As Tim Tebow's improbable string of fourth quarter comebacks has propelled the Denver Broncos' turnaround in the 2011 NFL season, I've heard announcers and pundits say "Florida fans remember this from his college days." That's an easy callback for them to make, with the assumption being that Tebow's fantastic collegiate career was dotted with fourth quarter comebacks.
It wasn't. In fact, Tim Tebow has three times as many fourth quarter comebacks in the NFL in less than a full year of starts than he did at Florida in his entire four-year career. And the question of whether he was better in college or in the NFL raises questions of just how impressive fourth quarter comebacks are.
First, let's start with links and a definition. I'm working from research by Scott Kacsmar, who posted an invaluable three-part series on fourth quarter comebacks at the Pro Football Reference blog in 2009. And I'm defining a fourth quarter comeback as a victory in a game that was decided in the fourth quarter and included a deficit for the winning team; the team must have trailed in the fourth quarter, then taken the lead, in other words, to give a quarterback credit for a comeback.
Pro Football Reference hasn't updated their list of Tebow's fourth quarter comebacks since Sunday's comeback win over the Bears, but he has five in 2011 and six in his first 11 NFL starts, a number that ESPN cites Elias in saying is the best figure among NFL quarterbacks that have debuted since 1970 over those first 11 starts.
Those are great numbers, certainly, but Tebow isn't even the only player on a ridiculous run of fourth quarter comebacks this season: Eli Manning, who leads the NFL in fourth quarter passer rating, has six fourth quarter comebacks in 2011, including four over five weeks, has beaten teams that are currently a combined 37-43 (.463 winning percentage), and has scored four of those comebacks on the road. Additionally, Manning has tied an NFL record for most touchdown passes in the fourth quarter in a single season with three games remaining this year.
By contrast, Tebow's five fourth quarter comebacks this season have come against teams that are currently a combined 27-42 (.391 winning percentage). But he has six touchdown passes and two touchdown runs in the fourth quarter, as compiled by Only Gators, despite playing meaningful team in just nine Denver games this season. Tebow's also second on the list of fourth quarter comebacks by quarterbacks under 25 in their first two seasons with three games remaining this year.
If we were calculating a fourth quarter comeback rate by taking the number of fourth quarter comebacks out of NFL games started (FQR1), Tebow would check in at an absurd 54.5%, with six in 11 starts; for perspective, Denver legend John Elway had 34 fourth quarter comebacks in 252 starts as a quarterback, for a comparatively paltry 13.5% fourth quarter comeback rate. If you want to calculate fourth quarter comeback rate as comebacks out of chances (FQR2), well, Tebow's 66.7% rate (six in nine chances) just looks absurd.
We lionize quarterbacks for a lot of reasons — I'll get to that later this week — but the fourth quarter comeback is one of the most overrated. Few will mention when citing the fourth quarter comeback that it, by definition, requires a team to be trailing late in the game; fewer still will note that the Broncos have trailed in the fourth quarter in nine of Tebow's 11 starts, and have carried a lead into the fourth quarter in just one, a 17-10 win over the Chiefs in November that involved starting quarterback Matt Cassel getting hurt.
Tebow has been able to make fourth quarter comebacks happen in part because he's failed to build leads for the Broncos before the fourth quarter. Fault play-calling, or drops by wide receivers, divine intervention, resilience, or whatever you want for that, but it's as true a fact as any other in this stat-soaked maelstrom.
This is also true: Tebow did not specialize in fourth quarter comebacks as a starting quarterback for the Gators. At Florida, Tebow started 41 games, and trailed in the fourth quarter in eight of them. Of those eight fourth quarter comeback opportunities, Tebow capitalized on just two, leading Florida back from a deficit against Alabama in the 2008 SEC Championship Game, with what I still consider one of the finest quarters of quarterback play I've ever seen, and getting a significant amount of help from his defense and the officials in coming back against Arkansas in 2009. That makes for a tiny FQR1 of 4.9%, though Tebow's FQR2 is still a healthy 25% — and those numbers are a far cry from his stats in the NFL.
Again, for emphasis: Tebow faced eight fourth quarter deficits and had two fourth quarter comebacks 41 starts for Florida, and has faced nine fourth quarter deficits and pulled six fourth quarter comebacks in 11 starts for the Broncos. While Tebow's name is in the discussion about the finest college football players of all time, he didn't get there by ringing up comebacks; likewise, while he's viewed as no more than an above-average NFL quarterback, his play late in games has made him a folk hero, gotten him a "clutch" tag, and confounded conventional wisdom.
Tebow's doing something in the fourth quarter with the Broncos that he didn't really do for the Gators, and that's at least in part because he was only rarely asked to do so for very good Florida teams that tended to play fourth quarters with the outcome decided. And his prowess at it, at a clip that defies logic and produces ridiculous rate stats, is both a product of a small sample size and a rather amazing departure from previous history.
While you can credit that to a vaunted indefatigable mentality, or a team that has rallied around Tebow, or a scrambling style that wears on opposing defense, the ends sound good no matter the means. But I will ask you why it wasn't necessary in college, and challenge you to approach it from more than the angle that makes Tebow look best.
He certainly deserves that sort of smart scrutiny, a transition from what he can and can't do to the how and why, and that's what I'll try to bring throughout Tim Tebow Week here at Alligator Army.