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What's Wrong with Tim Tebow?
As a Bengals fan transplanted to Colorado a few years ago, I started paying a little more attention to the Denver Broncos than I normally would. I admit to being a little excited when they drafted Tim Tebow in the first round (two rounds too high, said draft experts!), even though I rooted hard against the SEC in college football. If nothing else, watching Time Tebow in the NFL would be interesting.
In 2011, just after John Elway rejoined the Broncos as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations, the Broncos started the season with Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn, and Tim Tebow as their quarterbacks (and in that order on the depth chart). They roared out to a 1-3 record under the inept quarterbacking of Kyle Orton, and fans kept chanting for Tim Tebow to get in the game. Never mind that the coaches thought Brady Quinn was a better professional football player than Tebow, fans erected billboards around Denver asking the team to start number 15. They chanted his name at every game, and eventually Orton became so bad that head coach John Fox couldn’t keep Tebow off the field. Entering the game in the third quarter of a week 5 game against the division-rival Chargers, Tebow led the Broncos to 14 points in the fourth quarter, and the potential game-winning touchdown pass fell incomplete at the end of the game. Tebow gave the sluggish offense a spark, and no one in the organization could put the genie back in the bottle. During week 6’s bye, Fox installed an offense more suited to a quarterback who can run well but has trouble hitting open receivers. After a miraculous comeback in the final minutes of the week 7 game against Miami, Tebowmania was born, much to the chagrin of the Broncos brass.
My personal conspiracy theory is this: Elway, Fox, and the rest of the Broncos organization didn’t just expect Tim Tebow to fail, they wanted him to. Neither of Fox nor Elway was with the team when Tebow was drafted, so they had no personal loyalty to him, and were probably pretty objective and fair when assessing his talents in practice. But how do you get rid of such a popular player? I’m sure John Elway was no stranger to Andrew Luck, the Stanford quarterback entering the draft the next year, the man who was touted as the best QB prospect since Peyton Manning, the prototypical pocket passer with good legs who reminded many of Elway himself, the top pick on Mel Kiper’s draft board, the player who inspired “Suck for Luck” campaigns in any city that didn’t have a true franchise quarterback. Surely any fan base would be happy to have him under center, right? As soon as the Broncos stumbled to a 1-5 start heading into the bye week, I think the Broncos formed a plan. “The fans want Timmy? Let’s give them Timmy. Once they see how bad he is, there won’t be any more billboards. No more chanting, no more criticism for keeping him on the sidelines. We’ll lose the rest of our games this season, take Luck with the first pick in the draft, and then we can cut Tebow without any fan resentment,” I assume Elway said. How else do you explain trading 2010’s leading receiver, Pro-Bowler Brandon Lloyd, for a conditional fifth-round pick before Tebow even got to start one game? How else do you explain leapfrogging Tim Tebow up the depth chart when he couldn’t beat out the lowly Brady Quinn in practice? They expected Tebow to excite the fan base, sell some jerseys… and lose every game he played.
Okay, so maybe we went a little overboard with Tebowing
Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for the Tebowing meme), Tebow started winning ugly. First came the Miami Miracle, a win in overtime after being down 15 with less than three minutes to go. There was a little hiccup against Detroit, but then Tebow started reeling off wins, each more improbable than the last. Two for eight passing against Kansas City? No problem, that’s a win! Down with a minute to go against a staunch Jets defense? No problem, just scamper 20 yards for the touchdown, and that’s a win! Down three with three minutes to go against the Vikings? No need for overtime, just kick two field goals in the last 1:33! The Chicago game was the most ridiculous of all. Even against a team that had lost its starting quarterback to injury, the Broncos had 0 points through the first 58 minutes of the game. After a late Broncos touchdown, all the Bears had to do was run the clock, but Marion Barber inexplicably ran out of bounds, saving precious seconds that the Broncos used to kick a 59-yard game-tying field goal. In overtime, the Bears moved into field goal range, but Barber promptly fumbled the ball, leading to a 51-yard field goal for yet another Broncos win.
The magic came to an end the following week against the Patriots. The Broncos surged to a 16-7 lead in the second quarter against a terrible New England run defense, but then Tom Brady showed Tebow what it looks like to play Real Quarterback instead of Gadget Quarterback in the NFL. Hitting receivers in their hands and in stride, Brady led the Patriots to a convincing victory. That loss was understandable, as the Patriots went on to win the AFC, but the loss to the Chiefs the final week of the season was unforgivable. The Broncos scored only three points in a game that would have locked up the division. Although Tebow won a thrilling overtime game against the Steelers with an uncharacteristically awesome passing day (10 for 21, 316 yards, 2 TDs), and as much as his brand of enthusiasm seems to fire up both the offense and defense, he just doesn’t have the skills to drag a team to a Super Bowl.
