Photo by Chris Schneider of the Associated Press.
Since he emerged as the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow has become the dominant storyline of this year’s NFL season. It’s a story that has been analyzed from a number of different angles, ranging from Tebow’s abilities as a quarterback, to his personal faith, to whether or not God cares about football games, to the relationship between Tebow and Broncos General Manager John Elway.
One angle that hasn’t been discussed as much is the assumption made by many NFL experts and fans that the quarterback position can only be played successfully a certain way in the NFL, and that because Tebow doesn’t fit into that mold, he is by definition a bad quarterback.
I think it’s a close-minded and somewhat arrogant perspective that needs a closer look. To put it another way, if the only way to successfully play quarterback is to do it like Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers does it—using pinpoint throwing accuracy to sling the ball all over the field to multiple receivers and amassing tons of passing yards along the way—then Tebow clearly isn’t successful. But is that the only way a quarterback can succeed?
Well, I think if you consider all levels of play, the answer is clearly, "no".
First, looking at kids playing football (whether you reflect back to your days of playground football or whether you’re watching an organized Peewee game), you see a fairly common theme: the quarterback is a kid who can usually throw the ball well, but he’s almost always the kid who is athletic enough to beat the pass rush and scramble for long runs. Moving on to junior high and even smaller high school football, it’s unusual to have a heavy pass offense—instead, the running game is the focus, and usually involves a lot of quarterback option play.
Now, it is true that as you move up in skill level (peewee to junior high, to small high school ball, to larger high school ball, to college, to the pros), you tend to find more of an emphasis on passing and the quarterback becomes more of a specialized skill position rather than just the stud athlete on the field who runs around and/or over everyone. But even at the highest levels of college play, there are notable exceptions.
When Tim Tebow broke into the college game at Florida, he started off by sharing quarterback duties with Chris Leak. Tebow came in almost exclusively to run the ball (or throw the jump pass!) while Leak was the more traditional QB, and the tandem combined to lead the Gators to the 2006 National Championship. The general thinking at the time was that, despite his success as a freshman, Tebow would struggle to make the adjustment when the full quarterback responsibilities fell on his shoulders, but everyone knows what happened: Tebow went on to have one of the greatest careers in college history, leading Florida to another National Championship in 2008, and also winning a Heisman Trophy (though I still think he shouldn’t have won the Heisman).
But still, despite the previous success of Tebow, you still had the overwhelming majority of scouts and observers saying that he couldn’t be successful in the NFL, and as I mentioned above, if the measure of success is putting up statistics like Aaron Rodgers, then Tebow hasn’t been a success. But if success for a quarterback is measured by the ability to make plays, move the offense down the field, and win games, it’s hard to completely discount what he’s done this season, regardless of his pass completion rate.
Ultimately, I don’t know if Tebow will have a successful career in the NFL or if his recent success is just a flash in the pan. What I do know is that the traditional NFL-Quarterbacks-Must-Play-In-A-Specific-Way perspective needs to be reexamined. Because regardless of what happens with Tebow himself, a quarterback like Tebow, who is smart enough to read defenses, athletic and strong enough to make plays with his legs, and good enough with his arm to catch defenses off guard will enjoy prolonged success in the NFL someday.
And who knows—it may start next year in Denver.