We fear what we don’t understand. And what we do understand is often rooted in the past. Statistics are a record of the past. Conventional thinking is also rooted in the past. But what is conventional today was revolutionary yesterday. And what was revolutionary yesterday was often met with skepticism, fear, and scorn.
The round earth theory was revolutionary. Democracy was revolutionary. Civil rights is (unfortunately still) revolutionary.
People and what they create is revolutionary. Aung San Suu Kyi and Wael Ghonim. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Esther Duflo, and Felisa Wolfe-Simon. Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. All revolutionaries.
Athletes also embody revolutionary concepts: Tony Hawk turned a child’s mode of transportation into an acrobat’s medium. Martina Navratilova dominated women’s tennis while changing the visual and sexual perception of what a female athlete can be. Spencer Haywood proved a college resume wasn’t necessary to hang in the NBA. Jack Johnson held the most meaningful title in the sports world and did everything to live life on his terms before Civil Rights was around to enforce it.
Do you know who else just might be revolutionary?
The Broncos quarterback is winning football games and doing so without the conventional pocket passing skills that the NFL believes makes a successful signal caller. He’s turning the notion of what makes a good quarterback and offense on its ear. And as its happening, we’re seeing the typically divisive reaction from people witnessing what could potentially be a revolutionary event in the NFL.
I’m grateful for my skepticism. It’s what reinforces the critical thinking required for the process of evaluating skill. Skepticism is the state of mind that tells us that we need to see proof before we believe that something can be done. I try to grade players based on the skill sets that NFL organizations have used to determine success at each position. When I come across a prospect that lacks techniques that have been deemed fundamental to playing the position as a pro, I am immediately skeptical of that player’s chance to be successful.
I was highly skeptical of Tim Tebow. As John Fox intimated to Jeff Darlington of NFL.com last week, I thought Tebow would fail as a pocket passer unless he could revamp all of his mechanics and enhance his pocket presence. This renovation of his game is something I have been even more skeptical of him doing successfully. It didn’t even occur to me that an NFL team would seriously consider molding its offense to what Tebow did best. Therefore, selecting Tebow in the first round seemed like an incredibly foolish decision.
But the Broncos are tailoring its offense to Tebow and my skepticism is waning. This is because Tebow and the Broncos are beginning to prove the skills its quarterback needed in a traditional NFL offense are no longer necessary for success. And if this continues it will ruin many of the conventions and systems used to determine the success of a quarterback in today’s NFL and NFL media.
Quarterback rating, passing yards, completion percentage, and yards per attempt will not apply. This scares some writers and analysts because that lamp post they are leaning against is being uprooted and they’re being told to sober up or get off the street. When Tebow led his offense on a 95-yard, fourth-quarter game winning drive against the Jets some of our analysts rooted in the convention of stats claimed Tebow didn’t win the game against the Jets; the Jets defense made poor plays.
Granted, this is a valid argument for one game or a series of plays in a quarter of one game. However, when you consider Tebow’s win-loss record it’s like saying that Adrian Peterson didn’t gain 1298 yards last season; hundreds of defensive players simply did a poor job of tackling him. Or Randy Moss wasn’t one of the most dangerous vertical receivers in the history of the NFL; defensive backs made poor decisions to allow Moss to get behind him. Or Marshawn Lynch didn’t fake Ray Lewis out of his jock last weekend; Lewis made a poor decision on his angle to the Seahawks runner.
You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!
You got your peanut better in my chocolate!
Put the drink down and step away from the lamp post. It’s a Reese’s either way you look at it. This is what more open-minded people are beginning to realize about Tebow. Michael Irvin for example, whom Greg Cosell praised for his knowledge of the game, is beginning to count himself among the converted.
Meanwhile, Steve Young, who was forced to become a disciplined pocket passer despite terrific running skills, is still struggling with the idea that Tebow can succeed in the NFL without overhauling his game. Young thinks Tebow should be insulted by John Fox’s comments that the second-year quarterback would be screwed if he had to run a traditional NFL offense. Steve Young’s frame of reference, and ego, is attached to pocket passing.
Young was a great quarterback and his analysis of the conventional aspects of quarterbacking are excellent. He’s a great resource on television, especially when ESPN gets out of its own way and allows him to really expound on the craft of the position. But if Tebow continues to win and the Broncos somehow have long-term success with him, Young will not have any greater expertise to offer about what Tim Tebow is doing than anyone else.
I think Tebow is winning because he’s a physically punishing athlete with great leadership qualities on the field. He’s built like a linebacker, runs like a ‘tweener FB/HB, and he throws just well enough to make some plays in the passing game. But just as important, he believes in himself, in his teammates, and he has the confidence to show it in ways that break down the barriers of his team and rallies them together.
Analysts clinging to the stats lamp post are beginning to feel their world spinning at the mention of “soft skills” over “hard data.” But performance in a sport or an art is about connecting with people. When you’re in the audience of a concert, you’re waiting to hear the musician(s) do something that breaks down your barriers and inhibitions that will get you absorbed in the moment. When you’re watching, listening, or reading fiction you’re expecting the story to make it easy for you to suspend disbelief and absorb you in its moments.
When you’re a ball carrier on the football field your goal is to connect with an opponent either with an intensity that it knocks the opponent down or through the creation of a suspension of disbelief that is so convincing, the opponent falls for the illusion. Tebow’s intensity and desire not to lose helps his teammates suspend disbelief and play with greater focus and intensity on the task at hand. This may sound hokey to some, but DeSean Jackson hasn’t played with focus and intensity because he’s been worried about his pay day. We never questioned the greatness of Brett Favre’s Monday Night Football performance against the Raiders the weekend after his father died because we all inherently understood how difficult it would be for a person to suspend disbelief and play in the moment in such a situation.
I don’t know if Tim Tebow can continue to win games in the NFL. I don’t know if Tebow will have long-term success. But I no longer know if it’s true that a quarterback must play well from the pocket to win in the NFL. The fact that Tebow is casting doubt on that long-held convention is quite possibly revolutionary.
If Tom Brady is the NFL’s Miles Davis, Tim Tebow might just be its Ornette Coleman. The reactions to Coleman’s music parallels the divisiveness we’re seeing in the NFL with Tebow.