Tim Tebow: Debate over religion and throwing motions obscures a winning formula

Thomas Boswell
Columnist December 15, 2011

Imagine a quarterback, call him Tim Tebow, though that name sounds like it belongs in the boys’ fiction aisle, and assume he ranks in the top half of the NFL in passer rating. Imagine he also rushes for 1,000 yards with an average gain per carry that equals the best starting running back in the league (5.5).

Also, imagine he leads the NFL in best interception percentage (1.0), and leads it by a wide margin. He throws a third as many interceptions per attempt as average. Because he runs often, he passes less, so he throws only one-fourth as many interceptions a game as the NFL average. He’s the anti-turnover machine.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Next, imagine that he also weighs 236 pounds, evades tacklers, but relishes contact. These multiple skills allow him to run the option whenever he wants, not just as a trick play. His team leads the NFL in rushing yardage by a huge margin, approaching 160 yards per game while others hope for 100.

Of course we don’t need imagination. Tebow walks among us. His passer rating (83.9) is above the NFL average (82.1) and better than Michael Vick’s career mark (80.0). His 480 yards rushing in eight starts is a pace for 960 yards in a year. Vick had more than 902 yards only once.

By accident, Tebow’s odd skill set exploits current NFL trends. Spread pass offenses beget smaller, quicker defenders and four to six defensive backs that average 200 pounds a man. The Denver Broncos brute is often as big or bigger than eight of the men trying to tackle him. He tromps ’em.

The Broncos’ offense, molded to Tebow’s talents, is weirdly wonderful. Defenses built to stop the pass must now face something akin to a 1930s single wing, constructed for smash-mouth, with a huge tailback doing Knute Rockne spinners and cross-bucks except when he’s running a veer-option scheme out of the 1970s. The league burned all the books on how to stop any of that.

On top of this, he’s left-handed, always a slight edge (he has the “wrong” blind side). Finally, our man is a natural leader who inspires confidence in others because he has almost unshakable belief himself.

If this quarterback also had God on his side, it would obviously be unfair. He’s far too good to need divine intervention. If anything, a decent deity might sympathize with the other guys just to even things up.

If people keep believing Tebow’s success is a mystery, or that he can’t continue to be an effective NFL quarterback, or that “all he does is win” but not for any reasons you can identify or project into the future, I may have to quit my job and bet on the Broncos for a living.

Denver has been fortunate and resourceful for two months. A paltry 164-162 point differential seldom generates a 7-1 record in this world or the next. Field goals from 59 yards aren’t always arrow-true. But the ratio of luck-to-skill is far smaller than Denver and Tebow are given credit for.

Before Tebow, the Broncos had Mr. Average at the helm: Kyle Orton, career record 33-33 as a starter with an 83.2 rating the last five seasons. Talk about an ideal scientific experiment: Is Tebow better or worse than average?

The answer is in. The same offense that averaged 304 yards with 2.4 turnovers under Orton gains 326 yards with 1.1 turnovers for Tebow. If an offense generates the league average in yardage, as Denver now does, but commits almost no turnovers in the process, then in terms of overall effectiveness, you’ve got a top 10 offense.

Perhaps Tebow’s true hidden influence is on the Broncos’ defense. Those 12 turnovers in five games under Orton gave foes scoring chances. With Tebow (two interceptions) and a clock-killing running game, the Broncos have controlled both the ball and field position far better. The same defense that allowed 386 yards and 28 points in Orton’s starts is at 339 yards and 20.3 points with Tebow — subtle, but significant.

Many seem disconcerted, or delighted, by “the Te-bow.” It’s a yawn to me. Long ago, I prayed on a knee before every high school game; a chaplain led us in asking God to help us find the composure and courage to play hard and well, with no injuries to anybody — just what Tebow says he prays for now. Okay, he prays more conspicuously. (But I prayed every time I threw a pass.)

So, Tebow as theologian doesn’t hold any novelty or interest for me. But I can hardly imagine a more exciting, entertaining quarterback. Or one you’d be more eager to steal from the Broncos if they were ever dense enough not to know what Tebow will likely become — as he improves.

Tebow’s not going to keep playing so spectacularly in the fourth quarter. Nobody ever has, and though he’s suited to Tebow Time, he won’t either. But what happens when he learns to play the first three quarters better? My guess is the whole package improves. It’s already well above average (Orton).

So many are waiting for Tebow to fail, or lose confidence or get hurt or for the league to figure him out. I don’t get it. It seems obvious that none of this likely will happen. Maybe it’s more fun to pretend that we’re watching something incomprehensible rather than something special.

Tebow’s self-image and worldview account for the possibility of losing. If anything, he’ll probably cope better than most young quarterbacks. He’s built like a tight end, so why should he be a great deal more likely to get hurt than a tight end? And why should the league neutralize him? Vick, another tough lefty scrambler, adapted to the league. Why can’t Tebow?

On Sunday, when the Patriots visit Denver, the NFL world will fixate on the contrast between the perfect prototype Tom Brady and the “enigma” of Tebow, with his ugly throwing motion, his inaccuracies and inexperience.

Give me a break. This guy is a load, and he’s going to drive defenses crazy for years — and not just in fourth-quarter “Tebow Time.” The magical run probably ends soon. But Tebow’s career is just starting, one that will be famous for a flawed-heroic style that makes him even more appealing.

You want him on your side, whether any deities traipse beside him or not.

More on Tim Tebow from Washington Post Sports:

Tebow engineers fourth-quarter drives, but Matt Prater kicks game-winning field goals

In Tebow-style, Redskins RB Roy Helu keeps the faith, doesn’t mind expressing it

Early Lead: Kurt Warner advises Tebow to tone down the religious rhetoric

On Leadership: Putting faith in Tim Tebow

Achenblog: Tim Tebow is destroying the QB metric

Sally Jenkins: Tebow shows you can’t fake leadership

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