Tim Tebow inspires irrational football discussions. He turns normally sober analysts into emotional fanboys. The anti-Tebow crowd revels when he struggles with barely contained glee.
It all feels political. You are either a member of the Tebow Party or you are against him. A non-believer.
This article is not going to delve into why all this happens. It’s going to examine the very real football reasons Tebow has struggled lately and what that means for Sunday’s matchup with Pittsburgh.
It will try to be rational.
After the peak
Tebowmania peaked after the win over the Bears in Week 14. That incredible, inexplicable comeback pushed everyone over the edge. It inspired a great SNL skit. It started “Tebow for MVP” talk, which looked just as silly back then as it does in retrospect.
Tebow actually played one of his better games in the loss to New England. Since then he’s 19-for-51 with one touchdown, four interceptions, three fumbles, and 3.37 yards-per-carry.
So what changed?
I looked at five Tebow starts spread throughout the season, and a lot less has changed than you’d think. Yes, the turnovers and sacks have increased. But it’s not like the Broncos passing game was ever clicking. That’s what made the long winning streak so wild.
There were good half quarters (Dolphins), there was a fantastic game-winning throw (Chiefs], there was an amazing drive (Jets], and there was even an excellent half [Minnesota]. There was never a complete game.
All of the magic happened at the end. Hence, Tebow time.
When the magic wasn’t happening, there were long periods of stasis not usually associated with modern pro football. There were a lot of punts. A lot of punts. No team has gone three-and-out more often. (Denver had a streak of eight straight possessions without a first down between Weeks 16-17.)
Tebow’s best statistical game of the season was instructive. It came in a 35-32 win against Minnesota. The final numbers were very impressive, but the Broncos offense only had 48 total yards in the first half.
The Broncos defense forced three turnovers on that day and scored a touchdown. Three Broncos drives started in Vikings territory, leading to 10 points.
Two of Tebow’s touchdowns came on blown coverages. Tebow hesitates to throw unless a receiver is wide open, and they were really wide open in this game.
The other touchdown came after Tebow did an amazing job extending the play outside the pocket before finding Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown. At this stage of his development, that’s Tebow’s best bet for big play.
11 of Denver’s 15 drives against the Vikings went for 13 yards or fewer. This was on Denver’s best offensive day with Tebow.
The other side
The Broncos play a different brand of football with Tebow. They play things ridiculously close to the vest with a run: pass ratio that calls to mind 1950’s football. This strategy only works if the team’s defense and running game remain dominant.
Willis McGahee and the ground attack have continued to roll during the losing streak, in large part because of the threat of Tebow running. But teams are attacking the Broncos defense in new ways.
New England spread Denver out, exposing holes in the Broncos secondary. The Patriots threw quick passes to mitigate the Broncos impressive pass rush. The formula worked to perfection, and Buffalo effectively copied it the following week.
The Steelers have the receivers to try the same approach. They excel at going three and four wide at receiver. Getting rid of the ball quickly will help out a gimpy Ben Roethlisberger.
Denver’s defense was the biggest key in the team’s winning streak all along. They forced nine turnovers during their six-game winning streak. They only have one the last three weeks. The Broncos need big plays from their defense to survive.
Coaching Tebow up
There have been some complaints that the Broncos coaching staff is holding Tebow back. In one sense, the run-pass ratio indicates that’s true. Then again, the Broncos winning streak was sparked by taking this approach.
The team’s most effective drives during the losing streak primarily came from the running game. When the Broncos have tried to get more aggressive throwing lately, it hasn’t worked.
Overall, the Broncos offensive coaches have done a fabulous job. Tebow throws predominantly from shotgun and the Broncos line up in shotgun more than half the time. They use a heavy dose of the read option every week, but it’s not the base of their offense. (During most weeks, option plays account for less than 20% of the offense.)
Tebow’s best plays can be broken down into two categories: He either improvises outside or the pocket, or his primary read is wide open, often because of deception. That’s coaching.