Friday, July 25, 2014

Tim Tebow, Michael Sam, Tony Dungy and the NFL's "Distraction" Issue

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

I love when people leave comments on our site.

Really, I do. It gives me such joy that people take even 20 seconds to either express their agreement with my view or, more commonly, tell me I'm an idiot. 

These comments are usually reserved for my high school power rankings and all star teams, but every now and then somebody will take issue with something I say on a national sports story. When I wrote my blog on Tony Dungy I fully expected it to be one of those kinds of posts.

The issue of gay athletes seems to get people riled up on both sides, and is certainly something that is going to be in the news for much of the foreseeable future.

Now, with these comments, I usually just respond with a couple of sentences in the comments section, but this particular remark, I believe, represents the beliefs of a very large group of the American sports fan population.

If you don't feel like going back and reading the comment in my Dungy blog, I have pasted it below.

"Anonymous said...

So its okay to say someone is a distraction only if they aren't gay? What about Tebow? I didn't hear near the discussion with him, just because someone says person A will be a distraction and the player also happens to be gay doesn't mean his sexual preference is the reason the coach doesn't want him, its all the media coverage that comes with it. What other seventh round draft pick would have this circus around him?"

First of all, I have no idea who posted this, but it very well could be my dad, one of my good friends, a random person from cyberspace, someone that has come to follow me through my high school sports work, or my old arch-nemesis from middle school (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!!).

Regardless, let me just say that I agree with the main point of the argument, and I don't want to put words in your mouth, commenter, but I probably will before this blog is done. Don't be offended, I'm trying to make a larger point about the differences between an openly gay pass rusher and an openly Christian Heisman Trophy winning quarterback (there are a bunch).

So, all that being said, there are similarities between the cases of Michael Sam, the reigning SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and Tim Tebow, the veteran quarterback currently working on a comeback after a year out of football. But, there are also some HUGE differences that make this a poor comparison in the grand scheme of things.

Firstly, Tebow was a first round pick after a decorated college career as, essentially, a system/option quarterback. Other guys that have done that and not become first round picks: Pretty much everybody that's ever occupied that role, but Eric Crouch, Tommy Frazier, Pat White and others jump to the top of my head. So, I would argue the popularity that later became a "distraction" gave Tebow a huge leg up initially.

Tebow arrived as a first round pick and the perceived future of the Broncos, to say that he wasn't given a shot in the league because he was a distraction just isn't accurate. Tebow was given multiple chances, and we have a track record that shows he just isn't all that good.

While did have some great moments as a starter in 2011 with Denver, his 46.5 percent completion percentage was still by far the worst in the league (2nd worst was Jacksonville rookie Blaine Gabbert at 50.8), and his 72.9 quarterback rating ranked him 28th in the league, behind such stars as Tarvaris Jackson. Kevin Kolb, Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh Freeman, Colt McCoy and the dude he replaced as a starter in Denver, Kyle Orton.

His abilities as a runner certainly helped his cause, but teams soon realized they would have to re-shape their entire offensive roster to suit a guy that led the Broncos to an 8-8 record in football's worst division.

After Denver, Tebow failed to supplant Mark Sanchez as the Jets' starter and couldn't find a role with the Patriots, getting cut before the season began, but not before selling a ton of jerseys.

I'm sorry, but if you can't beat Mark Sanchez out for a job or find a role on a team coached by Bill Belichick, I don't know what to tell you.

On the other hand, Sam is also a decorated player, sharing last season's SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award with Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. His numbers in college football's best conference, at a position that is hard to manufacture stats via "system," compare him favorably to former first round picks Jarvis Jones and David Pollack from Georgia, along with national 1st rounders like Ryan Kerrigan and Terrell Suggs from the last decade plus.

Yet he fell to the 7th round.

