Can Tim Tebow Keep It Up?
The Tim Tebow experience completed its 10th start with its usual stunning comeback victory over the Vikings last Sunday. Of course, Tebow’s packed a full career into those 10 starts: He’s gone from laughingstock to starter twice, and in the meantime, he’s played wide receiver and been the point man for an offense the NFL would have laughed at installing for most of the past 40 years. In those 10 starts, Tebow’s numbers have been alternately impressive and gruesome. He’s completed 48.5 percent of his passes in his starts and averaged just 162.6 passing yards per game, but he’s thrown just four interceptions (including one lone pick in 2011) against 13 passing touchdowns. And of course, he’s been a wildly effective runner, averaging nearly six yards per carry on his 106 attempts while scoring five rushing touchdowns. Oh, and most important, the Broncos are 7-3 in those games that Tebow starts and 4-14 in the games he doesn’t.
That’s all great, but here’s the million-dollar question: Can he keep it up?
As you might suspect, Tebow is winning games in ways that very few quarterbacks have been able to pull off in the past, so finding comparable situations to what he’s been able to do at the beginning of his career is difficult. For a variety of reasons, the most statistically comparable quarterback to Tebow during their respective first 10 starts is Jake Delhomme, who isn’t comparable to Tebow in real-life in just about any way. So to figure out if Tebow can sustain this level of play and win, we’re going to have to break his performance into little chunks and analyze them individually. And let’s start with the most tangible question for the big-picture people out there.
1. Can Tebow keep winning this frequently?
As you may have noticed, Tebow has basically been pulling out close games in the fourth quarter all season. His 6-1 record has seen him win five games by a touchdown or less, and his sixth win (by 14 points) entered the fourth quarter as a tie game. On the other hand, his lone loss was a 35-point blowout by the Lions, who have promptly gone 1-3 and become an embarrassment to the league after mocking Tebow. Hmm.
In all, despite winning all those games with Tebow as the starter this year, the Broncos have actually been outscored by a total of two points in those games. Throw in Tebow’s three starts at the end of last season, in which he went 1-2 and both won and lost a game by a touchdown or less, and the Broncos have been outscored by 22 points in Tebow’s first 10 professional starts. Despite that, they are 7-3.
Here’s the problem, though. From 1990 through 2010, 124 quarterbacks debuted and made 10 starts. Eighty-one of those quarterbacks were outscored through their first 10 games, so Tebow is in frequent company. Of those 81 quarterbacks, though, guess how many managed to put up a winning record in the process? Try two. Delhomme was one, since he went 7-3 while getting outscored by 11 points. The other one was a player whose style and college success would remind folks of Tebow: Vince Young, who started his career 6-4 and was outscored by 11 points in those games. In their next 10 starts, those two guys were able to keep their heads above water, since they combined to go 12-8 while outscoring the opposition by just 20 points, or one point per game.
The 13 quarterbacks who started their careers 5-5 might be a better example of how point differential matters. Seven of the 5-5 guys had a negative point differential, ranging from -4 (Rick Mirer) to -45 (Todd Collins). In their next 10 starts, those quarterbacks went a combined 23-43 (Note: Not all of the quarterbacks made it to 10 starts) and were outscored by 257 points. Meanwhile, the other six guys had positive point differentials that ranged from +4 (Steve McNair) to +65 (Aaron Rodgers). In their next 10 games, they went 30-25 and outscored the opposition by 104 points.
Over the second group of 10 games (starts 11-20 of a player’s career), just one player was able to go 7-3 or better while being outscored by his opposition: legendary Bears quarterback Shane Matthews. It’s just extremely difficult to win a lot of games while you’re getting outscored over any period of time. Twenty-two quarterbacks started their career with a 10-start stretch that saw their team get outscored by a total between two and 42 points, or within a 20-point margin of Tebow’s Broncos. In their next 10 starts, they went a combined 93-105 (46.9 percent). In fact, it’s hard to win games consistently, period. Thirteen quarterbacks over the time frame started their careers 7-3, like Tebow did, regardless of what their point differential was. In their next 10 games, they went a combined 63-67 (48.4 percent).
So, in other words, the fact that Tebow’s started his career winning seven of his first 10 starts shouldn’t tell us very much about what he’s likely to do going forward, but the fact that he’s done so while being outscored isn’t exactly a great sign.
2. Can Tebow keep winning close games?
Seven Tebow starts have ended with a margin of victory of one touchdown or less. Tebow’s Broncos have won six of them, often on the final drive of the game, in incredibly exciting fashion. Fans want him to keep that up. The TV networks want him to keep that up. We, truthfully, want him to keep that up, since it’s fun to see a guy who sails passes for three quarters suddenly throw 35-yard spirals onto outstretched fingertips. But is there any historical precedent for a player keeping up that style of winning?
Again, there are not many players to compare Tebow to. Only two players since 1990 have gone 6-1 or better in close games amidst their first 10 starts at quarterback: Delhomme (like Tebow, 6-1) and Chad Henne (6-0!). In their next 10 starts, Delhomme and Henne were 6-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That jibes with our research that a team’s record in those close games from year to year is basically random and will revolve around the mean (a .500 record). But it’s also just two players.
