Joe-Pinions: Sports

9 Jan 2012 – Thoughts on Tim Tebow

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 09/01/2012

Tim Tebow.

He is easily the NFL’s most polarizing player.

You watch him, and how you react depends completely on what your rooting interests are.

If you’re a student of the techniques on how to play the game, interested in the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of football, there’s a good chance you’d be aghast.  The footwork on his dropbacks looks fine, but, yes, that extended wind-up on his throwing motion is the complete opposite of a Dan Marino-like quick release.  When Tebow throws, you’re tempted to think that you should time his release not with a stopwatch, but with a sundial.

If you like watching film on passing plays, breaking them down and looking at the coverage and the receivers’ routes and deducing how the play should work, he’ll likely make you tear your hair out.  At least six times in yesterday’s Wildcard round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whenever the camera angle allowed you to look at the receivers and the secondary and see the pass play develop, I saw Tebow locked in on one receiver on each play, failing to see his other receivers coming open.  By watching Tebow closely, you can deduce that his ability to read coverage drops and going through each play’s progressions is stunted at best, and non-existent at worst.  (Each pass play at the professional level is designed to incorporate a progression with at least two receivers, a primary and a secondary option, to account for an anticipated coverage.  The more sophisticated the passing play design, the more options a quarterback has.)

If you enjoy pinpoint accuracy from your quarterback, Tebow will make you yell ineffectually at your television (or, if you were watching him play live, at Tebow himself) in frustration.  Most quarterbacks lose their ability to throw to a target effectively when they’re under pressure (from a fierce pass rush, for instance).  Tebow, though, is one of just a select few professional starting quarterbacks that I’ve seen who can miss throws despite enjoying good protection from his offensive line.  He throws them high; he throws them low; he throws the ball anywhere but where his receivers can get to it more than half the time, even when the receiver had done a great job running his route and creating separation from his defender.  In other words, Tebow makes a pass completion seem like a godsend.

To someone who studies the game of American football, especially someone who wants to understand the passing game and the art and science of playing quarterback, Tim Tebow is probably not the first guy you’d want to look at as far as studying the textbook way of getting things done.  I know he’s not on my own short list.

Tim Tebow, though, is something else.

To a defense opposing him, his unconventional methods are a cause for concern.  To defenses, the man under center (or taking the shotgun snap) is seen as a two-way option; well within one second of the start of the play, most good defenses will have determined whether the quarterback is dropping back to pass or is going to hand the ball off to a teammate on a run play.  Tebow, though, presents professional defenses with a third, much less common, option:  He could keep the ball and run with it himself.

To a defensive unit, Tebow is worthy of respect.  To some defenses, I’d say Tebow is actually scary.

Tim Tebow played and thrived in what’s called a “spread option” offense when he was in college.  The spread option combines two apparently disparate offensive philosophies, the spread offense (where the offensive team deploys all five eligible receivers spread across the field, leaving the quarterback often alone five yards behind the center in the shotgun) which is primarily a passing-oriented attack, and the option offense (a run-oriented attack where the offensive backfield is occupied by up to four backs at times, and the offense as a whole presents a compressed look horizontally).  Tebow’s college coach, Urban Meyer, did the intelligent thing and maximized Tebow’s particular strengths — Tebow is very athletic, a very good ball-carrier with surprising speed, power and quickness, and is amazingly tough — and hid his weaknesses (as discussed above, his skills as a passer are limited).  The upshot?  Meyer’s Florida Gators, led by a quarterback with limited passing skills, won two BCS National Championships (in 2007 and 2009).

