In his rookie season, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow(notes) led his team in rushing touchdowns with six. He also finished first among all quarterbacks with fewer than 99 attempts in Football Outsiders' passing efficiency rankings. As a 2010 first-round draft pick, and after a legendary career at Florida under Urban Meyer, Tebow's NFL future looked bright.
Reality has proven to be different. In his second preseason, Tebow is facing much adversity. He's got a new coaching staff, led by John Fox, with a need for an entirely different style of quarterback. He's the likely third-string quarterback entering the 2011 season behind starter Kyle Orton(notes) and Brady Quinn(notes). And he's got a bull's-eye on his back as a representation of all that is wrong with quarterbacks transitioning from college spread systems.
Despite an overall increase in shotgun sets each year for the last decade, the NFL doesn't look ready for an influx of option-based quarterbacks who run before they should, have limited abilities to read defenses and often have throwing motions that are ill-suited for the pro game.
Greg Cosell of NFL Films, the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup" show, says predicting future success in the pros is less about stats and more about mechanics. And for NFL success, Tebow, and quarterbacks like him, just don't measure up.
"At the end of the day, he's just not a very good passer – in all areas," Cosell said. "He does everything in slow motion, his delivery is extremely elongated, he's not particularly accurate, and the ball doesn't come out of his hand well because his mechanics are so poor.
"Combine that with the nature of the offense he ran in college; the throws, due to scheme and personnel, were so clearly defined. And the receivers were so often wide open. He never had to deal with throwing from a muddy pocket, or throwing to receivers that are covered."
There is concern in some scouting circles that no quarterback with Tebow's throwing motion – an extended wind-up that starts around his hip and runs sidearm to the throw – will ever be successful against NFL defenses that run tight coverages and advanced blitzes that Tebow never had to read in college.
But there has to be a place for a player who looked good down the stretch in the 2010 season for a Denver team that had lost its way. Perhaps time is what Tebow needs.
"The movement is so strong in college football for guys to be in the shotgun most of the time, that there is a transition time for these guys," said Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. "[It's not] always automatic. The footwork, and getting out from under center … it's different."
Some never get it at all. The NCAA's four career passing yardage leaders – Hawaii's Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan(notes), Texas Tech's Graham Harrell(notes), and Houston's Case Keenum – were hothouse flowers in spread offenses that never stood a chance in the pros. And that's why coaches like Carroll aren't convinced that the adjustment is easier these days out of some misbegotten need for the NFL to meet the spread halfway. At a certain point, you still have to be an NFL quarterback, making NFL throws and processing NFL reads.
"There are some marvelous offenses that are run around the country, and the things they do are most challenging, but the field is different, and they play to the field," Carroll said. "The defenses are not nearly matched up in college as they are here. The passing game is just more available. You just can't find the defensive backs to match up, or the linebackers to run and cover, or the pass rush to make it like it is up here. It is so heated up here, and [the defenses] are so much better, relatively speaking. There's just a big difference [in the NFL]."
Former head coach Jon Gruden, who studies quarterbacks for various ESPN projects, believes that it's all about adapting the system to the player – if you want a Tim Tebow, or a Cam Newton, to succeed, you have to meet in the middle.
"With Tim Tebow and Cam Newton, you're acquiring a tailback," Gruden explained, illuminating the differences between pass-heavy and run-oriented option offenses. "Newton had more yards rushing than Bo Jackson and Ronnie Brown(notes). They're running gap power plays with the quarterback. Same with Tim Tebow. So I think you have to have a plan for those guys to utilize their physical capabilities, and I think you have to modify your offense to a degree to enhance some of the things that they can do themselves running the ball."
Former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski, Gruden's partner in the "Monday Night Football" booth, tends to think of even the best spread quarterbacks as one-pitch middle relievers. They're positional oddities who can shake things up under the right circumstances, but not necessarily starter material.
"I've always been pretty adamant that these types of quarterbacks never have long-term success in the National Football League," Jaworski said. "I always start with the belief that, to be consistent at the quarterback position in the NFL, you've got to throw the ball accurately and with velocity and be mechanically sound.
"Now, I think there is a place for these quarterbacks in the Wildcat, in the spread – [there are] different ways to use them. However, you take a beating in that style of offense. Through 16 games, you'd better have three or four of these same types of quarterbacks that can run the different styles of spreads that are out there. The defense will hit them, and they will hit them hard and try to beat them into submission. I don't think it could ever be the backbone of your offense."
Is Tebow the evolutionary Steve Young, just waiting for the right teacher to put it all together, or is he the NFL's latest misfit toy? Some are more optimistic about Tebow's chances.
"I think Tebow did some good things," Gruden said. "The films I looked at, he played well against San Diego, played well against Houston late. He's learning a new system in a lockout year, and it's derailed him, I think. Maybe this team doesn't fit him, but it's a complex question. You've got to have a plan for him and adjust your book for him, and you've got to have a developmental playbook for him. It's going to take some time, no question about it."
"He did make some deep sideline throws," Jaworski added. "He threw the ball very well down the middle of the field. So I did see some improvement in Tim Tebow, but mechanics are hard to improve upon. He had too much of a learning curve to be ready to jump in and play at an NFL level consistently. But I certainly think Tim Tebow continues to work hard, and he'll make an impact in this league."
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