Monday, September 10, 2012

No Mo' Tebow

We’re scarcely two months into the Tim Tebow Era in New York and I can’t wait for it to end. I haven’t felt this antagonistic about a named time period since the George W. Bush Administration.

This is the point where everyone who writes about Tebow positively or negatively has to write about how this is not a reflection on his beliefs, which this is not. Nor is it a reflection on his attitudes toward Brussels sprouts, the size of his adductors, his tolerance for Blue Cheer’s version of “Summertime Blues,” or the shape of his nose. At the same time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if the combination of his religious hyper-forthrightness and his hyper-collegiate game (shades of Lee Grosscup and Terry Baker!) mixed with a heaping helping of Lolo Jones hadn’t lifted him so far above the other second-/third-string NFL quarterbacks in the public eye that it’s like ants from a Ferris wheel, with running commentary from Rich Eisen.

But speaking of Tebow, and having mentioned Baker and Grosscup, let me quickly and definitively put Tebow in perspective.

From the late 1950s through the 1960s, the passing game evolved to a much greater extent in pro football than in college football. I don’t have a huge suite of numbers to back up my assertions, but I do have these: The first quarterback from that era to win the Heisman Trophy, Terry Baker [1], threw for 1,734 yards. The last Heisman-winning quarterback from that era, Pat Sullivan, threw for 2,012 yards.

By comparison, Tobin Rote threw for 2,003 yards for the 1956 Packers; in 1967, Joe Namath threw for 4,007 yards and Sonny Jurgensen 3,747 [2].

Very few of the best college quarterbacks in football over that time were able to make the transition to the pro game, basically because their collegiate success had nothing to do with their inaccuracy and/or inactivity as passers. Consider these stats from the Heisman-winning QBs of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and ask yourself where they’d get someone in today’s Heisman race:

They wouldn’t be able to touch Tebow in his Heisman year:

Though they’d put a scare into Eric Crouch, the last true running QB to win the Heisman:

Two Hall of Famers played quarterback and won the Heisman in the years between 1956 and 1971, but they can't really be compared. Staubach, a smart guy to start with, got smarter in his time away from the game, and Paul Hornung didn’t. He also didn’t get to Canton on his ability to fire a 40-yard buzz-bomb to Gary Knafelc with Concrete Charley Bednarik hanging all over him.[3]

Oh, and incidentally: Staubach is only true quarterback to win a Heisman and be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Great college quarterbacks lead great college teams. They are rarely great passers as professional football defines great passers; they are occasionally exceptional runners.

Tim Tebow slots perfectly into this definition. He is the successor to Eric Crouch, Charlie Ward, Pat Sullivan, Gary Beban, Terry Baker, and Johnny Lujack.

He’s also the successor to another hotshot college QB who fell short of the Heisman.

Bobby Douglass came out of Kansas in 1968, the year O.J. Simpson won the Heisman. He was the No. 2 quarterback in the voting and seventh overall, finishing behind Terry Hanratty (another quarterback of a good college team who lacked the right stuff to make it in the NFL) and ahead of Brian Dowling, Yale’s modern-day Merriwell.

You look at the numbers in a modern-day context and wonder what the fuss was about. In his senior year at Kansas Douglass went only 84-for-168 for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns, though he did run for 495 yards and another 12 TDs. He ran a high-powered attack; the Jayhawk offense averaged more than 400 yards and 35 points a game in Douglass’ senior year – good numbers even in today’s porous Big 12. You can see why he turned some heads.

The Bears drafted Douglass in the second round and immediately anointed him the successor to no one in particular, since the quarterback position with George Halas was a revolving-door job less important than the backup-right-tackle position.

In his rookie year, sharing time with the demi-immortal Jack Concannon, Douglass passed for 773 yards and ran for another 408. He threw five TD passes, ran for two more, and threw eight interceptions. And his team went 1-6.

This cannot be entirely ascribed to Douglass, just as the Broncos’ 6-1 record in 2012 with Tebow at the helm cannot be ascribed entirely to Tebow. Douglass’ receivers were Bobby Wallace and Dick Gordon; his tight end was also (and mainly) the team’s kicker; and the once-vaunted defense consisted of Dick Butkus (between knee surgeries), Doug Buffone, Ed O’Bradovich, and the same sorts of warmish bodies you find outside a PDQ around 2 a.m. Sunday morning.

