DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 11: Quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos breaks a tackle by linebacker Brian Urlacher #54 of the Chicago Bears as he scrambles during the overtime period at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 11, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Bears 13-10. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Tim Tebow is fairly easy to neutralize for NFL defenses. At least until the final minutes of the game, where he has produced some improbable comeback wins this season. He can easily be stopped, so allow me to thoroughly demystify the idea of "Tebow Time."
Denver Broncos starting quarterback Tim Tebow has not been particularly fascinating to me in the 2011 NFL season, and the Week 14 Chicago Bears vs. Denver Broncos game was really no exception. Then again, "it" happened for what already feels like the umpteenth time for anyone who follows the league even casually: the clock spun down to a moment of desperation for the Broncos, and suddenly it was Tebow Time. With every next cutaway to Broncos' general manager John Elway and every next on-screen graphic juxtaposing Tebow's embarrassing baseline game stats with his more than passable crunch-time stats, the pseudo-mythology of Tebow Time continues to grow. The talk that borders on a pronouncement of manifest destiny is enough to make anyone sick to their stomach.
Whether the media is attempting to shove him down our collective throats (I suppose now I can include myself), or cleverly smuggling the coverage of his performances as some sort of half-baked meta-criticism on how people elsewhere are talking or feeling about the man, the fact of the matter is that the exploitation of his ethos has become ubiquitous. "Tim Tebow just wins games" is the starting point of nearly every discussion, and apparently you must proceed with the premise that either (a) it's true for reasons that transcend the role of the quarterback (leadership, faith, moxie, other intangibles, etc.), or (b) anyone who thinks it's true is a crazy person.
I happen to think the whole Tebow Time mythology is real, fake, and meaningful to the NFL all at once. I also happen to think there are pure football reasons why he has failed for the majority of his time on the field, yet has succeed in the final minutes of close games. Allow me to explain.
Tebow Time Is Real
Nobody can reasonably deny the pronounced splits in Tebow's late-game statistics. Just looking at his most recent comeback against the Bears, he opened the game 3/16 passing for 45 yards and an interception, but finished the contest by going 18/24 for 191 yards and a touchdown. Just one week prior he only managed to go 4/6 for 29 yards through the air and left the team with a 14-7 deficit at the end of the first half, but then produced 173 yards and two touchdown throws on 6-of-9 passing in the second half to highlight another comeback win. The final quarterback ratings are genuinely immaterial, but not because Tebow is somehow special.
Passer efficiency ratings and context-neutral stats simply don't capture what Tebow does well. He isn't an NFL-level passer on a consistent basis, and yet he also isn't novel or completely unconventional. In fact, he does what every non-elite quarterback blessed with a great defense is told to do in the NFL: protect the ball and keep the game close. In general, Tebow has done a wonderful job over the last seven games at limiting his turnovers and giving his team a chance to win by keeping them within striking distance. He's just another "game manager" quarterback that actually adheres to the requirements of the job description, taking very few risks with the ball early in games and often making a single, lock-on read before pulling the ball down and running with it. In even the most extreme cases, Tebow is tasked with a half-field read featuring a single route combination and a dump-off option to go with his default scramble impulse.
If a quarterback doesn't have the skill and anticipation to make meaningful NFL-caliber throws, everyone in their right mind usually calls for that guy to become a "game manager" focused on not losing the team the game with costly turnovers and errors. Early game situations marked by grossly inaccurate passes and an inability to diagnose coverages and pressure schemes aren't necessarily a death blow to Tebow's reputation or his legitimacy. Countless quarterbacks have been asked to become game managers but have chosen to perilously overstep their bounds just to escape the label, even at the expense of team wins. Meanwhile, Tebow is not scared to prioritize ball security over his stat line or his reputation as an NFL quarterback. If he has to use his legs to get first downs and avoid turnovers, it beats the potentially disastrous alternative. To deny the value of that dedication would be to ignore a key aspect of Tebow's impact: he allows his defense to do their job and keep the game close. Tebow Time is real in large part because he is committed to his role as a game manager.
Tebow Time Is Fake
There is a simple rule I use when evaluating passing yardage and completion percentage for the quarterback of a team that played from behind the entire game: don't pay any attention. Even the worst of NFL quarterbacks see a bump in their stats when working against the clock and the scoreboard, because most teams fall back into a prevent defense or base defense with softer coverage that allows short completions in exchange for eliminating deeper passing routes. The un-official motto of these defenses is: yards don't win games, points win games. If the opposing team wants to dink and dunk to rack up meaningless yards while the clock ticks towards zero, so be it. This is often the strategical space that Tebow Time occupies, and this is ultimately what makes a mockery of the developing mythology surrounding him.
