Happy Tuesday, friends. I’ve had some unexpected professional challenges/opportunities come up that have had me working day and night lately, while simultaneously finishing a semester up in my MBA program, and it’s briefly messed up my writing schedule. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to deliver a Digesting article on Friday, but I’m optimistic about doing one for this week.
For today, I’m going short blog-post style, on a topic that seems to be flummoxing the whole football watching world. Why is Tim Tebow so much better in the 4th quarter of games? I know the answer to this question, and I’m going to share it with you today. It’s a matter of seeing the forest through the trees, and looking back to Tebow’s time at Florida to understand the phenomenon.
First, let’s start with a thought exercise. Based on Tebow’s skill set, what’s the best approach that the Broncos can take to being successful on offense? Consider personnel groupings, play-calling, and overall philosophy. Really consider this, and get the answer in your head.
Okay, everything you’ve been told about Tebow is that he’s not that good a thrower of the football, right? That’s sort of fair – he throws some real headscratchers sometimes. After the Detroit game, the Broncos staff decided that the thing to do was to pound teams with the running game. It worked really well against Oakland (299 yards) and Kansas City (244), then quite a bit less well against a Jets team (125) that played big and sold out to stuff it. The effectiveness came back against San Diego (208 yards), before falling off against Minnesota (150), and especially Chicago (124). What we’ve learned, and what the Broncos have learned, is that teams are going to make it their mission to stack the box and stop the running game.
The thing is, without a superior defensive team, there’s no way to do that without making yourself very vulnerable in the passing game. Tebow had a really good passing day against the Vikings, and his play was a lot better than his early numbers against the Bears, where there were some brutal drops. Receivers got open, and Tebow did his job and put the ball on them, and the receivers spit the bit.
I’ve obviously heard the stat-guy creed that every QB has receivers drop balls, so it all evens out in the end, and in any given game or set of games, the effects of that should be ignored, lest we want to go all the way back to 1920 and factor out every drop that ever happened. How could we have historical context otherwise?
My answer to that is that I don’t give a tinker’s damn about historical context. I'm not a 50-year-old baseball fan drinking a Miller Genuine Draft and arguing with my son about whether George Brett was better than Evan Longoria. It means nothing to me at this moment where Tebow ranks in history; I just want to know how he’s doing right now. As some guy once said on national TV, we’re just trying to win a mother#$%@ing game. Is he doing his job, and is he improving as a young QB? I’m in the real-time evaluation business, so how many times receivers dropped balls is very meaningful to me. And no, it doesn’t even out in the end; that’s complete BS, and it’s part of the alchemy that happens in individual football statistics whereby ignoring context somehow creates context. Teams with better receivers have fewer dropped passes, which tends to help their QBs post better numbers. Obviously.
I don’t think that Tebow is most effective in a run-heavy, big personnel situation. Those groupings bring big defenders onto the field, cause defenses to really stack the box, and focus everything on stopping the run. They result in a lot of second-and-9 and third-and-8 situations. Then, there’s an incomplete pass, maybe a drop, or just a throwaway due to good coverage, or a bad throw. No passing game rhythm is achieved, though, in any case. Defenses have adjusted to what the Broncos have been doing, and it’s led to a ton of 3-and-outs, as defenses have refused to let the Broncos run their way down the field and stay on schedule.
The Tebow skeptics say that once you stop the Broncos run game, they’re done, because he can’t throw. That’s wrong, though, because it ignores what defenses have to do to stop that running game. It's not like if you do what everybody else does against every other team, and really, really want to stop the run, you'll be successful at it. No, they have to leave themselves very vulnerable in the passing game. Any QB can throw against the kind of coverage the Broncos see sometimes. This is why I believe that Tebow (if he starts completing more passes), and Cam Newton (if he stops throwing so many interceptions) are the future of the NFL at the QB position. Defenses have to play 11-on-11, and there’s no good answer for how to do it. Of course, the few surgical throwers are always going to be great too, but the Tebow/Newton approach is an alternate path to being really tough to stop.
Now, in Foxball, any possession that ends in a kick of some kind is a good possession, and there’s some credence to that, but some possessions are much better than others. The Broncos need more scoring possessions, and even a few more punt possessions with two or three first downs and some eaten clock would be nice.
The reason Tebow does better in the fourth quarter is because the Broncos go away from the big-personnel run-heavy stuff, and they do what Tebow does best. They play 10 or 11 personnel, spread it out, and play up-tempo with the no-huddle approach. Go be a playmaker, kid, and get it done. No-huddle does two things that help Tebow. For one, it prevents defenses from substituting. For the other, it forces them to mostly revert to their signature defensive schemes and helps Tebow know exactly what he’s going to see. Against the Bears, that meant a lot of Cover-2. (I think they played their safeties too deep, but it wasn’t a prevent defense, it was Cover-2.) Most teams are going to want to zone Tebow from empty looks, because they’re not interested in having him run wild against man-to-man like he did against the Jets and Raiders. That allows the Broncos to run zone-beater concepts, and be confident that they’re going to get guys open. Did you see how they wore out 4 verticals against Minnesota?
Now, if the offense is in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), the defense is most likely going to be in Nickel. If the offense is in 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR), the defense will be in Dime. That puts a lot of CBs (non-tacklers) on the field to try to tackle Tebow and Willis McGahee, so it’s good for business in the running game.
Tebow is most comfortable in a spread-out shotgun offense that completely revolves around him. He worked in that situation every game for three years in college, and it’s what he’s best at. Every time the Broncos go to this kind of approach, they have big, big success at it. It’s worked against both soft zones and tight man-to-man. It forces defenses to play 11-on-11, and that’s a big challenge.
The Broncos should be looking to go all-in with this type of offense, because it’s what will allow them to achieve offensive balance. If the formation looks like it could be run or pass on any snap but forces the defense to play pass personnel, it portends for success for the Broncos. Almost no defense is going to be able to defend both things.
Tebow has to keep making good decisions and taking what the defense gives him, which are two competencies he’s shown this season. Speaking of which, it’s funny how the goal posts are getting moved. First, it was “He misses wide open guys!” Now, when he hits a wide open guy, it’s “Well, the guy was wide open! Who cares?”
For maximum effectiveness, the Broncos offense has to revolve around Tebow primarily playing from the shotgun, joined by a rotating group of skill position players. You shift and use motion, and run the ball with all kinds of different players and from all kinds of different angles. You remain a tough, hard-nosed running team, but you do it differently.
I’d like to see more specialization at the running back position, and I really like the stuff where Jeremiah Johnson is split wide against a LB in the spread looks. That is like stealing, having him run a route on a LB. It also opens up the box to allow Tebow to run the ball. If they want to stick to Cover-2, fine, we’ll bubble screen it out there, and play 3-on-1 to the trips side.
I’m out of time, and I promise to explore this in more detail later on, but the answer to consistency on offense is spreading it out and letting Tebow play like it’s the last five minutes of the game all the time. If you want to know what that looks like, watch some Florida tape from 2008 or 2009. It’s devastating; unless a defense is world class, it’s going to have no chance. The Broncos will start seeing 250 yards passing, 150 yards rushing, and 25-28 points per game every week. Just think how it would look once we get outside of rebuilding fever, which, make no mistake, we’re still very much feeling.