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Debunking the Tim Tebow Myth

If you think the Broncos' new starting quarterback has finally earned the right to be treated like NFL royalty, you probably don't want to read this breakdown

“Congrats to @TimTebow for that comeback win today. Impressive! He’s just a winner.”
@KingJames, who knows about guys who just win when he sees them.

Far be it from us to ruin an admittedly great story, but let’s be real about the Tim Tebow plaudits being thrown around after the Broncos’ 18-15 comeback over the Dolphins on Sunday. Tebow certainly deserves some of the credit, but not the massive outpouring of praise that is being thrown his way.

The Win Probability chart at for this game tells the true story of what happened. When Tebow took over on his own 20-yard line down 15 points with 5:23 left, both Broncos and Dolphins fans were leaving the stadium in Miami, and they weren’t wrong to do so. The Broncos’ chances of winning were estimated to be around 1 percent. Tebow proceeded to lead his most impressive drive of the day, going 80 yards in eight plays, throwing a five-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas.

For all that work, the Broncos’ chances of winning had improved all the way to … 2 percent. Teams with an eight-point lead that are about to receive the kickoff simply don’t lose very frequently; it takes an expected onside kick to pick it up, and teams recover expected onside kicks only about 20 percent of the time. When the Broncos were able to recover the kick, their win expectancy improved to 12 percent; the onside kick was six times more valuable than Tebow’s drive. If that figure seems low, consider that the Broncos still needed to drive 50 yards, score, pick up a two-point conversion, and then win in overtime. They had momentum in their favor, but so have plenty of other teams in this scenario who haven’t been able to pick up the W.

Tebow then proceeded to take advantage of a short field. Starting on his own 44-yard line, Tebow drove the team 56 yards in 10 plays, highlighted by a gorgeous 28-yard throw to (and equally impressive catch from) Daniel Fells. After that, Denver converted the two-pointer on a Tebow run1 and the Broncos’ win expectancy was pushed all the way up to 46 percent. They’d made an incredible comeback, but they were still underdogs heading into overtime.

After they won the overtime coin toss and traded possessions with the Broncos, the Dolphins remained favorites. When Daniel Thomas converted a second-and-2 to give the Dolphins a new set of downs on their own 43-yard line, the Dolphins only needed to travel about 25 more yards to pick up a game-winning field goal. They win an estimated 67 percent of the time in that situation.

That, of course, led to the final dramatic swing. Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams sacked Matt Moore on the ensuing play, producing a single-play swing that was bigger than any of Tebow’s drives. The Broncos went from a win expectancy of 33 percent to 78 percent by recovering the fumble, and while they proceeded to gain only two yards on the subsequent drive, they converted another short field into points to win the game.

On Sunday, Tim Tebow was given a total of 15 possessions. Four of them started with 56 yards or less to go for an offensive touchdown. Not coincidentally, of the four, three were his final three drives, and he produced a total of 11 points on those drives. His other 11 drives all started deep in his own territory, with six of them beginning on the 20-yard line and only one beyond the 25 (a drive that started on the Miami 41 that resulted in a missed field goal). Ten of those drives resulted in eight punts, a missed field goal, and a fumble. They gained, on average, less than 12 yards.

This isn’t a one-week trend, either. When he came in against the Chargers last Sunday, Tebow started with three consecutive drives inside his own 31-yard line. The Broncos punted on all three drives. On the ensuing two possessions, though, Tebow started from his own 49-yard line and the San Diego 41-yard line. With the short fields, he proceeded to score two touchdowns. It can’t be much simpler.

A lot of what we’re crediting to Tim Tebow is actually the impact of things that are totally out of his control, a combination of field position, defensive turnovers, and a miracle on special teams. He deserves some of the plaudits that have come his way over the past two Sundays. Just not all of them.

Metal Machine Music Minute of the Week

It’s time to put the Dolphins, though, into their proper context, with a new feature. Until the Dolphins win a game, we will be notating and analyzing their failures each week through the lens of the legendarily dreadful Lou Reed solo album Metal Machine Music in the Metal Machine Music Minute of the Week.

Reed’s album is, as Wikipedia notes, “generally considered to be either a joke, a grudging fulfillment of a contractual obligation, or an early example of noise music.” It is literally an album consisting entirely of droning guitar feedback, with Reed placing two guitars in front of their amplifiers while using the feedback from the amps to physically move the strings. It bears no resemblance to Reed’s earlier catalog as a solo artist or with the Velvet Underground or, really, music in any accepted, popular sense of the word.

It’s a perfect match for the Dolphins. Like Reed’s epic sound collage from 1975, the Dolphins are difficult to understand and downright confrontational toward any accepted standards of quality within their respective genres. Reed has claimed there are references to Beethoven hidden within his hour of hiss, which makes sense in this analogy, since the Dolphins claim to run the same sort of pass patterns and blitz packages as great NFL teams from the past.

This week’s Metal Machine Music Minute of the Week is minute 19:30-20:30, early in part two of four. Like the Dolphins’ near-victory over the Broncos, it starts with some promising moments of something vaguely resembling melody, like the beginning of a poppier Sonic Youth song. As we hit the final 15 seconds, though, a foreboding squeal going from right to left begins to take over, and as the minute draws to an end, this new shrill feedback loop is all the listener can focus on.

Also, like Metal Machine Music, the Dolphins are painful to take in for even 60 seconds. So let’s hope they actually win a game sometime soon.

