January 28, 2010
Despite the rough start, Tim Tebow's NFL audition at this week's Senior Bowl proceedings hasn't been a total disaster -- today's practice, in fact, was pretty clearly his best after four days in Mobile. With an army of skeptics already out in force, though, he couldn't afford to just keep his feet; he needed a knockout that hasn't come. Given their biases coming into the week, no matter what kind of counterpunch Tebow throws from this point, the first impression seems to have several scouts more convinced than ever that it's never going to come:
The NFL people seem to see what everyone else in Mobile has seen, and it is not what the legions of Gator fans who've attended these workouts want to hear.
"I actually don't think he's that hard to evaluate at all," said a high-ranking college scout for an NFC team. "To me, he's just not a very good quarterback prospect. Now, if you want to rework his mechanics, his release, try to improve his accuracy, then you see a guy with this big frame that can throw.
"He's a big-time project, no doubt."
"He can't play quarterback in the NFL, I'm convinced of it," ESPN director of college scouting Todd McShay said. "From his delivery to his footwork to his accuracy, you have to absolutely strip him down and build him back up. And it's too late."
Bold words from the former quarterback of Swampscott High, and this time last year, I'd have been up for arguing with him. I've always been skeptical of the over-the-top Tebow love, but as a college fan, the suggestion that Tebow's success was some kind of mirage, that he hadn't more than earned his "phenomenon" status through his first two seasons as a starter, was almost offensive. He'd obliterated the rest of the SEC, where he finished among the top four nationally as a passer in pass efficiency, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage both years, and Florida led the conference in scoring at more than 42 points per game in both years. He was at his best in the Gators' biggest games as a junior, leading blowout wins over Georgia, LSU and Tennessee and taking UF on fourth-quarter touchdown drives to beat No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship game and then No. 1 Oklahoma in the BCS title game. In 27 starts, he was never "shut down," by anyone -- the Gators scored at least 24 points in four of their five losses in that span, with Tebow accounting for 15 total touchdowns in those efforts. With that kind of consistent production at the highest amateur level, how could anyone not expect a player with his talent and temperament to evolve into a competent pro?
Now, not so much. It's harder to defend Tebow's inherent excellence after his senior season, when the hype clearly exceeded the reality for the first time. In the big picture, Florida still led the SEC in scoring and ran the table into the SEC Championship, and Tebow himself finished as the most efficient passer in the nation. Focus a little harder, though, and there was no comparison between senior Tebow and the dominant player of 2007-08. When not feasting on Charleston Southern and Troy, his production against SEC defenses collapsed, along with the rest of the offense (see chart at right). Statistically, he delivered the three worst passing games of his career against Tennessee, Mississippi State and Alabama, and did nothing to keep the Gators competitive as 'Bama pulled steadily away in the biggest game of the season. He looked tentative and mediocre in defensively-driven wins over LSU and South Carolina, teams he'd humiliated in the past; without Percy Harvin to stretch the field, Tebow's passing numbers were increasingly inflated by short catch-and-runs, especially with the heavy reliance on the triple option shovel pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez.
In other words, he looked a little better than ordinary at best -- sacrilege when directed at a college legend and all-around good guy leading a team that held a death grip the No. 1 spot in the polls until the final hours of the regular season, but all too obvious to the unsentimental pros. Before, it wasn't conceivable for Tebow to fail on a football field, because he hadn't come close; once you've thrown a pair of pick-sixes in a too-close-for-comfort win over Mississippi State, the benefit of the doubt tends to evaporate in a hurry. Whatever unique reverence for Tebow's game was left after the grueling season was snuffed out by Alabama, and only partially regained in a record-breaking farewell barrage against Cincinnati -- from which the most memorable moment was a former Super Bowl-winning coach explaining to a national audience specifically why Tebow won't succeed at the next level.
And still, experts concede that he remains a first round possibility in April on the strength of his production, versatility, work ethic and intangible "it" factor ("He's just a football player, dammit"), and on the odds: It only takes one team already set at quarterback to take a flier on a high-reward project it can afford to bring along slowly. He's going to get a chance, and may get a few of them. It no longer seems inconceivable, though -- even from a college perspective, where the Tebow Child will remain forever one of the most revered quarterbacks of his era -- that one of those chances might come at a position other than quarterback.