The Tim Tebow debate isn’t over, but it should be.
The last three weeks—a run of undeniable ineptitude in the season’s most important games—prove Tim Tebow is not the Denver Broncos quarterback of the future.
The man whose supposed superiority could only be calculated by wins and losses has annulled whatever scrap of logic his defenders could still claim.
By losing in every imaginable way over the past three weeks—close games, blowouts, early leads, late deficits—it’s become clear that Tim Tebow the football player will never rise to the level of Tim Tebow the cultural phenomenon.
If Broncos brass can sober up to that fact—and weather whatever public relations hit comes with it—the franchise will be better for it.
John Elway and company must not move forward with Tebow as their starting quarterback for reasons both sound in logic and unyielding in clarity.
1. When Tim Tebow plays quarterback, the Broncos' passing offense stinks
In games started by Tebow in 2011, the Denver Broncos averaged 129.5 passing yards per game. Extrapolated over the entire season that mark would have placed Denver dead last in passing yardage.
Yes, the team ran well over that same period of time, but the historical precedent for such poor use of the forward pass doesn’t bode well for the Broncos.
Of the 21 teams to finish in the league’s bottom three in passing offense from 2004 to 2010, only four teams— the ‘04 Falcons, ‘05 Bears, ‘09 Jets and ‘10 Chiefs—made the playoffs. And of those four only two—the ‘05 Bears and ‘09 Jets—qualified for the playoffs the next season. Each of those teams would then fail to make the playoffs the following year.
It is near impossible to sustain success in today’s NFL without a serviceable passer under center.
With the sometime exception of the Baltimore Ravens, no team over the past decade has consistently qualified for the postseason with average or below-average passing numbers.
As his production stands now, the Broncos with Tebow would be attempting just that. It flies in the face of prevailing NFL wisdom and exposes them to long-term setbacks should they fail.
The Broncos could assume Tebow will improve his passing production, which brings me to point No. 2...
2. A quarterback's passing numbers in his first two years reveal more than you think
A team choosing a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft expects that quarterback to start and play at a high level.
More often than not he doesn't, and with increasing certainty teams can weed out the boomer from the bust in the baby stages of their respective careers.
From 2007 to 2010, 13 quarterbacks—including Tim Tebow—have been taken in the first round of the draft.
Here they are, listed alongside their standard passing metrics for the first two years of their careers:
Brady Quinn (2 TD, 2 INT, 49.5% completion percentage, 140.8 yards per game)
Matt Leinart (2, 4 53.6%, 129.4)
Vince Young (9, 17, 62.3%, 169.7)
Jason Campbell (12, 11, 60.0%, 207.7)
JaMarcus Russell (15, 12, 53.9%, 147.2)
Jay Cutler (20, 14, 63.6%, 218.6)
Joe Flacco (35, 24, 61.7%, 205.8)
Matt Ryan (38,25, 59.7%, 211.9)
Matthew Stafford (19, 21, 54.5%, 215.5)
Mark Sanchez (29, 33, 54.4%, 185.0)
Josh Freeman (35,24, 58.8%, 204.1)
Tim Tebow (17, 9, 47.3%, 103.6)
Sam Bradford (24, 21, 57.6%, 218.3)
There’s plenty to cull from that data, but a few points stand out.
The least accurate quarterbacks of the group (Russell, Leinart and Quinn) never got much more accurate. And the guys with the highest QB ratings (Cutler, Flacco and Ryan) turned out to be the most successful NFL signal-callers.
But the one stat most indicative of long-term success is perhaps the most obvious one: passing yards per game. The guys that moved the ball through the air succeeded. The guys that didn’t, failed.
Alongside Tebow, Sanchez, Young, Russell, Quinn and Leinart were the only quarterbacks to average less than 200 yards passing per game. Sanchez is the only one among the group still starting, and that might not last long.
Even a guy like Vince Young, who, like Tebow, made up for lack of throwing prowess with considerable ground production, could not overcome his lack of passing proficiency.
