Here’s a quick history lesson for all of you. You know about Moneyball because you probably saw the movie this past year. It was excellent. Brad Pitt might finally win an Oscar because of his terrific performance in the movie. What you may not know is one of the key players in that 2002 Oakland Athletics story: Chad Bradford.
Bradford was a specialty reliever who was never quite given a shot in the Show because he did not fit the stereotypical idea of a Major League pitcher. Why? Bradford was an extreme submarine-style pitcher who couldn’t throw faster than the mid 80s. Despite putting up monster numbers in the Chicago White Sox farm system, he was repeatedly passed over as coaches and scouts swore that there was no doubt Major League hitters would destroy him.
Noticing that the White Sox were undervaluing an asset, Billy Beane promptly traded for Bradford, and all he did was become the most useful reliever in baseball in 2002. To give you an idea of how good Bradford was, he had a ground ball percentage of 66.2% that year which led all of baseball for relievers with at least 70 innings of work and was second only to Derek Lowe overall. Think about that. Two out of every three hitters Bradford faced grounded out against him.
In addition to that, Bradford finished top eight in some other important advanced stat categories like FIP, xFIP, HR/FB, and HR/9. Those last two are probably the most important of all because they mean that Bradford NEVER gave up home runs. How good was he? He gave up only .24 home runs per nine innings he pitched that year. When you do the math on that it means he only gave up two home runs the whole fricking year in 75+ innings pitched.
And yet all of baseball still pointed and laughed at Beane for starting a guy with such an awkward throwing motion. They discounted his success as a fluke and only because big league hitters were so thrown off by the throwing motion. The game suddenly became about style rather results. It’s no wonder Beane took a bunch of scrubs to the brink of a World Series title that year with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. The “experts” became so convinced of their method that they lost sight of what the ultimate goal was. Better to lose doing it the “right way” than win with a submarine pitcher and a bunch of has-been’s, am I right, am I right?!?!?!
You know where this is going.
I can’t help but notice the striking similarities between (insert random 2002 Oakland A’s player) and Tim Tebow this season with the Broncos. If you remember the movie, you remember all the hilarious criticisms that were thrown at the A’s that year and how it literally just blew people’s minds that he would dare to think differently. Tell me if any of this sounds similar to that:
ESPN’s Greg Easterbrook: Everybody be at the pep rally after school — senior Tim Tebow is leading Denver Broncos High School to state! Yeah! Denver is, improbably, the NFL’s hottest team outside Wisconsin, 5-1 since Tebow took the reins. Those fans in the bleachers who’d been chanting for Tebow — they were right. But then in high school, the booster club always knows. Maybe for the next home game, the Broncos should run out through a big sheet of paper that was decorated at the pep rally with “Go Broncos” and “XXOO” written all over by the cheerleaders.
The Bleacher Report’s Jantz Spalding: Will the Cinderella story stop? Of course it will. He lacks the inability to throw downfield, has little-to-no accuracy, the arm strength of a third-string quarterback and absolutely zero pocket presence. It just seems to be an embarrassment to call him a quarterback (see: two-completion game).
SI’s Peter King: It doesn’t look like Tim Tebow’s good enough to prevent Denver from making Matt Barkley or Landry Jones its first pick next April. But he sure is a nice guy.
I don’t want to claim that I have any more knowledge of the game than these fine gentlemen, but I do want to pose a couple of questions. Is it possible that our minds are polluted as to how to actually evaluate the NFL? Is it possible that we have reached a sort of cultural arrogance about what the NFL is supposed to represent? Did we lose sight of what the ultimate goal is in football?
I continue to be confounded by the belief that you need to throw the ball to win in the NFL. It’s always the primary theme that is brought up when dismissing Tebow’s future in the NFL. At some point along the way we started valuing pass attempts and passing touchdowns as the most important stats in the game. For all my Moneyball geeks out there, is this not the same exact thing as when MLB scouts began to value RBI and batting average more than OBP or walks?
