Tebow & Elway -- Cousins?

After Peyton Manning's visit with the Broncos, several articles have appeared regarding its meaning for Tim Tebow.  The Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay writes

This is a young quarterback who, for all his shortcomings, inefficiencies and bridling against convention, transformed the Broncos last season. After beginning the 1-4 under Kyle Orton, Tebow guided the Broncos to wins in seven of eight starts to put the Denver atop its division. They lost their final three games, but they slipped into the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, winning a thrilling playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers before falling to New England in the next round.

Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver, a tough critic of Tebow, titled a recent column, "Tim Tebow Getting Shafted with Broncos' Pursuit of Peyton Manning."

Both writers acknowledge the fact that if Manning is obtainable (presumably on reasonable terms), then he makes the Broncos and most other teams better.  It's not the pursuit by the Broncos, per se, troubling Gay and Silver but the indifference to Tebow in the way handling of the pursuit and the blatant signals about the underlying assessment of Tebow's future.

The initial predictions that Tebow would fail with the subsequent feelings that his success could not endure strikes at the difficulty of managerial insight/foresight -- "entrepreneurial activity" in a narrow sense.  As I wrote last August in NFL QB Bias, player shortcomings in obvious ways relative to peers stand out and capture the attention of "analysts" -- passing accuracy, for instance -- while implicit or less direct outcomes such as yards per completion are pushed to side points.  For example, in the playoff game with the Steelers, Tebow completed less than 50 percent of his passes -- ridiculously low by current NFL standards.  However, his 30 yards per completion ranged off the charts on the positive side.  His running ability leads defenses to play in ways that create big opportunities.   Instead of defenses stacking the field with 5 or 6 defensive backs, many of whom are small cornerbacks, they play with a lineup resembling something out of the 1970s.  Yet, many "analysts" (and seemingly the Broncos) see the low percentage as a long run outcome and the big yards per completion as transitory -- not as a fundamental shift, not as an alternative means of winning games over the long run.

It's easy to dismiss Tebow.  After all, who would know better than his current coaches and GM?  This is where managerial econ discussions diverge from descriptive/positive econ discussions.  Didn't Babe Ruth's Red Sox managers know best -- who would switch a highly successful pitcher to position player?  Weighing implicit costs and looking ahead is tricky business.

On a related point, ironically, Tim Tebow's performances evoke images of John Elway himself, particularly in the first half of his career.  Somehow, this seems lost on most NFL commentators.  My lasting memories of young Elway are of him throwing a swing pass at a player's shoes on one play, and then scrambling around and whipping a 50-yard rope for a TD on the next play.  Or, of a player not looking very good for 3 quarters and then playing much more effectively in the 4th quarter by improvising.  While effective, Elway's performances, especially young Elway, do not jump out by standard metrics.  While maybe not brothers will Tebow's stats, they are cousins.  Below, I list some of Elway's stats in his 2nd and 3rd season alongside Tebow's:

Elway(84,85)Tebow (2011)
TD-INT40-3812-6
Completion %5546
Yards/Completion1213.7
QB Rating7373
Game Winning Drives86

By 1993, Elway developed into a more polished passer as reflected in QB rating, TD-INT ratio and other stats.  Nonetheless, his career passing numbers look great only in a cumulative sense.  On a per season basis, they are ok.  His career QB rating of 79.9 rises slightly  above players from his own era such as Jim Everett (78), Jim McMahon (78), Chris Chandler (79) but below players such as Boomer Esiason (81), Bernie Kosar (81), Randall Cunningham (81), Rich Gannon (84), or Dan Marino (86).  His TD-INT ratio is a not-so-sparkling 300-226, and he was sacked a ton --second all time.  Often, the O-line is blamed, but players like Elway, Roethlisberger, Vick, Tebow hold the ball a long time, leading to high sack figures.

Was John Elway just an "ok" QB?  That's not my theme.  Instead, he succeeded in the most important way -- by winning games --in spite of rather obvious flaws.  His rushing yardage compensated, particularly late in games.  He rates second all-time in game-winning-drives.  It's funny how QB running and improvising late in games is viewed as a good trait, but not in the first 50 minutes.   But, John Elway as GM (along with a lot of others) holds much less confidence in his playing cousin -- Tim Tebow.