Throughout the majority of most Broncos games, defenses succeed by pressuring Tebow and attacking downhill to eliminate running lanes and take away the single read in his progression. He lacks the instincts and experience to (a) identify complex blitzes and coverage schemes, (b) find the vacated area in the defense in a timely manner and (c) throw the ball with sufficient accuracy to exploit soft spots. Never is he reflexively and intuitively reading defenders like the best quarterbacks in the league. Rather, his plays often begin with hurried footwork and eyes locked on to athletic play-maker Demaryius Thomas until the pocket begins to crumble, at which point the ball is tucked away for safe keeping during either a sack or a scramble.
The NFL's most talked about player has shown absolutely zero ability to beat defenses with his decision-making and his arm under the compressed timing associated with blitzes. It never happens. It won't happen any time soon. For anyone who proclaims the efficacy of Tebow Time, this is the other side of that coin. It's what makes all the comebacks and fourth quarter throws so improbable in the first place. It's what gives meaning to the whole phenomenon.
Tebow Time Is Meaningful
Once you understand and acknowledge that Tebow is currently incapable of beating attacking defenses that apply blitz pressure and force him to beat the scheme in small time windows with intelligent and accurate throws, the responsibility for the very existence of Tebow Time shifts to defensive coordinators. Despite early successes with pressure-based defense, opposing teams have consistently shifted to prevent and base defense packages on the closing minutes of games against the Broncos. This stubborn adherence to conventional late-game point prevention gives Tebow two things he needs to succeed: more time to see throws and more space to make throws or runs.
If I was forced to describe his passing philosophy, it would be something like: don't throw it unless (or until) you see it. There are no anticipation tosses made before players exit their breaks. There is no manipulation of safeties and linebackers with subtle eye movement. Tebow simply locks onto his receiver and waits for them to come open before ever releasing the ball. Against aggressive defenses he sees in the early part of games, there isn't enough time to wait for all of this to develop before his eyes, which is why he often becomes the world's most uninteresting (yet effective) game manager. If he doesn't explicitly see the play to be made, no play is made. Unless, of course, he manages to pound out something worthwhile on the ground.
When the defense makes a shift to late-game prevent philosophy, Tebow is given loads of time to sit in the pocket without the spectre of blitz pressure, and is also afforded 10-15 yard cushions on his receivers that creates big windows for easy throws. He can see Demaryius Thomas come open off the line of scrimmage and get him the ball without worrying about a dreaded interception. Furthermore, the high risks associated with early game turnovers become low-risk outcomes when trailing late in the game. If your team doesn't make plays to get back in the game, they will lose. As the game manager role fundamentally changes into a play maker responsibility, defensive coordinators give Tebow the comfort and opportunity to excel. Scrambling lanes become larger, throwing lanes expand and the time given to make decisions with the ball grows.
Presumably, defensive coordinators stop feasting on the deficiencies of the Broncos' young quarterback with late-game leads because the prevent defense has proven effective enough in protecting leads over the course of the past few decades. It seems like a play on the percentages. As the offense moves down the field towards the red zone, those defenders making deep drops into coverage are suddenly compressed into a smaller space that restricts the throwing lanes once again. Quarterbacks must make perfect throws to beat eight-man coverages in the red zone, and that just doesn't happen too often in the NFL.
What sets Tim Tebow apart and allows him to thrive against the prevent, aside from the fundamental things mentioned above, is that he isn't quite focused on finding the perfect throw all the time. If given the opportunity to run, he has proven more than willing to take the necessary yardage to put his team in a position to win. At the goal line, the threat of his legs forces the zone defenders to make quick decisions on whether to go after him or stay in coverage, and he has shown the ability to beat defenses with runs or pick-and-stick throws against broken coverages outside the pocket.
With his added ability to run for tough yards and break tackles, it's anyone's guess as to why defenses go to the prevent package against the Broncos late in the game. Tebow is practically made to exploit prevent defenses. Real NFL defense takes away the luxury to see open receivers before throwing. It can reduce the mythology to just another story about a former Heisman-winning quarterback that lacked the fundamental skills to consistently compete in the best football league in the world. Yet real NFL defense hasn't been given the chance to answer the Tebow Time craze in late-game situations. Much like Tebow himself, apparently the strategy to stay aggressive on defense even with the lead doesn't fit the conventional mold well enough to gain serious traction among coaching staffs around the league.
So yes, Tebow Time is real, but when you understand the fundamental cause it becomes about something other than Tebow himself. That's because Tebow Time is fake. Like every other non-elite quarterback that has ever worn an NFL uniform, the winning isn't really about him, and it never will be. The meaning behind the phenomenon ultimately lies in the cookie-cutter approach defensive coordinators have chosen to take when it comes to stopping the comebacks. When the league finally adjusts, I have a feeling the clock will strike midnight and he will turn back into a pumpkin. Tebow Time will be no more.
Steve von Horn is a writer and editor at SB Nation's Milwaukee Bucks blog, Brew Hoop, and is also a writer for SB Nation Chicago. If you have questions, comments or new writing opportunities, he can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StevevonHorn.