Why is Tim Tebow out in the cold? Why are general managers and coaches willing to roll the dice with a QB who has never played an NFL down or a struggling QB versus one who holds a winning record and notched a stylish, memorable playoff victory over the vaunted Pittsburgh defense?
Part of Tebow’s fate falls to timing. In past posts, I’ve referenced economist Zvi Griliches iconic article “Hybrid Corn: An Exploration in the Economics of Technological Change”. He demonstrated the acreage planted with hybrid seed took over across states, slowly, at first few adopters, then gaining steam, and finally won over even the die-hards resulting in an “S-shaped” curve depicting the growth in its use. This picture describes the diffusion of most any “technological change” whether a new corn seed, a new tractor implement, black players on Major League teams, or the use of “run-option” quarterbacks in the NFL. In the early stages of use, it’s difficult to distinguish between crazy ideas and brilliant ideas. Almost any new idea will draw vocal detractors, sometimes among people of respect and insight. Numerous NFL insiders, including those as insightful as Bill Belichick and Steve Mariucci, have denigrated the idea of the “option” and QBs suited for it as an integral part of NFL offensive strategy. Even a year or two ago, and in spite of Tebow’s success in Denver, the critique appeared weighty — enough so that the Broncos sought out another QB (albeit, a Hall of Famer) and traded Tebow. With the Colin Kaepernick’s trip to the Super Bowl with the 49ers along with others such as Robert Griffin III, it’s looking less crazy and more brilliant, less temporary fad and more permanent strategy.
I don’t mean to imply that the run-option QBs will ever come to dominate completely. One key difference between sports and agriculture is that one particular technology doesn’t necessarily swamp all others. NFL rules favor passing. Successful teams for many years have employed skilled passers with ever-increasingly complex passing schemes. The trouble is that not everyone can draft Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. The ground in Iowa and the ground in Kentucky may both be receptive to hybrid corn seed, but the same passing scheme that works in New England or Denver isn’t going to work nearly as well in some other place because a key input, the QB, does not have the skills of Brady or Manning. Insightful coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Mike Shanahan decided better to adjust the system to the talent rather than hope that a struggling young QB like Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville) evolves into a Brady or Manning.
Alright, so Tebow came on the scene just a bit too early, why aren’t teams like Jacksonville scrambling for him now? His less than consistent passing skills hurt him. He can thread the needle on one throw and look silly on the next. Ironically, the GM who turned him out in Denver, John Elway, displayed those same traits for the first half of his career. Nonetheless, Tebow’s passing isn’t as polished as Kaepernick or Griffin. On the flip side, he has shown that he can win games, even against good defenses. A major part of the success of Kaepernick and Griffin is what they do to defensive strategy. At the end of last season, Griffin played a very mediocre passing game against the Cowboys, but because of his running threat (even with a bad knee), his running threat opened the way for his running back, Alfred Morris to have a great night with the Redskins scoring 28 points. The interaction effects between running and passing abilities of QBs with the other offensive players influences both yards gained per passing play along with yards gained by other runners. Tebow’s enormous celebrity almost certainly works against him now. Any GM and coach who bring him on board invite a national media spotlight far beyond what a newly drafted QB will bring. Don’t be fooled — coaches and GMs, in spite of voicing indifference about media and fan attention, care about scrutiny. The care a lot — ok, maybe Bill Belichick doesn’t, but that’s why he is willing to make decisions other coaches will not on matters such as not punting on fourth down. The “Christian” element of Tebow’s celebrity also surfaces as a possible obstacle to him. While I don’t doubt that some coaches, players, and, particularly, media figures roll their eyes at him, there are many NFL players who openly, if with less attention, display their faith. My guess is that his unlucky timing, inconsistent passing, and undesired media attention resolve the conundrum much better.