Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow earned himself the nickname “The Mile High Messiah” this season by consistently leading his team to victory through late-game heroics. Those who have been swept up in Tebowmania tend to attribute his success to divine intervention, calling him a miracle worker, or even the second coming. But the Tebow phenomenon—winning ostensibly unwinnable games in the clutch—can actually be explained quite simply: Teams try exponentially harder toward the end of close games.
It is common knowledge that the clock slows down as basketball or football games reach their final minutes. Teams take desperate measures in last-ditch efforts to generate offense. In football, quarterbacks spike the ball, and remaining timeouts are spent to stop the clock. In basketball, fouls are strategically used to give the losing team a chance to win. In hockey—a sport in which play rarely stops—teams pull their goalie for an additional offensive attacker. When a close contest is up for grabs, the fundamental strategy in sports is transformed to an almost unrecognizable extent.
Broadly speaking, close games are inevitable in sports. Parity naturally exists on the professional level, in which the best few hundred players in the world at their sport compete against one another. Therefore, it should be no surprise that many games are so evenly matched that every last second of regular time—and often additional time—is needed to determine an outcome. Yet this is only a part of the explanation.
The other, more interesting reason for the frequency of last-minute decisiveness is that most games are programmed to cruise control for the bulk of regulation—just as a long-distance runner wouldn’t start a marathon by sprinting. But what if the unparalleled aggressiveness conventionally found only in the home stretch of a close contest were shifted to beginning?
For Tebow, who is at his best in the clutch, this would be a complete game-changer. During their midseason five-game winning streak, the Broncos won every game by one touchdown or less. Tebow tossed just two complete passes against the Chiefs, but the second was a 56-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker with 6:44 left in the fourth quarter that led the Broncos to a 17-10 win. Such was the story throughout the heart of the Broncos season. While the so-called “miracle” wins made for great TV, the approach ultimately proved unsustainable. When the Broncos finally collapsed, they fell hard.
With the Ivy League basketball season just underway, it’s critical that the Lions don’t succumb to a Tebow-esque strategy of banking on buzzer-beating wins. My colleague and Ivy basketball aficionado Michele Cleary pointed out in a recent column that the playing field this season is particularly level in the conference, and such parity heightens the importance of winning close contests. In that case, why not try to avoid close contests altogether?
After entering Ivy play having won 11 of its past 12 games, the Light Blue dropped its first two division matchups to Penn, 64-66, and Princeton, 58-62. Both of these hard-fought efforts were winnable, but both narrowly slipped away from the tenacious Lions. Alas, that is the nature of close games—which is why transferring late-game intensity to the start of play could avoid last-second heartbreaks.
Fortunately, the Lions’ 61-56 nail-biter against Cornell this past Saturday ended in our favor. It was a big win, one that should make this weekend’s rematch in Ithaca all the more interesting. But rather than rely on a few tense, adrenaline-fueled minutes at the end of the game, let’s grab an early lead, stick to a consistent strategy, and ride the momentum to a stress-free victory. Let’s play the first five minutes as if they were the last, throw the Big Red against the ropes, and show no mercy. Unlike Tim Tebow, the Lions aren’t going anywhere.
Michael Shapiro is a List College senior majoring in history and modern Jewish studies.