Friday, December 23, 2011

The Day the Tim Tebow Narrative Changed

By Joe Parello

Let me be very clear, NFL scouts never thought Tim Tebow was going to be a prolific NFL passer. But, for nearly three seasons, Tebow had given casual football fans little reason to doubt his semi-awkward throwing motion. Despite what his commercials may tell you, nearly everyone agreed that he would be a Division I and NFL quarterback, perhaps a darn good one. In fact, he was rated as the top quarterback prospect in the country by many recruiting services, though nearly all cited his strength and athleticism as his most redeeming qualities.

When he arrived in Gainesville as the chosen one (pun intended) to run Urban Meyer’s spread-option offense, Tebow appeared to be the next step in the evolution of the modern quarterback. Though he served as the backup to Chris Leak as a freshman, Tebow’s running, particularly down by the goal line, was a large reason why the Gators were able to capture the 2006 BCS national championship. As the year went on, Tebow would add a signature “jump pass” to his goal line repertoire, making him even more lethal in short yardage situations.

2006 was but a tease, however, since Tebow proved to be a force of nature in 2007. Throughout his freshman year, commentators preached that if Tebow could be efficient throwing the ball, there would be no stopping him. His sophomore season certainly bore that out, as Tebow became the first sophomore to ever win the Heisman trophy. Efficiency be damned, he was simply unstoppable through the air, throwing for nearly 3,300 yards, 32 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Of course, in true Tebow fashion, the powerful runner would add 23 touchdowns on the ground, giving him an NCAA record for total touchdowns in a season.

Still, his Gators finished the season 9-4 with a disappointing loss at unranked Auburn, a double-digit loss to then-No.1 LSU, and an infuriating Capital One Bowl loss to an unranked Michigan squad that had been shocked by Appalachian State at the start of the season. Tebow’s narrative, at least that year, was similar to that of this season’s Robert Griffin III: An unstoppable force that was only slowed by the team around him. Had Tebow been eligible for the NFL draft, this would have been the highest point of his stock. Still, he was not known for being a winner.

Sure, Mel Kiper and Todd McShay would have ripped apart his throwing motion, but it would have been the same way they did with Phillip Rivers and Vince Young. Everyone would have conceded that Tebow was far from perfect mechanically, but he had a huge arm, can make all the “NFL” throws(which, around draft time, seems to mean "deep out route"), is absurdly productive through the air and athletic to boot. Who can argue with that, right? I mean, we’re not talking about Dan LeFevour putting up video game numbers in the MAC, or some system quarterback lighting up the Big 12 or Pac 10, this was a guy that could not be stopped in the SEC. You know, the only college football conference that is real.

Tebow would retain his role as the Juggernaut of college football the following year, rolling through opponents all season en route to the 2008 BCS championship. Tebow’s efficiency number were similar to the previous season, but his touchdowns were down as a runner thanks to the emergence of explosive play-makers Percy Harvin, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps coming out of the backfield. Even back then there were doubters, but Tebow appeared unbeatable with the rest of the Gators finally stepping up.

Again, Tebow returned to Gainesville, his dominance still unquestioned. That is, until No. 1 Florida’s mid-October showdown with No.4 LSU. That is when we discovered what Tim Tebow truly is as a quarterback. After throwing nearly 30 times a game coming into the battle in Baton Rouge, Meyer put the training wheels back on his acclaimed senior quarterback, limiting Tebow to an efficient, but underwhelming 11-16 for 134 yards. He also ran 17 times, but only for 38 yards, a meager 2.2 yards per carry.

The two teams traded field goals in the first half, but just before intermission, Tebow found a wide open Riley Cooper in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown to put Florida up 10-3. The Florida offense did virtually nothing the rest of the game, but it was enough for the Gators to hold on for a 13-3 victory. And so, “he just wins” was born.

Now, there is something to be said for Tebow doing what it takes to win. The Gators defense, led by future NFL players Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes and Carlos Dunlap, among others, was playing at an insane level. As a unit, they limited LSU to just 127 yards of total offense. Tebow and Meyer understood that, and they coached and played accordingly. Bravo. But, there is also something to be said for limiting your Heisman trophy and BCS championship game winning quarterback in the stiffest road test of the season.

Meyer knew then what we all know now: You can win with Tim Tebow, but you better game plan to his strengths on offense and play great defense. Consider that Tebow went from an unstoppable force in 2007 and 2008(over 30 touchdowns and 3,200 yards passing), to a “game manager” that “just wins” in 2009(21 touchdowns and under 3,000 yards). What changed? Well, the defense remained elite, but the two best weapons around Tebow had taken their talents to Sundays.

Florida’s all-purpose king Percy Harvin(over 600 yards both rushing and receiving) had become a first round pick, and the team’s second leading receiver, Louis Murphy, joined him in the NFL. Meyer knew he still had a solid corps of receivers, with future NFL players Cooper and David Nelson, along with tight end Aaron Hernandez, but also knew that none of those players had the elite speed of Harvin or Murphy. While Tebow still had great weapons, the separation they created from defenders was not as great, forcing him to(uh oh) put the ball in tight windows with touch.

Luckily for Tebow, the Gators faced only two ranked teams all season, LSU and No. 2 Alabama in the SEC title game. In both games, Florida scored 13 points. The only problem was, against Alabama, the Gator defense could not bail Tebow out. Florida surrendered 32 points to the Mark Ingram led Crimson Tide, ending Tebow and Meyer’s quest for a second consecutive national title.

The secret was out, though we had suspected it all along. Tim Tebow has no touch in the short to intermediate passing game. When the draft rolled around, analysts ripped apart his throwing motion, his propensity for overthrowing quick slants and everything else that could be found on just the tape of the Alabama game. But, how did he become this decorated player that once appeared unstoppable? Was it because Tim Tebow actually possesses great athleticism and a good arm, while playing in a system tailor-made for him with elite athletes all over the field? Nope, it was because the guy “just wins.”

Don’t sell Tim Tebow short. Look at what Gator football has become without him running the show. One year without him was enough to send Meyer running for the hills(or Bristol and Columbus). All I am saying is, don’t get caught up in all this talk of voodoo and magic. Tim Tebow has an easily recognizable skill set and clearly defined strengths and weaknesses. Right now, the Broncos are playing to his strengths and that is leading to wins. But, when teams score consistently on Denver(as New England did), forcing Tebow to read coverages and squeeze the ball between defenders, he struggles.

You can debate whether or not this is a sustainable way to win for Denver, but what you can’t debate is that, at one time, we were not talking about Tim Tebow as a game manager. So maybe now you can understand why it irritates me so much that people claim to like Tim Tebow because he “just wins.”

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