Saturday, January 10, 2009

Busman's Tailgate

As part of its highly successful effort to show as little of the actual Florida-Oklahoma game as possible on its broadcast Thursday night, Fox treated us to several shots of a group in one of Dolphin Stadium's luxury suites. The well-heeled posse included Bob and Myra Kraft, and Bill Belichick and his, uh, date.

My first thought was that this was another example of the brainpower that has made New England the premier franchise in the NFL. By attending the game, the Pats' owner and coach were able to escape the worst produced and announced sports telecast in history-and got free shrimp in the bargain.

My second thought was here is another example of a sports phenomenon that receives too little attention. Most important people in the world of games are also big sports fans. Belichick spends almost every waking moment thinking about his football team. For recreation, he likes to watch other sports teams. Yes, the Pats' coach is a driven man. But hidden fandom is a characteristic he shares with almost all coaches and players in all sports.

Walk into a major league clubhouse of a Sunday afternoon, and if half the team isn't watching NASCAR on the flatscreen, they're watching the PGA Tour. Walk into the men's locker room of a country club hosting a Tour tourney, and the world's best golfers are usually arguing about college football. On their infrequent weekends off, NASCAR drivers like to fly to Europe to catch Formula One races.

Curt Schilling gets heat for his habit of calling into sports talk radio programs and his blog. This is somewhat unfair. Schilling is only taking jock fandom to its logical end point-fan insanity. Everyone knows Curt's emotions come without the circuit-breaker of prudence.

My third thoughts about the Pats' little family excursion concerned Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow may or may not turn pro now that Florida won its second BCS in his three years there. He should do so out of self-defense. One more season of hearing announcers describe Tebow as a combination of Joe Montana and Mother Teresa, and football fans are going to react to his name with the same shudder they give Brett Favre. It took 20 years for fans to take the constant Favre hype and turn it into undeserved but understandable hatred. In three seasons, Tebow is damn near the point of no return, where he is constantly ridiculed because of the ridiculous statements of others.

But I digress. The reason the sight of the Pats' brain trust made me think of Tebow is that it reminded me Belichick is very much a contrarian thinker on Tebow's future in the NFL. Conventional wisdom has it that Tebow, who has dominated college ball, has at best a marginal chance of becoming a starting quarterback in pro ball. That's a harsh judgment, especially if one considers the names Tavaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen, Jamarcus Russell, and, well, you get the idea.

Tebow is unique. He's a quarterback/power runner. When Tebow takes off out of the spread formation, he's not seeking to turn the edge with speed. He bulldozes up the middle and off tackle in a passable impression of Earl Campbell. This causes many to worry that pro quarterback Tebow would end up in a Wile E. Coyote full body cast, with only his eyes and the tip of his nose visible, sometime during his second exhibition start. I share this fear.

Scouts also worry that despite Tebow's ludicrously good passing stats, his arm and form are not up to NFL snuff. The two wretched interceptions he threw against Oklahoma indicate this worry is not without cause.

So all in all, the NFL consensus is that Tebow will not be a high draft pick, and might not be a quarterback at all. Better to stick with a traditional model passer. This conventional wisdom is very good news for Matt Cassel's bank account.

Belichick sees Tebow differently. He is on record admiring the kid's abilities. The coach views Tebow as a player whose skills have helped Florida win many games and consist of a skill set that doesn't come along every day. Therefore, Belichick reasons, a well-managed and intelligent football team ought to be able to figure out ways Tebow can help it win games playing the position he's played his whole life-plus a few wrinkles.

That doesn't mean the Pats will ever draft Tebow. It's just an example of how Belichick's mind works. The coach looks at players in terms of their strengths first, and regards his job as finding ways to employ those strengths to best advantage. In fact, Belichick seems to regard that as the funnest part of his grinding job.

Note the absence of negative thinking in that mindset. I'm in no position to know, but I'd bet good money Pats' game planning never spends much time on hiding weaknesses. That's energy better spent designing means of using strengths to such effect that weaknesses are irrelevant.

Conventional wisdom is not always stupid. Picking the wrong quarterback can wreck a franchise for half a decade minimum, and for every Manning, there's a dozen Leafs, Couches, and Alkili Smiths. But conventional wisdom always runs towards the mean. Never deviate from NFL thinking, and your franchise is headed for 8-8.

I have no idea if Tim Tebow will make it in the NFL. I just know that when Belichick likes a player, especially a quarterback, it's best to pay attention. When Cassel reported to rookie camp in 2005, it was treated as sort of a joke. The Pats picked a college backup to be Tom Brady's backup, ha-ha. Cassel himself thought it was somewhat weird.

And I wish Pats fans could have attended the 2000 rookie camp, Belichick's first with the team. You have never seen a quarterback look less prepared to become a professional football player than did Tom Brady. Drill after dismal drill, Belichick saw something in the rookie's performance others didn't.

Tebow's resume speaks for itself. It has one man's reference on it that speaks to me.


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