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MHR Primer: Not All Incompletions Are Created Equal

I have been involved in a number of discussions since the 2011 season ended -- around MHR, the water cooler, with family & friends -- and invariably the question of Tim Tebow's passing accuracy is raised. His critics like to point to his 46.6% completion rate (that's 213 incompletes out of 399 passing attempts in sixteen games) as evidence that he is not going to be an effective passer in the NFL. His advocates like to argue that he has shown flashes of competency and all he needs is a full offseason of workouts, in which he is taking the lionshare of the reps as the number one quarterback, in order to develop the timing and rapport with his receivers necessary to raise that completion percentage.

There is, however, one aspect to the accuracy question that is rarely discussed. Consider the following:

1)A receiver is sprinting down the field as the ball drops over his outside shoulder into his waiting arms without causing him to break stride. The continues on its downward path, straight through the receiver's arms and bounces around on the turf as he slaps his helmet in disgust.

2)A receiver is hauling in a well-thrown ball when a defender levels him like a large truck hitting a mini-cooper. The ball is seen rolling across the field before either player hits the ground.

3)A quarterback is rolling out to one side preparing to throw when he realizes that two defenders are in the backfield, having come untouched on a blitz. Rather than taking a sack, the quarterback heaves the ball out of bounds.

4)A receiver has gained separation on a quick out pattern. The pocket is giving the quarterback great protection. He sets and throws, then listens to the fans groan in disgust as he one-hops the ball off the turf to the receiver.

All of these throws are recorded under the stat line of "incomplete." Yet, there are very different reasons for "why" the ball fell incomplete.

Take a jump with me and let's see what this has to do with Tebow's accuracy.

Let's think about Tebow's passing. There have been times when he has looked great (that bullet to Thomas that ended the Pittsburgh game, for example) while at other times when he has looked lost as he threw the ball too high, too wide or one-hopped it to the receiver. These widely differing pictures of Tebow as a passer are what have given rise to the question of whether or not he can be an effective NFL passer. One of the ways we can attempt to answer that question is by looking at his incompletions.

Let's remember that Tebow now has the equivalent of a full season of starts -- three regular season starts in 2010, eleven regular season starts in 2011 and two 2011 postseason starts. He is listed as being 9-7 in those sixteen starts, despite a sub-50 completion percentage. We might have had a few less games where our blood pressure shot through the roof, had that percentage been higher. Then again, maybe it would have played out exactly the same way. We do not know.

We could start by simply looking at his stats. It should be pointed out, though, that stats, in and of themselves, can sometimes be misleading. Consider the following statistics drawn from, and the play-by-play descriptions offered by

Completion Percentage & Denver's Wins/Losses

Percentage Range Record Year Opponent Game Percentage Win/Loss
>60.0% 1-0 2011 @Minnesota 66.7 W
55-59% 1-0 2011 Houston 55.2 W
50-54% 2-2 2011 Chicago 53.8 W
2011 @San Diego 50.0 W
2010 @Oakland 50.0 L
2011 New England 50.0 L
45-49% 4-1 2011 @Miami 48.1 W
2011 @Oakland 47.6 W
2011 Pittsburgh 47.6 W
2011 Detroit 46.2 L
2011 New York Jets 45.0 W
<45% 1-4 2011 @Buffalo 44.8 L
2010 @San Diego 44.4 L
2011 @New England 34.6 L
2011 Kansas City 27.3 L
2011 @Kansas City 25.0 W

While I would not want to be accused of suggesting that Tebow's completion percentage alone was the reason for Denver winning or losing a given game, it was certainly one of the contributing factors to the Broncos' success and failures. Tebow was well below the median percentage for the NFL in 2011. That percentage was 60.5/60.2 (#16 & 17 respectively). He topped 50% six times. The team went 4-2 in those games and when Tebow threw for less than a 50% completion rate, the team went 5-5. Even more intriguing was the fact that when Tebow threw better than a 45% completion rate, the Broncos went 8-3 and when he fell below 45%, they went 1-4.

