Tim Tebow’s Last Chance

I watched Tim Tebow play before I had any idea who he was. I occasionally feel oddly fortunate for that fact, as very few people can say the same. Since at least the time he was a freshman at Florida, his reputation — really, his mythos — has preceded him: from heavily hyped Florida recruit to Heisman winner to on-campus living legend, and then to shocking first round draft pick to fan (and Skip Bayless favorite) to New York Jets sideshow, it’s become effectively impossible to watch Tebow play without also seeing the incredible amount of hype and baggage that follows him. This talented but flawed quarterback — born to Christian missionary parents in the Philippines, raised in Florida and, for a time, the face of football’s spread offense and read-option revolutions — has come to embody alternatively the dreams and nightmares of so many football fans.

Simpler times

Simpler times

In 2013 one therefore can’t simply “put on tape of Tim Tebow” and evaluate him as a player. Instead, in what may be his one truly great skill, any attempt to evaluate Tim inevitably results in something else: you end up also evaluating yourself, whether you realize it or not. Include me in this, too.

But in 2005, on the recommendation of one of my coaching buddies, I taped a game Tebow played in, without knowing who he was. As high school football has gotten more successful — and commercial — there’s been a rise in featured “matchup” games set up by promoters and marketed to fans as well as TV networks. This game, between Hoover High School of Alabama, and Nease High School in Florida, was a made-for-TV concoction designed to pit the most high profile team in Alabama against the most high profile high school quarterback in Florida — and maybe the country. My friend recommended taping it fundamentally because of the offenses: Hoover, under then coach Rush Probst, was a “client” of now-Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s “System” and had ridden it to several Alabama state titles in recent years. Nease, meanwhile, had exploded into one of the most explosive teams in the country using a kind of hybrid spread offense which combined zone reads with downfield passing to average close to 50 points a game. (While one might wonder how much you can learn from watching a high school game, remember that this was 2005 and we’re still talking about both of those offensive systems today.)

When I began watching the game two things became clear very quickly: Hoover was the far superior team at essentially every position, but the Tebow kid was basically carrying his team. Nease lost convingly, 50-29, but Tebow racked up over 422 yards of offense, including 398 through the air, and could’ve had 500 yards if his receivers would’ve avoided some costly drops. I don’t much care for recruiting, but Tebow — about whom I knew nothing before I began watching — jumped out at me to the point where I took some scouting notes on him, notes which I recently dug up:

Tebow, QB, Nease (FL): Dual-threat QB. Solid build, but very good feet. Strong enough arm, accurate on sprint-out and movement passes, accurate on quick game. Appears accurate on intermediate throws if feet set. Throwing release could be more compact but looks like it can be improved. Not particularly shifty but falls forward on QB runs. Just OK at reading DE on zone reads but should improve with reps. Doesn’t seem to get the ball out quickly and if first read isn’t there has tendency to drift and scan vs his progression [i.e., “drift and scan” to me means if first read isn’t there, doesn’t calmly reset feet and look for second receiver and instead tries to slide or float in pocket and just scan field for any open receiver like backyard football]. Should improve on this at next level. Seems competitive; no obvious behavior changes once team down significant margin.

When I found these notes I was actually a bit disheartened: I’d stand by just about every word in there, both the good and the bad, but the bad stuff remains the bad. In other words, Tebow is very much the same quarterback I watched in 2005, but with infinite more baggage. And that’s why the Jets got rid of him and it seemed no NFL team would sniff him this year.

But it’s also why the Patriots took a chance. The thing to note immediately is it’s not necessarily much of one: signing a third-string free agent quarterback on a team that only carried two quarterbacks in 2012 is not exactly an exalted vote of confidence, and there’s absolutely no certainty Tebow will be on the team come week one. And media-induced Tebow fatigue is very real; fan fatigue over the most talked about backup quarterback in recent memory is entirely justified.

