Is Tebow's Clutch Play Sustainable?

Chris Bruce and Andrew Mooney of HSAC do a bang up job using WPA and EPA to analyze Tim Tebow's clutchitude.

So, broadly, Tebow has indeed exhibited “clutch” performance –– performing pretty ordinarily overall, but at a higher level when it matters most. Given our previous analysis of other quarterbacks who did this in their first year (including Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees), it’s unlikely that this is a sustainable course in the long run. However, it should be encouraging for Tebow fans that his performance has been improving in absolute terms.

I had the exact same Excel graph (QB WPA vs EPA) sitting on my desktop all week last week, looking for Tebow to be a giant outlier, exceeding his "expected WPA" enormously. He does, but it's not out of whack with what some other QBs have done in such short spans of time. (I even had a clever title for the accompanying post: The Power of Prayer.) Bruce and Andrew go a step further, and add their analysis of how 'clutch' first year QBs don't typically sustain that level of over-performance.

I suspect there is a bit of a selection bias/survivor effect at work. First-year QBs who 'over-perform' in clutch terms are more likely to survive into the pool of 2nd year QBs. And of those guys, the lucky/clutch ones are more likely to survive into their 3rd year, and so on.

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30 Responses to “Is Tebow's Clutch Play Sustainable?”

  1. tunesmith says:

    What of the possibility that at times other than when Denver needs to "come back", Denver's play selection has less EPA/WPA upside, in favor of picking plays with less variance? That would roughly correspond to when plays have less leverage.

    Over the course of a game or season, especially with an offense that isn't "over performing" when the playbook is opened up, (meaning, generally executing as the offense is capable of for those higher-upside plays), wouldn't that correspond to WPA outperforming EPA per time?

  2. Willy Hu says:

    Has someone done a similar analysis for Cam Newton? Just curious, but I think it'd be interesting...maybe comparing it to the performances of other highly touted rookies, like Matt Ryan or Sam Bradford or Matt Stafford

  3. Frank Day says:

    Here is something that may mess with these stats. It seems that Denver is saying that because their offense is so different that they don't have any film to help them understand what defenses are going to be used. Therefore, it seems to me that they may be playing "let's keep it really conservative so we don't make any mistakes, since our defense seems pretty good early in the game while we figure out what they are doing". This also has the advantage of keeping the other team knowing what to expect second half. My guess is if you look at the Denver stats last few games first half and second half, they will look like two completely different teams, at least from an offensive perspective.

    Anyhow, I find it interesting that most of the teams that Denver has beaten in the last several weeks continue to be ranked higher, as if they are better teams. Most of the teams they have yet to play are also ranked higher. It will be interesting to see how those turn out.

  4. Anonymous says:

    All these graphs, debates, spreadsheets to try to figure out that "something" that can not be explained.
    Why can't we leave it at Tebow leads the league in intangibles, is the most value player to his team, and is having a hall of fame season?

  5. ThaFootballGuru says:

    I'm not sure how long Tebow will be able to perform but he's winning and that's all that matters.
    Here's the sad part, once a defense figures out how to shut him down the entire league will copy it and Tebow mania will be over.
    So to answer your question I would have to say no, but for now you have to ride the way and the winning streak.

  6. Mike B says:

    Maybe you can add some Tebow-specific stats to the Advanced Stats Page?

    Lepers Healed:

  7. Anonymous says:

    From my experience, intangibles are more sustainable than tangibles, thus Tebow should last about 15 years or so. Would be shocked if he is not in the Hall of Fame some day.

  8. Mike B says:

    I like you, Anonymous.

  9. Jack Moore says:

    "All these graphs, debates, spreadsheets to try to figure out that "something" that can not be explained.
    Why can't we leave it at Tebow leads the league in intangibles, is the most value player to his team, and is having a hall of fame season?"

    Suggesting that someone can "lead the league in intangibles" with any certainty kind of implies that you know the value of the intangibles, right? And isn't that against the whole idea of intangibles?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Oh my, not again. Somebody need to stop talking "Tebow, Tebow, Tebow". Lets' start from ourselves.