Another way to look at Tebow's statistics would be to look at them situationally:

Completion Percentage by Quarter

Quarter Comp/Attempts Percentage Yards Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
1st 32 of 60 53.3 436 3 3 72.6
2nd 30 of 77 39.0 399 2 0 64.8
3rd 35 of 83 42.2 580 6 2 80.4
4th 82 of 159 51.6 1181 6 4 78.1
OT 5 of 7 71.4 118 1 0 153.3

If we go by QB Rating, Tebow's most effective quarter was the third.

Completion Percentage by Pass Direction

Direction Comp/Attempts Percentage Yards Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
Short Left 62 of 129 48.0 728 3 2 66.9
Short Middle 33 of 44 75.0 325 0 0 95.4
Short Right 43 of 88 48.9 324 5 2 67.6
Deep Left 13 of 59 22.0 516 2 1 67.8
Deep Middle 11 of 23 47.8 382 4 2 97.4
Deep Right 13 of 42 33.3 410 3 2 74.5

If we go by QB Rating, Tebow was most effective when throwing to the deep middle routes.

Completion Percentage by Down

Down Comp/Attempts Percentage Yards Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
1st 70 of 139 50.4 1057 9 4 85.3
2nd 63 of 133 47.4 1002 4 1 79.8
3rd 47 of 113 41.6 623 5 3 63.4
4th 3 of 11 27.3 70 0 1 15.7

If we go by QB Rating, Tebow was the most effective when throwing on first down.

As mentioned above, however, these statistics don't give us a full picture of what occurred, simply because not all incompletions are created equal. So we're going to do a very brief survey of Tebow's incompletions. No, we're not going to look at each of the 213 incompletes recorded on his stat line. What I chose to do was to review three games:

1)The one with his best completion percentage: Week 13 @Minnesota (10 of 15 (66.7%) for 202 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions)

2)The one with his second worst completion percentage: Week 17 Kansas City (6 of 22 (27.3%) for 60 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 interception)
(Please note: his worst percentage was @Kansas City in Week 10, but with only 8 passes thrown I didn't think it would give us a good picture of what went wrong)

3)A game that was approximately halfway between his best and worst percentages: Week 9 @Oakland (10 of 21 (47.6%) for 124 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions)

The method I used was simple. Using the NFL's Game Rewind, I watched each of those games again and took particular note of each pass that fell incomplete. Each of those incomplete passes was placed into one of five categories. Please be aware, that in some cases, I had to rely on the announcers to tell me whether or not Tebow missed an open receiver since the receivers were often not on the screen during the majority of the play. The categories I chose are:

1)Look, Ma! A Football! - these are the passes which reached the receiver in such a manner that the ball could have/should have been caught and the receiver simply failed to secure the ball.

2)Missed It By That Much! - these are the passes which could be called "almost" catches; they were off just enough to prevent a catch -- such as not getting the second foot down in bounds, a ball that was just inches away from the receiver's outstretched hands, one-handed catches that couldn't be pulled in, or hurried throws caused by defensive pressure.

3)Who The Heck Was That? - these are the passes which were broken up by a defender through such things as tipping the ball away, hitting the receiver before he could secure the catch, hitting the quarterback in the midst of his release, or intercepting a well throw ball.

4)Run Away! Run Away! - these are the passes where the protection has broken down and the quarterback is unloading the ball more to avoid a sack and/or injury to life or limb than he is actually attempting to get the ball to a teammate. In determining these throws as "throw aways," I used the same criteria the referees use when determining the intentional grounding penalty -- was the quarterback in imminent danger of being sacked?

5)Can I Have A Do-Over? - these are the passes that the quarterback threw (either with good protection or nominal pressure at best) which were simply off the mark. This could be anything from throwing it too high, too far in front, behind, or one-hopping it. The primary difference between these passes and the second category is that in the second category there was a reasonable chance that with a great play the receiver could have made a catch, while in this category, there is no way the receiver could have made the catch.

Look Ma! A Football! (2)

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Second Quarter, 1:22 remaining, 1-10-DEN39
This was a quick pass to Moreno circling out of the backfield to the middle of the field. The Raiders were able to get moderate pressure on Tebow as Moreno gained about a yard separation from the nearest defender. The ball came to Moreno about shoulder high and in front of Moreno. The ball hit Moreno in his upfield hand but he failed to secure it for the catch.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Fourth Quarter, 0:30 remaining, 2-10-DEN40
Tebow stood in the pocket enjoying good protection. He made a good throw to Willis who was racing up the right sideline, placing the ball where only WIllis had a play on it. Willis raised his hands but closed them together just before the ball got there. The ball bounced off the backs of Willis' hands.

