Can Tebow’s non-passing offense work in the NFL?

I particpated in this week’s Slate/Deadspin roundtable, and my topic was — wait for it — Tim Tebow:

In the last two weeks, in victories over Oakland and Kansas City, the Broncos ran for 299 yards and 244 yards. Meanwhile, the top rushing team in the NFL (the Philadelphia Eagles) averages merely 172 yards per game on the ground. Denver’s grind-it-out performance against the Chiefs on Sunday was especially surprising given that the Broncos’ top two running backs, Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, had to leave with injuries, and third-stringer Lance Ball gained only 96 yards. So how did the Broncos succeed? By mixing in traditional runs and college-style read plays, sometimes even using receiver Eddie Royal as a third option as a pitch man after he’d gone in motion.

Television football pundits often say this stuff can’t work for long in the NFL because pro defenses are too fast, and that they will just “load the box” and play “assignment” football against the reads and options. While there’s truth in this cliché, stopping Denver’s Tebow-ized offense is much more complicated than that. Football is governed as much by arithmetic as it is by physics. Though each side gets 11 guys, the defense “gains” a defender when Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers hands the ball off and does nothing but watch the running back. The Patriots and Packers can get away with this because they are a threat at any moment to fake a handoff and throw downfield. That’s why the base defense for most NFL teams includes two deep defenders, safeties who are a lot more useful at defending passes than they are at stopping the run.

Read the whole thing at Slate and Deadspin. Thanks to the guys at both spots for thinking of me for participating.

  • Billg

    You guys obviously know football.  What’s you best judgment on how far Denver will gothis year, assuming everyone stays healthy, etc.?

  • Smarterfootball

    This worked against the chiefs. I find it hard pressed to see a team win by attempting only 8 passes against a team like the Ravens or 49ers.

  • Garrett Guillotte

    There’s four fundamental things wrong with a Tebow offense:

    * Because Tebow completes less than half of his passes, it’s one-dimensional. Any team with two good — not great — DBs and a defensive coordinator who understands the passing game can force him onto the ground.

    * If Tebow gets hurt — and even tough QBs who run the ball get hurt — there is no such thing as a backup Tebow. Never will be.

    * If Denver’s offensive line so much as gets a cold, Tebow will eat backfield grass all day long.

    * He gets to play six of his games in the AFC West, which means he could do nothing but breakdance behind center, still win four games a year, and if he wins four games they still have a shot at winning the division.

    Tebow, like Mike Vick and even Randall Cunningham or (blasphemer!) young John Elway, has to become a skilled passer and game manager in addition to pretending to be a fullback if he wants to add even a hint of a second dimension to that offense. 

    If he does that, then we can finally all go nuts. But like Vick and Cunningham, and even Elway, it could take years to develop that to the point of greatness, and it’s certainly not assured.

    And like Vick and Cunningham, or stat-pounders like Romo, McNabb, or Favre, if Tebow can throw up the _illusion_ of greatness — racking up easy wins in a weak division or conference, being wildly inconsistent in the clutch, sneaking a game or two into the playoffs before being exposed or choking badly — he’ll keep his job long enough to develop into the QB at age 28 that he could have been coming out of college if anyone in Florida had cared for more than the four months before the draft about his chances as a pro.

    Really, it’s awesome that he can complete two passes against a bad team and still make one a bombed touchdown. It’s terrible that the rest of his passing output will be a half-dozen interceptable ducks, throwaways or misthrows per game, many on third-and-long when his team needs it the most.
    On the bizarre off chance that Denver pulls an Arizona and makes the Super Bowl, any of the defenses in the running for the NFC title will expose every weakness in the Tebow offense, painfully and methodically for hours, in front of billions of people. (Can you imagine Patrick Willis or Clay Matthews against Tebow? Especially after the third or fourth time they decleat him on a four-yard gain?)

  • Mr.Murder

    Sign Masoli to the scout squad the week you face Tebow. Same playing style.

  • Batsandgats

    he had 2 other long bombs that Decker dropped. Most of his passes were downfield, way downfield. I wouldn’t expect a high completion rate with that. He should have been 4 out of 8 if Decker would have caught those. Not great but it will work.

  • Alec Glen

    I think the article kinda misses the point of running option somewhat, if it was designed to just give defenses an extra runner to account for people would be running wishbone and all that jazz again. The point of running option is that you have less guys to block as the QB accounts for 1/2 defenders by reading them.

