- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
A friend of mine new to fantasy football asked me the other day how Denver Broncos miracle man Tim Tebow was a top-10 quarterback despite seemingly below-average numbers. Look at the passing numbers, there's not much there. He hasn't scored a rushing touchdown since Week 10, so that hasn't been a major differentiator of late. What exactly is Tebow doing to become a top-10 fantasy quarterback over the past eight weeks?
It's about the turnovers, baby. In Tebow's case, it's about the lack thereof.
Consider the plight of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. He was considered a starter for 10-team leagues on draft day, but currently has the same 149 standard fantasy points that Tebow has. Freeman has started 12 games this season, while Tebow has started eight. He has more touchdown passes than Tebow, more than twice as many passing yards and the same three rushing touchdowns. So what gives? Freeman leads the NFL with 18 interceptions, one more than Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and two more than Cam Newton and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tebow, Freeman and Cleveland Browns underachiever Colt McCoy are tied for 18th in season scoring at quarterback, but one of those guys has started only eight games.
Tebow has been incredibly careful with the football, though he did throw his second interception of the season in Week 14 against the Chicago Bears, and he lost a fumble, only his third of the season. Still, to have five turnovers in eight games is hard to do. In ESPN standard leagues, an interception costs two points. Players also lose two points for fumbles lost. In some leagues there are no points deducted for these things, which obviously reduces Tebow's value in relation to others. It's like owning Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez in a fantasy baseball league; remove the strikeouts and what you have isn't nearly as special. Tebow isn't really producing monster statistics, but he's not having fantasy points subtracted from his ledger, either.
Hey, that matters, and it's allowed him to average nearly 17 fantasy points per game in his eight starts. For perspective, only seven quarterbacks are averaging that many fantasy points per game for the entirety of the season. Rivers has scored 199 fantasy points this season, ninth at quarterback; nobody ranked ahead of him is close to his 22 turnovers, costing him 44 fantasy points. Newton, a fantasy monster who is second among all scorers this season, has 18 turnovers, but he's overcome them with bigger numbers. If Tebow could average even 200 passing yards per game, or score more rushing touchdowns, he'd be up there with Newton and even the great Aaron Rodgers, averaging 22 and 25 fantasy points per contest, respectively.
Here are some other quarterback thoughts centered around turnovers.
• It's tough to explain why Freeman has been so prone to interceptions this season. In 2010, Freeman threw a mere six of them while playing all 16 games. He didn't have gaudy passing statistics, as his 3,451 passing yards ranked 13th, nor did he score a rushing touchdown. Basically, he was the Tebow of 2010 in that his lack of turnovers gave him an edge on other fantasy quarterbacks. I'd also argue that Freeman didn't forget how to be a quality player. He should bounce back to some degree in 2012.
• Speaking of last season, only five quarterbacks in the top 25 for final scoring had fewer than 10 turnovers (interceptions plus lost fumbles): Michael Vick, Tom Brady, Freeman, Matt Cassel and Ben Roethlisberger. How are those fellas working out this season? Well, Brady and Big Ben are good, but the others have struggled. Vick has 15 turnovers in 10 games. I don't expect Tebow to follow in Freeman's path and be a turnover machine next season, but if he were to cough up the football, he would not be productive for our purposes unless he really upped his yards and touchdowns.
• Which regular quarterbacks can still finish with fewer than 10 turnovers? I count only three. One is Tebow. Rodgers has thrown only six interceptions -- though one in each of the past two weeks -- and still hasn't lost a fumble. Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford are the only other top 30 quarterbacks who haven't lost a fumble. So it's Tebow, Rodgers and Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. That's it. Smith doesn't get much fantasy love, and he's been disappointing two of the past three weeks, but the reason Smith is tied with Andy Dalton as fantasy's No. 13 quarterback for the season is simply because of the lack of turnovers. I'm guessing nearly all of you would choose Dalton, right? Same-season fantasy numbers, ultimately.
• Let's give Rivers credit where it's due. For 10 weeks the top-5 draft day passer really hurt his fantasy owners, with 17 interceptions. In the past three weeks, he has not thrown the ball to the other team (or at least they haven't caught it). Certainly the schedule has played a role, as Rivers had 23 and 19 fantasy points against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills the past two weeks. Those rank as Rivers' second- and third-best games of the season. How do you feel about him facing the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15? If he can remain productive and turnover-free this week, I'd trust him the final two weeks at the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders.
• Speaking of Raiders, what Carson Palmer did in Green Bay Sunday was exactly why I didn't trust him. Yes, Palmer has already thrown for 1,730 yards in essentially six and a half games, but he has 10 interceptions, including four against the Packers. It's negating Palmer's upside; his six fantasy points in Week 14 were his lowest for the Raiders as a starter, but even his Week 9 performance against Tebow's Broncos, with 332 passing yards and three touchdowns were negatively impacted by the three interceptions. There will be more in the coming weeks.