Missed It By That Much! (9)

2011 Week 13, Denver@Minnesota, First Quarter, 8:04 remaining, 1-10-MID
This was a well designed screen play. The offense set it up perfectly but the throw was about a foot too far in front of Demaryius Thomas who tried -- but failed -- to bring it in one-handed.

2011 Week 13, Denver@Minnesota, Second Quarter, 9:46 remaining, 3-9-DEN34
The offensive line provided good protection for Tebow while Demaryius Thomas ran an out route to the left. There was one defender deep behind Thomas and one in front of him, but positioned to the inside of the field. The ball was thrown to the outside so that only Thomas could have a play on it. Thomas caught the ball with both hands before going out of bounds. It was initially ruled a catch, but a Minnesota challenge and the subsequent review showed that the toes of Thomas' second foot landed on the out of bounds line. IMHO, had he dragged that foot instead of taking a step, he would have been awarded the catch.

2011 Week 13, Denver@Minnesota, Third Quarter, 12:10 remaining, 1-10-MIN22
Tebow enjoyed good protection. The ball was thrown at Decker coming across the middle. The ball came in slightly behind Decker who attempted to slow down to make a play on the ball only to have his motion turn into a slide. Despite this, Decker was able to cradle the ball in his arms as he went to the ground. Unfortunately, the ball bounced free when his left elbow hit the turf.

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Second Quarter, 3:07 remaining, 2-7-DEN34
An Oakland defender came into the backfield untouched on a blitz. The abrupt pressure forced Tebow to throw the ball early and up and over the blitzer. The ball fell a step too far in front of Royal -- whose body language suggested that he was not expecting the ball to come out that quickly, but he still tried to make a play on it.

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Second Quarter, 0:58 remaining, 1-10-OAK34
The offensive line provided Tebow with good protection. Decker was tightly covered as Tebow tried to throw the ball where only Decker could make a play. The ball overshot Decker by about one-half of a yard.

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Second Quarter, 0:27 remaining, 3-11-OAK35
Tebow once again enjoyed good protection. Julius Thomas was tightly covered. The ball was thrown just past his outstretched arms.

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Third Quarter, 12:45 remaining, 2-2-DEN40
The Raiders brought an eight-man rush which totally overwhelmed the pocket. Tebow was able to get the throw off before being hit by any defender, though it was a hurried throw. Decker saw the ball coming and leaped up and forward fully stretched out but had the ball bounce off his hands.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Second Quarter, 4:47 remaining, 2-7-DEN32
The offensive line gave Tebow good protection. Coverage on the receivers was tight. The ball was thrown a touch high. Thomas jumped and was able to put his hands on the ball. However, he was hit as soon as he touched the ball and had the ball bounce away from him.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Second Quarter, 0:36 remaining, 3-9-KC39
Once again, Tebow enjoyed good protection. He made a quick throw to the outside. The ball passed Thomas head high and about one-half yard too far to the outside.

Who The Heck Was That? (5)

2011 Week 13, Denver@Minnesota, Fourth Quarter, 1:44 remaining, 3-10-MIN28
The offense faced heavy blitz pressure. Thomas had gotten behind the defender and was running into the end zone. The ball was thrown high so the defender would not have a play. Thomas was able to stretch out and catch the ball on his fingertips. Before he could pull the ball in, the defender was able to lunge and grab Thomas' right arm, pulling it down and breaking up the catch.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Third Quarter, 11:15 remaining, 1-20-DEN42
Though there was initially good protection, one defender broke through to hit Tebow as he was releasing the ball. This caused the ball to sail wide of the tightly covered tight end.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Third Quarter, 2:12 remaining, 3-6-DEN42
The offensive line kept the defenders at bay along the line of scrimmage as Decker came open on the right side of the field. Tebow threw hard for Decker, but a defensive lineman timed his jump perfectly to bat the ball down at the line of scrimmage.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Fourth Quarter, 2:44 remaining, 3-7-DEN28
The offensive line provided good protection while Decker tried to get separation from tight one-on-one coverage. The ball came in on target but the defender was able to bat it away at the last second.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Fourth Quarter, 0:35 remaining, 1-10-DEN40
Tebow had good protection to set up and make a good throw. Rosario had the ball in his hands and was pulling it in for the catch when the defender was able to wrap his arms around Rosario from behind and strip the ball out of Rosario's hands.

