I have been sitting on this post for awhile now. In a way, you could say I have been sitting on this post since Tim Tebow got drafted back in 2010.
Mind you, back then, I knew next to nothing about Tim Tebow. I knew his name–everyone knew that–and I knew he’d won the Heisman and 2 national championships and that he was very, very Christian. I also knew, through the IV drip of sports media opinion-making called ESPN, that, despite all of his accomplishments, Tim Tebow was widely considered a terrible NFL prospect.
Yes, the talking-heads said, Tim Tebow was a good runner. And yes, his intangibles were off the charts. But had you seen the guy actually THROW the football? Had you seen the way he looped it in a glacial arc from hip to head and how, when at last he released the ball, it wobbled like a duck that had just been pulped by a 12-gauge shotgun? NFL quarterbacks didn’t look like that; hence, Tim Tebow wasn’t an NFL quarterback.
That was the opinion held, more or less, by every draft-day prognosticator, and never having seen Tim Tebow actually play in a game, I accepted it.
Then, on draft day, a funny thing happened:
Tim Tebow got drafted in the first round.
Meaning someone (Broncos coach Josh McDaniels) somewhere (Denver, CO) not only thought Tebow could be a good NFL player but was willing to bet a highly-valuable first-round draft pick on the proposition.
And I remember thinking to myself: Hmmmmmm. This guy is interesting.
Most of you know how the story goes from there: How Tebow road the pine as Kyle Orton’s understudy, before breaking out as the Comeback Kid and leading the Broncos to the playoffs in season two. How watching Tebow play quarterback became a kind of national rorschach test, with some people claiming that he was revolutionizing the position, while others yelled that he was setting it back by a century. How Broncos GM and All-Time Great John Elway promptly rewarded Tebow’s playoff heroics by signing Peyton Manning and offloading Tebow in a trade to the New York Jets.
And how, after a mockery of a season in which Tebow completed a measly six passes and never started over the Smoldering-Pile-of-Quarterbacking-Poop-Formerly-Known-As-Mark-Sanchez, the Jets decided to cut Tebow.
That should have been the end of the story. The NFL had weighed and measured Tebow, and he had been found wanting. The talking-heads had been vindicated. There was only one correct way to play quarterback in the NFL–in the pocket, with precision passing, plus or minus a few scrambles–and Tebow’s game, well, it wasn’t correct.
That was the conventional wisdom. And with each day that Tebow remained twisting in the wind of free agency, it seemed more likely that the conventional wisdom was right.
But then another funny thing happened: Tim Tebow got signed.
Not just signed but signed by one William S. Belichick of the New England Patriots. As in the man roundly considered, by talking-heads and sabermetricians alike, to be the brightest head coach in the league. The man whose starting quarterback is arguably the greatest to ever play the game and whose backup quarterback is not too shabby either.
But most interestingly for our purposes: this is the man who is INFAMOUS for his unsentimental–some would even say “cold-blooded”–approach to personnel decisions. Players to Belichick aren’t people; they aren’t feel-good stories; they are pawns and rooks and bishops. Some are more valuable than others, yes. But, if the game demands it, any of them can be sacrificed.
This, of course, begs the question: What in the hell does Bill Belichick see in Tim Tebow?
Simple, I argue. The same thing he sees in every football player on his roster. He sees a piece for his chessboard.
Yes, you heard that right. I dressed it up in a metaphor, and I did a lot of humming and hawing beforehand, but, dammit, I said it:
BILL BELICHICK SEES ACTUAL FOOTBALL VALUE IN TIM TEBOW.
How can this be, you say? How on earth is it possible that the guy who the Broncos traded and the Jets cut and the rest of the NFL spat on is, gasp, valuable?
Funny you should ask that. I totally wasn’t expecting you to ask that.
But since you did ask, how about you take a look at this chart that I just so happen to have handy:
There are three players there. And underneath them are the statistics they’ve accumulated through their first 16 NFL starts (or, in the case of one player, through his only 16 NFL starts). One of them, as you’ve probably guessed, is Tebow. If you squint hard enough, you might even be able to guess which one.
But what’s interesting for the purposes of our analysis–and what I bet you can’t guess–is who the other players are.
First thing’s first, though. Looking only at that chart, I want you to answer the following question: which player is the better quarterback?
It’s pretty easy, right? Player A.
He has the most passing yards. He is the most efficient (as measured by yards per attempt). And he turns the ball over the least while passing for the most touchdowns. Neither Player B nor C are particularly close. Player B seems pretty similar to Player A (and even sports a slightly better completion %) until you look at his ghastly interception-to-touchdown ratio. And Player C, well, he is statistically inferior to Player A in every regard except for one (completion %) and even there he’s not much of an improvement.
And that’s just from the perspective of who’s the better quarterback, in the traditional sense of who’s the better passer. Ask yourself who’s the better FOOTBALL PLAYER and, well, that ain’t even close. Just take a gander at the lower half of that chart, where you’ll find each of the players’ running statistics.
The separation is huge.
Player C, for one, is not a runner. He is an occasional scrambler and frequent faller-downer. Meaning that, if he is to have any value, it is going to have to come from his arm. Player B, on the other hand, has some value on the ground. 4.8 yards per rush? I’ll take that from my starting quarterback any day. But the emphasis here should be on the “some” in “some value.” Because while Player B is effective when he rushes, he doesn’t rush all that much.
Which brings us to Player A.
To put Player A’s performance into historical perspective, his 5.5 Yards-Per-Carry mark would rank him number 10 on the NFL’s All-Time list. Repeat: he would rank number 10 out of ALL THE PLAYERS IN NFL HISTORY. And those 885 rushing yards would qualify him for the fifth best rushing season by a quarterback ever.*** So to say Player A is a good runner is sort of like saying Steve Jobs is a good businessman or Don Draper is a good wearer-of-50s-era-suits.
