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Tim Tebow and the Narrative Fallacy

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The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding. – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Vince Young and the Narrative Fallacy

Do you remember Vince Young’s 2009 season?  If you do, you’ll recall that the Titans started the season with Kerry Collins at quarterback, started the season 0-6, and then switched to Vince Young after their bye week.  The Titans then went on a run of 5 straight wins.  During that winning streak the media created a narrative that Vince Young had really matured and that was the reason for his personal turnaround as well as the Titans winning streak.

We now know that the narrative attached to Vince Young’s resurgence wasn’t true.  We would find out in 2010 that Young had actually not matured.  So what to make of the explanation of the Titans turnaround? Not only was the cause not linked to the effect, the cause didn’t even exist at all. It was fabricated.  Young had not matured.  It was fabricated because as humans we can’t look at something like a string of 5 wins and do anything but try to come up with a narrative explanation.

Tim Tebow’s Intangibles

Tim Tebow creates similar problems for us to the extent that it is difficult for us to look at the Broncos’ turnaround and do anything but try to create a narrative for that turnaround.  It’s natural that we would gravitate towards Tebow’s big heart, his ability to inspire teammates, and any other intangible that we might cook up in our brains.

To some, Tebow has some sort of innate knowledge on how to win football games.

He doesn’t know how to complete passes, but he somehow knows how to win football games.

Tebow just wins.

But doesn’t it seem odd that a player who somehow understands how to win football games doesn’t understand how to do the much easier task of completing a pass?

Tim Tebow and Interception Rates

The reality is that Tebow is helping the Broncos to win football games.  He’s helping because he’s not turning the ball over at the rate that Kyle Orton was.  The Broncos were going one step forward and two steps back with Orton, who was throwing an interception about 4.5% of the time he threw a pass.  Tebow thus far has only thrown 1 pick in 125 attempts (0.8%).

The primary problem with the narrative fallacy is that it creates causes for every effect we might see.  But a lot of what we see is probably random.  Tebow is bouncing passes to receivers, so it’s tough to think that his low interception rate can’t be attributed at least in part to randomness.  Maybe he’s trying to miss on the “good” side of receivers, but it’s reasonable to expect that as he continues to throw, his interception rate should regress.

The graph below shows this year’s quarterbacks with their attempts and interceptions plotted on the x and y axes respectively.  I’ve labeled a few quarterbacks so that you can see where they lie relative to the trendline.  I specifically labeled Josh Freeman because his 2010 interception rate of 1.3% would have created the narrative that he is careful with the football.  That probably wasn’t true as he has regressed this year and has one of the higher interception rates.

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The Idiotic “Just Wins” Crowd

The “just wins” crowd is idiotic because they’ve invented a skill that a quarterback can excel at, while at the same time being deficient in actual quarterbacking!!

If you run a simple regression with things like yards, attempts, touchdowns and interceptions as the independent variables and winning percentage as the dependent variable, Tebow is a lot closer to a .500 quarterback.  We can look at the biggest part of this regression by just looking at Adjusted Yards/Attempt, a formula that is derived from the book The Hidden Game of Football.  Adjusted Yards per Attempt simply adds 20 yards for touchdowns and subtracts 45 yards for interceptions.

In the graph below I’ve plotted this year’s quarterbacks’ AY/A as well as their winning percentage and the trendline.  Tebow’s winning percentage is about 30% above what we would expect for a quarterback who is doing what he does on the field (the trend for Tebow’s AY/A is a win percentage of about 47%).  Lest you say “Yes, but Tebow’s contribution in the running game is surely enough to account for the 30% difference” I would point you at Mr. Cam Newton, who has been a better passer and has run the ball almost as well as Tebow has, and yet is 30% below the trend!!

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The “just wins games” claim is problematic for quarterbacks because unless they are actually doing things that correlate with winning, they will eventually lose games even if they are putting forth the same types of efforts.  They’ll lose games because they’ll run into tougher opponents.  They’ll lose games because they won’t get a key defensive touchdown.  They’ll lose games because a tipped pass will get intercepted.  The same randomness that allowed an average or below average quarterback to compile the “just wins” resume will eventually go the other way and the media will have to create a new narrative to explain why the QB doesn’t just win anymore.

The “just wins” label is only attached to quarterbacks whose shitty performance on the field is somehow at odds with their quarterback record.  Nobody says that Aaron Rodgers “just wins” games.  They say he’s an awesome quarterback and the reason the Packers win is because of the things Aaron Rodgers does on the field.

Again, a portion of the Bronco’s results can be explained by Tebow’s performance.  Not throwing interceptions is worth something.  Extending drives with runs on third down is worth something.  But Tebow’s record as a starter is now 4-1 this year and Tebow’s performances are not the kind of quarterback performances that will lead to an 80% win rate over any extended observation period.

The Tim Tebow Experiment and the Range of Potential Outcomes

I’m actually a huge fan of the Tebow experiment.  I’m just not a fan of creating false narratives that can only be wrong over time.

I’m a fan of the Tebow experiment because at any given time there are about 10 NFL teams that do not have a viable pocket passer.  NFL teams seem not to realize this, or seem not to be willing to think outside the box enough to try what has been successful in the college game when the challenge is not coming up with 32 passers – the challenge is to find 120 passers.  So instead of going to an offense that is based on a spreading the defense out and then having the threat of a quarterback who can either run or pass, every year there are about 10 NFL teams that trot out a shitty quarterback who is also probably throwing to shitty receivers (see Redskins, Washington).

I actually hope that Tebow improves as a passer as the huge upside in having a dual threat QB is that you’re spreading the defense our horizontally and vertically and it’s very difficult to cover the entire field when the QB can tuck it and run if he wants to.  In addition there’s the benefit of running an offense that is not exactly what every other team is running.

Between the supply/demand problem with pocket passers, the benefits of spreading the defense out horizontally and vertically, and requiring defenses to prepare for a different scheme, you would think that we would see more teams attempt what the Broncos are doing this year.

Unfortunately, I kind of suspect that unless Tebow improves as a passer, the results will over time be much more mediocre, and NFL teams will count the Tebow experiment as a failure.  I just don’t see a lot of potential outcomes outside of:

  1. Tebow improves as a passer so that the Broncos don’t have to rely on things like defensive touchdowns to win.
  2. Tebow continues to put forth the same sorts of games that he has been and over time the results regress to more of what we would expect from a quarterback that a simple regression says is probably a .500 quarterback.
  3. The Denver defense gets so good that they become a deodorant for anything the offense does (a la the 2002 Ravens or the 2011 49ers) and the “Tebow just wins” narrative keeps on trucking.

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