October 06, 2009
Tebow gazing from the proprietor of Tim Teblog.
News out of Gainesville after Tim Tebow sat out Monday's practices was that Florida's star hadn't been cleared to practice or play in Saturday's season-making tilt at LSU, despite reportedly suffering no apparent effects from the concussion that knocked him out of the Gators' win over Kentucky late last month. Unofficial word today is that caution could keep Tebow on the bench in Baton Rouge even he has medical clearance:
UF sources said Monday that even if Tebow is medically cleared to play, he likely will sit in favor of backup quarterback John Brantley.
[Coach Urban] Meyer did say, though, that Tebow "will not get hit" if he does practice this week. And that does not bode well for a return to the field this weekend, Dr. Robert Cantu said Monday.
"The first hit you take is not in the game. It should be in practice," said Cantu, a clinical professor of neurology at Boston University and a pioneer in concussion research over the past three decades. "Normally, it's better if the athlete has practiced the week that they're going to play. ..."
Teammates report Tebow hasn't been around the facility much, and Brantley has been taking first team snaps, making it increasingly likely that the sophomore will make his first career start in one of the most hostile possible environments, where LSU has won 32 straight on Saturday nights.
Which begs the question: If Florida comes out on top with Brantley, rather than the best college football player in the country -- one of the truly great college football players ever -- for the team's biggest win of the season, what does that say about how great Tebow really is?
We know what it will say about his Gator teammates: This team is really really really good, deserving of its No. 1 ranking. And if there was ever a moment to beat LSU in Baton Rouge without the best player in the country in the lineup, this might be it: Florida's defense is easily among the best in the country, as are its special teams. UF's running back corps is as good as any. And receiver Deonte Thompson will be back in the lineup, giving Brantley a breakaway target -- when Brantley isn't keeping it close enough to the vest to "game-manage" a win.
Meanwhile, it's not like LSU has looked all that impressive this season -- admittedly, the Tigers should be a superior team at home, rather than the good-enough team they've been on the road, escaping with skin-of-the-teeth wins in Seattle, Starkville and Athens. But isn't it possible the road struggles were simply indicative of this team's quality this season?
And so what happens when John Brantley -- not Tim Tebow -- leads Florida to that elusive win at LSU? Does that diminish Tebow's legacy? Probably no more than Brook Berringer diminished Tommie Frazier's legacy when Berringer led title-bound Nebraska to win after win while Frazier sat with a blood clot in 1994.
It is worth keeping in mind Urban Meyer's famous four-part "Plan To Win." No, it's not "Tebow left, Tebow right, Tebow up the gut, Tebow go crazy after the play." It's great defense, limited turnovers, red-zone efficiency and special teams. If it worked with Chris Leak, it can work with Brantley.
But what if Florida, playing without Tebow, loses at LSU? Tebow’s larger-than-life status becomes a hedge: In the mind of BCS pollsters and pundits, does it get waved away as "Well, if Tebow was playing, it would have been different ...?"
(Worth noting: This isn’t like BYU beating Oklahoma with and without Sam Bradford, where the Cougars were handling the Sooners, even when Bradford was in the game. Expect to hear this talking point come up later in November, when USC’s only loss is at Washington, without Matt Barkley.) Losing in Death Valley to a top-five team with elite talent all over the field is hardly as poll-crushing as, say, losing in the Swamp to unranked Ole Miss, and look how that turned out for the Gators last year. The SEC title is still there to be won, and even if multiple teams finish unbeaten, there is still the “one-loss SEC champ is better than unbeaten X-conference champ” P.R. battle to be fought in December.
And then there is the Big If: If Tebow plays on Saturday night, against the odds, what then?
If Tebow leads Florida to a win, it is just one more eye-popping moment on his career highlight reel; if Tebow plays and Florida loses, we’re back to the justifications and rationalizations: "Well, he wasn’t himself." But the dominant reaction during the game, win or lose, will be Florida fans cringing every time Tebow drops back to pass or, heaven forbid, pulls the ball down and plunges forward, head-first, on one his patented plunges through the line. The biggest “if” is: What if Tebow exacerbates his brain injury?
As of Monday, Tebow may have looked better, may have been symptom-free and may have been eager to get back on the field. Even then, Urban Meyer suggested Tebow wouldn’t be touched. I can't imagine a scenario where Florida doctors allow Tebow’s first post-concussion contact to come from LSU defensive linemen.
speaking of P.R. battles, no one will criticize Meyer if he doesn’t play Tebow, regardless of the game’s outcome. In fact, the decision is essentially out of Meyer’s hands: If Tebow doesn’t play, Florida’s doctors will have presumably told Meyer that his star isn’t ready – that there's still some small chance of further injury.
It could size up as a day-of-game -- perhaps hour-of-game -- decision. In my capacity as couch doctor, I cannot believe he will be cleared as "100 percent," meaning, precisely: He is as healthy as he was before the concussion, with no chance of new or further injury in the event he is routinely clocked by an LSU lineman, or his own teammate's knee. And I remain convinced that Tebow’s teammates -- including Brantley -- are good enough to win at LSU without him, with Tebow playing a key role as sideline leader and assistant QB coach.
Tebow’s history against LSU is a thrilling one: In 2006, Florida’s win in Gainesville was his coming-out party (via the famous "jump pass" to Tate Casey and a later scoring strike to Louis Murphy). In 2007 in Baton Rouge, Tebow nearly beat the future BCS champs despite barely touching the ball in the second half. Back in Gainesville last year, he led a Gators to a 51-21 beatdown that still has LSU smarting.
In 2009, it is a measure of Tebow's status that he is the overriding story in a battle of undefeated, top-five rivals, whether he plays or doesn't -- and whether Florida wins or loses.