In the NFL, though, option offenses are thought to be anachronistic, a relic of the game’s ancient past.  Running-based ground attacks, generally speaking, are falling out of favor in the NFL, and option-type plays are almost non-existent in most teams’ playbooks.  Talking heads everywhere proclaim that heavily pass-biased offenses like the Green Bay Packers’ and the New England Patriots are what you need in the modern NFL; accordingly, teams are all searching for that rarest of gems, quarterbacks who can pass like Aaron Rogers or Tom Brady (or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning).  Given his known limitations as a passer (ignore the stats, folks; though he’s had a notable sampling of games where he’s had amazing pass attempts : completions ratios, all you need to do is watch the guy throw.  His receivers, and the relative lack of talent of college pass defenses, flatter his college statistics), it’s still a bit controversial and surprising even to this day that the Denver Broncos selected Tebow as their first-round draft pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Despite his first-round draft choice status, Tebow rode the bench for most of his first year and a half in Denver.  When he was inserted in games, though, the Broncos would somehow get electrified.  The Bronco fan base’s clamors for Tebow’s permanent promotion to the starting quarterback spot became too loud to ignore, so new Broncos head coach John Fox finally acquiesced (Fox’s predecessor, Josh McDaniels, was Tebow’s first pro head coach).  From Denver’s sixth game onwards, Tim Tebow was the Broncos’ starting quarterback.

Tebow’s first couple of games as the full-time starter were decidedly ugly.  The primary reason was that the Broncos’ offense was not specifically tailored to his strengths; if anything, Denver’s game plans featured far more passing than Tebow’s abilities could handle.  Perhaps grudgingly, Fox reinvented Denver’s offensive philosophy, eschewing much of the passing game, re-emphasizing the run, and, most dramatically, introducing a package of option/spread option plays.  Fox, like the best of coaches, reconfigured his team’s tactics to better fit its strengths and disguise its weaknesses.  Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, Fox hacked up the hole and made it as close to a square shape as possible.

The effect was immediate and dramatic.  The Broncos, who had lost four of their first five games in 2011, overtook the Oakland Raiders and won the AFC West.  Tebow and the Broncos were in the playoffs.

I have to confess that I hadn’t seen too much of Tebow prior to yesterday’s Wildcard round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I’m one of those fans who studies pass offenses and the art and science of quarterbacking; by no means am I an expert, but based on what I’d seen of Tebow in college and the little I’d seen of him in the pros he just wasn’t that interesting.

Watching the game yesterday, though, opened up my eyes to another facet of Tebow that I’d never ever seen.

To his team’s fans – to his fans, and he has a legion of them – Tebow is not flawed; he isn’t scary.

Tim Tebow is beloved.

I know, that seems a bit hyperbolic.  But it’s true, as far as I can see.

He’ll never be a passing champion.  He’ll never threaten Tom Brady’s record for passing TDs in a season, or Drew Brees’ mark for most passing yards in a year.  He won’t ever come close.

But those are the wrong numbers to look at.

The single most important thing to consider when you look at quarterbacks above all else is:  Does he lead your team to victory?

Yesterday, Tebow as a passer was typical Tebow:  He completed less than half of his pass attempts (10 of 21), with lots of balls sailing past open receivers or thrown into the ground despite the receivers being open; despite this, he did go over 300 passing yards (316yds) and set an NFL record for yards per completion in a playoff game (31.6yds/completion).  His numbers were inflated by a game-winning 80yd TD pass to Demaryius Thomas (in fact, Thomas accrued 204yds by himself on just four receptions!), demonstrating the point that his receivers do a great job at making Tebow’s numbers look great.  On many of his incompletions, Tebow did not practice sound quarterbacking techniques – going through the play’s progression of receivers in a systematic attempt to find the weakness in the coverage and find the most open man.  He forced the ball to a covered receiver a few times, and on many passes simply misfired (he threw to the right guy but just outright missed).

However, give him a chance to carry the ball, and Tebow – Tim Tebow, the football player, the quarterback – showed up.  Unusually big and amazingly tough for a quarterback, Tebow ran like a quicker version of fullback Mike Alstott.  He ran on belly dives (run plays into the middle of the line); he ran on option keepers around the defensive end.  He took his hits and got up for more with nary a sign that the defense hurt him.

On some option-type plays, he pitched or handed off the ball to his running backs with great effect as well.

You can sum up Tim Tebow’s execution of the Bronco’s offensive game plan against the Steelers in one sentence:  He made the Steelers defense guess and hesitate.