  • Daniel Andrews

    It’s hard to imagine that it cannot work.  As long as it is sound and can be executed with proficiency by NFL caliber athletes it can work.   The offense as it evolves will needs to have trap, power, belly, and jet plays to accompany the zone dive and zone sweep plays.  The option cannot always be a double option with the inside-zone read or midline zone read, it has to have an outside zone read (inverted veer), a triple option of the zone read variety, and probably a speed, wall, and load option.  Everyone of these plays has a play-action pass to it able to attack the secondary support filling vacant gaps or alleys (holes) or being the force player. 

    When it comes to NFL teams using the option, it’s really about personnel.  Is it cheaper to run a power and option based offense than a traditional offense or a spread passing offense?  I would suspect it’s cheaper to run an option based offense as long as there are only a few teams doing it in the NFL because the players you want are not as highly valued on other teams.   You will have little competition for elite pulling guards and athletic tackles who can pull and get on linebackers and dominate them.  You will have little competition for big athletic TEs who can block.  You will have little competition for big physical recievers who can block LBs or Safeties and you will have little competition to find space players in smaller athletic wide receivers or even defensive backs.  You also don’t have much competition for the available QB or RB talent out there.  What I can’t believe is that more teams haven’t done this or at least attempted to do this to at least build a formidable defense through the draft and free agency, because of how economical it would be.

  • Ryan

    I like your thinking.  It would seem to be cheaper and easier to find the players to fit this type of offense, which could free up more cash to build a great defense.  The problem is, the NFL has basically legislated out the possibility of having a great defense.  If you devote most of your dollars to it, ala Pittsburgh and Baltimore, you can still easily get beaten at clutch time by a good offense.  And lets face it, most games between good teams are going to be close.  And those types of games are likely to come down to clock management and in game coaching (witness Pittsburgh not trusting Suisham to kick a 47 yard FG, getting called for a delay of game penalty, punting, and then giving up the game winning drive to the Ravens to lose by 3 points).

    I think this is why Belichick (who I greatly respect as not a “system” coach but a guy who does whatever it takes to win) has completely revamped his team and put the money and the draft picks into offense.  Given the current rule structure, great offense simply has better odds at winning games than great defense, and the passing game in particular has been boosted incredibly by the league.  I see little Wes Welker lighting up the league going across the middle, and I think that guy 10 years ago would be injured constantly. You couldn’t run little guys on those routes with regularity.

    But I like your unconventional thinking.  I just think maybe the Tebow experiment could have had much greater success 10 years ago than today.  The game is just so slanted towards the pass.  All this “is Aaron Rodgers the greatest ever?” stuff, my god, I still remember Leonard Marshall for the Giants in a playoff game get to Montana, wrap his arms around him, pick him up off the ground, and smash him down in the most violent manner possible, in a ridiculously obvious attempt to injure the man (he succeeded).  Rodgers is operating in such a different atmosphere its ridiculous.  The game is so different.

  • Daniel Andrews

    Thanks, when I look around the NFL which is a copycat league for the most part.  I see about 80% of the teams running the same offenses with the same blocking schemes and absolutely don’t have a QB who is able to play in that offense effectively and/or their coordinator cannot make adjustments to the offense to fit his roster.  This is why teams get mired in decade long slumps.  There is no way this Bronco team with its current roster can throw the ball 30-40 times a game and win consistently, but they can run 40-50 times a game keep the game under control and win them.  I don’t care if they had Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Peyton Manning.  McDaniels drafted the receivers to run this type of offense, both Decker and Thomas are big physical receivers who can burn you.   However, these receivers are used to going up after the ball and Royal is a bubble guy at best.

    Does Tebow grow more as a QB having thrown 30-40 reps or 15-20 reps?  I’d take the latter because his mistakes are likely to be repetitive and if he’s 50% on making reads I would want him making fewer mistakes.  I like that Tebow misses well, but that is a trust issue and not a mechanical one.

  • Brrexkl

      It would work, can work and has worked.  When Miami hit the scenes with the Wild Cat they went from cellar to making the play off push.  They had quick, dedicated OL that would get on blocks, get to the second level, or strecth to make the pulls required.  They were also quick enough to get a solid jump with the snap, which can offset the initial burst of the DL, allowing a Dive to get past the LOS.

      The Cleveland Browns started to employ the Wild Cat.  Joshua Cribbs was killing.  Much like Tebow and his 2 Completions, the Browns won a game with only 6 Completions, none of them touchdowns.  How?  Joshua Cribbs and Jerome Harrison ran all over EVERYBODY.  This change resulted in Wins over the last 4 games of the season, and with Jerome Harrison rivaling Jamal Charles (Kansas City Chiefs outstanding young Power/Speed back) in yardage over the last month.

