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Tebow Time: Is God or Math the Explanation for Tim Tebow’s Success?

Sabermetrics shows us that every time Tim Tebow touches the ball he costs his team points in comparison to the performance of the average NFL quarterback. And yet, he wins. 

In a very short time, Tim Tebow has become the most polarizing NFL player in a generation. There are many reasons for this, but one thing that has fascinated fans and foes alike is Tebow’s apparent ability to rally his team, the Denver Broncos, when it matters the most.

Tebow’s performance on the field is extremely uneven. He’ll often stink it up for three quarters only to become what The New York Times describes as “a Hall of Fame candidate in the Fourth.” His efforts contributed to a crucial six-game winning streak that helped land Denver in the playoffs, and last week Tebow led the Broncos to a first-round victory with a touchdown pass in overtime. What is the explanation for his success? And how has Tebow been able to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds again and again? Do certain athletes possess the ability to elevate their game simply by willing it? Does Tebow share a common gene with Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan? Or is it divine intervention (43 percent of Americans believed so in a recent poll)?

If you are like me and believe that God has greater concerns than the outcome of a football game, you are left in search of another explanation. 

Let’s try this one:

-0.29 WPA, -13.6 EPA, -0.04 WPA/G, -0.05 EPA/P, 38.0 SR%, 34.3 %DEEP, 4.4 AYPA

What do these numbers mean? These mathematical measures of Tebow’s performance are known as sabermetrics. These measures include things like win probability, win probability added, expected points added per play, etc. A full explanation for what these statistics mean can be found here, but the bottom line is that during the first six games that Tebow started that are measured above, his numbers were terrible. In fact, sabermetrics shows us that every time Tim Tebow touched the ball he cost his team points in comparison to the performance of the average NFL quarterback. And yet, the Denver Broncos won five of the six games sampled here. So what’s going on?

There are many factors at play here, such as the strength of Denver’s opponent, the strength of Denver’s defense, and the relative unimportance of the forward pass to Denver’s success. In short, Denver runs the ball a lot (including Tebow). Denver has a great running back in Willis McGahee. Denver also has a great field-goal kicker in Matt Prater, who tied one game with a 59-yard field goal and won it with another 51-yarder. In the final analysis, Tim Tebow simply plays a limited role in Denver victories relative to other quarterbacks in the NFL. And yet, he wins. Isn’t that the point of the game?

Full disclosure: this writer will be rooting for Tom Brady on Saturday. 

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @DanielHonan


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