Douglass’ numbers suggest Tebow, but what really suggests Tebow is watching Douglass in action. The surviving footage engenders a feeling of dumbstruck amazement usually reserved for people who consent to have cannons fired into their abdomens. Like Tebow, Douglass was a lefty, and also like Tebow, Douglass was mechanically challenged. He couldn’t duplicate his motion if you made him play on a Xerox machine.
With that said, no matter what angle Douglass threw the ball from it could travel. There’s footage of him throwing a 60-yard dart on the run to a wide-open Jim Seymour, and in interview footage he said he could throw a football 100 yards in the air.

Tebow’s Achilles heel is direction; Douglass’ was touch. If a ball left Bobby Douglass’ hand traveling in the general direction of Austin Denney or Mac Percival, it was likely traveling at a rate of speed approaching escape velocity. Chuck Yeager piloted slower projectiles.

Douglass was also by his own admission not on exactly familiar terms with the playbook. The most popular play with Douglass at the helm was the broken play. Some of those plays turned out remarkably well, in the sense that it takes NFL Films several minutes to show a single play from start to finish; however, an offense built around the broken play is ultimately a broken offense, doomed to failure.

It also drives coaches nuts. Douglass’ career was marked by numerous benchings in favor of lesser talents who could run the plays, pedestrian as they might have been.

Douglass’ 1970 season was cut short by a broken wrist (though he did throw four TD passes with that broken wrist in the one game he played), but 1971 and ’72 represent the zenith of Douglass’ career. In those years he threw for 2,400 yards and ran for 1,200, with 25 combined touchdowns and 27 interceptions. His teams went 7-18.

Douglass sits at the extreme end of the running quarterback in the saemi-modern NFL, but it’s there where the most valuable lessons are regarding Tim Tebow. It also says something larger about running quarterbacks in general.

There have been almost 50 Super Bowls, and quarterbacks generally classified as running quarterbacks have won none. Several very mobile quarterbacks have won Super Bowls – Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers, John Elway, Brett Favre, Staubach – but no quarterback from the Randall Cunningham/Cam Netwon/Michael Vick school has won a Super Bowl [4]. The game’s continuing evolution almost assures that a runner will win a Super Bowl someday, but someday may be further off than you think.

The reason for running QBs’ lack of ultimate success can be found by watching them in pivotal games. At some point in these big games the decision for a running quarterback whether to pass or run is so equivocal, because they’re so good at both skills, that they either make the wrong choice or no choice at all. With a quarterback that only runs when forced, the decision is unequivocal. They run so they can pass. The decision is simpler, and because it’s simpler it’s made more quickly, and it’s usually the appropriate decision.

The Canadian Football League is a running-quarterback’s league, but for the last several years the most successful team has been the Montreal Alouettes, and its quarterback, Anthony Calvillo, only runs when forced. Fewer decisions equal better decisions.

So the career equation for Tim Tebow appears to be lack of pro success (because of college success not translating into pro success) + more lack of pro success (because of lack of appropriate tools to engender pro success) = early departure from the NFL. Likewise, all you lovers of Robert Griffin III’s week-one performance may want to take a seat for another decade. As my hardcore-49ers-fan friend Tom said yesterday as we were driving to the Packer game, “They have to be taught quarterback before they can win.” There’s a lot of truth to that.

[1] Paul Hornung doesn’t count, as you’ll see.

[2] I’m being selective here. By the end of the ‘60s the aerial circus that was the AFL was no more and pro football entered a sort of Dark Ages dominated by running backs. A quarterback wouldn’t throw for more than 4,000 yards until Dan Fouts in 1979. And strangely enough, college football followed that pattern right along. College football in the '70s was an endless progression of wishbones and power-I's and veers. After QBs won seven of the 12 Heismans from 1960-71, they wouldn’t win another until Doug Flutie in 1983.

[3] And don’t get me started on what did get Hornung there.

[4] You can throw Joe Kapp in there, just because.