Breaking in a Bronco: Tebow Saddled More than Elway

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 16, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Debunker of Myths


Tim Tebow is your own personal Jesus.
 
Just getting that out of the way, because you can no longer talk about the Denver Broncos without mentioning Tim Tebow and the madness that is this six game winning odyssey.  He has dominated the headlines in a way that no NFL player may have ever dominated them before. Yes, above the Favre level.
 
For fans of the Broncos, a return to prominence is a welcome sight. How they’ve been winning, well that’s that unconventional part that fans of any team, let alone Denver, just aren’t used to seeing.
 
While it’s expected that comparisons will be made to Mr. Bronco himself, John Elway, the truth is Denver’s executive VP should be shaking his head in the press box after each improbable Tebow-led victory. Even he didn’t produce the type of comebacks that seem to have come from another dimension the way Tebow has.
 
It’s been long believed that a reason Elway had so many comebacks early in his career was due to the conservative offense from coach Dan Reeves. He would expect a miracle out of Elway in the fourth quarter after keeping it close. It didn’t always happen, and once Elway moved on to other coaches, most notably Mike Shanahan, his statistics had a big improvement, Denver made fewer comebacks, and finally won two Super Bowls.
 
If Reeves ran a conservative offense, then what’s that say about John Fox and the archaic 2011 Denver Broncos?
 
After crunching the numbers, we can say there’s a Denver quarterback that has been saddled by a conservative offense, but it’s the guy you’ll be watching on the field this Sunday, and not the one in the press box.
 

Legend Has It

At the Cold, Hard Football Facts, we have been able to stay ahead of the curve and break new ground this season. We were able to do the first game-by-game account of a quarterback’s career in the clutch (Tony Romo). We were the first to crown Green Bay as the league’s all-time front-running winners. Last week we quantified the one-minute drills of the last three decades, which Tebow was immediately able to add his name to with the win over Chicago.
 
Now we have prepared the data to break down a comeback legend’s triumphs in his career. We know Tebow sees an inconceivable rise in his statistics in the fourth quarter, but what about Elway? How did his comebacks happen?
 
First we must frame the situation.
 
And so the legend shall be told as follows…
 
A quarterback, saddled by a conservative offense that hinders his ability to make plays, struggles for three quarters and finds his team trailing. The defense has kept it reasonably close enough. The coach takes off the training wheels in the fourth quarter, and suddenly the quarterback dons the red cape and saves the day just in the nick of time. Fans rejoice, the coach’s sins are forgiven, and our beloved savior is worshipped (until he loses).
 
That is the quintessential romanticizing of fourth quarter comebacks as a way to crown our quarterback the hero. Every once in a while, it plays out that way, but for the most part, it is nothing more than the result of a close, competitive game being won in the game’s final quarter.
 
Elway/Reeves/Shanahan Triangle
 
During his career, John Elway had 34 comeback wins, enough to tie him for 3rd all-time with Johnny Unitas. The first 23 of those wins came when Elway was coached by Dan Reeves from 1983 to 1992. The final 11 were with Wade Phillips (3) and Mike Shanahan (8).
 
Shanahan is well entrenched in the Elway/Reeves feud. He joined the Broncos as a receivers coach in 1984, before taking over as offensive coordinator from 1985 to 1987. After a brief head coaching stint with the Raiders, Shanahan returned as quarterbacks coach to Elway in 1990 and again offensive coordinator in 1991.
 
But when the growing feud boiled over with Reeves not liking the way Elway and Shanahan were thought to be making plays behind his back, things got ugly. Shanahan was fired, and the Broncos drafted quarterback Tommy Maddox in the first round of the 1992 draft, despite a healthy Elway only going on 32 years old.
 
Reeves would be fired after the disappointing 1992 season, which is a sign that Elway won the battle in the end.
 
A strong source for the sour relationship between Elway and Reeves was Elway himself. He would make it abundantly clear to the media about how it was like ‘hell’ playing for Reeves.
 
Prior to the Super Bowl XXXIII meeting between Elway and Reeves (then Atlanta’s head coach), this article was written by Mike Freeman, examining the role Mike Shanahan played in the Elway/Reeves relationship.
 