So, saying "which other 7th round pick would have this circus around him" isn't really fair. Based on his college production and a disappointing, but solid, NFL Combine (still largely better than the Pro Day of 2012 SEC DPOY Jarvis Jones before Pittsburgh took him in 2013's 1st round), you would project Sam as a third round pick AT WORST when compared to pass rushers that have been drafted in the last decade.

Maybe a better question is for Tebow: Which other reserve quarterback with a magical playoff moment would have this circus around him? I don't recall Jeff Hostetler or Frank Reich capturing national attention after their moments in the spotlight.

The main difference between these two is that Tebow has the potential to bring the circus to town, but he's gotten his chances and shown he's not good enough to justify it. Meanwhile, Sam's "distraction" cost him draft position and put him at a disadvantage right away, all while we don't even know how good of a pro he's going to be.

So, should teams not invite Tebow to camp because of the media distraction? That isn't fair to him, but as we saw last year, Belichick and the Patriots welcomed Tim with open arms and minimized media distractions, he just couldn't win a roster spot. His not being signed by a team right now is probably more a result of not being good enough to start, then asking to be removed from the Jets' "Wild Cat" package in 2012 and refusing to learn another position in Patriots camp or with another interested NFL team last year.

For as great as his image is, Tebow has proven to not be a valuable or even useful teammate when he isn't the primary quarterback, something nobody would have imagined after he left Denver with the arrival of Peyton Manning. Unfortunately, we've seen what the ceiling is for a team with Tebow as it's main signal caller: 8-8 to 9-7 in a weak division, with the potential to win a playoff game if you luck into one at home against a depleted team.

Remember, Tebow's camp with the Patriots was hardly a media circus, and he still hasn't been called by another team yet.

I don't think any NFL executives are saying to themselves "we can't bring in Tebow because he's too Christian or the media will converge on our training camp." They're probably thinking, "we know Tim Tebow isn't very good. We can find younger, cheaper and more flexible/coachable options in the draft."

However, the implication from Dungy was that he wouldn't draft Sam because he is gay and that things wouldn't go smoothly. Now, whether he meant things wouldn't go smoothly in the locker room or in the media, he didn't make clear, but it's troubling either way.

If he believes it will be a problem in the media, then basically, as the insufferable, but this time on point, Keith Olbermann pointed out, "Tony Dungy just admitted that Tony Dungy wouldn't be a good enough coach to deal with the distraction of doing the right thing."

Good coaches don't let these things become distractions. Andy Reid made Mike Vick's comeback a non-issue and Vick enjoyed a career renaissance in Philly, at least initially. Belichick showed everyone that the Tebow circus could be contained. Dungy is kidding himself if he thinks this would be a legitimate distraction in the media for more than a few days.

If he's speaking to things not going smoothly in the locker room, then it's a workplace discrimination issue. That is even more troubling, because then he's pretty much saying "gay people can't play in the NFL." No matter what your views are, surely you should appreciate that all legal American citizens have the right to work in a given field if they are qualified, right?

The final obvious way these two cases aren't similar is that being Christian in present-day America is in no way the same as being gay. There is this growing sentiment among Christians that they are being discriminated against because the checkout guy at Wal-Mart told them "Happy Holidays."

Like the "War on Christmas," this thinking is just ridiculous. Christianity (combining all denominations) is still by far the most popular religion in the United States, with around 73 percent of Americans polled in 2012 identifying as Christian, and 62 percent saying they belonged to a Church congregation. With around 247 million Christians, America is the "most Christian" country in the world.

Let us please stop pretending that Christians are an oppressed minority in the same way gay people are. Tim Tebow is far from the first Christian football player. In fact, as someone who grew up playing all sports, I can remember pre and post game prayers in most of them, but especially football. Christianity is a major part of the sport, from kneeling and pointing up to God after a touchdown to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings many high school football players are pressured to attend.

That's why, while these two particular players have had the "distraction" label attached to both of them, this is comparing apples to oranges. Tebow is just an extreme version of something already prevalent in football culture, while Sam is truly breaking down barriers. To deny him that because "things will happen" is absolute cowardice.

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