Run Away! Run Away! (7)

2011 Week 13, Denver@Minnesota, Fourth Quarter, 3:06 remaining, 1-10-DEN20
The play started with good protection but then the pocket collapsed. Tebow rolled out to his right but did not see the running back gain separation from a defender about five yards past the line of scrimmage. Just prior to being hit, Tebow threw the ball high and out of bounds -- the nearest receiver had fallen down, but even so, the ball was an uncatchable throw away.

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Second Quarter, 3:03 remaining, 3-7-DEN34
Clady whiffed on a block allowing a defender to charge into the backfield untouched. A linebacker tied up Moreno as he tried to swing out of the backfield. Tebow threw the ball high and out of bounds to avoid taking a sack.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, First Quarter, 7:30 remaining, 1-10-DEN34
This play was a fleaflicker. The Chiefs rushed six and the protection broke down quickly. The coverage in the secondary was excellent. Tebow was forced to roll to his right and throw the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack when he couldn't find an open receiver.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Third Quarter, 13:04 remaining, 1-10-DEN31
The pocket broke down quickly after initially looking like they were going to provide good protection. Tebow was forced to scramble out to his left. He threw the ball high and out of bounds just before he would have taken a sack.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Third Quarter, 8:24 remaining, 3-5-KC15
Fells whiffed on a block allowing defender to hit Tebow shoulder high (there was an uncalled grabbing of Tebow's helmet on this play). Tebow broke free and spun then retreated backwards where he faced two defenders coming unblocked. Tebow threw the ball away to avoid the sack.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Third Quarter, 2:20 remaining, 2-6-DEN42
Though the protection started out well, when the receivers were tightly covered, the pocket broke down. The ball was thrown out of bounds to avoid a sack.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Fourth Quarter, 0:53 remaining, 2-10-DEN16
Once again, the Chiefs showed excellent coverage which caused the pocket to break down. Tebow was forced to roll to his left and, with no time outs left, opted to throw the ball behind and at the feet of Thomas rather than take a sack.

Can I Have a Do-Over? (9)

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, First Quarter, 1:23 remaining, 2-10-OAK27
Tebow stood in behind good protection. He had Julius Thomas open down the left sideline, but threw it too high and too long for Thomas to catch up to the ball.

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Second Quarter, 9:11 remaining, 1-10-DEN34
The defense was applying moderate pressure. Two receivers were within three yards of each other along with three defenders -- two defenders were between Tebow and Royal, the third was behind Royal. There was virtually no separation between Royal and the nearest defender. The other Bronco receiver was closer to Tebow and had better separation. Tebow tried to force the ball into Royal (either that or he sailed it over the closer receiver) and it was nearly intercepted.

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Second Quarter, 1:10 remaining, 1-10-OAK46
The offensive line gave Tebow good protection. As Thomas broke to the inside, Tebow threw a wobbly pass that floated to the outside.

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Second Quarter, 1:09 remaining, 2-10-OAK46
Once again, Tebow had good protection. His target, Royal had very minimal separation from the defender covering him. The ball sailed high, and Royal -- leaping up and out of bounds -- caught the ball but was only able to get one foot down in bounds. The difference between this throw and the one to Thomas listed in the Missed It By That Much category is that had Thomas dragged his left foot instead of taking a step, he would have had a catch, whereas Royal had no chance to come down in bounds with both feet.

