Ideas, events, and poeple can all be revolutionary. Tony Hawk gave skateboarding wings. Could a current NFL player ground the conventions of quality? Photo by Raka 18.

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?

Tim Tebow.

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.

Tim Tebow is creating doubt in the conventions we use to evaluate a successful quarterback. Photo by Wade Rackley.

I was highly skeptical of Tim Tebow. As John Fox intimated to Jeff Darlington of 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.

12 responses to “Revolutionary”

  1. A very nice read for sure, if only for the rhetoric. A little too cagey of a perspective in my opinion, but I can understand the viewpoint. But make no mistake, it was a bit insulting to compare said revolutionaries to Tim Tebow….Tim Tebow. I understand the stage-setting nature of the lead-in, but that was a bit overboard. It was also a long-winded way of saying “we don’t know what will happen going forward…but Tim Tebow might have success while running a college offense”. And personally, I don’t think that’s exactly revolutionary. Considering the use of wildcat and other schemed offenses (looking at you Spurrier), we’ve had a fair shake of non-traditional pro-style offenses by now. Of course it’s “revolutionary” to run them essentially full-time, but as we’ve seen over the years things evolve. And until we’ve seen repeated success and potential adaptation of others….we can hardly write as if it is changing the game let alone compare to visionaries that have transcended religion, politics, or race. We’re are still talking about the NFL guys.

    Is Tim a leader? Yes, we’ve seen a grand display of how he can impact others. And we’ve also seen the impact a leader or divisive player can have on a locker room. Can he make enough plays in game to secure a win? Yes, we’ve seen it largely at the collegiate level and recently at the pro level. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not it will continue, but we need not read articles explaining that we don’t know….given its self-evident nature. Let’s just take a step back and acknowledge that for now, we’re looking at a hard working pro who’s trying to turn around a team…….a team. Tim Tebow isn’t winning those games; the Denver Broncos are. More specifically, the defense is. I hate to say it, but there are quite a few players you can put in Tim’s shoes in that offense and on that team that could do as well. Heck, Pryor might even be one of them! I won’t take away from what Tim’s accomplished thus far, as it has been a spectacle. And in a game of inches and single plays that change the makeup of the game, I won’t try and say, “if this happened or that didn’t happen”. But we must consider the nature and context of what has transpired. And while impressed thus far, we should hardly be any more enthralled than that.

    • Isn’t this the same defense that Kyle Orton played with? If you want to credit the Broncos defense you have to provide an answer for how they suddenly got better. For example, I could say that Tebow and the offense are controlling the clock through the run game and allowing the defense to stay rested. Or I could say that the lack of turnovers (especially in the 4th quarter) has given the Broncos defense more favorable starting field position. And who else does TT have on offense? Denver traded away their best WR as soon as he became the starter.

      While you claim you don’t want to take away from Tebow’s accomplishments, that is exactly what you are attempting to do.

    • Mike,

      I think you somehow missed what I think other readers caught with the list of revolutionaries that go from grand in scale to smaller in scale. I hardly think Spencer Haywood or Tony Hawk are that important, but they are revolutionaries in their field of choice. Their contributions are nowhere near those of some of the people I mentioned. However, that does not take away from the fact that the dynamics involved with how revolutions rise and the way people react to them are similar. That’s what all of these people on the list have in common. However, if you wish to read a writer say, “We don’t know what will happen going forward, but Tim Tebow might have success while running a college offense,” there are lots of sites that keep it that devoid of subtlety.

      Tim Tebow is helping his team win games. He’s a significant factor. Trying to remove him from the equation by saying he isn’t winning but the Broncos are is indeed saying “if this happened or that didn’t happen.” I completely agree with you that there are other players that could do what Tebow is doing. Just like there were other players that could have done what Jackie Robinson, Tony Hawk, Doug Williams, or any other groundbreaking athlete (regardless of the significance of scope) did. That’s the point. Tebow is possibly the right person at the right time for this change to possibly occur. It doesn’t make him the savior of football. I wonder if you’re injecting that thought into what you read rather than read it for what it is – asking the legitimate question “could Tim Tebow be a revolutionary force in the NFL?”

      Also your take of “until we see repeated success and potential adaptation,” we can hardly write as if it is changing the game,” demonstrates the point I think you missed: I didn’t say Tim Tebow was revolutionary. I said Tim Tebow might be revolutionary and it is worth asking that question. If there is something wrong with asking that question and comparing the dynamics of what’s happening with Tebow to the dynamics that seem similar with other revolutionary events then we shouldn’t question anything. I don’t want to live in that world.