“To Elway, Shanahan also served as a pseudo-therapist, since he listened to many of Elway's complaints about Reeves, the chief one regarding what Elway believed was extremely conservative play-calling. Reeves feels that even by listening to Elway - instead of stopping such conversations dead in their tracks - Shanahan was being disloyal. Everything quickly deteriorated after that.”
 
Here is Rich Cimini’s article, drawing comparison to the comeback-heavy offense of the 2000 New York Jets behind Vinny Testaverde and coach Al Groh:
 
“It's somewhat reminiscent of the old John Elway-Dan Reeves situation in Denver. Elway came to resent Reeves, claiming his conservative play-calling put pressure on him to bail out the team in the fourth quarter.”
 
Those were after the fact. How about talks of conservatism during the Elway/Reeves era? We started with a reference to a 1989 Depeche Mode song, so here’s part of a Rick Reilly article from a 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated:
 
“Anyway, with that kind of defense, Denver coach Dan Reeves can afford to be—and whisper this around Reeves—conservative with Elway.”Conservative?" says Reeves. "Our offense may be struggling, and our quarterback may be struggling, but it's damn sure not because we've been conservative."

Says Elway, "I threw our bread-and-butter pass play from last year, just a crossing route, for the first time all year [in Denver's 24-21 victory at Seattle on Oct. 22]. For the first time all year! Everything we do now is ball control."
 
Captain Comeback Tangent: Also in that 1989 SI article by Reilly is a great quote about Elway’s comebacks. Says Reilly, “watch him launch four aerial shells in the second half against Seattle for the 15th fourth-quarter comeback win of his career.” How did he arrive at 15? By simply adding up the fourth quarter comeback wins in the regular season only. You get the Seattle game on 10/22/1989 as the 15th. Perfect. So why did everyone botch things so badly in the 90’s? In a 1995 preseason article, SI referenced Elway as having 34 comebacks. Where would that number come from? It is straight from the Broncos, seeing as how 34 counts everything imaginable while excluding three Seattle victories that yours truly brought up in 2009. Something clearly went wrong between 1989 and 1995. Alright, back to the regularly scheduled story.
 
Finally, this Gary Myers article from 1997 probably sums things the best:

Back in July 1993, his first summer without Reeves, Elway said, "The last three years have been hell. I know that I would not have been back here if Dan Reeves had been here. It wasn't worth it to me. I didn't enjoy it. It wasn't any fun and I got tired of working with him."

When told of Elway's comments that summer, Reeves fired back: "Just tell him it wasn't exactly heaven for me, either. One of these days I hope he grows up. Maybe he'll mature sometime."

Elway felt Reeves' system held him back, relied too heavily on the running game and when the Broncos were in trouble in the fourth quarter, that's when Reeves called on him to win games.”
 
Clearly, the rift was real and so is the belief to this day that Reeves was too conservative and held Elway back. But does that belief match up with reality?
 

Counter: Reeves Wasn’t That Conservative, Was He?

The last paragraph quoted by Myers may be most interesting, as it touches on some of the ideas that motivate such a study. You do not have to go in-depth in the research to question the validity of the claims of Reeves’ conservatism.
 
How conservative and run-reliant could Reeves be when Elway was ranked in the top 6 in pass attempts five times from 1985-1990? Elway led the league with 605 pass attempts in 1985. He also was one of the most sacked quarterbacks, and one of the most frequent scramblers under Reeves. And don’t most teams rely on their quarterback when they’re in trouble in the fourth quarter?
 
Here’s a look at the pass/run ratio for Elway’s career in Denver:
 
Denver - Pass/Run Ratio
Year Passes Runs Plays Pass Ratio Lg Rank
1983 554 471 1025 54.05 11
1984 510 508 1018 50.10 20
1985 655 497 1152 56.86 10
1986 587 455 1042 56.33 9
1987 560 510 1070 52.34 14
1988 613 464 1077 56.92 6
1989 517 554 1071 48.27 25
1990 573 462 1035 55.36 12
1991 505 507 1012 49.90 25
1992 525 403 928 56.57 9
1993 592 468 1060 55.85 10
1994 681 431 1112 61.24 4
1995 620 440 1060 58.49 15
1996 567 525 1092 51.92 23
1997 548 520 1068 51.31 24
1998 516 525 1041 49.57 27
 
This includes all plays from scrimmage by the Denver Broncos in the regular season for each year (1983-1998). The “Lg Rank” is where they ranked in the league in pass ratio each year.
 
Something to keep in mind about these ratios: the true pass ratio will always be higher than what the stats say. Designed passes turn into runs due to quarterback scrambles (which Elway was no stranger to). Meaningless kneel downs count as runs, unfortunately. Also, once in a great while a quarterback will throw a backwards pass that becomes a lateral and credited as a run even though it looked like a passing play (think Rob Gronkowski touchdown vs. Colts this year). A designed run will not turn into a pass, specifically because of the rules about blocking downfield. So the actual percentage of pass plays is always higher.
 
Still, the results are clear: The Broncos were more of a passing team under Reeves than they were without him.

  • During the Reeves’ era, the Broncos passed on 53.68% of plays. The league average (1983-92) was 53.48%. Denver’s average rank was 14.1.
  • During the post-Reeves’ era, the Broncos passed on 54.78% of plays. The league average (1993-98) was 55.76%. Denver’s average rank was 17.2.
 
Under Reeves, the Broncos were right at the league average in calling pass plays. After Reeves, they were nearly a full 1% below the league average, as they shifted to the run more with Terrell Davis at the end of Elway’s career.
 
The problem Elway had in Denver with the Reeves’ offense was more about the talent around him, and Elway’s lack of passing efficiency. He often ranked in the bottom half of the league in key efficiency stats like completion percentage, interception percentage, and yards per attempt.
 
It wasn’t about attempts (opportunity). Sure, Elway may have fallen behind the likes of Dan Marino in counting stats because they didn’t throw as much as Miami, but that should have never been the concern or the goal. The game is about being efficient with your opportunities, and that’s something Elway never really did under Reeves.
 
Elway improved on his efficiency numbers after Reeves left and after the Broncos brought in some serious talent on the offense, either through the new free agency or by superior drafting.
 

Reeves’ Offense Worked For Others

Other quarterbacks did not have the same problem with Reeves’ offense.
 
As offensive coordinator for Tom Landry in Dallas, Reeves got to start his coaching career with some of Roger Staubach’s best seasons in the late 70’s. He stayed for 1980, which was Danny White’s debut as a starting quarterback. White passed for 28 touchdowns and the Cowboys had the highest scoring offense in the league.
 
Reeves took the Denver head coaching job in 1981, and Craig Morton had the highest passer rating (90.5) of his career that year. He also set or matched career highs in yards (3,195), touchdowns (21) and led the league in yards per attempt (8.50).
 
In Elway’s rookie season, he was replaced several times with Steve DeBerg, who actually led 4 game-winning drives for Denver that season to help them reach the playoffs. DeBerg had the third best passer rating and yards per attempt of his long career that season. Denver was 9-5 in the 80’s when Elway missed a start.
 
Phil Simms was 39 years old in his final season in 1993 when Reeves became coach of the New York Giants. Simms had a career-high 61.8% completions mark, and the third highest passer rating (88.3) of his career. Elway’s best season under Reeves was in 1987 when he won MVP with an 83.4 passer rating.
 
When Reeves became the head coach of Atlanta in 1997, he got a career-best Pro Bowl season out of Chris Chandler, who had previously shown very little success in the NFL.  A year later, the Falcons finished 14-2 with one of the most vertical passing offenses in the modern era. Chandler averaged a staggering 9.65 yards per attempt, and had a 100.9 rating. His passer ratings in 1997 and 1998 would rank as the two highest in Elway’s career. Elway got the last laugh, outplaying Chandler and Reeves’ Falcons in the Super Bowl in his final game.
 
Finally, before his resurgence (or was it a mirage?) in Philadelphia last year, the best passing season Michael Vick had in Atlanta came in 2002 with Reeves as his coach. After Jim Mora Jr. took over, Vick never improved as a passer and became more reliant on scrambling.
 

The Data

Who’s right? Were Elway’s comebacks a result of him having to turn into Superman in the fourth quarter to make up for a conservative first three, or was Elway trying to rectify inefficient performance on his part or the defense’s (or both)?
 
We collected the data on Elway’s comeback wins from official NFL gamebooks, breaking it down for the Reeves’ era (1983-1992) and the post-Reeves (1993-1998) era.
 
We tabulated all of Elway’s stats, calculated his drop backs (passes + sacks + runs), and also kept track of the running game’s carries and yardage. We did this for three splits: 1st Half, 3rd Quarter, 4th Quarter (includes overtime). We also found the scoring margin at halftime and at the start of the fourth quarter. Then we did the same thing for Tebow’s six comeback wins.
 
Kneel downs were excluded. Trick plays like a halfback pass were counted as a drop back. In the few instances where Elway was replaced (briefly) for Gary Kubiak, any of Kubiak’s drop backs were counted as a drop back.
 

QB Drop Back Rate (Usage Rate)

Era Reeves (1983-1992) Post-Reeves (1993-1998)
Split Drop Backs Runs QB Ratio Drop Backs Runs QB Ratio
1st Half 458 250 64.69 204 136 60.00
3rd QT 217 125 63.45 100 74 57.47
4th QT/OT 294 174 62.82 109 96 53.17
 
This is the key table. During the Reeves’ era, in their 23 comeback wins, the Broncos put the ball in Elway’s hands in the first half, in the third quarter, and in the fourth quarter/overtime at almost the same, high rate. This goes directly against the idea that Elway was bailing out a conservative Reeves, as they were relying on Elway a lot for the whole game, and not just the fourth quarter.
 
After Reeves, Elway’s workload was diminished for his last 11 comebacks, but that was true in every quarter, with the fourth quarter being the lowest.
 
Compare these numbers to those of Tebow, albeit just six comebacks:
 
Tim Tebow
Split Drop Backs Runs QB Ratio
1st Half 82 81 50.31
3rd QT 38 39 49.35
4th QT/OT 108 39 73.47
 
The new Broncos have remained almost perfectly balanced in the first three quarters, but when it’s the fourth quarter, that “Tebow Time” is John Fox taking the training wheels off and putting the ball in his hands almost three-quarters of the time. That’s almost 9% higher than any of Elway’s splits in his two career paths.
 

QB Stats

These are the general stats the quarterbacks have had in their comeback wins.
 
Elway with Reeves (1983-92)
Split Att. Cmp. % Yds TD INT PR Sk Yds Run Yds YPC
1st Half 380 209 55.0 2524 15 8 80.0 34 248 42 220 5.24
3rd QT 188 101 53.7 1399 4 10 62.8 13 77 14 95 6.79
4th QT/OT 258 144 55.8 2183 13 7 89.3 9 68 21 92 4.38
 

Elway Post-Reeves (1993-98)
Split Att. Cmp. % Yds TD INT PR Sk Yds Run Yds YPC
1st Half 177 115 65.0 1359 7 8 82.6 14 100 13 87 6.69
3rd QT 92 55 59.8 703 5 3 88.3 3 24 5 25 5.00
4th QT/OT 94 63 67.0 907 8 1 122.1 5 50 10 54 5.40
 
Under Reeves, Elway’s first halves were usually productive, but it’s the third quarter where he struggled, particularly with interceptions. That’s an easy way to put yourself in a situation where you need a comeback or allowing your opponent back into the game.
 
Elway stayed more consistent post-Reeves, and his fourth quarter numbers were off the charts in his final 11 comebacks. He didn’t have to drop back as much in the fourth quarter because he was more efficient than ever before.
 
Tim Tebow
Split Att. Cmp. % Yds TD INT PR Sk Yds Run Yds YPC
1st Half 50 25 50.0 293 1 2 58.2 8 34 23 111 4.83
3rd QT 28 10 35.7 232 2 0 90.2 2 6 8 29 3.63
4th QT/OT 71 43 60.6 629 4 0 108.2 6 26 31 146 4.71
 
Tebow’s splits are wild, especially his completion percentage that goes from 50% to just 35.7% in the third quarter, before maxing out at 60.6% in the fourth quarter and overtime.
 

Average Deficit

“HTM” is the cumulative halftime scoring margin Denver had in these games, while “3QM” is the cumulative scoring margin for Denver after the third quarter.
 
Deficit Stats
QB Years Games HTM Avg. 3QM Avg.
John Elway 1983-92 23 -44 -1.9 -69 -3.0
John Elway 1993-98 11 13 1.2 -26 -2.4
Tim Tebow 2010-11 6 -34 -5.7 -30 -5.0
 
Tebow has faced bigger deficits on average than either Elway split, which does a little to explain why his fourth quarter usage rate is higher. Though it doesn’t explain why John Fox still waits for the fourth quarter to unleash Tebow, seeing as how they’ve trailed considerably at halftime as well.
 

Running Game

Here is the performance of the quarterback’s running game, just based on carries and yards. Remember, these are all non-quarterback runs.
 
Era Reeves (1983-1992) Post-Reeves (1993-1998)
Split Runs Yards YPC Runs Yards YPC
1st Half 250 908 3.63 136 559 4.11
3rd QT 125 475 3.80 74 368 4.97
4th QT/OT 174 614 3.53 96 352 3.67
 
No matter how much or how little the Broncos ran the ball, they did not run it well under Reeves. Interestingly enough, the Reeves-high 3.80 YPC third quarter coincides with Elway’s third quarter struggles. Though, statistically, the difference between 3.60 YPC and 3.80 YPC is not much, so there’s really nothing to see here other than Denver’s ineffectiveness on the ground.
 
When they had the best running game in football, you can see the better performance. The fourth quarter wasn’t as great, but Elway’s effectiveness made up for it.
 
Tebow's Running Game
Split Runs Yds YPC
1st Half 81 292 3.60
3rd QT 39 173 4.44
4th QT/OT 39 162 4.15

For Tebow, it makes things more confusing on why they don’t throw more early in the game when they were only getting 3.60 YPC. It improves in the second half, but clearly teams are playing the Broncos with the focus of stopping the run, so why not let the kid try some more play action passes and first down passes?
 

Game-By-Game

Finally, here is each full game broken down by QB Ratio. Who would have imagined “The Drive” would have the third lowest usage rate for Elway in a Reeves-era comeback? Or that his very first comeback would be the most pass-happy? Playoff games have their date in blue.
 
Elway with Reeves (1983-92)
Date Opp. Result QB DB Runs QB Ratio
12/11/1983 CLT W 21-19 54 8 87.10
11/4/1984 NE W 26-19 46 14 76.67
10/4/1992 KC W 20-19 46 16 74.19
11/17/1985 SD W 30-24 OT 55 23 70.51
10/22/1989 SEA (A) W 24-21 OT 42 20 67.74
11/16/1987 CHI W 31-29 45 22 67.16
10/9/1988 SF (A) W 16-13 OT 50 25 66.67
11/11/1984 SD (A) W 16-13 43 22 66.15
9/6/1992 RAI W 17-13 32 17 65.31
12/1/1985 PIT (A) W 31-23 44 24 64.71
12/6/1987 NE W 31-20 43 25 63.24
1/4/1992 HOU W 26-24 40 25 61.54
12/20/1985 SEA (A) W 27-24 48 30 61.54
12/14/1985 KC W 14-13 43 28 60.56
10/8/1989 SD W 16-10 42 28 60.00
9/7/1986 RAI W 38-36 38 26 59.38
11/11/1985 SF W 17-16 45 32 58.44
9/17/1990 KC W 24-23 35 25 58.33
9/22/1985 ATL (A) W 44-28 46 33 58.23
12/15/1991 CRD W 24-19 37 27 57.81
1/11/1987 CLE (A) W 23-20 OT 44 33 57.14
10/18/1992 HOU W 27-21 25 22 53.19
1/7/1990 PIT W 24-23 26 24 52.00
 
 
Elway Post-Reeves (1998-98)
Date Opp. Result QB DB Runs QB Ratio
11/20/1994 ATL W 32-28 51 23 68.92
11/24/1996 MIN (A) W 21-17 41 21 66.13
11/4/1996 RAI (A) W 22-21 41 22 65.08
12/24/1995 RAI (A) W 31-28 47 26 64.38
12/6/1998 KC W 35-31 35 25 58.33
10/23/1994 SD (A) W 20-15 39 29 57.35
10/20/1996 BAL W 45-34 41 32 56.16
9/15/1996 TB W 27-23 36 35 50.70
12/12/1993 KC W 27-21 34 34 50.00
11/1/1998 CIN (A) W 33-26 28 28 50.00
1/4/1998 KC (A) W 14-10 20 31 39.22
 
You can see 15 of the 23 comebacks during the Reeves’ era had a QB Ratio of 60%, while only 4 of the 11 comebacks after Reeves hit that mark. Interesting to note the playoff games often ranking near the bottom. A sign of more conservative coaching in the big ones?
 
Tim Tebow
Date Opp. Result QB DB Runs QB Ratio
12/11/2011 CHI W 13-10 OT 57 22 72.15
12/26/2010 HOU W 24-23 37 23 61.67
11/27/2011 SD (A) W 16-13 OT 41 29 58.57
10/23/2011 MIA (A) W 18-15 OT 42 31 57.53
11/17/2011 NYJ W 17-13 30 26 53.57
12/4/2011 MIN (A) W 35-32 21 28 42.86
 
Tebow’s game numbers aren’t very high, but we now know why that is.
 

Fourth Quarters

These tables will look at the QB Ratio for just the fourth quarter of each game (no overtime). The “DEN SM” is the Denver scoring margin at the start of the fourth quarter.
 
Elway with Reeves (1983-92)
Date Opp. Result QB DB Run Play DEN SM Ratio
10/4/1992 KC W 20-19 18 1 -7 94.74
12/11/1983 CLT W 21-19 23 2 -19 92.00
11/4/1984 NE W 26-19 14 2 -1 87.50
1/11/1987 CLE (A) W 23-20 OT 16 5 3 76.19
1/4/1992 HOU W 26-24 17 6 -5 73.91
9/6/1992 RAI W 17-13 13 6 -3 68.42
11/11/1985 SF W 17-16 13 6 1 68.42
12/14/1985 KC W 14-13 15 7 1 68.18
11/17/1985 SD W 30-24 OT 17 8 -7 68.00
10/22/1989 SEA (A) W 24-21 OT 10 5 -7 66.67
11/11/1984 SD (A) W 16-13 14 7 -4 66.67
9/17/1990 KC W 24-23 16 9 12 64.00
10/9/1988 SF (A) W 16-13 OT 10 6 -7 62.50
12/1/1985 PIT (A) W 31-23 11 7 1 61.11
10/8/1989 SD W 16-10 14 9 -4 60.87
11/16/1987 CHI W 31-29 9 7 -8 56.25
9/7/1986 RAI W 38-36 11 11 -8 50.00
12/15/1991 CRD W 24-19 6 7 4 46.15
12/6/1987 NE W 31-20 7 9 -3 43.75
12/20/1985 SEA (A) W 27-24 10 13 -7 43.48
9/22/1985 ATL (A) W 44-28 9 12 -1 42.86
10/18/1992 HOU W 27-21 5 7 3 41.67
1/7/1990 PIT W 24-23 7 12 -3 36.84
 
Elway Post-Reeves (1993-98)
Date Opp. Result QB DB Run Play DEN SM Ratio
11/20/1994 ATL W 32-28 21 4 -4 84.00
11/24/1996 MIN (A) W 21-17 18 4 -3 81.82
11/4/1996 RAI (A) W 22-21 14 7 6 66.67
12/24/1995 RAI (A) W 31-28 17 9 -11 65.38
12/6/1998 KC W 35-31 6 5 -7 54.55
10/20/1996 BAL W 45-34 9 13 -3 40.91
10/23/1994 SD (A) W 20-15 6 9 2 40.00
12/12/1993 KC W 27-21 6 10 -4 37.50
1/4/1998 KC (A) W 14-10 4 8 -3 33.33
11/1/1998 CIN (A) W 33-26 4 12 1 25.00
9/15/1996 TB W 27-23 4 15 0 21.05
 
Just another way of showing Elway’s ability to use the running game more and be a better passer without Reeves.
 
Tim Tebow
Date Opp. Result QB DB Run Play DEN SM Ratio
12/11/2011 CHI W 13-10 OT 24 2 -7 92.31
10/23/2011 MIA (A) W 18-15 OT 23 5 -6 82.14
12/26/2010 HOU W 24-23 16 4 -13 80.00
11/17/2011 NYJ W 17-13 11 4 0 73.33
11/27/2011 SD (A) W 16-13 OT 10 5 -3 66.67
12/4/2011 MIN (A) W 35-32 7 10 -1 41.18
 
There’s Tebow with three different fourth quarters over 80% already (Elway had 5 in his career). It’s also another example of how passing efficiency can decrease the number of drop backs you need.
 
Against Minnesota, Tebow only had to throw 5 passes in the fourth quarter, because he made a few big completions. It also helps when Christian Ponder throws an interception and you only have to hand the ball off 4 times in the red zone to set up the winning field goal.
 

Conclusion

Where does the Dan Reeves’ stigma as being a conservative coach that wrecked his quarterback’s chances at greatness come from? John Elway himself put a lot of that out there over the years in the media.
 
What happened after the Reeves/Elway relationship ended created the perfect storm for another Elway folk tale:
 
  • After Reeves was fired, Elway immediately put up career-best statistics that were previously thought to be unattainable in Denver. He then consistently played at that level.
  • Between Simms' last season and what he'd do with Chris Chandler in Atlanta, Reeves coached sub-par Giants' offenses from 1994-96 with the forgettable Dave Brown at quarterback.
  • Elway spearheaded the revival of the AFC in the mid-90’s, and would win two Super Bowls to finish his career; beating Reeves in the last one.
  • More than just a coaching change, the Broncos started superior talent for Elway to finally work with, including Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis, Ed McCaffrey, Anthony Miller, Rod Smith, and Gary Zimmerman.
  • Since Denver never had a worthwhile running back in Reeves’ tenure, any thought to run the ball instead of putting in Elway’s hands could be deemed conservatively bad coaching.
 
All the while it was ignored that:
 
  • Reeves’ offense has worked very well for virtually every other quarterback he ever coached, with nearly all of them performing at a career-best level under him.
  • The Broncos were more of a passing team under Reeves than they were after he was fired.
  • Denver consistently ran the ball ineffectively in Elway’s comebacks, but they also consistently put the ball in Elway’s hands for all four quarters of those games.
 
Now Elway, so vocal about the alleged run-heavy offense in his career, has a quarterback in Tim Tebow that does in fact spend three quarters on a short leash before John Fox lets him loose in the fourth. As an executive, mum has been the word on this style of offense.
 
There have been whispers that Elway and Fox have set Tebow up to fail in hopes they can draft a traditional quarterback next year, but we’re not buying a Brandon Lloyd trade and unconventional playcalling as proof of that.
 
No, we’re just going to sit back and see how long this thing can continue, and if Tebow can progress as a passer. One thing’s for sure: winning is a great cure for your ailments. “Fox-ball” is winning right now, just as it’s won before.
 
We mentioned in Captain Comeback this week that the 2003 Carolina Panthers hold the record with four overtime wins in a season (Denver has 3 now). Jake Delhomme even holds the single-season record for game-winning drives with 8 that year (including playoffs). Who was the coach? John Fox.
 
Hand the ball off to Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, then let Delhomme try to win it in the fourth quarter after keeping things close. It’s a proven formula, and maybe the only formula Fox knows.
 
That’s Fox-ball. Elway and Reeves, two of their three Super Bowl losses together were over before halftime. For Fox, 2003 produced a Super Bowl appearance and Delhomme playing one of the greatest fourth quarters in Super Bowl history in a loss.
 
If Tebow can even come close to doing something like that this year, with an offense led by a 30-year old running back, Eric Decker, and Demaryius Thomas, then maybe we’ll understand why Elway looks so uncomfortable during this win streak. Tebow’s trying to win with all the pressure on his back late, and with questionable talent around him.
 
Tebow’s trying to accomplish things in Denver in ways that Elway never could.
 
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He probably won’t be allowed in a Denver press box any time soon, but still prefers the HD view from the couch anyway. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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