Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Tebow experiment is inevitable

Nice of Tim Tebow to end the suspense early. But the debate on his future will continue unabated, and not just on blog posts and sports talk radio.

This debate has nothing to do with his place in college football history or fast-tracking his path to sainthood. Without taking another snap for the Gators, Tebow is already on the short list of the best to play the college game.

The commentary on his impeccable character is tiresome, but Tebow has already won a Heisman Trophy and two national championships. (If not for some very sketchy voting patterns this year, he would have two Heismans.) He could leave Gainesville next spring with two statues and three national titles, which would be unprecedented. I have no idea if he is a better college player than Doc Blanchard, but he's in the team picture.

Yet there is a far more intriguing argument on the table: Where does Tebow fit in the NFL? Does he fit in the NFL at all? I won't pretend to know the answer but I can guarantee there is no shortage of NFL executives and coaches dying to find out. And anybody who dismisses Tebow on the grounds he's just another college athlete who can't play the NFL game is on a different page from the people who will decide his football future.

In November I wrote a story about the re-emergence of single wing-based formations and plays -- a.k.a. the "Wildcat'' -- in the NFL and college football. Tebow's name kept coming up, and without provocation. Example: When I spoke with Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator (and former Miami Dolphins head coach) Cam Cameron, he was talking about playing in the NFL with a full-time single wing-style quarterback. He expressed skepticism and then added, "Maybe Tebow can do it.''

I hadn't asked him about Tebow. But he mentioned Tebow just the same. Kansas City ChiefsChan Gailey, who has been a head coach in both the NFL (Dallas Cowboys) and college (Georgia Tech), did the same thing. And so did Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who introduced Tebow into our interview by saying, "Tebow, obviously, is a special one.'' offensive coordinator

The NFL is fascinated with Tebow because he represents a potential evolutionary step in offensive professional football. (Emphasis here on potential because it's all a guessing game at this point.)

Belichick says, "To win in the NFL you have to be able to throw the ball.'' And that is unquestioned. However, the complexity and athleticism of NFL defenses challenge the passing game in such ways that smart offensive minds are constantly trying to find a means to make the quarterback a more effective and dangerous player. They all would love to find a quarterback who is a threat to pass or run on every snap. All of them.

The option game has been a staple of college football for decades, whether in the Oklahoma T-formation under Bud Wilkinson in the 1950s or the Texas and Oklahoma wishbones in the 70s or the Vince Young/Pat White zone-read option in this decade. Yet the option has never translated to the NFL on the theory that professional defenses are too fast and too physical. Option reads would be ineffective because NFL players would overwhelm it with speed. And the quarterback would get mauled.

Slowly, however, rigid old rules are loosening. There is no movement afoot to install the Air Force flexbone in the NFL, but there is absolutely an interest in using option principles to complicate defensive preparation. "Somebody, someday is going to run the option in the NFL,'' says Gailey, "and when that happens, all bets are off.''

For now, the goal is more modest. Gradually, over the past several seasons -- culminating in the Miami Wildcat -- NFL teams have experimented with direct snaps to a single wing-style tailback. (With the Dolphins, that was Ronnie Brown). This forces the defense to account for an extra player as a potential ballcarrier and reduces the number of bodies they can commit to the box.

If that player is a threat to pass, the game is fundamentally changed.

Michael Vick proved himself a dangerous runner in the NFL. But he was never a consistently accurate thrower. Likewise Vince Young, albeit with a lesser body of work. Long before either of them, Randall Cunningham and Steve Young were effective throwers and dangerous scramblers, but with few designed running plays. The truth is the NFL has never had a player who can consistently threaten defenses equally with his arm and his feet. And the NFL collectively wonders if Tebow is that guy.

As I quoted Belichick in the Dec. 1 issue of Sports Illustrated, "It's going to be very interesting to see what happens when Tebow comes into this league. There aren't many players who can run and throw.''

Yet at lower levels of the game, dual-threat quarterbacks are becoming the norm. In youth and high school games, teams are running spread offenses with zone reads and quarterback off-tackle runs. It's remarkable that Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were so successful in the NFL as rookies this year, and they are both traditional pocket quarterbacks in the mold of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. But as Belichick says, "There's a lot of interest in what you could do with a real athlete back there, like an Elway, with his ability to run the ball.''

Said Gailey in SI, "Over the next 10 or 15 years, it's going to evolve because the runner-thrower is the kind of quarterback the college game is producing now.''

Tebow is the prototype of that quarterback. At 6-foot-2½, 238 pounds, he is big, strong and relatively fast. (Not Vick fast, but not Manning slow, either). He has the girth and toughness to withstand hits, although probably not a full season's worth of NFL hits. ("Look at how short the careers are for running backs in the NFL,'' says Belichick.). As a passer, Tebow is no Ryan, but he is a far more accurate thrower than Vick or Young.

The challenge for NFL thinkers is how best to use Tebow. Can he be a full-time quarterback? (Not likely, unless he is re-made as a pocket passer). How many times can he carry the ball, making himself a threat without getting, as Belichick says, "broken in half?'' (Maybe 10 times a week? Maybe only five?). Can an NFL offense function effectively with two quarterbacks. Say, Tyler Thigpen for 40 snaps and Tim Tebow for 20? What would this do to your salary structure? Is a Super Bowl worth paying two quarterbacks NFL-starter money?

No answers here. Not yet. But know this: The questions are being asked by the people who write the checks. The Tebow Experiment is forestalled for a year, but it will absolutely take place.

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