With his plan to get Luck in the toilet, Elway had to make new plans for Tebow, and gave him a lukewarm vote of confidence as the leader of the team for 2012. I, for one, was very excited to see how Tebow would perform after a full offseason (remember, in 2011, they were coming off of the lockout) of OTAs and training camp as the unquestioned starter getting most of the reps in practice. What new wrinkles would this offense develop? What kind of passing accuracy could a guy who completed over 50% of his passes only twice in 12 games as a starter develop with extra reps?
With the Colts winning the “Suck for Luck” derby and releasing Peyton Manning, however, Elway finally had a way out of his PR nightmare. Obviously, anyone in his right mind would pick the future hall of famer over Tebow. The chance to land Manning, perhaps the greatest free agent ever to hit the market, even with his questionable health, was too great to pass up. And once Manning signed, there was no logical reason to keep Tebow on the team as a backup, because he wouldn’t be very successful running the offense Peyton Manning would bring to town. The Broncos traded Tebow to the Jets almost as quickly as they signed Peyton Manning, and as Manning has started finding his groove with his new teammates and it looks as if the playoffs are a foregone conclusion, Broncos fans everywhere are forgetting the miracle season of Tim Tebow. Manning jerseys are the now the apparel of choice, and brand new Tebow jerseys that fathers bought a little big for their sons to grow into are selling on the side of the road for 75% off. Elway couldn’t have asked for a better outcome if he had planned it himself.
Granted, he shouldn’t start over Peyton Manning, but should Tim Tebow be a starting QB somewhere in the NFL? Because his running ability and his leadership offset some of his accuracy issues, I think Tebow can be a serviceable starter for teams with low expectations. Despite his ineptitude at throwing spirals, Tebow has a knack for running the ball and improving his team’s rushing attack even when defenses are stacking the box. When Kyle Orton was starting (through the first half of the Chargers game), Willis McGahee ran for 4.3 yards per carry, but when Tebow took over, McGahee averaged 5.1 yards per carry. This season with Peyton Manning, he’s back to 4.3 yards per carry. Tebow can be an exciting football player to watch if you don’t care about your post-season record.
Right now he’s languishing on the Jets, backing up Mark Sanchez, the second-most overrated player in the league (Tebow’s the first) according to a recent Sports Illustrated player poll. He gets to come in a few plays a game to run a wildcat package that everyone knows is going to be a rush, and he plays personal protector on the punt team. Though he has converted three fake punts, as of week 8, he’s only 2 of 3 for 32 yards passing with no touchdowns, and has only rushed 23 times for 78 yards with no touchdowns. He’s averaging 3.4 yards per carry, a far cry from the lofty 5.4 yards per carry last year. Despite his deflated rushing stats, it’s a travesty that he doesn’t get more opportunities near the goal line. This season, I saw Tebow convert a third down by rushing down to the 1-yard line. Why didn’t he then get a carry or two to punch it in? After converting a fake punt later in the season, why bring Sanchez back on the field? You were about to give the ball away anyway, so it’s a free drive! Let Tebow have a chance to demonstrate whether he can engineer a touchdown or not. Quarterbacking is often about rhythm and tempo. This wouldn’t disrupt Sanchez’s tempo, because he was coming off the field for the punt anyway, and this would help Tebow’s rhythm by giving him more consecutive plays. He would finally get to run as many plays in a row as he deserved.
Who would you rather watch as the starting QB of your favorite team?
Watching Tebow get chewed out on the sidelines for a missed block on punt team is not nearly as fun as watching him throw bounce passes to his receivers for three quarters, only to have him pull out the miraculous win in the fourth. He’s not going to lead you to any Super Bowls as the starter; the rest of the league is just too good. But he can be the next best thing: he comes with a built-in fan base, he sells a ton of jerseys, and his games become appointment viewing for men and women. Even when he’s losing big in the second half, you won’t change the channel because you don’t want to miss his next great improbable comeback.
If the current Jacksonville ownership hadn’t been so in love with the almost-mediocre Blaine Gabbert, they could have traded for Tebow. I thought this would have been the perfect situation for him. He’d be playing in Florida, where everyone loves him. He’d be paired with a great running back in Maurice Jones-Drew (how good could MJD be with the Tebow effect?). He’d be leading a bad team with low expectations that no one watches, and taking over for a bad incumbent QB that no one cares about and no one will miss. You aren’t winning a Super Bowl this year, Jacksonville, but more importantly, you aren’t even selling out your home games for full ticket value. Why not maximize how fun it is to watch the Jaguars from the stands for a few years? You know people are going to be desperate to see Tebow in person, especially girlfriends and wives, so you are selling out the stadium every week. If he pulls off another miracle season, then you benefit. If he leads you to the same awful record Gabbert would have had, then you benefit because Tebow is going to make you more money while doing it. Where’s the downside? Even the Tim Tebow experiment implodes, at least your revenues are up, and you get to enjoy Matt Barkley next year.