How Is Tebow Winning?

How can a quarterback lead his team to victory while going 2 for 8, for 69 total passing yards? Tim Tebow is 3-1 as a starter this season. So how is he doing it? Is it with his arm, his called runs, or his scrambles? It’s none of the above. It’s with defense and special teams.

Tebow is decidedly negative in both of those stats for the full season (-0.35 WPA and -13.3 EPA), but fortunately for the Broncos, the vast majority of the damage was confined to a meltdown in his single loss against the Lions. Here, I'm only going to focus on how the Broncos managed their three wins with Tebow at the helm.

There's a method to the Tebow madness. If we add his production from scrambles to his production from pass plays, he's in modest positive territory in his three wins:

Tebow Production by Play Type in His 3 Wins
Called Run3.4-0.01

The Broncos running game aside from Tebow has been effective thanks mostly to a single critical breakaway run by McGahee, and because the Broncos defense made the running strategy make sense. Here is how the running game minus Tebow breaks out by opponent.

DEN RB Running Production in the 3 Wins

It's been the defense that has really made the three wins possible. Keep in mind negative WPA and EPA numbers are good for defenses.

DEN Defensive Production in the 3 Wins

Against Miami, Tebow performed poorly until the last few minutes of regulation, when he rallied the Broncos to tie the game. His last-minute heroics may have been thrilling, but they were needed only because of the hole he had put his team in to that point. The game was ultimately won thanks to a Dolphins fumble and a 52-yard Matt Prater field goal.

The thriller against Oakland unfolded in much the same way. Carson Palmer threw three interceptions. Running back Willis McGahee tied the game with a 60-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter and totaled 0.30 WPA and 4.6 EPA. The Broncos took the lead for good on an Eddie Royal 80-yard punt return for a touchdown. Tebow played fairly well in his own right. He totaled 4.6 EPA and -0.03 WPA, threw no interceptions and gave up only two sacks.

Last Sunday’s victory over the Chiefs was mostly a defensive victory. Matt Cassel was held to 2.4 yards per attempt and was sacked four times. The Broncos’ defense held the Chiefs to 10 points, 7 really if we don’t count a pointless field goal in the final seconds. Tebow made a big impact in this game, as one of his two completions was a 56-yard touchdown pass.

In the three victories, Tebow totaled 0.03 WPA and 9.3 EPA (which includes all factors including delay of game and aborted plays), both of which are slightly above average. In other words, he helped more than hurt his team, but only barely. The Broncos’ running game, excluding Tebow, totaled 0.30 WPA and 0.3 EPA in those same games. (When the WPA and EPA are largely split like this, it indicates over-performance in game-changing clutch situations.) The Broncos’ defense was responsible for -0.53 WPA and -2.9 EPA in the three wins.

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11 Responses to “How Is Tebow Winning?”

  1. Tarr says:

    The Kansas City game was really fascinating to watch. I like the NFL much more than college football, but the one fun thing about college football is that teams succeed using drastically different systems from one another. Seeing the Broncos embrace the read option offense on the NFL level is, if not a recipe for long-term success, pretty cool to watch.

    I do think that if they had just stayed with Orton, they probably win those three games that way, too. Orton really is a pretty average NFL QB, and his per-play numbers have been better than Tebow's despite having fewer wins to show for it.

  2. tunesmith says:

    Neat analysis.

    I think there's one additional factor, and that's the option running game. I am not totally clear on how you handle pass plays - is it partial credit to both the quarterback and receiver? But you could argue that option runs should be partial credit to both the quarterback and running back. Tebow is making reads after the play starts, and so these handoffs are a bit like making a pass to the open guy - a couple of those long runs are specifically because the defense is reacting to Tebow's possible run. In any sense, even if it's not reflected in the stats, Tebow should get credit for some of the running back success.

  3. Brian Burke says:

    Great point. I wish I had the data on which plays were option runs.

  4. sunrise089 says:


    Considering the result of the Jets game...I admit the sample size is still really small, but what sort of things could we look for to try to test for either...

    a) clutch play, which we know doesn't exist ex-ante for the league as a whole, for one particular player


    b) a player making those around him play better?

    I know you've said before that a player inspiring others to play better, if that exists at all, will translate into some sort of stats if it's effective. Is there some sort of way we can look for this in the absence of impressive WPA or EPA that's at all scientific?


  5. Anonymous says:

    idk, could we see a comparison to the run games wpa/epa with orton starting and will tebow? they both started 5 games now. how has the wpa/epa of the defense differed in the starts for each qb? obviously nothing tells the whole story quite like reality. doom is healthy now with tebow starting and was not with orton (missed two games), for example. so it's not like we can say that any difference in wpa/epa between the two sets cannot be wholly attributed to tebow being the started. still would be interesting to look at, tho.

  6. bigmouth says:

    I, too, would be very curious to see how Denver's defense has played in Tebow's games.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Tebow's last minute heroics may be exposing a weakness in the prevent defenses used against him. It would be interesting to see if another team w/an athletic QB could have similar success.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Tebow should not be getting criticism for John Fox and OC Mike McCoy's ineptitude.

    They have shackled Tebow by not allowing him sight adjustments, route alterations vs varying defensive formations, or the ability to audible.

    The OC is asking the offense to beat 9 man fronts on 1st and 2nd with the run and then asks Tim to win 3rd and long, a tall task for all NFL QBs.

    When McCoy decides to take the shackles off of Tebow (losing, 4th Q, the OC has changed his down tendecies considerably) he is performing exceptionally. The stats will back that up.

  9. Anonymous says:

    @anonymous 'Prevent defense' is a misnomer for defenses that suck. The Jets stayed in base personnel on the final drive and brought blitzes on first down more than once.

    The 'prevent defense' argument doesn't stick.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Look who went 1-4 and look who is 4-1. Just saying. Haters gonna hate

  11. Anonymous says:

    I don't believe enough credit is given to Tim Tebow's decision making and ability to avoid the turnover. Turnovers still kill your chances of winning faster than anything. I have noticed the argument quite a bit that

    1.quarterbacks who throw the ball away should be graded higher than those who take sacks.

    but this misses a big point.

    2.quarterbacks who chose to take a sacks versus risking an interception, are just as smart and perhaps they don't necessarily need to be punished. And this includes knowing when to attempt throwing the ball away. Trying to throw the ball away when in the process of being sacked, or heavily pressured can result in interceptions too...not just forced passes.

    Aaron Rodgers takes as many sacks as Tim Tebow. It's not his defense, it's Tebow's decision making and ability to remain focused and concentrated, especially late in the game.

    There's some inverse logic that goes into this. I don't believe some QB's simply get incredibly better with pressure. I do believe pressure affects EVERYBODY. And it affects your average player, on defense, or offense, more than others. So while everyone else is apt to make more mistakes, some guys only get slightly affected by it, thus by default....end up 4th quarter comeback magicians.

    When your the level of competition around you drops or starts making mistakes and you don't, you're personal playing level will by default, be better.

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