Like most American males, my grade-school gym classes were regularly filled with games of dodge ball. Because being scrawny and nearsighted are not the ideal tools for a world-class athlete, the smart decision would have been for me to intentionally take an early hit and watch my classmates fight it out from the safety of the sidelines. But I was competitive and wanted my team to succeed, so I mostly hung out in the back, hiding behind my bigger teammates as they did all the dirty work. On those occasions when I did get the ball, the toughest kids on the other team would all move closer to the line, daring me to throw at them. More often than not, my throw would be caught. Other times the ball would be so badly thrown that I completely miss the target from ten feet away. But once in a while, usually by luck, I could put the ball in the right spot to glance off their bodies and I would run back to safety as my vanquished foe embarrassingly sulked to the bleachers.
I had long since repressed those traumatic memories, but they were dislodged in the wake of the Denver Broncos’ victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card game. As with me in dodge ball, no one gave Tim Tebow a chance against Pittsburgh’s famously punishing defense, as drawn up by their legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau. But as it was pointed out all last week, the Steelers’ repeatedly stacked the box with both safeties, leaving no deep coverage. While this was largely effective in stopping Denver’s excellent running game, it also left Pittsburgh’s secondary vulnerable for Denver to turn play action mid-range passes into big plays, which is exactly what happened on the first, and last, play of overtime.
Contrast that with the run of improbable come-from-behind victories Tebow during the regular season. In those games, the Broncos’ opponents followed the traditional method of protecting a late lead, which adds cornerbacks to prevent the receivers from going out of bounds and stopping the clock, and places the safeties higher up the field than usual to prevent a big play. You can give up yardage as long as they don’t get behind you and the clock keeps moving. This made no sense because Tebow is unlikely to have consistent success throwing deep. But over-the-middle passes to a wide-open receiver with room to run? No problem. This is why Tebow could look horrible for three-and-a-half quarters and look like a world-beater in the game’s late stages.
This Saturday, Tebow Time came to a crashing halt, as it did in the regular season, against the New England Patriots, whose defense this year has been a shell of what it was during their rise to greatness a decade ago. But Bill Belichick is no idiot, and his defensive scheme played into Tebow’s greatest weakness. Fifteen of the Broncos’ plays in their 45-10 loss to the Patriots went for negative yardage. What looked like repeated breakdowns of Denver’s offensive line was more likely the result of Tebow’s inability to recognize the Pats’ disguises and adjust the protection at the line of scrimmage. The Patriots showed him respect, but no mercy, proving for the second time this season that God’s favorite quarterback is no match for Satan’s favorite coach.*
If nothing else, Tebow has been fascinating to watch because he’s challenged football’s conventional wisdom about running a college offense in the National Football League. Now that there’s a significant amount of game film on what he can and do, we’ll all be watching next season to see both how teams prepare for him and how he adjust. But with his first year as a starter in the books, there is no metric that suggests that Tebow is even an NFL-caliber backup quarterback, no less a starter. His fans may point to his 7-4 record as proof that he has the intangibles of a winner, but New York Jets fans were saying the same about Mark Sanchez a year ago, and now they want to run him out of town. There’s a fine line between “poise” and “big loser.”
The beauty (or pain, depending on who you root for) of the NFL is that its parity-driven structure means that the difference between winning and losing can sometimes be the result of fluke plays. If, say, a botched snap, a wrong call by the officials, and an “immaculate reception” goes your way in a season, an otherwise 8-8 team that misses the wild card turns into 11-5 and a possible first-round bye. For example, if, in the Broncos’ 13-10 overtime win against the Chicago Bears, Marion Barber doesn’t make two Marion Barber-like mistakes, the Broncos finish 7-9, miss the playoffs, and there is no talk of divine intervention helping Tebow. If Tebow is to succeed, it should be because he realizes he was very lucky and remains dedicated to quickly improving his craft. As a neutral who enjoys watching good football, I want him to do well, but that doesn’t mean I want him anywhere near my beloved New York Giants.
Speaking of which, perhaps Tim Tebow would be well served by looking closely at Eli Manning’s career. Like Tebow, his critics have suggested he’s had a sense of undeserved sense of destiny throughout his career (due to his father and brother), and whose greatest career achievement to date was more the result of a strong defense and a bit of luck than his own ability.
But beneath his goofy exterior and a persona that rivals Derek Jeter for blandness is a competitive streak, intelligence, and self-confidence that is, well, Jeter-esque. Out of character, he made headlines in the pre-season for suggesting that he should be considered among the league’s elite. That those words came after a 2010 season where he led the league in interceptions and the New York Giants failed to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year made him the subject of ridicule. It didn’t help that the off-season that saw him lose two of his favorite targets (Steve Smith and Kevin Boss) and two linemen (Shaun O’Hara and Rich Seubert).
Manning responded by proving the doubters wrong, throwing for a Giants single-season record of 4,933 yards, with nine fewer interceptions. Like Tebow, he specialized in late-game heroics, setting an NFL single-season record 15 touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. Similarly, many of those wins were also the result of Manning’s ability to pick apart a prevent defense.
The difference is that, for much of the season, Manning carried the Giants on his back, his right arm keeping them in nearly every game as their usually powerful running game stalled and their weak secondary was picked apart by Manning’s opposite quarterback. Manning also improved as the games went on because he’s become very adept at reading defenses at the line of scrimmage and making quick decisions. Tebow, on the other hand, too often relied on his defense to keep the games close so that he could pull out those clutch victories.
The truest measure of Manning’s improved leadership isn’t that he orchestrated those comebacks, but in how he has dealt with those off-season transactions. The rebuilt offensive line struggled early, but Manning became more adept at throwing the ball away where in previous years he would have taken a sack, or worse, made a dumb throw that resulted in an interception. At tight end, rookie Jake Ballard, who rarely ran routes at Ohio State, turned in Kevin Boss-like numbers, while Smith’s replacement, Victor Cruz, a virtual rookie (he was injured for most of his first year) who was undrafted, showed big-time playmaking skills as he salsa-danced his way to a Giants-record 1,536 yards with nine touchdowns.
It’s unfair to compare Tim Tebow to Eli Manning, just as it has always been wrong to compare Eli to his Hall Of Fame-bound brother. They’re all at different stages in their careers and in different systems. But like Eli Manning in his first few years, Tebow is young and driven to become the best he can be. Proper coaching, both on the field and in the film room, could correct his deficiencies (and it helps to have John Elway right there to guide him along and maybe fix some of the flaws in his delivery). A veteran backup who’s not Brady Quinn would also be good. But that’s of little consolation to Denver fans today as they head into a long off-season.
* For the record, I care precious little about Tebow’s religious or political beliefs as they relate to his ability. I made that cheap joke mainly because it also takes out Belichick. Many athletes in all sports openly display their faith and they’re not used as a lightning rod in the national shouting match about religion. That said, Tebow’s eye black and alignment with Focus On The Family make him fair game. In the name of discourse, please keep all discussion of Tebow’s faith out of the comments for this post.