The curious case of Tim Tebow
By Brady Quinn
The sporting world's most persistent water cooler argument returned to the forefront this week:
You are an NFL team desperate for a QB. What if I told you I found one? In games he's started, his team has had a winning (8-6) record. He started at quarterback for a playoff win. He's thrown 17 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions. He's athletic too, rushing for 12 touchdowns. And get this…he's clutch. Leading multiple 4th quarter comebacks. Would you be interested? Why wouldn't this be YOUR guy?
This is the paper resume NFL football fans know so well. Naturally, it's Tim Tebow.
Until this past week, Tim Tebow hasn't had a sniff from an NFL team since 2013 training camp with the New England Patriots. Chip Kelly brought Tim back into NFL headlines these week, keeping outsiders guessing by bringing in the former Heisman Trophy winner for a workout.
This time of year is always full of sleight of hand, so hearing this news brought so many questions to my mind:
Why now if you just traded for your new franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford?
How will his former New York Jet teammate, Mark Sanchez, feel after just re-signing with the team? In the past, Sanchez has publicly expressed his distaste with competing on a roster with Tebow.
How would a career 47.9% passer fit in Chip Kelly's system?
Was this a favor to Tom House (NFL quarterback guru who has worked with Tim)? Or was there genuine interest?
Tebow left Philly without a contract, but the “what ifs” are back, and hope springs eternal for this old debate. However this shakes out, it's worth exploring why Tim Tebow hasn't gotten another chance, and how things might go better now if he does.
Tim and I played together in Denver for the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Tim played three seasons in the NFL, so since I've spent more time with him in the QB room than any other NFL quarterback, I'd venture to say I know him and his game the best of any of his former teammates.
Many of these things about Tim you've already heard:
He's an extremely hard worker – always one of the last players off the practice field. Tim is a vocal leader that showed extreme passion for the game of football. He wasn't a liability off the field, rarely ever went out, and never put himself in a predicament. Tebow is a God-fearing man who wasn't afraid to share his feelings about his Lord and Savior. Again on paper, he seems to check off the all the boxes of intangibles one would want for their franchise QB. So why has Tim Tebow remained out of the NFL?
One statistic that you read above stands out and not in a good way … his completion percentage. Much has been made of Tim's throwing motion since he arrived in the NFL. Some say “he has a hitch in his delivery.” Others call it a “wind-up.” Or “he takes too big of a stride with his delivery.”
All of these could be right and a possible contributors to Tebow's struggles, yet all seem wrong as a singular issues he has when you realize that's the exact same motion that helped win two national championships and a Heisman Trophy in college. More pointedly, this is the same throwing motion that completed 67% of his passes through out his college career.
So what changed?
The football is still the same shape … oblong, just missing a couple of stripes from a college football. No-stripes can't account for a 20% drop. Field dimensions are still the same, hashes just a bit more narrow. He played with and against NFL talent playing in the SEC. Played in large and loud venues, so the stage isn't the problem either.
There is the NFL playbook … from my experience, that's the first real “new” story.
The jump from a college offensive system to an NFL system can be daunting for a young QB. The terminology is different, so essentially you are learning a new language to communicate to your teammates. What is required of the QB may be intensified mentally and physically. Mentally some NFL systems call the QB to set the run blocking assignments or the pass protection scheme, point out hot routes and sight adjustments in case of dogs or blitzes. You're expected to make “check-with-mes” or “audibles” at the line of scrimmage.
Physically, many QBs must adjust to playing from under center … a big adjustment for Tebow. This means taking 7-step drops, boots and play action pass sets that are foreign to the college game these days. In theory, adjusting physically may seem simplistic, but in reality it's a much greater hurdle to find the balance and rhythm needed to consistently master the footwork in the heat of competition. Throw this all together and the transition to the NFL is more difficult than many realize. Tim has been a pretty solid case study for that idea.
Tim didn't have the luxury to sit, learn and develop. He was thrust into playing sporadically his rookie year before starting the final three games of that season (2010). It was pretty obvious he hadn't yet absorbed the offense mentally, or made the physical adjustments in his footwork or throwing motion to adapt to the NFL game.
Over the following offseason, much was made of his work to change his release. He worked with our QB coach, offensive coordinator, quality control, myself and pretty much anyone who'd give it a shot.
Heck, even John Elway threw his hat in the ring for a while.
