“Football Freakonomics”: Tebow Timing

The following is a cross-post from NFL.com, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics Project. This segment aired before last Sunday’s Patriots-Broncos game.

Tebow at a game in Denver on October 30, 2011. (Photo:

One of the arguments both for and against Tim Tebow as a viable, long-term NFL starter is the idea that he should simply not be doing what he’s doing right now. Tebow’s critics say he’s getting far too much credit for his 7-1 record as a starter this season – that he’s benefiting from an unexplainable run of luck — while his supporters point to the exceptional performances he’s turned in immediately following those fortuitous bounces.

So how is a team that ranks second-to-last in passing yards, whose quarterback completes fewer than half his throws, pulling out miraculous victories week after week?

Four words: timing, luck, faith – and timing.

Let’s start with timing. Instead of focusing on Tebow’s completion rate, look at when he completes passes. He averages just 69 yards of passing during the first three quarters of games, but then 81.6 yards in each fourth quarter! His fourth-quarter passer rating is 111, third-best in the league; his rating in the last five minutes of games is a whopping 124.5.

Now onto the luck, or at least you’d call them big breaks. In Tebow’s first start, against the Dolphins, he rallied the Broncos from a 15-0 deficit in the final three minutes, a comeback made possible by the recovery of an onside kicks. Only 26 percent of onside kick attempts in the NFL are successful but Denver got one in Tebow’s first start, right when they needed it. You could say these Broncos have made a habit of bending fortune and statistics to their impressive will.

Consider the defense. During Tebow’s winning streak, the Broncos’ defense has allowed just 17 points per game. When Kyle Orton was starting? 28 per game. Now, a Tebow-run offense means keeping the ball on the ground – and keeping the ball longer, too: 31 minutes of possession per game since Tebow, versus 26 under Orton. Considering Tebow’s magic touch in the fourth quarter, those extra five minutes aren’t nothing.

And look at the Broncos’ kicker, Matt Prater. During the 7-1 streak, he’s gone only 12-for-17 for field goals but: like Tebow, he saves his best for last. Four of his 12 field goals were game-winners! His performance against the Bears was sick – joining Mike Vanderjagt as the only other man in NFL history to make a 50-plus-yarder to tie a game and another to win it in overtime.

And let’s not forget how Denver’s opponents have helped out: an inexplicable last-minute clock stoppage and an overtime fumble by Bears running back Marion Barber. The Chargers’ poor-play calling in overtime prior to their own missed field goal.

But after each of those miscues, Tebow calmly guided the Broncos down the field to score. A 95-yard drive against the Jets — the longest they’ve allowed all season, capped off by a 20-yard touchdown run. How rare is that? Out of more than 300 20-yard-plus rushes by quarterbacks over the past decade, only 3 – that’s 1 percent – were game-winning touchdowns. Tebow is the first quarterback in NFL history to engineer six fourth-quarter comebacks in his first 11 starts.

Now, the elite teams in the NFL don’t need those late-game heroics. Over the last eight games, the top five NFL teams have an average scoring differential of 102 points. The Broncos’ scoring differential over their past 8 games? Two points. That includes one loss, a 45-10 beating by Detroit – and a bunch of squeakers.

How have Tebow and his teammates beaten those odds? It depends on whom you ask. He may possess an unorthodox skill set for an NFL quarterback – but like the debate swirling around him – one thing he doesn’t lack, is passion.

And here’s one more thought. Tebow is hardly the first NFL quarterback to be demonstrative about his religious faith. But he’s very demonstrative – and it’s worth considering how that faith may affect his play. By definition, faith often translates into a kind of fearlessness. Tim Tebow doesn’t seem to be familiar with the phenomenon known as “fear of failure.” His belief – in himself, and in success – may be the intangible that lifts not only his own play, but of those around him.

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  1. Brian W says:

    Seems like all of the “luck” that Detroit lost over the past year or two has accumulated to Denver. Conservation of Luck is an immutable law!

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  2. Mike P. says:

    4th Quarter passing completions are overstated because opponents are running conservative “Prevent Defense” schemes that trade short completions for long bombs. This doesn’t completely offset his late-game heroics, but certainly is a factor.

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    • Tristan says:

      “His fourth-quarter passer rating is 111, third-best in the league; his rating in the last five minutes of games is a whopping 124.5.”

      I would also like to know how his rating in the last five minutes compares against his ratings for every other 5-minute period during the game, and against every other quarter back’s five minute rating. Decreasing the sample size (down from a full game to five minutes) and increasing the number of observations is going to lead to a much high standard deviation. 124 might be high for a whole game, but it might just be above average on a 5-minute basis.

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    • Miko says:

      Yeah, looks a lot like data mining to me trying to find statistics that fit. Without error ranges and comparisons to other players in the same time periods, these stats are useless.

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    • CL says:

      Not always. The Steelers lost by loading up the box to stop the run in overtime and paid dearly. Maybe it was the luck of playing in Mile High stadium and the Steelers were without Clark on defense.

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  3. AaronS says:

    While I absolutely do not discount that maybe, perhaps, just possibly, God occasionally affects the win-loss record as a means of getting people’s attention (I mean, if I were God, and someone were talking Me up, I’d want to send a little extra blessing their way), I happen to believe that there is perhaps another thing going on here.

