It is the inevitable event of the 2012 season.
Tebow will come in and do what he did last year, and the Jets will pull out a comeback win, but they will open a whole new can of worms in the process.
Maybe it will be a Wildcat run that Tebow scores on that starts the bandwagon. Even worse, imagine a scenario where Sanchez is struggling and replaced by Tebow, who pulls the game out on the last drive. How can you ever go back to him?
Though it would only count as one win on the season, it could change the long-term direction of the franchise as they enter the fourth year of the Rex Ryan-Sanchez era.
Who should the Jets trust in the clutch? Between the two, they have 15 fourth-quarter comebacks and 18 game-winning drives. While Tebow received so much attention for his six game-winning drives in 2011, Sanchez quietly put together four of his own.
Both teams finished 8-8, but Denver won their division.
We already know media like ESPN will cover every second of the Jets this year, but we are going to take a pre-emptive look at which quarterback has been more successful with the game on the line.
Origins: The Old College Try
Believe it or not, based on their college days, you would want neither Sanchez nor Tebow in the fourth quarter.
A criticism of Sanchez at USC was that he never led the Trojans to a fourth-quarter comeback. Failures against Oregon and Oregon State were most noteworthy. The criticism was so strong, Sanchez even believed it himself.
After a comeback win over the Houston Texans in 2010, Sanchez said, “I’ve never had a comeback until this year, not once. Lost two in college. Lost them all last year. So this is the first time I’ve really done it.”
He would go on to add more:
I know that was kind of a knock coming out of college, that 'He's never had a comeback in a game. They've been up. He hasn't played a lot of football.' To me, that was 'All right, give me a chance to come back. I'm going to win it—not making a miraculous play, but just making the plays we know how to make.
Sanchez was wrong when he said 2010 was his first time, because he did have one comeback in college: a 17-13 win over Arizona where he threw a touchdown to Fred Davis on a one-play drive. Sanchez also had his first NFL comeback in the 2009 AFC Divisional playoffs at San Diego.
While Sanchez was criticized at USC, Tim Tebow was worshiped as a god at Florida. But having said that, the whole legend of “Tebow Time” actually has a shaky origin, as it was put on hold long before Tebow ever really earned the reputation.
Though he was just the backup to Chris Leak in 2006, Tebow was on the field for two comebacks and game-winning drives, including a 12-yard touchdown run with 2:53 left to beat South Carolina.
But that was just the backup, gimmicky jump-pass version of Tebow, and we are talking about nothing more than four carries for 21 yards.
When Tebow took over as Florida’s starter in 2007, he lost his first five fourth-quarter comeback opportunities:
- 9/29/2007 vs. Auburn (L 20-17): Tebow does lead two touchdowns to tie the game at 17-17, but after a Florida three-and-out, Auburn gets the game-winning field goal with 0:00 left.
- 10/6/2007 at LSU (L 28-24): After blowing a 24-14 lead, Tebow has 1:09 and two timeouts left, down 28-24. His Hail Mary is incomplete to end the game. Drive stats: 1-of-5 for 7 yards, sacked, 21-yard run.
- 10/27/2007 vs. Georgia (L 42-30): Down 28-24, the Gators turn it over on downs, and Georgia adds another touchdown. After a Tebow touchdown run and a failed two-point pass, Georgia added another touchdown.
- 1/1/2008 vs. Michigan (L 41-35): In the Capital One Bowl, Tebow had four drives in the fourth quarter. He threw for 12 yards on a go-ahead touchdown drive, but the rest of the time, he went three-and-out or four-and-out. Passing in quarter: 4-of-11 for 16 yards.
- 9/27/2008 vs. Ole Miss (L 31-30): Down 24-17, Tebow scored a tying touchdown run. After falling behind 31-24, Tebow completed 4-of-5 for 53 yards on a touchdown drive, but the extra point was blocked. Down 31-30, Tebow is stopped on a 4th-and-1 run at the Ole Miss 32-yard line.
Not quite the “clutch hero” you are used to hearing about, right?
I specifically remember an analyst pointing out after the shocking loss to Ole Miss in 2008 how Tebow never led the Gators to victory when they trailed in the second half of any game. It was true, if you only looked at the games he started.
But after the Ole Miss loss, Tebow made his infamous speech, and Florida never lost another game that season on their way to a national championship.
When the Gators trailed Alabama 20-17 in the SEC Championship game, Tebow delivered this time with the game-winning touchdown drive. Then against Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship, Tebow led a game-winning drive and put the game away with a late touchdown pass.
In 2009, Tebow had a game-tying touchdown-run drive, and game-winning field goal sealed the win against Arkansas in his final opportunity for a fourth-quarter win at Florida.
Overall, Tebow was 2-5 at fourth-quarter comebacks as a starter in Florida, and he was 3-5 overall in game-winning drive opportunities. He was 31-of-54 for 268 yards, a TD and no interceptions. He ran the ball 30 times for 163 yards and two scores.
All in all, not exactly the stuff of legends. But as is often the case with clutch wins, perception and reality do not coexist.
