by Jim Glass
Is the Tim Tebow story real? I enjoy Tebow, for years have wanted to see somebody try the option in the NFL, am entertained by watching the challenges it throws up for opposing teams, and am rooting for Tebow football to work. But is the Tim Tebow story as heard everywhere from his fans and admirers (and worshipers) real?
Tebow is a type of QB unique in the modern game. But the Tebow story is very old and familiar: the tale of "clutch winning". It's the story of *not* having the stats that go with winning, but winning anyhow. Thus, credit for winning goes to character, leadership, inspiring teammates, making others better, and - most of all - coming through with big plays in the last minutes to win close games in the clutch.
Tebowmania is based on the Broncos pulling out five close, clutch, one-score victories in the last moments (by 7, 4, and 3 points, and in OT twice) after he became the starting QB. These plus one decisive win and one decisive loss make the Broncos 6-1 with him at the helm, after a miserable 1-4 start with him on the bench. What a difference!
No, Tebow doesn't have the "stats" that usually go along with a QB who wins games. His EPA and WPA numbers are both negative, with his EPA-per-play rank 35th and WPA-per-play rank 27th. Other rating systems agree, by DVOA he is 27th. Tebow passes for only about 130 yards per game, 34th among QBs in a league of 32 teams. These normally are the stats of QBs about to get cut for losing games.
But he wins! The clutch winner like Tebow has "intangibles" that can't be measured in stats, but which *win* and so are more important than skills measured in mere stats, because winning is what it is all about. QED.
And who can deny that this guy has these intangibles that give him a special ability to win close games? The record speaks for itself. So the story goes.
It's a great story - but does an ability to win close games like this in the NFL actually exist?
To see, I looked at a larger record, that of all teams that (like the Broncos with Tebow) have been +5 net or better in one-score games (decided by 7 points or less) during the era of the 16-game season, from 1978 through 2009. I compared each team's record in its season of close-game success and clutch victories to its record in the following season (1979 through 2010). If there really is some ability, some skill, that enables a team to win close games in the NFL, it should carry over from one season to the next at least in some degree.
Altogether, 47 teams were a net +5 or better in close games, 5% of the 945 team of the 32 seasons. So the Broncos with Tebow at the helm are on course to a top 5%-or-better performance in clutch games. If you're a Broncos fan, what's not to be thrilled about?
But in the subsequent year, only the barest majority of the 47 teams were even +1 in close games, just 24 of the 47.
The 47 "best in the clutch" teams of the last 32 years were +263 net in close games - but only +15 in the subsequent season. Their won-lost record in one-score games fell in one year from 328-65 (83.5%) to 189-174 (52%). The correlation between their numbers of net close wins over the two seasons was an almost invisible 3%.
Comprehensively, for all 945 teams over the full 32 seasons, the correlation in year-to-year net close wins is 8%. In realistic terms: next to nothing.
Well, OK, that's everybody, the masses, but are the greats different? We've all heard that "Great teams, great players, win close games". Just because the masses don't win close games doesn't mean Tebow can't do it as the other greats have done!
But have the greats done it? A quick look at career records in 3-point games of various greats finds:
• Vince Lombardi's Packers: 12-11, 52%, while winning five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls.
• Bill Walsh's 49ers: 17-22, 44%, winning three Super Bowls.
• Chuck Noll's Steelers: 13-23, 36%, during the Terry Bradshaw years with four Super Bowl titles.
Those greats sure didn't do it. Who actually was the greatest at winning close games?
Well, during the last 32 years it was Dick Jauron and his Bears team, quarterbacked by Jim Miller, that pulled out one "miracle" win after another, just like the Tebow Broncos and even more so! They went +8 in one-score games amid piling up a 13-3 record and earning Jauron the "Coach of the Year" award plus a three-year contract extension.
The next year the Bears went 4-12, and -2 in close games. In Jauron's ten-year coaching career he never had another winning season, going 47-79 in nine other losing years. Miller lasted at QB one more year.
The other story
Another story becomes visible in the above: Close-game outcomes are overwhelmingly determined by luck, random chance.
There is no skill, no ability, to consistently win close games in the NFL. It doesn't exist.
Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr couldn't do it. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana couldn't do it. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw couldn't do it.
So when the fans of Tim Tebow say he does it - "he wins close games, he just does what it takes to win" - they really are making quite an ambitious claim!
Now consider the alternative. If Tebow doesn't win close games any more than Starr, Montana, and Bradshaw did, then what's left of the Tebow story? The entire Tim Tebow tale is "he makes the team win, he just does what it takes". But if he doesn't, the whole story evaporates and there's nothing left - he's just another young project at QB with very bad numbers so far. Starr, Montana, and Bradshaw put up great numbers. That's how they won.
In this story Tebow is winning like Dick Jauron did. The Broncos - all 53 players, not just Tebow - have played five generally weak teams (combined record of 23-37, 38%) evenly ... and won five coin flips.
If three of those coin flips had gone the other way - say, Miami QB Matt Moore hadn't fumbled in OT in field goal range for Denver, San Diego hadn't missed that field goal in OT, and Ponder this week didn't throw a last-minute interception again in Denver field goal range - then nobody is telling the "he just wins" story about Tebow today, because he isn't winning. The support for Tebow Idolatry is that tissue-thin.
One of the bad mistakes you can make in life is confusing good luck with superior ability, then doubling down on your confidence in that superior ability - and losing your house when the luck runs out.
In 2001 Dick Jauron was voted Coach of the Year over runner-up Bill Belichick. He was hailed for being the only other Bears coach ever to match the top season win totals of George Halas and Dick Butkus. He got a raise and a three-year contract extension ñ and after he was fired, on the strength of his "success" with the Bears, he got *another* head coaching job ... until his bosses had paid for nine years of losing records. That cost them plenty.
Broncos fans and Tebowmaniacs are investing a heck of a lot in their belief that Tebow won those five close games. It will be interesting to see how much Elway and Fox are willing to invest.
Friday, December 9, 2011
by Jim Glass