The Curious Case of Tim Tebow

Some love him some hate him, and some are skeptical of his sample size.

So far, Tim Tebow is an enigma unlike any seen in football in years.  Analysts say he can’t throw, he completes less than 50% of his passes, and in some games he has single digit attempts in an era where 50 is not unheard of. Nonetheless the lowly Denver Broncos are 6-1 since he took over, and are suddenly favorites in the AFC West according to our NFL projected standings.  What’s the real story here?

On Tim Tebow’s Performance

In all honesty, Tebow’s stats aren’t that bad.  Sure he doesn’t complete a lot of passes, but when he does he makes them count.  Using a formula I created in the past (detailed here) Tim Tebow adds about 3.5 points per game to his team over a replacement level quarterback.  That’s just slightly below league average, and better than the 1 extra point per game that Kyle Orton was adding earlier in the season.

Being 2.5 points per game better than the guy you replaced is nothing special though, definitely not enough to turn around a team’s season.  Does his running game make a huge difference?  Is his personality really leading the team on a charge?  Let’s look at the Broncos as a whole.

For more information here the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective wrote an interesting article on Tebow’s performance and likely regression to the mean so far.

On The Broncos As A Whole

Despite being projected to make the playoffs, Denver is ranked below average in the new predictive rankings.  A lot of that might be due to Orton’s reign or even the preseason ratings which still play a small role (see:  Miami and Buffalo now playing more like expected).

To account for this, we can use the same method as the Last 5 and Last 10 game ratings to create a Last 7 game rating that covers the time since Tebow became a starter.  According to that Last 7 rating, the Broncos in the Tebow era have only played at a level 0.66 points above the league average.  Their many small wins are almost entirely cancelled out by the blowout loss to the Lions.

With a rating of 0.66, against an average opponent rating of -0.49, should Denver really be 6-1? Looking at their actual schedule, rather than just the average opponent, the Last 7 rating predicts that Denver would win on average only 3.47 out of the 7 games if they had to play them again.  That means they won 2.5 more than they should’ve, a Luck Rating of 2.5. That seems reasonable, given how many fourth quarter comebacks they needed over this stretch.

The Outlook For The Rest Of 2011

Being lucky is nice, and some might contend that it’s actually skill in the clutch or even something greater. Unfortunately for Broncos fans it shouldn’t be expected to continue.  We’ve covered the topic of luck before, and found that what we call luck doesn’t generally carry over from season to season in football.

Two and a half extra wins are nice to have, and being average in the AFC West is enough to get the Broncos into the playoffs.  Tim Tebow is adequate at the quarter back spot, and a good defense will keep them competitive.  When push comes shove, however, Denver shouldn’t expect to accomplish anything in the playoffs this year.  But with youth at QB and in their pass rushing corps, the future could be a different story.