2011 Week 9, Denver@Oakland, Second Quarter, 0:12 remaining, 1-10-OAK15
When the protection broke down, Tebow stepped up in the pocket and threw the ball just before stepping across the line of scrimmage. He attempted to force the ball into Royal who as tightly covered in the back of the end zone, but the one-footed throw one-hopped at Royal's feet.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, First Quarter, 6:53 remaining, 3-4-DEN40
While enjoying good protection, Tebow opted to throw the ball to a tightly covered Royal -- the defender was to the outside of Royal. The ball was thrown behind Royal and to his outside shoulder, while Royal was looking to the inside for the ball.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Second Quarter, 0:48 remaining, 1-10-KC40
This throw came out of good protection and was a quick throw into tight, one-on-one coverage. Thomas was to the outside, the defender was to the inside. The ball was thrown to the inside.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Fourth Quarter, 0:58 remaining, 1-10-DEN16
Tebow had good protection for this pass. The defense was playing back to prevent a big play. Royal was in tight, one-on-one coverage. The ball was overthrown by about two yards.

2011 Week 17, Kansas City@Denver, Fourth Quarter, 0:19 remaining, 4-2-DEN48 INT short left for royal
Tebow started the play with good initial protection, but the pocket broke down as receivers couldn't get open. Ball was open underneath while Royal was being double-covered about five yards further downfield than Ball. The ball sailed too high for Ball to make a play and came down too short for Royal. The nearest defender to Royal was able to step in front of him at the last moment to make the interception.

Some Thoughts on Tebow's Incompletions

These three games saw Tebow throw thirty-one incompletions and one interception. This represents 15% of the incompletions he threw in his first sixteen start. They break down in the following way:

6% were receiver drops
28% were almost catches that were just barely off-target
16% were great defensive plays
22% were throw aways to avoid a sack
28% were bad throws

I suspect that if we were survey the other 13 games, we would see a similar proportions for each of the types of incomplete listed here.

There was some talk in some circles that at least a portion of the blame for Tebow's low incompletion rate lay with receiver drops. However, the data from these three games does not support that contention -- there were only two incompletions which were clearly the fault of the receiver. Plus, drops by the receivers are simply a part of the game and beyond the control of the quarterback.

There were also a number of great defensive plays -- five out of the thirty-one incompletions plus the interception. As with receiver drops, those great plays are going to happen and have to simply be considered part of the game that are beyond the control of the quarterback.

Throwing the ball away to avoid a sack -- particularly if it would take the offense out of field goal range, or create a third-and-long type situation -- is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, perhaps, a more conservative approach than many fans would like to see. Many fans would rather see the quarterback take a shot down the field, and risk an interception, to throwing the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack. In the games I reviewed, there were only two cases where Tebow had an open check down receiver that he did not see. In one of those two plays, he had rolled to his right under pressure and to throw to the open running back would have required him to throw back across his body and then have the ball go across the field. If Tebow had managed to pick up on those two openings & complete passes to them, his completion percentage would have been 47.1%. Not much of an increase.

Let's take a moment to consider the barely off-target throws. In the three games surveyed, there were nine throws that were barely off target, or 28% of the misses. Again, though, these were passes that were missed by mere inches. These were passes that perhaps could have been completed had Tebow and his receivers had more time to practice together and build a rapport. If Tebow had managed to complete those throws (or his receivers make outstanding catches), his completion percentage would have been 49.3%. Still not good, but getting better.

Now we come tot he biggest issue of the study -- the throws that were simply bad, off-target throws which his receivers had no chance of catching. These passes represent 28% of his incompletions -- or closing in on one-third of the incompletes. The major question fans want answered is: Can Tebow cut down on this group of incompletions? Think about it. I've read in various places that fans would be willing to accept an improvement to around 50% in 2012. Admittedly, an even higher percentage would be more desirable, but many fans have said they'd accept 50%. If Tebow makes those missed by inches throws and picks up on the two check down receivers, then he would only have to have completed three out of those nine complete misses in order to reach that 50% mark.

Once again, the key question is whether or not he can make that kind of improvement. I saw nothing in these three games that provided me with indisputable proof that he is unable -- with a lot of coaching, a full off season of mini camps, OTAs, and training camp reps as the starting quarterback -- to make the necessary improvement. It is important to keep in mind that just as there were throws he completely missed on, there were also throws in which he threaded the needle perfectly for a first down, big gain, or even a touchdown.

So, as we closely monitor Tebow's performance, especially during training camp, the preseason and the first half of the 2012 regular season, let's try to keep in mind that not all incompletions were created equal.