    Listen to this. In 2004 BigBen had the start on week 3 and went 13-0 (yes, 13 wins in a row by rookie). That span includes great win over New England that ended their NFL-record 21-game winning streak. And now to the piont: 13-0 is much better that 6-1, agree? So, why, oh why, there WAS NO BigBenMania? Why there was no such a fanatics? Why Roethlisberger was not hyper-overhyped?
    And, for that i'm sure, this is not the only NFL example.

    I'm really sick of that maniacs. :(

  11. Anonymous says:

    The maniacs exist because Tebow is awesome. We don't like players because they're the best--or we'd all be Manning fanboys--we like them because we identify with them.

    The most common thing we identify with is the city the player represents. Tebow represented Florida at UF and is popular in that state. He also represents a good guy image, charity, thick necked hunks (lots of females are Tebow fans), hard hitting touch guy mentality, Christianity, and of course Colorado/Denver. Lots of people identify with some mix of those. I'm from Florida, I like tough guys who run hard but aren't thugs, and I like charity work overseas, so I like Tebow.

    And it has nothing to do with the stats. Is that so hard to understand?

  12. Ian Simcox says:

    I like the suggestion of tunesmith. Is it possible to look at different cohorts of Broncos offensive plays to see what the variance in EPA/play is for different situations (a first thought would be grouping by WP and quarter)?

  13. Jonathan says:

    I could never understand people who dislike someone else or get upset because someone else gets "too much" attention.

    First of all, they are usually wrong. People get attention for all different reasons, but usually it's because they are the best, or at least very close to the best & win a lot. Tim Tebow won two MNCs and a Heisman at Florida.

    If you are upset that your team doesn't get enough attention, then just go somewhere else on the internet. Seriously, it is not that hard to find obscure coverage. In fact, I literally have more access to Wales Rugby news today, than I had to NY Yankees coverage 15 years ago. And I grew up by New York City.

  14. Anonymous says:

    True and disturbing story. My 5th grade sons homework assignment last week was to write 2 pages on their hero. The class is comprised of 10 males and 12 females. 2 males and 3 females wrote about 1 of their parents. 6 males and 3 females wrote it on Tim Tebow.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention on post above- I don't even live in Denver. I live in California.

  16. Jonathan says:

    Well that is...strange and weird.

  17. Stringer says:

    "Here's the sad part, once a defense figures out how to shut him down the entire league will copy it and Tebow mania will be over."

    The problem is that defenses aren't set up to stop him. Thats why the spread option has had success. The option part negates a lot of the negatives that a spread offense has.

  18. Frank Day says:

    Stringer, it seems to me that the rules are part of the problem. The owners keep tinkering with the rules to "make the game more exciting" which usually means making it easier to pass. The 5 yd bump rule is an example. Hence, offenses evolved to pass and defenses evolved to stop the pass as best they could, which means pressuring the QB. Many teams run simply to keep the defense "honest", again to facilitate their passing attack.

    It seems to me, if Tebow can continue to throw like he did last week, that the Broncos have an offense that can run as well as it passes. Now all they have to do is see what the defense is trying to stop and then do the other, with running being the first choice, because it is "safer".

    As long as the Broncos and Tebow can execute, not sure any team will ever be able "figure out" how to shut it down. And, because of the balance, if a defense is "set up" to stop him then they will not be set up to stop everyone else. How is that going to help them?

    What the stats are missing, as far as I am concerned, is the effect of Tebow on the running game. On many of those plays what happens is not called in the huddle but is determined by what Tebow reads after the play starts and what he does after that read. The stats do not account for this since this mode of play in unique to NFL quarterbacks. Further, I suspect that his potential has the defense hesitating some, even on pure run plays, further helping the run game. That would be very difficult to assemble into a stat and would have to be counted as an "intangible" in my book.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Stringer --

    You could argue that defenses have indeed figured out how to shut down the Denver offense. Here's how many points the Broncos have scored each game they've had Tebow at the helm:

    vs. Miami: 18
    vs. Detroit: 10
    vs. Oakland: 38
    vs. Kansas City: 17
    vs. New York Jets: 17
    vs. San Diego: 16
    vs. Minnesota: 35

    Most teams, including those that don't have strong defenses, are holding Denver under 20. I know the high score they put up in Oakland was helped by two pick sixes and quite a few other interceptions, and I didn't watch the Minnesota game so I won't speak to that.