Closer Look at the Sanchize
Sanchez presents a very interesting case.
On one hand, his 11 game-winning drives often show him taking time to really warm up. In the last three game-winning drives they had in 2011, he led the offense to a three-and-out prior to throwing the game-winning touchdown pass on the following drive. In the season opener against Dallas, he had two drives end with a sack, including a fumble.
It took five drives with the game tied to put away Cleveland late in overtime in 2010. The game appeared destined for a tie before Santonio Holmes made a big play for the 37-yard game-winning touchdown.
Even when Sanchez threw four touchdown passes in a comeback win over Buffalo last season, some still felt the need to question if it was the worst four-touchdown fourth-quarter-comeback game in NFL history. The results were pretty close actually, with Sanchez averaging 5.14 yards per attempt and only throwing for 180 yards.
On the other hand, Sanchez has been very impressive with four one-minute drills to victory, which ties Dan Marino for the most since 1981. These are drives where the offense took over with no more than 60 seconds left in the game and got the job done. I suggest checking that link out for a detailed analysis.
No drive was more impressive for Sanchez than the one against Houston in 2010. Down 27-23, Sanchez had 0:49 left and no timeouts with 72 yards to go. He completed a brilliant pass for 42 yards down the right sideline to Braylon Edwards, and he followed it with a six-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in the corner with 0:10 remaining for the 30-27 win.
Mark Sanchez is 9-13 (.409) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, and he's 11-14 (.440) at overall fourth-quarter/overtime wins.
The record stacks up rather well to what are considered the best quarterbacks in the league right now. You can also see Tebow in there.
Even in defeat, Sanchez did his job right a few times.
His first failed comeback was simply a three-and-out drive that featured three straight runs by Thomas Jones, so Sanchez did not even drop back once. The Saints increased the lead to 24-10, and that’s trouble for any quarterback in the Superdome, let alone a rookie in his fourth start. Sanchez threw two interceptions the rest of the game.
The following week on "Monday Night Football," Sanchez led two go-ahead touchdown drives in Miami, but the Dolphins struck the final blow with just 0:06 left in a 31-27 win.
Later in 2009 against Jacksonville, Sanchez led a go-ahead touchdown drive, but the two-point conversion pass failed. Jacksonville scored the game-winning field goal with no time remaining in a 24-22 win. That was the second “lost comeback” of Sanchez’s career, though he has not had any more since.
In fact, his worst effort in a comeback loss may have been in Miami in Week 17 of last season when he threw two interceptions, including one in the red zone in the final minutes with the Jets down 16-10.
After starting 1-7 at game-winning drives as a rookie, Sanchez has since been 10-7 the last two seasons, including a 4-3 record in 2011. However, that record was enhanced due to the Jets not keeping it close enough in their first four losses to have an opportunity, which means having possession and trailing by one score.
Re-entering the Tebow Zone
It has been a while, but it’s another trip to that alternate pigskin dimension known as the Tebow Zone, where a quarterback running with the ball is the norm, Matt Prater never misses a clutch field goal, and teams make stupefying mistakes against the Denver Broncos.
Tim Tebow is 6-4 (.600) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, and he's 7-4 (.636) at overall fourth-quarter/overtime wins.
But the record does not even begin to explain the insanity behind the outcomes.
I took my first journey into the Tebow Zone last season when the comeback happened in Miami after the Broncos trailed 15-0 in the final five minutes. The stat I found for Captain Comeback that week was hard to believe:
Tebow has played five games in his career where he’s thrown at least 10 passes. In each game he has had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. All five times, he turned a fourth quarter deficit of 10+ points into a one-score deficit.
At the time, Tebow’s record was just 2-3 in those games, but it was impressive how he almost pulled them out.
Against Oakland in 2010, it was really Correll Buckhalter being tackled for a safety and the Raiders adding another touchdown that ruined Denver’s chances. A week later, Tebow did erase the 23-10 deficit against Houston for his first comeback win.
Then twice against San Diego, Tebow turned 12- and 16-point deficits into exciting finishes where the Broncos came up just a Hail Mary short of pulling each game out.
Nearly a month after the Miami win last season, Denver’s four-game odyssey began, and it started against Mark Sanchez and the Jets.
- 11/17/2011 vs. NY Jets: Down 13-10, Tebow runs for 57 yards as part of a 95-yard game-winning touchdown drive for a 17-13 win.
- 11/27/2011 at San Diego: With a 3rd-and-11 and 13-10 deficit, Tebow finds Eric Decker for 39 yards and the first down. Prater sends the game into overtime, where the Chargers fail on a 53-yard field goal. Prater makes the winning field goal from 37 yards.
- 12/4/2011 at Minnesota: Down 29-21, Tebow hits Demaryius Thomas for a 42-yard gain and runs for the two-point conversion to tie the game. After Prater ties the game again with a 46-yard kick, Christian Ponder’s interception sets up Denver for the 23-yard winning field goal with no time left.