Keying on that statistic but expanding our sample size, there are only six first-round quarterbacks taken since 1995 to start eight games (or a half-season’s worth) over their first two years and average less than 150 passing yards per game.
They are: Tim Tebow, Kyle Boller, Cade McNown, JaMarcus Russell, J.P. Losman and Akili Smith.
Not good company to keep.
NFL history shows that quarterbacks who begin their career with Tebowesque levels of passing inefficiency don’t experience much growth in years three, four or five. That includes the running quarterbacks, whose bodies and weaknesses eventually yield to the chameleon adaptability of NFL defenses.
3. The wins don’t mean much
Tebow supporters refute much of the above with two words: “He wins.”
True, Tebow went 7-4 this year and is 8-6 on his young career. He got the lion’s share of the credit for taking a team that started 1-4 to the playoffs.
It’s all admirable stuff, but when evaluating his future potential, what’s the worth of a win?
Consider again Vince Young, another running quarterback who won in college and won early in his NFL career. Young, like Tebow, was a winner—until he wasn’t.
Now Young is a free-agent backup coming off a combined 5-6 record over the last two years.
Unlike completion percentage and passing yards, a few wins early in quarterback’s career don’t do much to separate future Pro Bowlers from future janitors.
Then there’s the issue of Tebow’s dramatic midseason turnaround, wherein he took a 1-4 team and carried them to a .500 record. It all seems very impressive until you consider just how common such “miracles” are in a topsy-turvy NFL.
The Philadelphia Eagles, for example, also went from 1-4 to 8-8 in 2011. The 2009 Titans went from 0-5 to 8-8, the 2008 Texans from 1-4 to 8-8 and the 2007 season saw three teams go from 1-4 to 7-9 and another two from 2-3 to 8-8.
The Tebow turnaround isn’t a patented procedure or an act of God, but more like a yearly tradition in the NFL’s whirlwind of parity.
To put all-consuming faith in a quarterback because he engineered such an oft-repeated resurgence would be misguided. Throw in the additional red flag of Tebow’s passing woes, and it’s tantamount to front office insanity.
4. Quarterback is too important a position to chance
Of all these arguments, the most compelling has nothing to do with Tebow but with the position he plays.
It’s no secret that quarterback has become the most important position in football, and that teams with the best signal-callers are the only ones capable of defying the NFL’s maddening inconsistencies.
Look at all the teams with sustained success over the best decade—Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Eagles, Packers—and elite quarterback play is the one common element connecting them. For rebuilding teams, a good quarterback is the essential find.
Call it the Holy Grail of NFL front offices.
Whatever your opinion of Tebow, it’s safe to say that he placing him in the “quarterback of the future” mold constitutes a major risk. To elevate Tebow as such would require a total re-haul of the roster with his talents and drawbacks in mind.
Why, if you're the Denver Broncos, do you take that chance?
With all of the above information at your disposal, why do you risk setting your entire franchise back three-to-five years?
I understand Tebow is a different type of player, but he isn’t a different type of linebacker or safety or kicker—he is a different type of quarterback. Entrusting him with your franchise is like turning the entire organization into a football Frankenstein, a sort of grand experiment with consequences more dire than the typical personnel decision.
It’s a long shot to work, and the Broncos shouldn’t chase the pipe dream. They still have the bones of a good defense, a decent offensive line and a chance to build this team the conventional way.
A few years fiddling around with Tebow, and they won’t have that luxury. As soon as the league learns to defend him—if they already haven’t—the Broncos will stand to languish in personnel hell.
As his team backs into the playoffs the Tebow apologists stand ready with their arsenal of retorts—he got his team to the postseason, he needed a better supporting cast, he’s still young, traditional metrics cannot capture his impact.
Blah, blah, blah.
We can measure and evaluate quarterbacks. We’ve been doing it for a while now.
On most all of those measures, the Broncos can do better than Tim Tebow.
If Tebow grows into a reliable starting quarterback in the NFL he will have defied almost every statistical precedent for the position.
The Broncos needn’t take that chance.