When did throwing the football become more important than not turning the ball over? When did throwing the football become the only evaluation criteria on a quarterback? Is it not about what he does as a whole, rather than one specific detail?
But Tebow himself has been deadly with the ball in his hands. He produces touchdowns at an amazing clip, better than any quarterback in football in his brief career. Here’s a comparison of Tebow vs. some of the more prolific quarterbacks in recent history.
Career percentage of touches that result in a TD: Tim Tebow — 6.0 percent Aaron Rodgers — 5.7 percent Peyton Manning — 5.5 percent Tom Brady — 5.1 percent Drew Brees — 4.7 percent John Elway — 3.9 percent
Wow. Tebow may not pass the ball effectively. But he’s produced an incredible 22 touchdowns (13 passing, nine rushing) in just 368 touches (225 pass attempts, 121 rush attempts, 22 sacks). Nobody in football gets the ball in the end zone more often.
More importantly, Tebow takes incredibly good care of the football. We track something at Cold, Hard Football Facts called the “interception ladder.” It shows us that every interception decreases your chances of winning by about 20 percentage points. In other words, interceptions are destructive plays that severely limit a team’s ability to win games.
But the Broncos are winning not just because Tebow protects the football, but because he protects it better than any QB in the game today. Here’s how he stacks up against some of the more prolific QBs in the game today.
Career interception percentage: Tim Tebow — 1.78 percent Aaron Rodgers — 1.83 percent Tom Brady — 2.2 percent Drew Brees — 2.71 percent Peyton Manning — 2.75 percent John Elway — 3.1 percent
Another interesting argument I’ve heard in favor of Tebow is that the Broncos are exploiting the way defenses have evolved to defend the high-flying passing offenses. It pretty much boils down to this idea: defenses have had to get smaller and faster in order to defend the way offenses so clearly favor the passing game now. The thinking goes that these smaller and faster defenders are incapable of taking the pounding that results from a game against the Broncos where the have to withstand the impact and physicality of 50+ runs.
Can you see the competitive advantage now that the Broncos have and why it’s not so ridiculous that they’re going with this style of play?
And finally, I’d like to dismiss once and for all the notion that the option can’t work in the NFL because “defenses are too fast” and “NFL coordinators are too smart.” Look no further than Denver’s league-leading rushing attack as evidence of this, but let’s make an even further case as to why it makes sense.
Most people would agree with me if I said the advantage teams like the Patriots, Packers, and Saints have right now is that they have seemingly infinite amounts of personnel packages they can take advantage of in their spread passing attacks. At any time, all of those teams seem like they have five Pro Bowl capable receivers on the field which makes it impossible for a defense to defend. Pretty simple, right?
Why then can’t the reverse ring true for a rushing attack?
Is it not possible that the Broncos might be able to exploit that very same advantage with the option? Say they have four people on the field at any time who can kill you with the run (Tebow, Ball, McGahee, and Royal), is that not the same advantage the Packers have in a package with Finley, Jennings, Jones, and Nelson?
When you throw in the fact that most teams spend the other 15 weeks of the season preparing to defend a spread offense rather than an option, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s advantage Broncose.
Did I also mention that the option is also incredibly useful because it forces the defense to account for one more player on the field? Think about it. With the advent of the ultra-pass NFL, the defenses can pretty much give up accounting for the QB because he is so trained to remain in the pocket. The battle becomes 11 defending 10. The Broncos force teams to leave a linebacker as a spy or prevent a defensive end from pinning his ears back every play. Again, advantage Broncos.
This probably won’t be my last Tim Tebow defense, but at this moment I consider it my greatest attempt to date. In all seriousness, heed the lessons of MLB and how it failed to embrace how badly the A’s were exploiting market flaws in the game. It’s exactly what the Denver Broncos are doing now and it’s going to continue to work as long as coaches, scouts, and writers continue to dismiss it as the latest “fad.”
Generation Y, where it feels great to be sifting through NBA rumors again.