18 Nov 2011
by J.J. Cooper
It’s not fair to say that Tim Tebow is a quarterback unlike any other. There were plenty of quarterbacks like Tebow, they just haven’t played in pro football since the 1940s.
Back in 1947, quarterback Spec Sanders, a New York Yankee in the All-American Football Conference, rushed for 1,432 yards while leading the league in rushing attempts and rushing yards. He also threw for 1,442 yards. Unfortunately for him, the Cleveland Browns held him in check in the championship game for their second of four consecutive AAFC titles.
The single wing offense that Sanders ran didn’t last for much longer, as the T formation quickly ensured that it turned into a high school offense. Marv Levy and the Chiefs brought back the Wing-T in 1978, out of desperation more than anything else, but generally NFL teams have left the run-heavy approaches in the days of black-and-white film.
Now, in 2011, the Tebow-led Broncos have brought back high school offenses to the NFL, running the veer and other option-read plays that wouldn’t seem all that unusual to Sanders.
Yes, much of what makes Tebow stand out are the things you wouldn’t really want in a quarterback -- he’s more comfortable running the ball than throwing it, for instance. But as he piles up win after win, he’s also becoming even more of a flash point between the casual fan’s "all he does is win games" theory and the analytical fan’s realization that long-term, a running quarterback doesn’t really have a chance to take a team very far.
But since this is Under Pressure, we’re going to take a look at what happens when Tebow drops back and actually throws a pass.
To get a better idea of some of the steps in a maturation of a quarterback, we’ve logged every pass Tebow threw in his first six games of 2011 (last night’s Jets game is not included). Hey, if you’re going to pick a quarterback to time for his each and every pass, it never hurts to pick the one who throws fewer than 10 passes in some games.
What jumps out is just how different the Broncos’ approach is now that they have truly tailored the offense to Tebow’s comfort zone. That means fewer passes, more option runs, and much less decision making for Tebow to make from the pocket.
When Tebow first took over as quarterback, the Broncos appeared to simplify the offense, but it still was close to a standard pro-style offense. Tebow wasn’t always accurate throwing the ball -- but even worse, he didn’t look comfortable going through his progressions. In his relief appearance in Week 5, Tebow’s average time from snap to release was 4.4 seconds and his median time of pass was 3.3 seconds. Admittedly, that’s a small sample size, but that’s off the charts in terms of holding the ball. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is generally considered to be a quarterback who holds the ball a long time. For 2010, Roethlisberger’s average time of pass was 2.9 seconds and his median time was 2.7.
|Median and Average Time from Snap to Release (in Seconds) for Tim Tebow, through Week 10|
|Week 5: SD||3.3||4.4|
|Week 7: MIA||2.7||3.0|
|Week 8: DET||2.3||2.8|
|Week 9: OAK||2.5||2.5|
|Week 10: KC||2.8||2.5|
In his first start against the Dolphins two weeks later, Tebow was still prone to hold the ball. Even in an offense where many of his passes were short dumpoffs, Tebow averaged 3.0 seconds per pass. The next week against the Lions, Denver gave Tebow more short passes, and at least from watching the game, appeared to give him less reads to make, which did help him get rid of the ball quicker.
It was helping, but Tebow was still prone to plenty of sacks, in part because of leaky pass protection from right tackle Orlando Franklin (who gave up four sacks in the Dolphins and Lions games). Even with his scrambling ability, Tebow was being sacked on 14 percent of all of his dropbacks, which would be the worst adjusted sack rate in the league by over five percent if we compared it to other teams' full-season sack rates.
But after that loss, Denver completely revamped the playbook, junking much of its passing game to turn Tebow into an option quarterback.
Much like Oklahoma in the 1980s or Georgia Tech now, the pass became a surprise play that’s best used by Denver to try to catch the safeties abandoning their coverage responsibilities to come up and defend the run.
Against the Chiefs, Denver famously threw only eight passes. But what may have been less noticed is how the Broncos reduced the passing plays in the playbook to a couple of very simple options. Tebow threw one shovel pass (which was dropped) and threw another pass to a running back on a called shovel pass that turned into a dumpoff when the defense read the shovel play. He also threw a swing pass which was actually a glorified handoff for one of his two completions. Another one of his passes was an awful-looking incompletion on a short out route on a third down.
But Tebow’s other four passes were all designed for Tebow to take a shot deep. On the first three, play action helped ensure that the Broncos got single coverage with no safety help over the top -- Tebow just couldn’t connect with his target. On the fourth, the Broncos junked the play action, and the Chiefs did have a safety in the vicinity of wide receiver Eric Decker, but Decker got behind both safety Reshard Langford and cornerback Brandon Flowers for the deciding 56-yard touchdown.
The change has also taken away the threat of drive-killing sacks (with Tebow’s passing ability, any second- or third-and-long becomes a nearly impossible hurdle). Since the switch to a new offense for the Raiders, Tebow has been sacked on 3.9 percent of dropbacks (including the Jets game).
Overall, Tebow’s success has largely come when he gets the ball out quickly. For all his mobility, when he’s held the ball for more than three seconds, very few good things have happened.
|Tim Tebow's Passing Results, by How Long the Ball was Held|
|Seconds||Attempts||Comp. %||Yards||Y/A||TD/INT||First Down %||Sack %||QB Rating|
|1.5 or less||5||60.0%||26||5.2||1/1||40.0%||0.0%||73.7|
It’s laughable to say that an offense that treats the forward pass as a novelty can succeed in the NFL for long, but give Broncos’ coach John Fox credit. By reducing the Broncos passing attack to the bare minimum, he has given Tebow a chance to become much more comfortable.
On to this week’s notable sacks.
DeMarcus Ware is one of the best pass rushers in football. He can beat even the best left tackle one-on-one -- but Ware is even more effective when the opponent forgets to block him. On the first play the Bills ran from scrimmage, the Bills line blocked to its right, leaving Ware completely unblocked coming off the corner. Ware accepted his gift, hitting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick 1.5 seconds after the snap.
It’s an advantage of the 3-4 defense: a 4-3 defensive end is accounted for in pretty much any protection scheme, but with effectively a five-man front for a 3-4 defense, if the offensive line guesses wrong on which way to slant its protection and the defense sends the outside linebacker from the other side, then you get situations where a team’s best pass rusher is either being blocked by a running back or by no one. The same situation happened in the Dolphins-Redskins game, as Ryan Kerrigan was left unblocked to crunch Matt Moore. It took him 1.9 seconds to rack up the sack.
Julius Peppers has been one of the game’s best pass rushing defensive ends for years, but the Bears are getting creative in finding ways to get him advantageous matchups. Chicago slid Peppers inside to defensive tackle on a third-and-6 against the Lions. Guard Stephen Peterman couldn’t keep up with Peppers’ quickness, as Peppers flew by him with a quick first step to hand Matthew Stafford an 11-yard loss.
It was Peppers' sixth sack of the season, but it’s hard to say he’s really dominated many offensive tackles. Of his six sacks, four have come because the quarterback held the ball for 3.5 seconds or longer. One of those came when Matt Ryan fell down untouched, and another two came when a quarterback bootlegged to the sideline and Peppers eventually ran him down.
The Eagles-Cardinals game was John Skelton’s greatest moment and one of Michael Vick’s worst, but they each shared some common ground in taking a sack of six yards or longer. Skelton had some excuse, as his came on a third-and-11. After dodging an initial rush, he rolled out, couldn’t find anyone open, and eventually was sacked by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- who came up from coverage -- 6.5 seconds after the snap. Vick’s sack came on first-and-15, as he held the ball for 6.7 seconds before the pass rush finally broke through.
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