Fact is, it's hard to reprogram the way you throw when you've been doing it for 18 years of your life. It takes thousands and thousands of reps (10,000 if you are an “Outliers” fan) to master something, and I believe double that to change what you have already “mastered” once before. At this point in Tim's career, he had already “mastered” the way he threw a football, and no drill or lessen over the course of a couple months would change that. When all the other competitive stimuli get tossed at you in warp speed, you almost always revert back to your dominant form of training … what you've done for 18 years, not 18 weeks.
Now, it's been reported that Tom House (former pitcher, pitching coach, and NFL QB guru) has been working with Tim over the last 18 months. I can confirm this because I've worked with Tom while rehabbing my back, and ran into Tim over the course of my rehabilitation. Given the amount of time Tim has been away from game competition and the type of intensive work Tom does, I have no doubt he could have rebuilt Tim's throwing motion in that time reaching those 20,000+ reps.
But again, was that really the cause of Tim's inaccuracies in the first place? Maybe some but not all. To me, it was mental.
Our system in Denver had to be broken down in simpler form to utilize Tim's athletic ability, while also not putting too much on his plate given he lacked experience. The reads were simple: if there's a post safety, throw to this guy or run. If there are two safeties, throw to this guy or run. Things were kept simple so he could play fast and not have to deal with all the varying defensive looks NFL teams can show. That approach can get you off that ground, but it's not a long-term answer.
What became problematic was when Tim would be indecisive with which side of the field to throw based on the coverage. The hesitation led to a slower decision which led to slower footwork and a rushed throw. In my opinion, this is what caused the inaccurate passes.
The balls wobbled. His body was out of sync and out of rhythm – basically the two things Tom House stresses can't be so in order to ensure the spin of a football. It's that spin that helps greatly with accuracy.
But it wasn't just accuracy issues, it was also decision-making, as illustrated by the video linked here. These are two instances where the QB has a run play alerted prior to the snap with a directive for a pass play or alternate protection with different routes in case of an all-out blitz.
The first clip, the two-point conversion in the Miami game, should've been alerted to the pass against the obvious blitz. Tebow still ran it in and made a play.
This is the kind of thing at home that looks to the untrained eye like a great thing, but missing that simple check usually doesn't work. As Tim struggled later on, much of it was not getting away with those earlier errors.
The second clip in the video shows the play to win the game against the Jets. New York played Blitz 0 and Tim ran around safety Eric Smith who was unblocked.
Yes, Tebow made a play, but he clearly should've checked the protection and routes. The defense almost always makes that play. For a quarterback, getting away with it then gets you a SportsCenter highlight, but reinforces an awareness problem that's bound to resurface later.
In both situations, the play should've been alerted to the pass or a different protection but wasn't. But Tim did what he does best: he competed. He made a football play and scored.
We won the game.
That's the bottom line, but when you analyze the play the morning after with your coaches and teammates, you try to make corrections knowing that another team will not let you make the same mistake and get away with it. And they usually don't.
When this mistake continued to repeat itself, it became a bit alarming. But we were able to overcome this as a team in part because of Tim's late-game heroics, but also because of a top-ranked defense and a clutch kicker. This was our recipe for success until defenses adjusted to exploit Tim's weakness.
Teams started putting an extra defender in the box and playing off man coverage to stop the zone reads and play tight coverage on the outside. This forced Tim to throw into tight windows and his long release combined with indecisiveness led to either inaccurate throws or no throw at all. New England two times (once in the playoffs), Buffalo, Detroit and Kansas City all played those coverage combinations down the stretch in 2011 and came away with decisive wins against us.
These were the last games Tim got to start. He was later traded to New York Jets in 2012 to play some wildcat QB and special teams. He was then released after that season and signed by New England in 2013 for training camp. In New England, a very demanding system for quarterbacks, most of Tim's bad habits appeared to reamain, and he was released at the final roster cuts.
This brings us to today.
Time away may actually have been the best thing that could've happened to Tim based upon his particular weaknesses. Not only has he been able to work on perfecting his throwing motion without being thrust into a game, but he's also been able to learn different systems and study the game from afar. Changing flawed throwing mechanics that affect accuracy and learning to make checks and read defenses was just too much for where he was in his career.
Teams adjusted to Tim. Hopefully he's now made the adjustments in his own game as well.
I have no doubt his next opportunity to play will be better than his last and he will be better prepared. I wish him all the best in his pursuit.
But it's now a matter of if that opportunity will ever happen.
More from Football By Football: