Thursday, January 5, 2012

Keepin it real: Tebow vs Slash

By Joe Parello

Man, it sure has been a great week for race relations and the NFL. My first hint that it was going to be a great one was Deadspin's foray into determining race superiority with a Madden video game simulation. You can find that story and video here and, for the record, most football fans would pay good money to see that game for the simple reason that both those teams are loaded. Well, not the white team's secondary or the black team's kickers, but still. Also for the record, I would've started Gronk over Witten on the white team and Vick over Newton on the black team, but that's neither here nor there.

The other great race debate this week occurred on ESPN's First Take when former Steelers quarterback/receiver/punter/scapegoat Kordell Stewart(see where he gets the nickname "Slash" from?) basically stated that if Tim Tebow were black, he would not have gotten the many opportunities as he has in the NFL this year, at least not this early and without proving himself as a passer. I will leave the jokes about how this is the opposite of the ESPN The Magazine article about Mike Vick being white to your imagination, but here is an incredibly poor quality video of Stewart since I couldn't find an official one on ESPN's website. Conspiracy by The Man? Probably.

While there is little doubt black quarterbacks have historically gotten a raw deal in the NFL, Stewart's reminder that the mega-talented Warren Moon had to toil in the Canadian Football League to prove himself to NFL scouts is a great example of that, is Stewart right to compare himself and his plight to Tebow? I would argue yes, and I would also assert that no quarterback, black or white, was more similar to Tim Tebow because of his college stardom and novelty of style at his time entering the league. Before writing the rest of this piece, I must admit a few things so you know where I'm coming from:

1. I am a Steelers fan.
2. The way many fans want Tim Tebow to succeed so badly today is the way I felt about Stewart in the late 90's and early 2000's.
3. I have already written a piece on Tim Tebow for this site. Check it out here.
4. I like Tim Tebow and think a smart team can win, perhaps even win big, with him at quarterback.
5. All my stats came from, the best one-stop shop for pigskin knowledge. If you find my analysis to be skewed, head over there and compare the numbers for yourself.

With that out of the way, let's review the career of one Kordell "Slash" Stewart and compare it to where Tim Tebow is today.

Stewart was a decorated quarterback at the University of Colorado, leading the Buffaloes to a Fiesta Bowl victory and top-3 finish as a senior in 1994-95. He was also named 2nd Team All America while running a pro-style offense under coach Rick Neuheisel. Of course, that season will mostly be remembered for his famed "Miracle at Michigan" Hail Mary pass to Michael Westbrook that pushed the Buffs past the Wolverines on their way to a magical season.
For his efforts, in a pro-style, two tight end offense mind you, Stewart fell to the second round of the NFL draft, No. 60 overall. Many teams informed Stewart that, if they drafted him, it would be to play wide receiver, and not quarterback. Eventually the Steelers selected him, and used him as a unique and versatile weapon on their 1995 AFC Champion squad.

Contrast this with Tebow, who ran a spread-option offense in college, yet was drafted late in the first round, and it is easy to see that Stewart has a bit of a point. However, Tebow's status as one of the greatest college football players in history and a great Christian role model certainly factored in as well. As a rookie, the Broncos would implement a special package for the athletic and powerful Tebow, mostly down by the goal line, but by year two, Denver would cut proven veteran Kyle Orton and give into the demands of the majority of Broncos fans by starting Tebow.

Shortly after the Steelers allowed Neil O'Donnell(mostly known for throwing two interceptions directly to Dallas corner Larry Brown and making him MVP of Super Bowl XXX) to walk in free agency, Pittsburgh turned to veteran Mike Tomczak to handle the starting quarterback duties. The following year, without any fan sponsored billboards, the starting job was given to Stewart. It is this year that I believe is most comparable to Tebow's polarizing 2011 campaign. Let's take a look at the numbers.

'97 Stewart: 11-5 as a starter, 21 TD's 17 INT, 189 yds. pass p/g, 30 yds. rush p/g, 75.2 rating.
'11 Tebow: 7-4 as a starter, 12 TD's 6 INT, 123.5 yds. pass p/g, 47 yds. rush p/g, 72.9 rating.

