and was ineffective upon returning. Then against the Raiders it’s fair to say he got healthy. Dumervil recorded 1.5 sacks in that game and went on to record .5, 1.5, and 2.0 sacks in his next 3 games. Against Oakland all of his sacks were on 3rd down. Against KC his half sack came on 4th down in a one score game. Against the Jets he had another half sack on 3rd down and a full sack in the 4th quarter. Dumervil put Rivers in bad situations several times as well.
Elvis Dumervil recovering is just a one part of the total picture. DJ Williams missed the first 3 games of the season. Champ Bailey missed games 2, 3, and 4. Tebow, remember, came in at half-time of game 5. In the last Denver game (against San Diego) Williams led the team in tackles with 10 solo and 2 assists, Champ Bailey took Vincent Jackson out of the game, and Elvis Dumervil had 2 sacks. Of the stars on the Denver defense, only Von Miller has played in every game. All of the rest have missed time, and in every single one of those games Kyle Orton was the QB.
Tim Tebow may help out his defense a bit, but do you know what helps more? Having all of their best players.
There are two things you should look at when explaining the successes and failures on an NFL team. The first is injuries, which we just covered. The other is schedule.
Kyle Orton didn’t exactly play a murderer’s row, but his schedule was notably more difficult than Tebow’s. When Orton faced the Oakland Raiders in week 1 Darren McFadden ran at will (22 carries, 150 yards), and Oakland won a tight game (23-20) on a record-tying, 63-yard field goal from Sebastian Janikowski. Oakland had also not yet suffered several key defensive injuries (most notably Matt Shaugnessy****) while Denver was without Williams and Dumervil. When Tebow faced Oakland they were starting a fresh-off-the-boat Carson Palmer (3 picks), Michael Bush was in for Darren McFadden (though he is a quality player in his own right), and the Broncos had their full complement of defensive players.
When Orton started against San Diego (and replaced by Tebow at half time) Ryan Mathews had a huge game (24 carries, 125 yards) and Malcolm Floyd wasn’t hurt yet (3 catches, 100 yards). While Champ took away Jackson again, Floyd was able to exploit the other side and San Diego was able to put up 29 points. LT Marcus McNeil was also still around for this game.
In the second meeting Mathews was great again, but without Floyd opposite Vincent Jackson (and without McNeil) the Charger passing game couldn’t do a thing.
Orton actually played very well in a win over the Bengals, but had the misfortune of facing the juggernaut Packers without Champ Bailey or a fully healthy Dumervil (the Packers put up 49 points).*****
Orton’s Broncos suffered a narrow loss against the Titans, again without Bailey or Dumervil, and at a time when the Titans still had Kenny Britt (at least for 2 quarters. He was injured in this game).
The point is that Orton caught his opponents at the worst possible times. Tebow, on the other hand, had nothing but good fortune.
Aside from the Raiders and Chargers, he also started against a bad Miami team and was lucky to escape with a victory (Tebow was sacked 6 times and was fortunate to recover a fumble at one point). He beat a Chiefs team that is one of the worst in the NFL, and has been decimated by injuries. (And did so despite only completing 2 passes). The Jets, like the Broncos, try to play defense/ball control, but in their matchup Shonn Green was knocked out with an injury and they were already without Ladanian Tomlinson. Joe McKnight was their leading rusher with 16 carries for 59 yards. You’ll recall this as the game where Tebow had that ridiculous 20 yard TD run to win it when the Jets decided to blitz and not contain. If either Jet runner is available Tebow may never even get that chance.
Tebow’s luck is going to continue too as the Broncos have a pretty easy schedule the rest of the way (@Min, Chicago (with Hanie), NE (this is the one tough game), @Buffalo, KC again). I think it’s very likely that the Broncos either win the West or a wildcard with that schedule.
Wins, Causation, Correlation, Symbolism
Tebow critics (like me) should not be counting on a late season Tebow collapse. The Broncos schedule isn’t very difficult and it’s entirely possible that they’ll continue winning. This also shouldn’t be a problem for any halfway intelligent fan because, as we know, “wins” are a terrible way to measure individual performance, especially in a game with as many moving parts as football.
The Broncos will still win (probably) and their quarterback will still be terrible, and those two sentences are in no way contradictory. It’s easy for your average rube football fan to see Orton-losses, Tebow-wins and make the “obvious” association, but that is entirely correlation, not causation. This is exacerbated by Tebow’s outspoken Christianity. Christian fans want to believe in Tebow even if there’s no reason to do so. Being Christian is neither an asset nor a hindrance to football, but the fact is that there exists a substantial fan base with an inherent bias for Tebow. In the never-wanting-to-offend****** mainstream sports media, this colors the analysis further.
It’s really kind of a shame. The Denver defense should be getting far more credit than they are, and even when they do it’s usually limited to Von Miller. They’re a good story; they’re just not as good a story as the grindy upstanding Christian white boy who is seemingly overcoming his inability to do his job correctly.
I’d rank the factors in Tebow’s “success” as follows:
1. 1. Defense.
2. 2. Schedule.
3. 3. Luck.
4. 4. Tebow.
*Another problem that Tebow is likely to face is injury. He runs to contact and backs who run to contact tend to have short shelf lives. Toss in the notion that the punishment he takes could impact his already substandard passing further and it’s hard to see this working long term. Culpepper missed time in 01 and 03, and had his career cut short in his prime by injury. Roethlisberger has been in the league for 8 years and if he plays in 16 games this season it will be only the 2nd time. Something to keep in mind.
**They run this offense because of what Tebow CANNOT do, which means that any talented runner with less-than-stellar passing can probably run it too. Tommy Frazier is probably kicking himself right now.
***Von Miller gets all the press, but Dumervil is exactly 2 seasons removed from leading the league in sacks with 17. He is a huge impact player when healthy.
****Here’s Rotoworld on Shaughnessy just after he was placed on IR: “Shaughnessy hadn't played since Week 3, but it's still a big loss for a Raiders defensive line hoping to get back its best end later in the year. The 25-year-old former third-round steal racked up seven sacks and graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 5 run-stopping defensive end last season. Oakland will close out the year using a rotation of Jarvis Moss and Kamerion Wimbley at right defensive end. Shaughnessy will return in 2012 on a cheap, $565,000 base salary.”
*****Not having your top corner against the Packers is about as bad as it gets. It’s a bit like losing your ace in baseball as the guy that replaces him isn’t the 2nd or 3rd or 4th or 5th best pitcher on the team, it’s the 6th best starter. It’s always a HUGE drop-off. The Packers are so deep at WR that starting practice squad-level talent at CB is a recipe for failure.
******Except for guys like Cowherd and Bayless who offend in calculated and incredibly stupid ways just to rile you up.