Sunday, November 29, 2009

Don't blame Tebow

In the last 48 hours, I've seen/read no less than a half-dozen columns or retrospectives on Tim Tebow's career at Florida. This is fairly appropriate for a player who has been praised and fawned over more than anyone in college football history; Gary Danielson and Thom Brennaman (just to name the most egregious) have lost all credibility in the past three years by verbally making love to Tebow for three hours during every Florida game they've been assigned to, and ESPN has basically turned Tebow into a caricature of himself.

But there's a reason the media goes bonkers for this guy. He has Florida on the verge of its second straight national title (and the third in which he'll have been a significant part) despite missing most of last year's offensive weapons, and it's not out of the question that he could become only the second player ever to win two Heismans. He also holds the all-time SEC record for rushing touchdowns and touchdowns scored, and he's not far off the NCAA records for both of those categories as well as pass efficiency and combined touchdowns. All things considered, it's hard to argue that he's not one of the best players in college football history.

Or so I thought. This debate came up the other day, and I was surprised and disappointed by the responses from some fellow fans who I normally consider fairly knowledgeable. I heard various arguments about why Tebow isn't a great player, but none that made much sense or explained what does constitute a great player. For example:
  • His numbers are greatly inflated by playing in a spread offense.
  • He has to do everything for Florida, so he ends up with all the touchdowns.
  • He has to do very little except "distribute" the ball to the talented playmakers around him.
  • He's a terrible passer and therefore not a good quarterback.
  • His win-loss record isn't important.
  • Leadership can't be factored in, because it isn't a quantifiable thing in football.
The last two statements on that list are so ridiculous that they aren't even worth disputing, so I'll focus on the first four.

Are his numbers "inflated" because of the offense? In a way, yes, but that's because the offense is designed around him and his abilities. Florida's offense now is similar but nowhere near identical to what Urban Meyer was running at Utah and Bowling Green, and that's because of Tebow. He's a power runner with a quarterback's arm, and there aren't many comparable players in the history of football. Saying that Tebow's numbers are inflated is like saying that Ron Dayne's rushing statistics were inflated because Wisconsin gave him the ball a lot. The bottom line is that if those players didn't dominate at their position, the offense wouldn't revolve around them.

I'm also consistently amused by the idea that Tebow is a poor passer. This probably comes from hearing Mel Kiper talk about Tebow's future as an H-back in the NFL (although a number of scouts have publicly disagreed), but the facts simply don't support that assertion. In fact, as surprising as this may be, Tebow is statistically one of the best passers in college football history. Here are his career numbers:
  • Completion percentage: 65.9% (610-for-925)
  • Yards: 8,556
  • Yards per attempt: 9.25
  • TD passes: 84
  • Interceptions: 15
  • Pass efficiency: 170.37
I don't care what system he's in or who he has around him; those numbers are impressive. When you watch him drop back to pass and you see the awkward foot movement and the funky throwing motion, it's hard to figure out how he's so effective. He doesn't look like an NFL quarterback -- especially when you compare him with Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen -- but that shouldn't overshadow the actual results.

The other two arguments basically contradict each other. One camp says Tebow gets all the touchdowns because he's the primary running back (refer above to the argument about inflated numbers) while the other camp says Tebow just has to distribute the ball and let the offense work its magic. There's no debate that Florida has had some very good players the past two years (mostly last year), including Percy Harvin. But doesn't every great player -- especially at quarterback -- have some help from those around him? Tommie Frazier (a great QB despite being a below-average passer) had Lawrence Phillips and one of the best offensive lines ever. Matt Leinart had Reggie Bush and a ton of other NFL talent. Vince Young and Michael Vick had a little less help (no other superstars around them), but each of those guys played on an all-around very good team and had one HUGE year, not three years of dominance like Tebow.

By the time I got done disputing all these arguments, I was baffled. How could anyone who has watched Tebow play and seen his statistics, intensity and remarkable win-loss record not consider him one of the best players ever? What's not to like?

That's when it hit me: People aren't arguing against Tebow so much as they're arguing against the media hype. The reasons listed above don't make a lot of sense because the critics are mostly grasping at straws, trying to explain why they're so sick of someone who doesn't really do anything wrong on or off the field. He's the person we all wish we could be -- elite athletic ability, good-looking, unselfish, true to his beliefs -- and we don't really want those people to exist. It's too hard to root for the guy who's better than us at everything; that's why America loves the underdog and the disgraced celebrity.

One of the many, many downsides of the ESPN Era is that everything gets overplayed and then overplayed some more and then beaten into the ground until we can take no more (see Brett Favre). Eventually, we stop liking the people at the center of these stories because we just don't want to hear about them anymore. The less success they have, the less coverage we'll be subjected to. When you throw in the fact that 90% of the college football universe thinks Urban Meyer is a douchebag, you've got a combination that makes it extremely hard to root for Tim Tebow (and Florida, by proxy).
In other words, dislike for all the things surrounding Tebow eventually bleeds into dislike for Tebow, which is kind of ironic when you consider that he should be one of the most likable people in sports.

I've heard people say that we really don't know what kind of person Tebow is, that his volunteer work and religiousness don't mean anything because we don't really know what his private life is like. I suppose this is true -- the general public never really knows what a person does behind closed doors -- but that's kind of like saying, "Pacman Jones could be a great guy who just has a lot of problems with guns, strippers and police." I find it extremely unlikely that Tebow's extensive charity work and displays of faith are part of an elaborate scheme to make people think he's a good guy.

Getting back to the point, though, what I'm trying to say is this: Don't confuse hatred for the Tebow hype train with hatred for Tebow himself. There are two games left in his remarkable career; just hit the mute button and try to appreciate that you're watching one of the greatest college football players in history.

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