  2. Great article as usual Matt. Tebow has been lucky that John Fox is his coach. Few NFL coaches are willing to adapt their offenses to the skillsets of their players. One cannot imagine a coach like Mike Shanahan doing this. But Tebow’s longterm success will depend upon John Elway. Elway, like most of the ex-NFL players in the media, believes that the game must be played in the manner in which he played it. He wants a QB in his own image. As Mark Schlereth said on ‘Mike and Mike’ this week, Tebow could win the division and a playoff game and the Broncos would still go in a different direction next year. Don’t believe it? Look at Miami and the wildcat. Miami proved that the wildcat can work in the NFL when they busted it out in 2008. They shocked the NFL and made the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Then in 2009 Miami drafted the prototype QB in Chad Henne and went back to a conventional NFL offense and haven’t made the playoffs since. The ex-player NFL media claimed that NFL defenses had “figured out” the wildcat when in fact Miami moved away from it as a dedicated offense and turned it back into a gimmick by using it only a few times a game. The wildcat worked when the Dolphins were dedicated. For every other team that had a wildcat package, it has not worked. Tebow needs the offense dedicated to his skill set. A Tebow package will not work. I believe Tebow’s longterm success will depend on the Broncos willingness to dedicate their offense to Tebow’s skills. I don’t believe Elway will allow this next year. Hopefully Broncos owner Pat Bowlen will recognize the commercial value of Tebow and allow him a fair chance to prove himself no matter how this season ends.

    • I agree Tebow was fortunate that he has a coach willing to adopt to him. There aren’t a lot of coaches wise enough to do so. However, it is strange circumstances like these that set the stage for big changes we don’t see coming. I’m skeptical the Broncos will continue with Tebow next year, too. However, what we’ve seen thus far could open the door for more of this in the future. It may not be next year, three years, for five years from now, but if we see a lot of spread offenses and the “grounding” of some them we’ll be looking back to this year.

  3. Interesting comparison between the Coleman/Tebow reaction. The more adamantly so-called ‘experts’ say that Tebow can’t be an NFL QB, the more it makes me want him to succeed. Nice post.

    • Thanks Fleek. Who knows if it happens, because he will need the opportunity of a team committing to him for more than portions of a season. However, I think experts rarely see huge shifts coming because their expertise is rooted in convention. It was fun to connect that dots between the reactions to Coleman and Tebow. In a weird way, the focus on Coleman’s plastic saxophone or Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet is similar to the focus on Tebow’s expression of his spiritual beliefs.

  4. I really don’t think Fox should be getting any credit for Tebow to be in a position to succeed. If you want to give him credit for playing him, that’s fine. But this offense they are running is a joke. They go 3 and out constantly until the 4th quarter when Tebow is allowed to freelance and make plays with his arms and legs. The end of the San Diego game, the end of the Miami game, and the end of the Jets game are when Tebow has moved the ball. He had some big running plays against Oakland, but that was the first time they read the read option and Oakland looked lost. Kansas City and the Jets easily defended it. You can run a spread offense with him, but you can’t run the ball 80% of the time in the NFL. It is too easy to defend. The best way to use Tebow would be the way the Eagles used Randall under Buddy Ryan. Let him run around and make plays. He is so much more comfortable when he is given that freedom. Elway recently commented about the team’s struggles on 3rd down. Thats because they get in 3rd and long constantly from running up the middle twice. Then on 3rd down they run again or throw a screen. Its so predictable. Then Fox gets to say he put Tebow in a position to succeed (the spread with the read option as the base play), but he really doesn’t.

    • I agree, Bob. We have sat in watched in disbelief the play calling for 50 minutes…usually, Tebow has some freedom in the first drive, then it is up the middle for the next 50 minutes…it is as if they actually did not want him to almost pull out a win against SD, just wanted to show the die hard fans he cannot win. But, since he made it interesting, they had to stick with him (looked like Fox was not happy in the Miami game with the improvising). Then, the same kind of play calling seemed to occur (the worst being when they did force him to try and be a pocket passer against Detroit) but in every game since (minus Oakland, as you point out). It just seems like Fox wants to prove to the fans that Tebow cannot play as QB (in KC, look at the few pass plays they did call…the long ball for a guy that critics claim cannot throw???) so they can cut him loose without losing those fans or looking like the bad guys. I also find it frustrating that the experts give other rookie or 2nd year QBs a lot more slack (Cam Newton and the 2-8 Panthers, anyone) for poor play/decisions/throws…it is as if they expect Tebow to a 10 year QB in the here and now versus allowing him to continue to improve. Well, I do hope he proves them (especially some of the local press here in Denver that seem to really dislike him…Alan Roach seethes snarkiness whenever he reports on Tebow) wrong. Great article!

  5. Thanks, Matt–

    That was worth it for the jazz retrospective alone.

    I’ve always felt that there are technicians and there are artists in any field, sports is no exception. Duplicating the artist is the logical progression of the technician. (I happen to think that Tarkenton/Montana were the artists that led to the technicians of Brady and Rodgers.) But true innovation comes when a new artist arrives and changes the game to fit him, rather changes himself to fit the game.

    I don’t like Tebow. For personal/spiritual reasons. However, I can see him possibly being one of these artists who might be changing the game to meet him.

  6. […] Above the waist mechanics are more difficult. I don’t have a scientific explanation for it, but it seems human beings have an easier time developing muscle memory for footwork than mechanical arm movements – or, at least in this sport. Poor arm mechanics can impact accuracy, the height and speed of the release of the ball, and to some extent the velocity of the throw. This is one of several reasons why Tim Tebow’s ongoing development is under such scrutiny. […]

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