Instead, let’s go with the 20 players who won at least four games by a touchdown or less in their first 10 starts and had a winning record in those close games. During their first 10 starts, those players’ overall win-loss record was 124-76 (a winning percentage of .620), and they were a combined 87-35 (.713) in games decided by a touchdown or less. Pretty impressive. In their next 10 starts, though, those quarterbacks were a combined 94-94, and in games decided by one TD or less, they were 48-42 (.533).
Winning close games to start your career is fun and profitable, but it doesn’t indicate anything about your ability to do so going forward. Gus Johnson’s awareness of this rule is one of the reasons he stopped doing NFL games after an incredible 2010 season.
3. Can Tebow continue to avoid throwing interceptions?
During his time under center, Tebow has exhibited a freakish ability to avoid being intercepted. Whether it’s the location of his incomplete passes, a scheme built to avoid putting him in situations in which his throws are dangerous, some incredible amount of skill, or total blind luck, Tebow’s basically the safest quarterback in football when the ball is in the air. He’s thrown just four interceptions in 229 attempts during his 10 starts, producing a ridiculous interception rate of 1.7 percent. This year, he’s gotten even stingier, with just one pick all year and an otherworldly interception rate of 0.6 percent. In both cases, Tebow is better than career interception rate leader Aaron Rodgers, who’s going to win this year’s MVP. Has anybody played like that during his NFL infancy?
Well, a few players have. If you hate Tim Tebow, you might want to turn away right now, because a bunch of those players turned out to be really great quarterbacks. Six players had interception rates better than Tebow’s during their first 10 starts: David Garrard (0.7 percent), Michael Vick (0.8 percent), Damon Huard (1.1 percent, although he finished his first 10 starts eight years after being drafted), Chad Pennington (1.4 percent), Mark Brunell (1.6 percent), and Philip Rivers (1.7 percent). That’s good company! We’re still in the infancy of using stats to project performance going forward, but it’s entirely possible that the ability to avoid interceptions is a sign that a player has professional viability, just like a pitcher’s ability to avoid home runs and induce ground balls in the minor leagues has been linked to success at the major league level.
Were any of those guys able to keep their interception rates low, though? Not really. Those players with the 10 lowest interception rates during their first 10 games (including all of the ones listed above) produced an average interception rate of 1.5 percent during their first 10 starts, but in their next 10 starts, their interception rate doubled to 3.2 percent. In all, quarterbacks’ interception rate during their first 10 games explains exactly two percent of those players’ interceptions going forward.
The numbers suggest that Tebow is exhibiting a sign of future professional viability, but even if he makes it as a professional quarterback, he’s been lucky to avoid those picks so far. He will have to pay the interception piper eventually.
4. Can a quarterback win while completing so few of his passes?
Guys were capable of putting up winning seasons with a 48.5 percent completion rate at one point in the NFL’s history, but it was the late ’60s and early ’70s, not the hyper-accurate times of 2011. Just six quarterbacks since 1990 have started their careers with completion percentages over their first 10 starts below what Tebow’s done, and only one of them really had a serious NFL career. Those six were Mike McMahon (43.8 percent), Heath Shuler (43.9 percent), Ryan Leaf (44.1 percent), Anthony Wright (47.2 percent), Drew Bledsoe (47.4 percent), and Akili Smith (48.2 percent). Nothing good has ever come out of being listed in a group with Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith. And the players just ahead of Tebow in early completion percentage are Browning Nagle, Craig Erickson, Craig Whelihan, Eli Manning, Joey Harrington, and Kerry Collins. It’s not a good list of comparable colleagues.
The bad news for Tebow is that a player’s completion percentage — unlike his interception rate — tends to stay pretty consistent as he gets more NFL experience. A player’s completion percentage during his first 10 starts explains about 25 percent of the variance between the completion percentages of quarterbacks in their next 10 starts. Of those quarterbacks, the only ones to really ever gain some level of accuracy to justify a pro career are Bledsoe, Collins, and Manning, each of whom had significantly better credentials as a pro-style pocket passer coming out of school than Tebow. Players as inaccurate as Tebow wash out of the league at an extraordinarily fast rate.
We see very little statistical evidence to suggest that Tebow has a viable career as a pro quarterback ahead of him. On the other hand, if anyone is going to be an exception to quarterback statistics, it’s going to be Tebow. No, it’s not because he prays or tries really hard or is a fearless leader. It’s because, for better or worse, he has a style that’s so dramatically different from just about every other quarterback who has come along over the past 20 years. He adds more running value and changes defenses than anyone outside of Michael Vick, and that’s something stats clearly don’t capture when we’re comparing him to players like Drew Bledsoe or Jake Delhomme. Tim Tebow probably can’t win 70 percent of the time or pick up victories in 85 percent of his close games, but maybe he can sustain an incredibly low interception rate or win with an embarrassing completion percentage in a way that other players can’t. At the very least, it’s certainly going to be a lot of fun to see him try to pull it off.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
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