Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tebow Has All the Tools...but One

Here at FreeTime, we like to kick them when they're up and lift them when they're down. This is partly because we're pathologically obsessed with The Overrated and The Underrated*, and partly because debate is sort of like Olympic diving - degree of difficulty matters.

* In fact, when I was coming up with a name for this blog, one idea was Overrated/Underrated, with every story focused on someone/thing that was overrated (Jeter! Clooney!) or underrated (John Adams! Eli Manning!). Notice how the Underrated guys need their full name spelled out?

Which brings us to the matter of Tim Tebow. I had a Tebow column halfway written on December 11, after the Broncos defeated the Bears. Tebow was riding high: the Broncos had won 7 of 8, his passing yards had increased 5 straight games, his TD-to-INT ratio was 8-1, and his critics were cowering in the corner. It was time to strike.

But alas, on December 12th I was diagnosed with a detached retina, and two days later had surgery. While I was recovering Tebow fell hard. The Broncos got crushed by the Patriots, trampled by the Bills, and in week 17, an important game against the Chiefs to guarantee a playoff spot, Tebow put up the following line:

6 for 22, 60 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception.

The Broncos scored 3 points and needed the Raiders to lose in order to backdoor the playoffs. I don't care how much you mistrust stats: that is some seriously crappy, unclutch, non-winning football. And as anyone who saw the game will attest, it wasn't just a statistical nightmare; it was an avert-your-eyes horror show.

So the moment had passed. I couldn't pile on then.

But now Timmy's back! He had his best game as a pro Sunday. It had the usual Tebow dramatics but with a twist: big passing numbers! He even broke John Elway's Broncos' record for playoff yards. So, it's time for me to enter the fray.

Now let me stipulate a few things first:

1. I like Tim Tebow. He seems like a genuinely good guy in a sports world filled with bad guys.
2. I like the Tebow story. It is like every sports movie every made - the underdog who is told he can't do it but pulls it off in dramatic fashion.
3. I especially liked the fact that Tebow beat Ben Roethlisberger, who is, let's say, not a good guy.

Finally, he has many qualities that are useful in an NFL quarterback. Useful, but not necessary. For example:
  1. He is big and strong, which is useful but not necessary (see Drew Brees).
  2. He is very good at running the ball, which is useful but not necessary (see Peyton Manning)
  3. He is fiery and animated, which is useful but not necessary (see Eli Manning).
  4. He had great success in college, which is useful but not necessary (see Tom Brady).
  5. He is a morally upright person, which is useful but not necessary (see Ben Roethlisberger).

Those five quarterbacks won 8 of the last 10 Super Bowls. All but the injured Peyton made the playoffs this year, as usual. And while all of them are different, they share one thing in common: they are really really good at throwing a football.

And that's my problem with the Tebow Debate. It's become, like most sports arguments, a litmus test on Stats vs. Winning*.

* And unlike most sports arguments, a litmus test on religion. But I'm not going there. For that, I recommend this piece by Fran Tarkenton in today's Wall Street Journal.

But all of this ignores the most important question: Can a quarterback have long-term success iin today's NFL if he can't throw well? And Tim Tebow cannot throw well:
  • His YPA (yards per attempt) is 6.4, 29th in the league behind, well, pretty much everyone but Curtis Painter. YPA is arguably the single most important passing stat.
  • His completion % is 46.5%, 34th among the 34 QBs who threw enough passes to qualify. He is the only QB in the league under 50%.
  • TD % is 4.4 (meaning, he throws TDs on 4.4% of his passes). Not bad, at 13th in the league, but still beyond such stalwarts as Christian Ponder, Mark Sanchez, and Matt Moore
  • His INT% is solid. At 2.2 he is 9th in the league.
  • But that is offset by his QB rating. At 29th, he is behind Colt McCoy, among other mediocrities. QB rating measures efficiency and loves a low INT %. But the rest of Tebow's game is so horrendous, the paucity of picks doesn't help much.
  • His Yards Per Game is 34th. The only starter in the league who is lower is Josh Freeman.

And finally, there is Game Winning Drives*. Ah, the fans say, what do you have to say now, Smart Guy? He's tied for the league lead with 6, which is impressive. But there are two problems with that. One is that a guy like Aaron Rodgers has only one - not because he can't do it, but because he's so damn good all day long he generally spends his final drive taking a knee.

* Definition: An offensive scoring drive in the 4th quarter or OT that puts a team ahead for the last time.

But the other is this: do you know who has been better than Tim Tebow at game winning drives? Go ahead, I'll give you a minute. No, it's not Eli Manning, who also has 6 but was the starter in more games. It's not Alex Smith, with 5, though he was good, too. Drew Brees? Good guess, but he only had 4.

No, the best comeback quarterback in football this year was John Skelton. Casual fans don't even know who he is, but football fans know he took over the Cardinals' starting job in November. He played in 8 games for the Cards this year, starting 7 - and had 5 game-winning comebacks. 5 comebacks in 8 games? That's amazing...but something tells me he won't be on the cover of Madden next year.

Finally, the last worrisome thing for those who picture a Tebow plaque at Canton someday...

Tim Tebow isn't playing in the 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's, or even the first decade of this century. He's playing at time when explosive passing attacks have taken over the sport. You've seen all the stats elsewhere, but this paragraph by Gregg Easterbrook captures well what a passing league the NFL is right now:

It's the year of offensive stat-a-rama throughout the NFL. There have been five 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history; three of them were this year. Drew Brees and Tom Brady both eclipsed the previous passing yards record in the same season. Records were set for passer rating, completion percentage and team yards from scrimmage. In the regular season, NFL teams averaged 235 gross passing yards per game, surpassing the previous high of 221 in 1995 and way above the 1971 average of 156 yards. Three of the top five rushing teams missed the playoffs while all the top five passing teams made the postseason. Detroit just gained a spectacular 882 yards passing in two games over six days -- and lost both because opponents gained 928 yards passing. The Packers and Patriots, with the league's lowest-rated defenses, just used scoreboard-spinning to win the conference top seeds. The league's No. 1 defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers, is already out of the playoffs, torched by Denver. In this year of offensive stat-a-rama, even a sputtering offense trumped the best defense!

I like Tim Tebow. It's a truly great sports story. And I'll be rooting for him this weekend against Patriots.

But enjoy the show now. This is the modern NFL, where a quarterback has to be able to consistently throw balls into very tight spots. And that is the one thing Tim Tebow cannot do.

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