The first thing that jumps out at me, is that these numbers are actually pretty similar, but they need some context. First, let's give Tebow an extra five TD passes, since he averaged just over one a game, and let's give him an additional two interceptions since he averaged a little over one every other game. That gives him an adjusted 17 TD's and 8 INT, a very efficient complete season total.

Tebow certainly has his strengths in this comparison, he has fewer turnovers and more rushing yards, but Stewart appears to be the better passer. Another thing that must be noted is that passing yards were much harder to come by in 1997 than they were this season. This year, the average quarterback threw for nearly 230 yards a game. In 1997, that total was about 30 yards less. I don't want to propose some way to account for that, because I am no mathematician, but I do think it should be kept in mind that, due to changes in the rules on how to defend receivers and hit quarterbacks, it is easier to throw in the modern league. For that reason, passing is a big plus for Stewart.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Stewart was running a traditional pro-style offense featuring a power running game. The Steelers never changed their system to accentuate his strengths as an athlete and outside the pocket passer the way the Broncos have for Tebow. Stewart would lead Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship game, where they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos(coincidence? I think not).

As the Broncos prepare to host Pittsburgh this weekend(this thing is writing itself, I swear), let us also take note that, while Tebow rushed for more yards, he also took more sacks and fumbled far more often. Despite, five fewer starts, Tebow still took 33 sacks for -225 yards compared to Stewart's 20 sacks for -152. If you project Tebow to a full season, you get 48 sacks for -327 yards, or three sacks a game for just over 20 yards lost, both are over twice the totals of Stewart.

As for fumbles, even without projecting his numbers out for a full season, Tebow still more than doubled up Stewart in fumbles 13 to six. Projecting for a full season, Tebow would have 18-19 fumbles, giving him triple the fumbles of Stewart.Does this all make up for his nine fewer interceptions and 17 yards per game advantage on the ground? Perhaps not, but it certainly makes the categories closer. The clincher for Stewart is completion percentage, where he bests Tebow 54% to 47%, and that is without adjusting for the fact that the average completion percentage has gone from 56% in 1997 to over 60% in 2011.

But, there is a case to be made for Tebow as well. Stewart took the helm of a reigning division champion that was only two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. Tebow took over a team that finished dead last in their division the previous year and hadn't had a winning season since 2006. Stewart's Steelers featured the 11th ranked defense in a defense driven league, while Tebow's Broncos boasted the league's 24th best unit. While Stewart's weapons were nothing to write home about, he did still have Jerome Bettis in his prime, who rushed for over 1,600 yards, while Tebow has helped rejuvenate the career of Willis McGahee.

The point is, while Stewart may have had the slightly more impressive season, there is a case to be made that Tebow deserves this shot and that he is running with it quite well. What Stewart takes issue with is the way he was treated in Pittsburgh compared to the way Tebow is being treated in Denver. There were no billboards taken out by fans to start "Slash." In fact, the fans in Pittsburgh seemed to turn on Stewart with every misstep. After sub-par play the following two seasons, Stewart was cast off to play receiver for the Steelers at times, before reclaiming his job in 2000 and making the Pro Bowl in 2001.

However, after leading Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship game in 2001, Stewart was benched in 2002 three games into the season in favor of Tommy Maddox. He would bounce from the Bears to the Ravens and finally hang it up in 2005 as a backup in Baltimore. The question is, will this be the fate of Tim Tebow if he struggles? Will the Broncos current starter be sent off to practice with the tight ends if he has a few lean years? Will the fans turn on Tebow and give up on him when he fails to become an All-Pro? Will he end up serving as a third-stringer behind nobodies like Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright late in his career?

Kordell Stewart doesn't think so, but there is more to it than race. Tebow is a brand in a way Stewart never was. A Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion with the following of conservative Christians throughout the country, Tebow is certainly appealing for more than just his skin color. However, Stewart's criticisms do come with merit, and this story is far from over. Not to beat a dead horse and make a complex issue overly simplistic, but, what if Tim Tebow were black?

No comments :