- 12/11/11 vs. Chicago: Trailing 10-0 with 4:34 left, Tebow completes all seven passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. With 0:56 left, Tebow goes on his own one-minute drill with Prater making the 59-yard field goal to force overtime. After a Marion Barber fumble, Tebow leads Prater to a 51-yard game-winning field goal.
For four straight weeks, the Broncos trailed after the two-minute warning, and they still managed to win each game. It was a wild, highly improbable run.
It was also followed by a three-game losing streak, including two blowouts and finally a close loss after the Chiefs shut Tebow down, holding him to 6-of-22 passing in a 7-3 loss.
But in the playoffs, the craziness returned with Tebow completing 10 passes for 316 yards against the vaunted Pittsburgh defense. In overtime, Tebow threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Thomas on the first snap, marking the longest game-winning touchdown pass in NFL playoff history.
If you were curious, should Tebow enter a drive this season that produces a score towards a comeback and/or game-winning drive, both Tebow and Sanchez will receive credit for the win. Likewise, both will get a loss if they are unsuccessful.
When you break down the quarterback’s stats by clutch situations versus any other time, there is a distinct difference between the two, and these two quarterbacks see a spike in opposite directions.
Sanchez’s drop in passer rating (14.8) is nearly equal to Tebow’s gain in clutch situations (16.6). This speaks directly to that odd “turn on the switch” mentality to Tebow’s game, which largely stems from Denver’s three-quarter saddle approach.
In Tebow’s comebacks, his usage rate went from around 50.0 percent through the first three quarters to 73.5 percent in the fourth quarter. They put the game in his hands, which brought out the best in him.
The Jets have not been afraid to put the ball in Sanchez’s hands more often, as evident by that ludicrous game in Week 16 last season when he dropped back 68 times to produce 239 yards against the Giants.
Sanchez has led his offense to 114 points on 61 clutch drives (1.87 points per drive). Tebow has led his offense to 63 points on 29 clutch drives (2.17 points per drive).
Remember, Matt Prater was making field goals from 52, 46, 59 and 51 yards last season, so these numbers are very close. Sanchez, of course, has also played more than twice as many games in this situation over three years than Tebow, who is mostly living off the 2011 results.
It is easy to say that based on the record and stats that Tebow is the better option in the clutch for the Jets. But remember, it was not even four full years ago when Tebow was the guy at Florida who could not buy a second-half comeback win for the Gators. Is his 2011 run, filled with a lot of good fortune, really a sustainable way of winning?
The fact is that out of the seven game-winning drives Tebow has had, the only one against a team with a winning record was in the playoffs against Pittsburgh. Though to Tebow’s credit, he did pull out wins over the defenses of the Bears, Jets and Steelers last season.
Sanchez has two game-winning drives in the postseason and one against the 12-4 Steelers in Pittsburgh in 2010. He also has fourth-quarter losses to four different Super Bowl teams, including the last three winners (2009 Saints, 2010 Packers and 2011 Giants).
Half of Sanchez’s 14 close losses are to teams with a winning record.
It is uncertain exactly how the Jets will use both quarterbacks, though any replacement of quarterbacks would likely make it very tough on an offense to adjust. Not only does the center need to be comfortable with the snap, but since Tebow is left-handed and Sanchez is right, that puts different pressure on the tackles to manage the blindside. Receivers will also have to adjust, as Tebow’s passes are often, well, less than accurate.
Except when the game is on the line and he starts dealing like a franchise passer, which is exactly why Tebow is such a frustrating and exciting quarterback to have.
Tim Tebow is an extremely unique quarterback in the way he can look like the worst player in the league for three quarters before flipping a switch to lead an improbable rally. It has been fascinating to watch, albeit painful for most of the game.
Who should Jets trust more in the clutch?
While Tebow can bring something to many teams in the NFL, the New York Jets were a bad choice, as they already had a very good red-zone offense. They led the league in 2011 with a 65.5 touchdown percentage in the red zone, and Mark Sanchez has scored on 11 of his 15 career carries inside the opponent’s 10.
Oddly enough, a team like Denver would have been a perfect spot for Tebow, but the whole reason he is in New York is because the Broncos traded him. Tebow’s absurd rushing performance as a quarterback in last year’s comeback win over the Jets probably had a lot to do with Rex Ryan’s team making the move.
Sanchez is far from perfect, but as the facts show, he is not incapable of leading the team to victory late in the game like Tebow. It is another area in which they are similar players. They can turn ugly into a win, barring the defense has kept it close enough to reach that point.
There is an easy solution for the Jets to avoid any quarterback controversy this season. It starts with giving Sanchez the opportunity to succeed by not pulling him out of the game, especially when the game is hanging in the balance. Keep Tebow as a true backup, which means he stays on the bench unless needed.
Given the opportunity, Sanchez must have a career season to keep Tebow on that bench. This fourth year is a make-or-break season for Sanchez, and the added pressure from Tebow will be enormous week to week.
Should Sanchez falter in the clutch and Tebow pulls off another miracle, then we may have a new meaning to the phrase “Tebow Time.”
It will mark when Tebow took over as starting quarterback of the New York Jets.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer and researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
Epilogue of a future conversation: