How Are Baltimore And Denver Winning Games? The Tebow And Flacco Phenomena

In wake of a rash of injuries to quarterbacks around the league (Jason Campbell, Matt Schaub, Chad Henne, Matt Cassel, Jay Cutler, Kevin Kolb, Matt Hasselbeck, Michael Vick, Kerry Collins and of course, Peyton Manning), upstart teams like Houston and Chicago are facing an uneasiness at the game's most important positions. 

Other teams are seeing their starters collapse, greatly messing with their post-season chances (Buffalo, New York Jets and San Diego are the main examples). 

Then there are teams on the rise due to...something as of yet unexplained. Denver and (yes, I'm going there), Tim Tebow are pointing their fate in the direction they choose, despite being, to put it mildly, a poor passer. Baltimore manages to win with a quarterback who is, by all statistical measurements, average at best. 

Maybe the answers we come up with when exploring the age-old question of what makes a quarterback "good" aren't what's confusing. Maybe it's the questions we're asking. 

Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 15 of them will have started a second quarterback by the time Week 12 is over. A few responded well to the new signal caller, but the majority did not. Teams that haven't changed quarterbacks are currently 129-88 (.594). Teams that have are 31-69 (.310). 

Of the eight teams with seven wins or more, all of them started the same quarterback each week this season. It will be nine if the Patriots defeat Kansas City tonight. Translation: the more a QB starts, the more his team wins overall in 2011. 

Obviously many things are wrong with Indianapolis, but poor play from Collins and Curtis Painter is responsible for their 0-10 start. Neither John Beck nor Rex Grossman are providing any kind of lift to the 3-7 Redskins. Blaine Gabbert replaced a brutally ineffective Luke McCown in Jacksonville, and it's hard to see much difference. Fellow rookie Christian Ponder replaced Donovan McNabb in Minnesota, and has shown some flashes of potential, but his three interceptions and fumble doomed the hapless Vikings against Oakland in Week 11. 

On the bright side, Vince Young replaced Vick in Week 11 at the Giants, and got the win, but played poorly. Miami has won three straight under Matt Moore, who replaced Chad Henne in Week 4, but lost his first three. Then there's Tebow, who replaced Orton. In that time, he's greatly confused long-time NFL evaluators in how exactly he's managed to take Denver to a 5-5 mark after the Broncos started the year 1-4.  

One school of thought throws style out the window, holding firm on the axiom the quarterback position is judged by wins and losses, unlike any other position on the field. It's hard to disagree that winning games is the ultimate goal, and the quarterback is the only position that affects both the offense and the defense. 

Breaking down a quarterback's performance, success on third down and a lack of turnovers are the two most telling statistics. A quarterback influences his team's defense by keeping them off the field. A team can't score without the ball, and the more first downs he gains, the less time the opposing offense has possession. Those conversions are the hardest on third down. 

Tebow isn't great on third down. In fact, he isn't great on any down as a passer. His ability - perhaps more to the point, desire - to run the ball and take on contact have certainly made him fun to watch. If the Jets had any desire to tackle him in the fourth quarter, they could have won that game without the drama at the end. The success he's having is greatly overshadowing some tremendous performances by Denver's defense. 

Without the defensive touchdown in Week 11, Tebow doesn't have the ball with a chance to take the lead at the end. 

However, Tebow does not turn the ball over. All four of his turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble) came in a disastrous outing against Detroit. Since then, he hasn't turned the ball over once, and his team is 3-0. That's not exactly a coincidence. The quarterback position is as much about what you are doing as it is what you are not doing. He has poor mechanics, a sub-standard arm, and questionable decision-making skills. But he converts first downs when the game is on the line. 

Baltimore's Joe Flacco is another passer enigma. He boasts a 55.4 completion percentage, which is 31st in the NFL, leading only Painter, Colt McCoy and Gabbert. His 6.4 yards per attempt are behind 25 other quarterbacks. He's turned the ball over in 10 consecutive games. 

Of the eight teams with seven or more wins, Baltimore is the only one led by a quarterback who has a passer rating less than 85. Flacco has a 77.6 rating. 

Yet, Flacco is a completely different player on third down. He converts 62.5 percent of his third down passes when his team is faced with a 3rd-and-3 to 7 yard situation. 

While Flacco is otherwise wildly inconsistent, and turns the ball over frequently, he's shown a propensity to rise to the moment when his team needs him to. 

Both Tebow and Flacco measure out to be exceptions to the rule of poor starting QB play = losses. Football Outsiders had Flacco ranked 19th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) at 1.9 percent, meaning statistically, Flacco is 1.9 percent better than an average quarterback, play-for-play.

Tebow, at -37.8, is 38th in the league, being badly outplayed by his contemporaries. But Flacco and Tebow are a combined 11-4. 

But the easiest statistic of all to find and track is winning games. Both are doing well in that category. 

How much else really matters? In what's been a tumultuous year in terms of quarterback injuries and replacements, these final seven games will bear that theory out.  

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