The Broncos quarterback had a playoff performance for the ages, by any definition
By Bill Barnwell
The knock on Tim Tebow during Denver's six-game win streak this season was that his level of performance didn't match up to his team's win-loss record. That his stats didn't befit a guy who seemed to back into wins on a weekly basis. That he was bound to eventually turn back into an extremely marketable pumpkin. We made that argument here, and unless you actually live in Grantland and don't have a passport, you read the argument elsewhere. Heck, the rumor du jour this week was that the Broncos were about to bench Tebow for Brady Quinn, who couldn't beat out Derek freaking Anderson for a starting job in Cleveland. If Tebow somehow won against the mighty Steelers in the first round of the playoffs, it was probably going to take a couple of pick-sixes and Ben Roethlisberger's ankle disintegrating on national television. Right?
Well, on Sunday Tebow delivered one of the finest performances a quarterback has delivered in recent memory. Not in some intangible quality — leadership, heart, grit, you name it, whatever — but an actual quantifiably great game. He's delivered that before as a pro, but not as a passer, and not against a fantastic defense. In the wake of Sunday night's remarkable upset, we are here to tell you that Tebow delivered a game as a passer that is worth your respect and then some.
Recognizing that involves looking past his ugly completion percentage. In going 10-for-21, Tebow completed just 47.6 percent of his passes. What mattered, instead, is what Tebow got out of each of his dropbacks. By throwing for 316 yards on those 21 attempts, Tebow averaged a whopping 15.0 yards per attempt. That's only happened five times in the past five years, and the company isn't shabby: Drew Brees, Matt Schaub, Jeff Garcia, Kurt Warner, and Philip Rivers matched Tebow's feat.
If you want to subtract some credit for Tebow's inaccuracy, use passer rating instead. Passer rating is flawed for a variety of reasons, but the biggest reason is that it favors quarterbacks with excellent completion percentages who never make big plays downfield. The second biggest reason is that it doesn't consider a quarterback's rushing ability. If there is any stat that would give an artificially low opinion of your typical Tim Tebow performance, it's passer rating. And despite all that, Tebow's performance on Sunday merited a passer rating of 125.6. Since 1990, only 29 of the 485 quarterbacks who threw 15 or more passes in a game put up a passer rating greater than 125.6.
We're just getting started, though, because there's one other piece of context we need to consider: the quality of the opposition. The Broncos were not just facing any old defense on Sunday; they were facing the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh's pass defense allowed just 5.6 yards per attempt this season, which was the best in the league by more than half a yard. Houston finished second at 6.2 yards, and they were closer to ninth than they were to first. Nary a single passer threw for more than 300 yards against the Steelers all year. They allowed a pass play of more than 45 yards just once, and that was on a 73-yard touchdown to LaRod Stephens-Howling on a wheel route in which the ball traveled about ten yards in the air. Nobody beat the Steelers deep this year. Nobody.
And then they met Tim Tebow. Tebow, of course, had completions for 51 and 58 yards on back-to-back drives before adding an 80-yarder to win the game on the opening play of overtime. All three of those throws traveled well downfield. Tebow also became the first passer to throw for more than 300 yards against Pittsburgh this season.
That sort of performance just doesn't happen against dominant pass defenses like Pittsburgh's. Consider that there have been 44 playoff games since 1990 featuring a defense that ranked first in the league in yards per attempt during the regular season. In those 44 games, the opposing quarterback has only managed to muster an average of 6.3 yards per attempt.1 Tebow's 15.0 YPA was more than four yards better than anyone else's performance against a top-ranked defense, and only one player achieved a higher passer rating in a playoff against such a defense. That player was Brett Favre, who had a 132.9 passer rating in a January 1996 game against the 49ers.
Perhaps out of an incredulous disbelief that Tebow could actually have a huge passing day, we've seen two arguments brought up against his performance. One holds merit, but neither are enough to significantly discount what Tebow did.
The first is that the Steelers were riddled with injuries on defense and not quite the unit that their regular-season statistics would indicate. We knew that safety Ryan Clark would be held out of the game because of his sickle cell trait, but the Steelers lost defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel to injuries during the game, forcing them to play three down linemen for the bulk of the contest. Combine that with a clearly limited LaMarr Woodley, who played through a hamstring injury, and Tebow was actually slicing up a pale imitation of the Steel Curtain. Right?
Well, yes and no. It's obvious to suggest that Clark would have had an impact at safety, especially considering that replacement Ryan Mundy appeared to get lost on the final play. Then again, Mundy also forced the key Willis McGahee fumble in the fourth quarter that allowed the Steelers to tie up the game. Furthermore, it's not like Mundy was getting lost while he was freelancing; cornerback Ike Taylor was getting beat because Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau continued to call an aggressive game. The Steelers flooded the line of scrimmage with defenders on many plays in an attempt to flush out the Denver running game, including a big run blitz on the first play of overtime that was based upon pre-snap motion. The game plan was to shut down the running game and challenge Tebow and his receivers to beat Taylor & Co. deep. Even after the Broncos lost starting wideout Eric Decker in the first quarter,2 the Broncos were able to pull that off, repeatedly, until the very last play of the game.
The other argument is that Tebow's numbers really belong to wideout Demaryius Thomas, who repeatedly torched Taylor as part of a 204-yard day. This one doesn't hold up to any scrutiny. There is, admittedly, a case to be made for the idea that yards after the catch should somehow count less for a quarterback. It's somewhat ridiculous to think that Eli Manning got credit for a 99-yard touchdown pass against the Jets in Week 16 on a play where he dumped the ball off underneath and Victor Cruz made two defenders miss before running for 90 yards. The plays Tebow made on Sunday night were not of that variety. He deserves plenty of the credit. Tebow's scrambling ability created the time for his first bomb, which went to Thomas for 51 yards (42 in the air), and then he later hit Thomas in perfect stride on completions of 58 yards (28 in the air) and 80 yards (18 in the air). Thomas' baby Megatron show was fabulous, but he wasn't doing all the work by himself.
One game doesn't make a career. For all we know, we might have just seen the best passing performance of Tim Tebow's life, a fleeting glimpse into what could happen if Tebow got to play backup free safeties with excellent pass protection every week. With that being said, if any other rookie quarterback from the past three years put up numbers similar to what Tebow did against anything resembling the Steelers pass defense in the playoffs, we would be falling all over ourselves to describe it as the first big sign that a new franchise quarterback had arrived on the scene. It's time to file Brady Quinn's name away and stop the debate about whether Tebow deserves to keep the Denver job for 2012. After a year in which Tim Tebow occasionally got more credit than his play deserved, on Sunday, Tebowmania lived up to every bit of the hype.