    While God may be blessing Tebow, I think that there is also something about winning that begets more winning. When you have seen, over and over, that the game is really not over until it’s over, it keeps you “in the game,” keep you hungry, keeps you focused and motivated.

    I’m a Seminole fan, detest the Gators (you know what I mean), and so forth, but Tebow is just good news all around it seems. We like underdogs. And, being a largely Christian people, we like religious underdogs who are humble and so forth. Tebow brings such a will to win to the game that I think it’s contagious! Others start feeling it, wanting it, fighting for it. They see Tebow taking big hits in order to help them win the game, so they go the extra mile.

    Now that I think of it, the last time I saw such willpower in a quarterback was when John Elway–in a Superbowl, I believe–had to run the ball. In the slo-mo replay, it was nothing less than MAGIC to see his determined face. He knew he was going to get nailed…and yet he ran on, going for every yard (can’t remember if it was a touchdown or not). I wasn’t even a Bronco fan and I couldn’t help but cheer the guy!

    Further, Tebow gets in the head of the other team (as one sportswriter pointed out). The begin working too hard, throwing themselves off balance, in an effort to finally stop him. Yes, as we saw with the Patriots, the Broncos can be stopped. But if they only get stopped after every six or seven wins, that’ll work just fine.

    My personal concern is that Tebow, for all the joy that he elicits, will eventually take a hit that knocks him out for the rest of the season, etc. While this style of football works well for a while, it also take a great toll on the player. He is probably being tackled anywhere from five to ten times MORE per game than a normal NFL quarterback.

    Even if it’s all a coincidence, isn’t it a coincidence that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy?

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  4. Ana says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  5. Dan says:

    It’s just not appropriate to evaluate him merely as a passer. His passer rating is 83.6 presently, about middle of the pack (14th) among NFL QBs.

    But where he separates himself is in the run. He has run for an amazing 610 yards on just 106 carries for a tremendous 5.8 yards per attempt. There is no running back in football who runs the amount that he does who comes close to that level of efficiency on the ground. This is without any very long runs too.

    “During Tebow’s winning streak, the Broncos’ defense has allowed just 17 points per game. When Kyle Orton was starting? 28 per game. ”

    Hold on, there, pard’ner. As if allowing points is all about defense. Not true at all. You aren’t taking into account turnovers or maintaining possession. Tebow has protected the football well and eaten up a lot of the clock on the ground. Those are two big ways that his offense plays good defense.

    I do agree with AaronS that he is taking a lot of punishment for a QB. Is this sustainable?

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    • ben w says:

      I think it’s quite sustainable. Did you see the hit Elvis Dumervil put on Tom Brady recently? It’s surprising that Brady wasn’t out for a while. I think it’s these blind-side hits that really tear up QBs and threaten to put them out with long-term concussion injuries. When Taboo scrambles out of the pocket, he dons the attitude of a running back – expecting and fighting off tackles. And he has the size to take those hits and make those runs (+20 lbs on Vick – a different type of scrambler). Running Backs do get hurt as well, but the repetition and experience of getting tackled time and time again must teach them how to properly absorb and take hits. And they rarely seem to take the defenseless, knock-out blows that QBs do. If anything, I’d expect Tebow to be more vulnerable IN the pocket if he’s got a middling offensive line than out in the open field on the run.

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      • stefan pettine says:

        The longevity of a running back in the NFL is the shortest of any positi0n, and averages just over 3 years. I agree he is taking a beating like a running back, and like a running back he can expect a very short career unless he learns to pass from the pocket.

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    • CL says:

      Not quite correct. The thing I like about Freakonomics is that they use numbers to challenge given assumptions. Tebow (love his leadership) fumbled 13 times (losing almost half 6) that’s almost 1 per game (given his 14 starts. That may not be all Tebow’s fault, but fumbling the ball is a killer for morale, especially if the defense had a recent stop and has to turn around and go back on the field. Now I haven’t dug to deep to see the situation or point in time within the game when he lost those fumbles.

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  6. Gary says:

    With a game plan that focused on the team rather than the quarterback, the Patriots put an end to Denver’s streak of timing/luck. Teams that do the same in the next two weeks likely will be victorious.

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  7. Wilton P. says:

    He is like a clutch hitter in baseball, like Derek Jeter. Another Yankee was Craig Nettles. His average was anywhere from .230-.260, but he would get 30 plus homers and around 100 rbi a year and they were CLUTCH hits, when things were on the line was when he came through. He was also a Golden Glove 3rd baseman.
    Tebow is like this as a quarterback. The running doesn’t hurt. Read Instant Replay or When Pride Mattered, about Lombardi and Green Bay football. Paul Hornung could do more than run, he could pass too. Tebow can pass and run, now the defense has to contend with a quarterback who isn’t one dimensional. Tebow has stated that God doesn’t care who actually wins football games, but he gives God credit while playing a brutal “game” where a career ending injury can happen anytime. God many not favor players, but he cares about individuals who honor Him.

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  8. Paul says:

    Thank you for mentioning the defense. I didn’t hear of any of the main stream sports media talking about how good the defense was in the first place to give Tebow the chance to come back.

    Good job, love the Blog and podcast!

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