***I say “would rank” because we are just looking at his first 16 starts and those are spread over two seasons and two playoff games.
So we can all agree we sort of like Player A. Or at least, that we like him a lot more than we like Player B and Player C. Sure, he’s got some rough edges. His completion percentage is pretty bad. Also, we would probably like to see his total passing yards move more toward the mid-3000s. But he doesn’t turn the ball over much, and man oh man, can the guy run! That kind of running from a quarterback–and again, it’s a historically excellent level of performance–has to change the game. It just has to.
Which gets me to thinking. Is there any chance that Player A is such a superlative runner–so head and shoulders above his quarterbacking peers–that the impact of his legs somehow defies the normal metrics we use to value quarterbacks?
Think about it his way:
You are a linebacker. You are big and strong and fast, and christ almighty, do you like to hit things. Usually your job is simple. Quarterback hands the ball off to the running back, you hit the running back. Quarterback throws the ball, you hit the guy he throws it to. And if you’re sent on a blitz, well, that’s the best part: YOU HIT THE QUARTERBACK!!!
Now say you’re facing Tebow–and yes, for those of you haven’t guessed already, Player A is none other than Tim Tebow. Your job is suddenly a lot more difficult, right? Tebow goes to hand the ball off to a running back, what do you do? You could go straight for the running back, but then Tebow might keep the ball and run himself. Or let’s say Tebow drops back to pass. He might throw it or… he might run.
And man, you say to yourself, Tebow just isn’t like those other running quarterbacks. Those other running quarterbacks, little guys like RGIII and Michael Vick, yeah, they’re fast, but when you catch them–and you always catch them eventually–boy are they fun to hit. Tebow is not fun to hit. Tebow is your size. Tebow is your speed. And the guy is fearless because he thinks God’s on his side. Hitting Tebow freaking hurts!!!
Now that was meant to be a little simplified, but I think the point holds. Tebow sows doubt. He changes the calculus. Most quarterbacks can’t run. And the quarterbacks who can run don’t do it a lot, because they are usually smaller and the physical pounding wears them down. But as I said, Tebow can run AND he can run a lot. Which means that, each and every down, the defense has to think about the possibility of Tebow running. Theoretically, this should mean that the skill players around Tim Tebow perform better, because the defense isn’t reacting as fast to them. In particular, Tebow should give linebackers pause every time he hands the ball off and that, in turn, should lead to bigger holes for the running backs to run through.
How about in practice? Did Tebow actually make his running backs better?
Let’s bring out another one of those handy charts:
Now isn’t that interesting. Over the last three seasons, Willis McGahee (a very good if underrated running back) has played for three different quarterbacks. First it was Joe Flacco, who just won Super Bowl MVP. Then it was Tebow. And then it was Peyton Freaking Manning.
That’s tough company for any quarterback to be in, and yet… when you compare McGahee’s three seasons, well, there’s no comparison. He rushed for more yards and for more yards per carry under Tebow. And remember, this was during a season when opposing defenses routinely put 9 to 10 men in the box and practically dared the Broncos to throw.
Of course, this is just one running back, in one season, and maybe McGahee’s performance level varied because of other factors. Maybe the run-blocking scheme was different under the Ravens, and maybe the injury that ended McGahee’s season last year nagged him in the weeks before. Maybe.
Or maybe, as I like to think is the case, I am right.
That is to say: maybe Tim Tebow is a valuable player because he combines his arguably competent quarterbacking skills, with his inarguably great ability to run effectively AND run a lot. And maybe this makes defenses gameplan for Tebow in a way that is singular to him, because no matter how good other running quarterbacks are, they are just too damn small to run A LOT.
And if I’m right–and Tebow’s impact does go beyond traditional statistics–that helps explain the fundamental mystery that surrounds Tim Tebow the quarterback. Namely: how can a guy who, on a good day, only completes half of his passes and who looks consistently terrible in scrimmage (where, crucially, Tebow is often forced to play like a traditional pocket passer, thereby neutralizing his unique skill-set)–how can that guy win so many freaking games?
Because, if there is one thing that Tim Tebow does, it’s win freaking games. He won freaking games in high school (a state championship). And he won freaking games in college (two national championships). And, perhaps most stunningly of all, he took over a Broncos team that had been irredeemably bad for almost two seasons and promptly proceeded to win freaking games with them.
The most remarkable thing about Tim Tebow’s 3-year NFL odyssey is how he was almost forgotten. This sounds absurd, I know. Few people alive are as famous or as noticed as Tim Tebow. But I’m not talking about Tim Tebow the public personality. I’m talking about Tebow the player.
In early June, Tebow was an unsigned free agent, and according to most analysts, his career was over. There was even speculation that the vaunted Canadian Football League was planning on taking a pass on Tebow. One CFL coach reportedly said that Tebow would have to compete for a second-string position on his team.
People in the media and the NFL often accuse other people in the media and the NFL of losing perspective when it comes to Tebow, but… holy shit, how did we lose perspective on Tim Tebow?
I mean, take away the media circus for a moment. And take away Tebow’s Christianity and his relentless optimism. And take away the drama of his ouster from Denver and the comedy of his stay in New York.
Take it all away and think about this:
Player A is Tim Tebow. He just got offered a non-guaranteed contract to maybe, possibly play third-string quarterback for the New England Patriots, and people are shocked by this because, duh, Tebow is a terrible quarterback.
Player C is Blaine Gabbert. He is in his third season as the starting quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars and is, as we have seen, statistically inferior to Tebow in almost every sense. But he looks like a traditional pocket-passing quarterback, and therefore he has a future in the NFL and Tebow doesn’t.
And Player B, well, that’s a funny one. That’s John Elway.