Ram Off

As bad as the Dolphins are, the 0-6 Rams might be worse. They have not led in a game since 5:47 of the first quarter in their Week 2 matchup against the Giants; that’s a stretch of 287 minutes and 13 seconds in which the Rams have either been tied or trailing. Through six games, the Rams have had a lead for a total of just six minutes and 28 seconds. There have been replay challenges that lasted more than 6:28 this year.

Let’s put the Rams’ futility in its proper historical context, though. Through the first six games, the putrid Rams offense has scored just 56 points. Since the merger in 1970, that is the eighth-fewest points scored by any team through its first six games. It’s the smallest total since the 2000 Bengals produced 37 points in their first six games. Remember that those Bengals started the year with Akili Smith at quarterback. Sam Bradford and Josh McDaniels are somehow worse than Akili Smith and Bruce Coslet? That’s just not right.

A Timeout for Timeouts

Why can’t NFL head coaches manage the end of the first half effectively? Because there are times when they get rewarded for making the wrong decisions.

Take the Carolina Panthers, who took over the ball in a 6-6 game with 1:02 left on their own 20-yard line and one timeout for the Redskins. While the Panthers are certainly capable of moving the ball 50 yards in a minute with two timeouts to set up for a field goal, that option sure seemed unlikely when Cam Newton took a three-yard sack on first down. With two plays left before fourth down, the Panthers could have run the ball twice and ensured that they went into the half tied without giving the Redskins a shot at scoring.

Instead, the Panthers passed the ball on second down. After an incomplete pass, amazingly, they passed again on third down. They handed the ball back to the Redskins with 36 seconds left. And what did the Redskins do with this largesse? Showed that giving was better than receiving, of course, as turnover magnet Jabar Gaffney fumbled and gave the ball to the Panthers on the Washington 34-yard line. The Panthers promptly kicked a field goal, scored on their next drive in this second half, and never trailed the rest of the way.

Timeout fiascos also prevent big plays from having a chance of occurring. When the Packers sacked Christian Ponder with 1:49 left in the first half, it set up a third-and-12 for the Vikings on the Packers’ 34-yard line. Green Bay had three timeouts. The odds of Minnesota picking up a first down were slim; a run or a checkdown on third down to get 4-5 yards and set up for an easier field goal was the most plausible play coming up. Either way, it was clear that the Packers should have taken a timeout and ensured that Aaron Rodgers had as much time as possible to lead a two-minute drill.

Coach Mike McCarthy chose to pass on the timeout and let the clock run. The Vikings took 40 seconds off the clock before throwing an incomplete pass and successfully putting a 52-yarder through the uprights. The move left Rodgers with all three of his timeouts, but just 55 seconds left on the clock. He drove them 58 yards in 45 seconds before giving way to a 45-yard field goal, but the Packers left a timeout on the field. You don’t get to bring them with you, and Green Bay would have been better off without that timeout and with an extra 30 seconds of play.

Stay Healthy

With virtually the same group of players, the Detroit Lions have gone from averaging 22.6 points per game last year to 27.7 ppg this year. What’s been the biggest difference between the unit that lined up last year and the guys who have broken out in 2011? The Lions’ stars have stayed healthy.

By Week 7 last season, Detroit had already lost quarterback Matthew Stafford to the shoulder injury that would wreck his season. In fact, the Lions were already on their third starting quarterback of the year, Drew Stanton. The Lions’ starters on offense missed a total of 35 games last season, with seven different starters missing at least one game.

In 2011, though, the Lions have answered the bell. Before halfback Jahvid Best went down with a concussion in Week 6 and missed Sunday’s loss against the Falcons, the 11 starters on the Detroit offense had not missed a single game. Role players such as Mikel LeShoure, Jerome Harrison, and Tony Scheffler had been injured, but keeping 11 starters on the field for six consecutive weeks (and 10 for seven) is a remarkable string of health. Maybe too remarkable, considering that Stafford rolled his ankle on the final play of Sunday’s game. Considering the injury woes that have affected players like Stafford and Calvin Johnson in the past, though, it’s a huge credit to the Detroit medical staff.

The effects have been just as strong for the breakout defenses of the league. Take the 49ers, who have allowed just 16.2 points per game, the second-best rate in football. Their 11 defensive starters have missed just two starts all season. The Niners’ starters didn’t miss very many last season, either, but they also have seven new starters on defense and limited depth behind those guys. What they’ve done this year is very reminiscent of the 2009 Broncos, who rebuilt their defense with veteran free agents and produced a unit that rated among the league’s best while missing just three starts all season.

Other defenses have also ridden health to effectiveness. Everyone expected the Ravens defense to be pretty good, but they have been absolutely transcendent this season; through Week 6, while they were first in defensive DVOA, the second-place Jets were closer to 12th than they were to first. And why have they been so good? You’ll never guess! Their 11 defensive starters have missed just one game before the Monday-night contest.

This doesn’t take rocket science, of course. It stands to reason that healthy teams will produce better performances than ones riddled with injuries. But while fans and observers are quick to blame injuries when teams collapse, the success of turnaround teams like the Lions and 49ers are chalked up to things like a change in attitude or organizational culture. Detroit’s not winning because it has a mean streak. San Francisco’s not shocking the league because Jim Harbaugh’s setting the tone. They’re winning because their dominant units are remarkably healthy.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part IV
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part III
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part II
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland
NFL Free Agency: Winners, Losers, and Who’s Left
Flash Over Substance: DeSean Jackson and the Eagles

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Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, Losers, NFL, People, Series, Sports, Tim Tebow

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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