The Patriots made what is, potentially, a classic Patriots move: taking a player with usable talent and upside at below market rates, rates set to a large extent because of external factors. The classic examples are players perceived as cancers whose talent nevertheless was obvious, like Randy Moss and Corey Dillon, who quickly assimilated and became integral parts of successful New England teams. There have of course been misses, like Chad Ochocinco, though his primary faults while a Patriot were on the field rather than off.

Moss and Dillon, however, were pro-bowl or all-pro talents who became instant starters; Tebow, by contrast will be competing for a clipboard role, a role that would not appear to justify any media circus. What we do know, however, is that Belichick doesn’t do anything without a football specific reason behind it — Tom Brady’s father likes to say that Belichick will replace his son the moment he finds “a quarterback who is better for a dollar less.”

One potential reason which has already been cited is that Tebow, while primarily a quarterback, will also spend time learning tight-end, giving Belichick the kind of versatility he feels is essential with only a 53 man roster. Indeed, Belichick has had more than a little bit of success using players from other positions at tight-end, with linebacker turned redzone touchdown machine Mike Vrabel being the most obvious example. (And maybe Tebow can get some extra advice on this, as Vrabel is currently an assistant coach at his alma mater Ohio State, where he coaches under Tebow’s old college coach and still lead cheerleader, Urban Meyer.)

This kind of versatility shouldn’t be shortchanged, as if Tebow’s presence allows Belichick to keep one fewer backup tight-end that may let him add an extra linebacker, linemen or defensive back, an roster spot that always has meaning in an NFL where injuries are a reality of life.

While versatility is nice, whether or not the experiment works will come down to whether Tebow can be an NFL quarterback. Whether or not he can is at this point anyone’s guess; all I can say is I am less confident about Tebow’s eventual success now than I was some years ago, as I saw his flaws as things he could improve and yet he hasn’t, and in some ways we’ve actually seen a regression.

But let’s get one (semi) misconception out of the way: The primary issue is not that Tebow “can’t throw.” Although Tim’s throwing motion clearly doesn’t have the geometric precision of Tom Brady, the compact explosiveness of Drew Brees or even the effortless naturalism of Aaron Rodgers, it’s simply not the case that he cannot deliver the ball from point A to point B. When he is in rhythm and his feet are set, he can deliver the ball just fine.

And it’s not just passes over the middle. I’ve seen him make eighteen yard sideline comeback throws, deep crosses, and maybe Tebow’s prettiest passes have always been on streaks down the sideline. Indeed, in terms of pure arm strength, Tebow will likely be ahead of Brady in Patriots camp (though number two quarterback Ryan Mallett is clearly ahead of both).

So the issue is not that Tebow “can’t throw,” though clearly the tightness of his mechanics and his overall accuracy need continuous improvement. But Tebow’s problem has instead been his ability to calmly but efficiently go through his progression. Of course, while Tebow might technically have a stronger arm than Tom Brady, the reason Brady is a Hall of Fame quarterback is precisely because his greatest skill is Tebow’s greatest weakness. If there’s an open receiver, Brady will find him and put the ball where it needs to be, whereas Tebow far too often is stuck watching his first receiver or “drifting and scanning”: just shuffling and reshuffling while waiting for a receiver to “come open.”

This, not his throwing motion, has been Tebow’s biggest problem since coming to the NFL, but it was an issue for him in college, too. He seemed to regress at this as a senior, likely to some extent a result of the amount of pressure his coaches put on him to do everything in the offense and to constantly “create plays” rather than operating within the offense’s structure. Against Tennessee as a senior, whose defensive coordinator was now Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Tebow had an abysmal game trying to find open receiver, and I diagrammed one particular bad decision, where, frustrated, Tebow delivered the ball directly to a waiting Eric Berry for an interception.

Despite the years that have gone by without much improvement, however, I’m still modestly hopeful. The good news for Tebow, if there is any given his circuitous journey from college hero to first rounder to free agent cast-off, is that he may have finally landed in a place he should have been all along: As a back-up quarterback, playing for excellent coaches behind a future Hall of Fame quarterback, in a place where he can focus solely on improving on his weaknesses and becoming a better player.

