Sunday, January 03, 2010

A View From Abroad -- Florida Is Abroad

Happy Belated New Year! This correspondent has returned from a holiday week family vacation in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Sportswise, this resort community has a passel of outstanding golf courses, and is the headquarters of the PGA Tour and the ATP tennis tour. As you might guess, it's not exactly a hotbed of high school basketball.

Ponte Vedra is, however, the home town of Tim Tebow, who is the resident's overriding sports interest. I mean, if you fans in Boston are sick of hearing Tebow praised to the skies every time you turn on a college football game, don't, whatever else you do, get on a plane to Jacksonville. In a total of six dinners out, five were dominated by locals either blathering on about Tebow's contributions to Gator greatness and the progress of humanity at large, not necessarily in that order, or, more ominously for me, grilling the damn Yankee former sportswriter on Tebow's future in the NFL.

Fortunately, I was able to escape being beaned by a creme brulee through judicious equivocation. Tebow's ability is a subject of intense debate within the NFL itself, of course, as evidenced by the split between Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls as a coach and thinks Tebow will never make it as a pro, and Troy Aikman, the quarterback who's one of the two big reasons Johnson won those Super Bowls, who thinks Tebow can be a star. Indeed, the argument over Tebow's future is the most if not only interesting feature of his college career, which is otherwise tediously perfect (FWIW, Ponte Vedra is a small, gossipy town, and if there are cracks in Tebow's Christian humility, nobody's seen any).

As an intellectual football issue, Tebow is a classic. He is a phenomenal college quarterback, an obviously great player who just as obviously doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to any of the great PRO quarterbacks past and present. Tebow's running ability from the spread offense is his moast visible strength. Deep down, every NFL coach and executive hates running quarterbacks. They see all that money putting itself in danger. He has a strong, accurate passing arm -- and a throwing motion built for strip sacks and interceptions.

Worst of all, Tebow's primary ability is a QB is invisible, except on the scoreboard. He was the leader of a college team that won almost every game it played for three years. How much of that was his doing, and how much that of the other guys in Florida uniforms? That's a literal football philosophy question, one that many NFL folks would rather not ever consider.

As a top draft pick or potential long-term starting quarterback, Tebow is a capital R Risk. He'd require a creative coaching staff and imaginative front office willing to adapt its talent-seeking to his skills. This eliminates about 90 percent of the league's 32 franchises as good homes for this oddly unemployable superstar. Put Tebow on the Redskins, he'll flop, guaranteed. Hell, put Tom Brady on the Redskins, he'd have been cut in training camp in 2000.

I'm no philosopher, but I'll take a position. Tebow's a football player. He'll win games for you, one or another -- if you're smart enough to figure out those ways in advance.

I note that Brian Billick, Super Bowl winning coach, is a Tebow detractor. Billick once thought Kyle Boller was a quarterback of the future. I note that Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick, also Super Bowl winning coaches, are in Tebow's corner (Belichick less vocally, since he's in a position to put Tebow in HIS corner). I know in whose camp I'd rather stand.

Not so long ago, every team had a feature running back who got 95 percent of the team's carries. Nowadays, this is rare. It is acknowledged that such workloads simply end player careers by age 28 or so. Even Adrian Peterson gets replaced on 20 percent or more of the Vikings' plays by Chester Taylor. Kevin Faulk may play till he's 40, because he has skills which serve the Pats in good stead five or six times a game.

In my opinion, the position of quarterback is undergoing a similar evolution. The very concept of "franchise quarterback" is becoming obsolete -- unless a team's starter is a certified Pro Bowl or Hall of Fame talent -- a Brady, a Rivers, a Peyton Manning. The use of the spread by so many high school and college teams means that ALL the players of the future, not just quarterbacks, will be accustomed to that formation. It's inevitable it'll be used in the pros, too. The Wildcat is just the tip of that iceberg. Teams will have two basic offenses, their regular pro sets, and the spread set. That means they'll need two different guys to take the center snaps, the regular QB, and the spread runner.

Since Tebow is, by acclamation, the best spread quarterback to date, there would seem to be considerable reward for the franchise willing to embrace the future and make him their spread specialist. Football is a game of specialists. Why not invent another one?

We even have our first test results on my theorem. Bit by bit, Michael Vick is contributing more to the Eagles offense, with no apparent detriment to Donovan McNabb's performance. If Andy Reid, Mr. Conventional West Coast Offense, can adapt to the idea of two quarterbacks, any smart coach can.

Summing up, Tebow will prosper in the NFL to the extent he is allowed to do so. He may not be a high draft choice, because teams don't like to shell out big bucks for specialists. But in the right fit (and New England would be PERFECT), Tebow will be a productive and long-lived pro.

What is Tebow but a bigger Doug Flutie? Flutie was an unconventional quarterback chock-full of intangibles who also had a glaring weakness, a worse one than Tebow's actually. Doug was never an accurate passer. Flutie was with a lot of poor fits in the start of his pro career, and he had to go to Canada to become a superstar, then come back to an NFL job.

Flutie did, however, play till he was almost 40. Hard to call that professional failure.


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