October 13, 2009
Tebow gazing from the proprietor of Tim Teblog.
Maybe it was the concussion, or the resulting caution in the gameplan, or just old-fashioned conservatism opposite a strong defense. Whatever the reason, we were introduced to a new Tim Tebow on Saturday night.
We've seen Tebow as Superman We've seen him as bulldozer, as cheerleader, as preacher, as target of the paparazzi. As mohel. Now, courtesy Florida's defensively-driven, 13-3 win over LSU, meet Tim Tebow as ... Trent Dilfer.
Dilfer, of course, became the archetype of the quarterback as "game manager" during the 2000 NFL season, when the career mediocrity followed the lead of the best-of-all-time Ravens defense to a Super Bowl title. Now, he's "Trent Dilfer, Super Bowl-winning QB." (How does your ring look, Dan Marino?) Along the way, though, "game manager" became a pejorative for quarterbacks -- as if playmaking efficiency or adapting to a team's alternative strengths was a bad thing. (Presumably, the opposite of the "game manager" is the "gunslinger" -- the high-risk, high-reward QB who loses at least as many big games as he wins.)
Which brings us to the latest iteration of Tebow. Through the first six weeks of the season, Tebow commanded all of the attention directed at this Florida team: Can Tebow lead them to a back-to-back title, a third title in four years? Is he the greatest college football player of all time?
Then the concussion, the doctors, the practice watch. Yada yada yada ... Tebow re-emerges under the lights in Baton Rouge as the second coming of Craig Krenzel. He completed a high percentage of a handful of passes, but only one a game-breaker, and even then, thanks mainly to receiver Riley Cooper's wily route-running. Tebow ran 17 times, but at barely more than two yards per carry; in fact, the real story of Florida's running game was the emergence of the workmanlike Emmanuel Moody as a viable alternative to Tebow on short-yardage downs.
Tebow shied away from contact, at least in the first half. He looked tentative -- he would later label that playing "smart," and it was a prerequisite to getting past the docs and into the game. He played -- proverbially -- within himself ... if his "self" was suddenly half the size, the strength, the talent. But twice the savvy.
In between cringing moments every time Tebow hit the line, I actually found myself liking this version of Tebow at least as much as the classic "Tebow Smash!" edition. Whether from the play-calling from coaches or his own decision-making, he was letting the talent around him carry more of the load -- and they proved they could handle it. Hopefully, he showed himself that he doesn't have to rumble his body into an oncoming tackler to prove he has imposed his will -- he can simply keep winning games. (See the advice Tebow said he received personally from Steve Young -- another lefty scrambler who was no stranger to concussions -- about not "pushing it.")
Last week, I said Florida could beat LSU without Tebow. As good as LSU's defense might have been, there are probably 50 quarterbacks in Division 1-A -- including Tebow's backup, John Brantley -- who could have led Florida's offense to the more than the three points necessary to beat the Tigers Saturday night.
And thus, we come to Tebow as Dilfer. Tebow as Krenzel. Tebow, most ironically of all, as former Florida game-managing (and title-winning) QB, Chris Leak. Like those Ravens, or the 2002 Buckeyes or the 2006 Gators, Florida's chart-topping defense is so good that the onus is on the offense -- even with a healthy Tebow -- to simply do enough. At this point, that means scoring more than the half-dozen points per game that Florida's defense is allowing.
It's not like Florida's offense is weak. As displayed Saturday night, the running backs -- particularly Jeff Demps and Moody -- are terrific. Aaron Hernandez is the best tight end in the country. The O-line held off LSU's front. And, of course, there's Tebow -- perhaps no longer a "20/20" threat, but still the number to call on third and short, and still the leader of the team.
In an ironic way, this was the only thing missing from Tebow's resume. In 2006, he was a freshman phenomenon off the bench. In 2007, he was a stat-stuffing Heisman winner. In 2008, he was the unquestioned leader of a national champion.
In 2009, in part due to the circumstances of Tebow's health and in part due to what we saw in the way Tennessee defended the Gators even before the concussion, Florida's season -- and Tebow's legacy -- will be defined by riding the best defense in college football, still stocked with all but one member (dismissed defensive tackle Torrey Davis) who helped shut down high-flying Oklahoma in January.
Tebow will have big games again -- few defenses are as good as LSU's, especially on a Saturday night in Baton Rouge. But Tebow doesn't need to have big games. He needs to have OK, turnover-free games, with those handful of signature "Tebow moments," where he pushes the pile for a key first down or turns his one-man play-action feint into a long touchdown pass or merely screams encouragement at his teammates. With this defense, that will be more than enough.