The Tebow Question Revisited

In an earlier post written prior to the start of the 2011 season, I argued that it was in Denver’s best interests to start the season with Tim Tebow at quarterback, primarily to answer the question as to whether he can play the position in the NFL. Playing him, I said, was the only way to truly find the answer, and determine if he was the future of the franchise or if the team needed to move on.

The Broncos obviously saw things differently, starting the season with Kyle Orton.  As everyone (and I mean literally everyone, with the possible exclusion of those in Amazonian tribes untouched by modern civilization) knows, Denver struggled with Orton, turned to Tebow, and made an improbable run to a division title.

In the process, of course, an unparalleled national phenomenon was born.  Up until recently, it was difficult if not downright impossible to turn on a sports channel and not see Tebow as the center of discussion (coverage was so over-the-top that even I—a die-hard Florida Gator and Tebow fan, who rooted for Denver rabidly, owns a number of his jerseys, and has a picture of him in my room—found it to be too much).  Not surprisingly, Tebow was by far the most mentioned athlete on ESPN from January 7-18, according to Deadspin, and was brought up three times more often than likely-NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, the next highest player on the list.

But all that is ultimately tangential to this post.  The main focus here is not to analyze “Tebow-mania.” Instead, consider the question that I argued Denver needed to answer back in August: Is Tim Tebow their quarterback of the future?

In a way, I was wrong in that previous post. I said playing Tebow in 2011 would help answer the question.  But even though a season has passed, and Tebow did start and win a good number of games, are we actually any closer to an answer?

I would argue we are not.

Yes, Tebow’s win-loss record—7-4 in the regular season—is good, but I will argue until my head blows off that quarterback wins are the most overrated statistic in football and maybe all of sports.  A win in football is too dependent on other factors—such as defense and field position—to give all credit to an individual, even at a position like quarterback (Doug Farrar of Yahoo Sports discusses this topic well). Thus, attributing Denver’s record to Tebow is almost a slap in the face to Denver’s defense (not to mention kicking game) that played as big a role in the Bronco’s division championship.

That said, I don’t want to give the impression that Tebow deserves no credit for the Bronco’s turnaround.  In fact, I believe quite the opposite. For defense and running game dependent teams like Denver, it is crucial for the quarterback to take care of the ball.  Tebow did this, as he only threw six interceptions, and had the ninth-best interception-per-pass attempt ratio in the league in 2011.

He also deserves credit for his fourth-quarter play, as in many ways, Tebow was the opposite of a Lebron James joke: non-existent for three quarters and then bursting onto the scene in the fourth.  Tebow posted five fourth-quarter-comebacks, tying him for the league lead, while also directing five game-winning drives, tying him for second behind only Eli Manning.

This should not, however, make us ignore his play for the other parts of the game, which leaves much to be desired.  Tebow finished 27th in the league in yards-per-attempt, 34th in completion percentage, and 28th in quarterback rating last season.  Also, according to ProFootballFocus, he performed relatively poorly when facing pressure from the defense.  He was sacked on 21% of his pressured dropbacks, which was 21st in the league. In terms of completion percentage on pressured dropbacks, only Curtis Painter (!) was worse.

Naturally, we must give the necessary leeway to a young quarterback who has still not completed a season’s worth of regular season games as a starter.  Still, these are also hardly the numbers of a player who has cemented a starting role.

As for the running game which largely drove the Denver offense, a number of analysts accurately pointed out that it drastically improved once the team made the switch from Orton to Tebow.  The Broncos finished 2011 as the NFL’s top rushing offense, despite rushing for only 86.8 yards per game in the team’s first four games (the switch was made midway through the team’s week 5 loss to San Diego).  Had that average been maintained throughout the year, Denver would have been the league’s worst rushing team in 2011.

This turnaround must be attributed primarily to Tebow, his 660 rushing yards, and the unconventional option offense that was installed to suit his style of play.  Thinking long-term, however, we must call this brand of offense into question.

Yes, it worked last year to an extent, but there is reason to be skeptical of its prospects going forward.  For one, there is a reason option football has remained on the fringes of the pro game: opposing defenses are too fast to make it viable.  We only need to look at recent football history to validate this doubt. In 2008 the “Wildcat” offense took the league by storm, and like the Tebow option, it utilized deception and unconventional formations, and its onset was unexpected.  However, since then, Wildcat has not been anywhere near as successful, as with a full offseason to prepare, opposing defenses were able to reduce it back to gimmick status.  It stands to reason the Denver option could see a comparable fate.  This adds yet another dimension to the debate at hand, as it would force Tebow to move further away from the option attack he has been comfortable in since college and towards a pro style that will ask even more of him.

So once again, let’s go back to the original question: is Tebow a legitimate NFL quarterback?  He has shown signs he can be, although he needs to do so on a much more consistent basis.  Also, the offense ran by Denver in 2011 was not a mainstream pro offense, nor does it seem to be one that will have much longevity, making the situation even murkier.

We are almost certainly headed towards an offseason that will be filled with rumors and speculation on Denver’s quarterback situation.  In the end, my answer as to what I would do if I was in the shoes of John Elway and John Fox is the same as it was last August: Start Tebow. More game experience is the only way to find out if he can do this job.  And this time, I am confident it will yield a definitive answer.

While the situation is unclear, one thing is certain: We will be hearing a lot about it in the coming months.

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