      Now, why hasn’t this worked legit?  No team has actually commited to the Wild Cat being more than just a ‘fooled you!’ gimmick.  Even when Miami, who has used the Wild Cat more than anyone, made the Formation all the rage on Sports Center… the numbers showed that they did a Wild Cat less than 5% of the time.

      You won’t commit personnel to the extent to have the right guy at every position in a Set that you only use 5% of the time, and no one is willing to run a Wild Cat say… 33% of the time.

      I really believe Cleveland was going to go that route when we signed Seneca Wallace.  Here we had an athletic, fast QB that could go down field and catch an open pass.  So when you split him out to WC  for Cribbs/Harrison (who ever you wanted at the Wild Cat) you still had a viable receiving threat out there (not to mention the Two Pass Plays where you do a quick screen to the QB in the Flat and he attacks downfield… which would make Seneca even better suited as he may evade defenders and pass/run where less mobile QBs couldn’t).  Don’t forget Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty.  Then add the very good TEs that can both catch and block (remember alot of Wild Cat PASSES targeted Fassano, the Miami TE).  We had talent all over the field for this system.

      And the kicker was, you could make Seneca your Wild Cat from time to time, and run or pass from it.  Hillis/Hardesty are perfect for the Single Back.  Harrison/Cribbs are perfect for the Jet.  Seneca at the Wild Cat.  Now you got good Blocking TEs that can also make the Catch.  What do you key on?  And if injuries or fatigue set in, you have a comparable athlete at every spot except for Seneca.

      Of course, since then we Traded Jerome Harrison to Philidelphia and Peyton Hillis has a contractual injury.  We are down to our 12th RB, and Cribbs/Seneca would be our only chance at a WC.  I could see Seneca WC, Cribbs Jet and Hardesty Single Back working, but one injury and it’s all over.  No longer is Cleveland set up to handle a good work load of Wild Cat.

      Now, take a guy that didn’t earn his Rookie Contract and will probably make much less in the near future.  Speedster out of Clemson getting some WR Reps from the Bills, C. J. Spiller.  Spiller is stupid fast and has great agility.  Now take another underachieving RB, Miami’s Reggie Bush.  Now take a QB like Tim Tebow or Seneca Wallace.  I would prefer Wallace as he can throw and he has more agility, but Tebow works as he acts like another Power Back plunging through the hole and probably can do the reads better dealing with it more recently in college.  Now you need a bit of Power with the speed to burst when given the chance… like Miami’s Rookie Daniel Thomas or even the Cowboy’s with DeMarco Murray.

      While Tebow and Spiller had fairly huge Rookie Contracts, Thomas and Murray are fairly affordable.  Bush had a huge rookie deal but surely will cost less in the future.  (Other notables I left out due to Contracts would be Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, both team mates from Arkansas in College, for the Jets/WC and another Razorback in Peyton Hillis as the Single Back.  Hillis may still be viable as Contract hasn’t blown up yet, still working on his Rookie Deal, but if he stops being hurt and plays well some one will pay well for his services.  Also Joshua Cribbs/Devin Hester would be great WCs and solid Jets.)

      So you can go ‘dirt cheap’ by getting the right type of guys, or spend big bucks on the right studs to fit the system.  Outside of Seneca, and I’m sure others can find ‘players like Seneca’, you have guys that are fairly unique in skill set but that you are still able to produce clones of.  Jerome Harrison, Reggie Bush, C. J. Spiller, Joshua Cribbs, Devin Hester, Darren McFadden, Felix Jones… each one would make an outstanding Jet and most would make very good Wild Cats.  Hillis, Thomas, Murray, Ricky Williams, Carnell Williams, most Power Backs with a good initial burst would be just fine as the Single Back taking the reads from the QB.  More Power would bring Tebow as the WC/QB, more finesse/outside would bring a Wallace type.

      Point is, there is enough Talent in the NFL to field a Wild Cat Formation full and with depth, and even more college ‘tweeners’ coming out every year to add to this Talent Pool. 

      The FACT is, there isn’t a coach yet in the NFL that has decided you can WIN with the Wild Cat as a major component of the Offense… by major component I mean molding your roster to it.


  • Rclsu17

    What is this new play that Philadelphia is running? They do not block the DE and run underneath him. I would love to see a diagram and an explanation.

    Also, you still win games by stopping the run, establishing the run, time of possession, turnovers, and winning 3rd downs. No huddle, passing, speeding up the game to run a play every 20 seconds seems to go against ths philosophy. LSU and Bama definitely abide by the establish the run and time of possession train of thought. Can these no huddle teams succeed in the long run and why?