Thus, on the first play of the overtime period, the Broncos lined up in shotgun, in “Tiger” personnel (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB).  The formation was balanced, with one WR and one TE per side; Demaryius Thomas is on the left.  Tebow had his running back next to him on his left.  The pre-snap look had both safeties deep.  Just before the snap, though, both safeties crept towards the line of scrimmage, clearly intending to blitz and jam the likely run play that the Broncos were going to open the overtime period with.  Tebow caught the snap, faked the handoff to his running back, and found Demaryius Thomas on a post route with inside leverage against the cornerback.

The Steelers guessed that the Broncos would run, then hesitated on the quick play action fake.  Tebow recognized that Demaryius Thomas had beaten his man and threw a perfect pass that hit his receiver in stride.  A little less than nine seconds later (the whole play from snap to the game’s end), the home crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High exploded into a deafening chorus of cheers, and the magic of Tim Tebow continued for at least one more week.

Tebow may have a strange stat line, but he did answer that most important question:  He led his team to victory.  At the end of the day, helping your team get one more W is more important than getting all those yards and touchdowns.  Style points don’t count for squat in the final reckoning.

In hindsight, everything, of course, becomes crystal clear.  Lots of people were perplexed that the Steelers called a double safety blitz, leaving the cornerbacks on their proverbial islands.  You know what, though?  I thought that the tactic was correct; against a quarterback who is more dangerous as a runner or as a run decoy (on option plays), you need as many men close to the line of scrimmage as possible for possible run support.

The simple fact is that Demaryius Thomas did a great job getting inside of his defender, and Tebow both recognized this AND made the perfect throw.  The two of them had to beat the defense’s tactics, and they did.  It’s stupid to fault the Steelers for their decision to blitz.  All you have to do is give credit to the men who defeated the correct tactic.

How you see Tim Tebow depends entirely on how you look at him.  If you’re a student of football, there’s little to learn from Tebow’s technique, mechanics, or approach to the passing game.  If you’re a coach, you’ll likely be baffled by what you’re seeing, since his strengths and capabilities are simply unconventional.  If you’re playing against the Broncos (or, if you’re a fan of the team the Broncos are playing against) you likely deride him for his shortcomings, yet fear his strengths.

But if you’re a fan of either his team or of Tebow himself, well…

He’s manna from heaven.


3 Responses

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  1. Tim said, on 11/01/2012 at 10:19

    A good, rigorous assessment. From the little I have seen of Tebow, I think your summation of what he does – he makes defenses guess and hesitate – is spot on. And in the NFL, even a moment’s hesitation makes all the difference. You’re right – he will never win an NFL passing title, but he will win games, and that in itself demands respect. Personally I think he’s horrible to watch, but then some of the NFL’s best passers have had unorthodox mechanics of some sort – Bernie Kosar’s sidearm, Brett Favre’s tendency to throw off his back foot – but they got the job done more often that not. Tebow is not a great quarterback – but he is a great athlete. I still wouldn’t want him on my team though!

    • txtmstrjoe said, on 11/01/2012 at 11:22

      Can’t help but agree with what you say, Tim! 😀

      Tebow’s game demands respect, but I’d rather have Alex Smith at the controls. We 49ers fans are very spoiled in having a tradition of great quarterbacks on our team – Frankie Albert, Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie (all three pre-Walsh), then Montana, Young, even Garcia – so we feel as if we know great QBs when we see one. Tebow really needs to develop his passing game to be a truly great quarterback. After all, at the end of the day, that’s what NFL quarterbacks are supposed to do.

      It would take a ton of great coaching, and Tebow has to be receptive and be a good learner, but it’s not impossible.

      • Tim said, on 11/01/2012 at 14:47

        Jeff Garcia was massively underrated, wasn’t he? He didn’t have a rifle for an arm but he understood the offensive system and did very well with a pretty mediocre team.

        Many great QBs are also great athletes – that Steve Young fella springs readily to mind – but the reverse isn’t always true. I wonder whether Tebow will be able to improve the mental side of his game – he has only a handful of games as a starter under his belt, after all – or whether he will end up going down the path of great athletes who turned out to be very mediocre QBs. Kordell Stewart, perhaps?

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