GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Monte Kiffin spent 26 years as an NFL defensive coordinator, a time in which he won a Super Bowl and developed the innovative Tampa 2 scheme. He has long been regarded as one of the finest defensive minds in football.
In all his years trying to stop great quarterbacks, Kiffin had never seen one exactly like Florida's Tim Tebow. That's not to say Tebow is better than, say, Joe Montana or Tom Brady. That's not even close. He's just different; the NFL doesn't use QBs as short-yardage battering rams.
Saturday evening, as Kiffin, now the defensive coordinator for his son Lane at Tennessee, reflected on the Volunteers' 23-13 loss at the hands of No. 1 Florida, he noted that just about everything he drew up for and demanded from his players had worked.
Big plays were limited. Passing lanes were clogged. Confusion may have led to conservative play calling. The high-powered Gators were held to their lowest point total in nearly two seasons.
Yet Florida won.
And there was essentially one reason – Tebow.
"You can't give Tebow three more snaps," Monte said, shaking his head at all the third-down conversions the QB delivered. "It drives me nuts."
Tebow has been the Gators' key player for a while now. He was an X-factor as a backup on the 2006 BCS title team. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2007. Last season he drove them to another BCS championship.
Yet thanks to a lack of other game-breaking players, never before has Tebow meant so much to Florida. And thanks to what Monte Kiffin game-planned Saturday, essentially making Tebow more of a running back than a quarterback, Florida's fate may come down to a simple question.
How much punishment can Tim Tebow take before he breaks?
Tebow failed to throw a touchdown pass Saturday for the first time in 30 games. His 19 pass attempts rarely went downfield (his long completion was just 18 yards). He even tossed an interception and had a fumble. Yet his ability to repeatedly churn out critical, lower the boom, back-breaking yardage, especially on third down, was the difference in the game.
The quarterback rushed 24 times Saturday for 105 yards. The rest of the team combined for 20 carries. It's a risky way to use a quarterback, all but inviting injury.
Monte Kiffin had watched every snap Tebow took the past two years in building the game plan against him. One of the hopes was by forcing him to run the ball, repeated contact with the Vols' physical defenders would wear him out.
It was the one thing Tennessee underestimated.
"I kept saying [over the headset], 'He's bound to get tired, he's bound to get tired, he's bound to get tired,' but he never did," Lane Kiffin said.
"I don't think he's human. I really don't."
Tebow is human, though, and while the Gators shouldn't have to apologize for beating UT Saturday (or scoring just 23 against a good defense), the one concern is whether this is what their offense is destined to become.
The Gators no longer have receivers the caliber of Percy Harvin or Louis Murphy (now NFL rookies). And it was clear that on the game's most important plays, Meyer was most confident having Tebow, not one of his running backs, carry the load.
Lane Kiffin, in his endless (and successful quest) to annoy Gators coach Urban Meyer, repeatedly mentioned postgame that his dad had created a "blueprint" to slow the Gators' offense. He all but begged future UF opponents to copy it, not that the defensive minds from Tuscaloosa to Tallahassee needed prodding to wear this game footage out. Coaches have been copying Monte for years.
If anything close to 24 carries is Tebow's new normal (he averaged 12.6 carries a game last season), then the potential for knocking Tebow out rises.
Then again, this is No. 15 we're talking about. He's 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, and runs from the quarterback position like almost no one we've seen. Last year Bobby Bowden compared him to Bronko Nagurski, a physical running back from the 1930s NFL. UT linebacker Rico McCoy deemed him "a load."
When not calling him "Superman," Lane Kiffin went with Mike Alstott, the Buccaneers' former bulldozing fullback.
"You try to pound [Tebow] and he runs over you for an extra three yards," Lane said.
Saturday, when Tebow had an open-field meeting with UT's great safety, Eric Berry, he lowered his shoulder and sent the 5-11, 203-pound Berry staggering backward.
"At first I was like, 'Dang, he done got me, y'all,' " Berry said later.
So no one is going to shed a tear for Tim Tebow. Still, a hit is a hit.
"Then I looked at the JumboTron," Berry continued. "You can call it what you want. It was a good collision."
And that's the issue. How many of those collisions can Tebow stand? How many SEC linebackers does it take to wear him down? Was 24 carries an aberration, or the reality of the UF offense?
Tebow knows only one way to play – head down, shoulder first, full blast. That unique style, fullback in quarterback clothing, has served him and the Gators well.
Now, he may be asked to do it more than ever. And with each crack, Florida's championship hopes rest in the violent balance. With Tebow, it's BCS or bust.
- Monte Kiffin
- Tim Tebow
- Lane Kiffin