If I had the chance to take the raw kid I saw playing for Nease high school in 2005, I still would: his flaws then are still his flaws now, but the talent is still there too, though somewhat obscured. The question is whether, in 2013, it’s too late for Tebow to learn any better. I don’t know. My head tells me it’s too late but my gut tells me Tebow might still prove us all wrong. All Belichick is offering Tebow — and all he’s offering us, too — is a chance for Tim to do just that.

  • scott

    What about using him as a tailback, or old shuffle stuff with A. Hernandez whether Brady is on the field or not?

  • cwoz

    Fantastic article. I’ve been looking all day for some well thought out writing on this situation, and yours is one of the few.

    I’m a Pats fan, and a Tebow fan. Getting over my initial glee, this really is good for both parties. Belichick is one of the few coaches who can take all of Tebows positive attributes and put him into, or maybe even create a new system where T will succeed. Tebow is such a unique athlete/player that Belichick is probably foaming at the mouth with the different ways to utilize him. And when you take a rather usual player like Tebow and create ways for his uniqueness to stand out, that is going to add to a defense’s trouble to stopping him.

  • Great Read Chris! If Tim tebow can buy into what Belichick wants out of him New England…this could work. Having a 3rd string QB who could act as H/Back TE option to come compete for zero guaranteed dollars is not a bad option. Im sure knowing that McDaniels believes in his skill set puts Tebow in a better situation to succeed vs his last situation in NY.

  • sherri_n

    This is what I’ve been saying, that the superficial issue of his throwing mechanics is obscuring the more fundamental issue of not being able to read defenses and go through progressions. I wonder if his dyslexia is a problem here; dyslexia presents in many different ways, and is more generally a visual tracking and processing issue.

    I honestly don’t think he can learn to do it at the pro level; I think he’s a great athlete and a nice guy without a position.

  • GREAT blog post, Chris. But there’s one issue, my friend: Mr. Tebow has a brand new throwing motion! Look: http://www.zennie62blog.com/2013/06/11/tim-tebow-new-england-patriots-qb-read-option-twitter-reaction-55912/

  • Christopher Moore

    Tebow is a very wise man…with or without footbal he will excel. 🙂

  • Mr.Murder

    The great debate, can you change how a quarterback throws and engineer his success? Can you only modify it lightly and plan around the aspects he does best? McDaniels system has a lot of presnap quicks/screens, constraint calls(often too many) but many work exceptionally in a boot offense. Pats biggest thing is the lineman challenge in protections, and how much they make it part of the look and scheme, the team has had solid efforts as some aging linemen are replaced capably. Two different things, but a defense spending all week on specials for a Tebow look might miss out a core call vs. the overall set, though it is a greater challenge to the offense to do too much and not hone in on what makes them superior in the Pats pass game. Are they trying to go power/play pass in shaping bigger OL players, are they getting too cute on the edges with these constraints and spread game, or are they arriving upon a balance to do both depending on settings they find selves in? How much can it be done given loss of Welker, others, and injuries to Gronk? There is so much going on with the Pats, it is truly multifaceted, to levels they could call unprecedented. Tebow arrives in the mix for all of it, and maybe none of it, think he stays for certain if he shows special teams ability(extra roster spot gained). Imagine him and Aaron Hernandez working from the same position, timing out sweeps(other comments here credit). Only think of it with an option read for the two runners. The Browns used to do it in Paul Browns heyday, lead the back, as he cuts past the double he reads who fills and has the lead back widen outside. Hand off, THEN option, instead of risking a hit to the QB on a keeper. A fullback, hback, tight end becomes the keeper read! Used to have an NFL playbook that was promotional item in the early 70’s and it had that play listed as part of a 50’s series runs(split, near/far) Think that is where the Pistol/Jet stays a step ahead and gives coaches the chalk, especially on field side calls.

  • InvisibleHandInMyPants

    The on-going St Timmy obsession continues unabated.