    The point is that it's the Denver defense, not the Denver offense, that needs to be figured out. And if the Vikings can put up 30+ points on it (sans AP, no less), I think it's pretty well figured out.

  20. Stringer says:

    Frank -

    The proliferation of shotgun and spread formations has led to defenses using a lot of what people refer to as the "wide-9" technique defensive ends. Aside from the fact the term "wide-9" is erroneous, the technique itself works well against shotgun and spread, but its very vulnerable to any type of option play. The obvious answer for defenses against Denver is to go back to assignment football, and use their DEs in more traditional techniques. We saw the Jets do this, and they were able to stop Denver's option game. Unfortunately for the Jets, Denver was still able to strangle them with field position, then rolled out a bunch of plays on the final drive that the Jets weren't prepared for. Thats one benefit of having Tebow - there are a lot of different things you can do that nobody is prepared for. He inherently has an advantage in "clutch" situations.

    Anonymous -

    I don't think looking at points scored is an accurate way to assess Denver's offense. If I'm looking at a Denver box score, the first thing I'll look for are INTs and sack yards. Keep in mind that they did not change the offense for Tebow until after the Detroit game. In those 5 games since then, where they've used the option, the Broncos have thrown 0 INTs and have take a total of 29 sack yards. That is very, very good. They aren't designed to score points as much as they are designed to put the opposition in situations that are very hard to score points from. Even then, the opposition isn't getting many opportunities for their offense.

  21. Ian Simcox says:

    @Frank Day - But if that's the case you'd see it in the team rushing stats. Most things will show up in the stats if you know where to look.

  22. Stringer says:

    And to be honest, when looking at offensive production on a per-play basis, Denver has been fairly good. They're right around 5.5 yards per snap over the last 5 games.

  23. Frank Day says:

    Ian, Minnesota is ranked 12th in rushing defense at 104 yds/gm after the Broncos rushed for 150 on them (before the game they were ranked 9th at under 100 per game). Is that a statistic that says anything?

  24. Jonathan says:

    Before the switch to the option spread: 4.66 YPC
    After the switch, with everyone expecting the run: 4.89 YPC

    Tebow's Adjusted Net Yards/Attempts in those five games: 8.43. Tom Brady is 8.2 on the season. Rodgers is 9.6. His numbers are similarly comparable if we use AYPA.

    It's curious to me that his EPA and WPA are as mediocre as they are--probably has a lot to do with the fact that he's only able to get such efficient passing #s when not passing that often, so that's not going to have a big impact. But I think it's impressive that they are able to rely on their powerful running attack so frequently, and actually increase efficiency.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Even if you add in his rushes, Tebow doesn't get as many plays as most QB's, so his EPA and WPA values are going to be lower. This is the real genius of Fox's game plans. Given a QB who--to be kind--aspires to mediocrity, a good way to increase a team's chance of winning is to just limit that QB's effect on the game.

  26. Ian Simcox says:


    You said "What the stats are missing, [...] is the effect of Tebow on the running game. [...] That would be very difficult to assemble into a stat"

    My point was that the effect on the running game should be noticeable in the teams running stats. I can't tell if you agree with that from your comment or not.

  27. Frank Day says:


    I guess the issue is it is what "these" stats are missing when they look at the relative effectiveness of the quarterback. The problem, of course, is knowing how much of the running back success is due to the actions of the quarterback, be it from the threat of his running himself or from the proper implementation of the option or something else.

    I think I missed the intent of your original thought. I apologize.

  28. Mike G. says:

    Nine fifth graders writing on Tebow. Hmm. I hope at least ONE is nerdy enough to cite his expected WPA. Otherwise, China will crush us.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Okay, now after ANOTHER amazing comeback by Tebow, can we now put to rest the MVP discussion. NO BRAINER MVP.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Agreed that anyone with no brain should vote for Tebow as MVP.

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