Jockbeat: Lord Help Tim Tebow

Categories: Featured, Jockbeat
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Florida's Tim Tebow is the best college quarterback I've ever seen.  Not the best looking, the smoothest or the most classic, but the best, as in the one I want to quarterback for my team in the big game.

His performance in Thursday night's 24-14 victory over Oklahoma in the BCS national championship game was uglier than Mickey Rourke the morning after St. Patrick's Day - he threw two interceptions in one game for the first time in his entire career and on several occasions stood in the pocket gazing at the Oklahoma defensive pass coverages looking as baffled as Sarah Palin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All of this mattered not at all when the game was on the line.  As he has done throughout his career at Florida, which now includes a second national championship ring, on the big third down plays Tebow simply forced the ball - as if through sheer will power - into the hands of the right receiver or ran it himself right into and over the outmatched Sooner defensive backs and safeties.  

That Tebow, the year after winning the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, finished third in this year's voting proves that the nation's football writers have no more idea of what "the Outstanding College Football Player in the Nation" is supposed to be than they did 30 or 40 years ago.  Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, the latest on the list of soon-to-be forgotten Heisman-winning quarterbacks - in this decade alone, we've had Florida State's Chris Weinke (2000), Oklahoma's Jason White (2003), and Ohio State's Troy Smith (2006) - benefited from a soft schedule in which he faced only two defenses all season long that were ranked as high as 37.

Tebow played against 9 of the 37 best defenses and didn't pile on the numbers against anybody, which makes his statistics meaningful. (Texas's Colt McCoy, who finished second ahead of Tebow in the voting, didn't face one of the nation's top 50 defenses all year.)

Why didn't Tim T. win his second straight Heisman Trophy when it was so obvious that he was the most qualified candidate? I think there are three reasons. First, I think most football writers, particularly those in the eastern media, are put off by his constant blather about how the Lord helped him do it all. (I am, too, though I'd rather hear someone credit Jesus than his football coach.)  The second is probably that he is so good and so obvious a front runner for next year's trophy that many think it's unfair that any player win three straight and the wealth (if our president-elect and advocate for a college playoff system will permit me) needs to be spread around.

There is also, I think, a third reason: most writers recognize quarterbacking talent only when it comes in NFL-style pocket passers, and judged by that standard, Tebow doesn't look like he's going to be a great professional player. Like former Texas great Vince Young, who led Texas to the 2005 national championship and is currently languishing on the Tennessee Titans' bench in favor of career mediocrity Kerry Collins, Tebow relies too much on his own sheer talent and has not developed an ability to decipher and out-think opposing defenses.

Tebow has often been described as "a fullback who can throw," but in modern college football, fullbacks don't run the ball very often, and in truth, at 6-4 and 235, he runs more like a very big tailback - on third-and-four he's far more likely to carry the ball himself than any other Florida runner. But you just can't make a living doing this in the NFL - there's too many linebackers willing to trade a 15-yard personal foul penalty for a chance to take out your knees.

The Tim Tebow of 1999 was quarterback Donovan McNabb, who, in his second life, is on the verge of becoming a great NFL quarterback. In his last year at Syracuse, many, including myself, thought he was the best player in college football and certainly the best athlete, and though he's had several successful seasons - the Eagles record in games he has started is 73-39, with a 7-5 postseason record a trip to the 2005 Super Bowl - he's gotten as many boos as cheers from temperamental Philadelphia fans, who have never been able to decide whether he should have running or passing more.   

In his first five years in Philadelphia, McNabb average about 450 yards rushing per season and ran for 17 touchdowns. His passing stats during those years were good but not great. It wasn't until 2004, when he stopped carrying the ball so much (a career-low 41 times) that he became a great passer with 31 TD passes against just 8 interceptions and a career-high 8.3 yards per throw.  Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the only year he had a great wideout, Terrell Owens, to throw the ball to. This season, through the first 11 games, McNabb was mediocre, throwing 400 passes, completing 58.7 percent of them with 14 TDs and 10 interceptions.  After being benched by coach Andy Reid after a terrible performance  against the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 23, McNabb has rebounded in spectacular fashion, wining five out of six games, completing 65 percent of his passes with 10 TDs against only two interceptions. The primary reason is that, at age 32, he's finally learned to use his extraordinary mobility to give his receivers time to break free instead of running the ball himself.

Here's a scary statistic which Giants fans should ponder before Sunday afternoons game:  in two games this year, New York, with one of the best pass rushes in the league, have not sacked McNabb a single time. In fact, when the Eagles best the Giants 20-24 on December 7 at the Meadowlands, the Giants defensive front four didn't hit McNabb all afternoon, and when they blitzed, McNabb burned them with a TD pass to slippery running back Brian Westbrook.  If that pattern continues to hold up this week, the Giants are likely to see their season go down in flames no matter what Eli Manning does.

Like Tim Tebow, Donovan McNabb was 6-4 and weighed over 230 pounds when left college, all the better to bowl over a 200-pound defensive back. He has now slimmed down to a svelte 212. That doesn't mean that he won't take on that defensive back if the occasion demands, but he's much more likely to stop short of the line of scrimmage and give his receiver a chance to break free, as Antonio Peirce and the other New York linebackers found out last month.  

Tebow would do well to watch McNabb play and study his transformation from a great athlete into a good quarterback.  It could mean the difference between a career in the NFL and one selling insurance in Florida.
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