Tim Tebow might never throw another pass in the NFL. That seems to be the theory this week, anyway, after the New England Patriots became the third team in two years to let the man go. And as people write their latest obits on Tebow’s NFL career (while Tebow himself tweets that he remains in “relentless pursuit” of his NFL dream) you might get the impression that Tebow was kind of a bust.
It seems to be that nothing could be further from the truth.
Look: In the last 25 years, 16 quarterbacks have won the Heisman Trophy. Tebow, of course, was one of those Heisman winners when he was setting all sorts of records at the University of Florida.
Now, think about Heisman Trophy winners for a minute. Here you have some of the most amazing quarterbacks of college football the last quarter century, the record-setters, the steely leaders, the winners, the miracle workers, the players who have captivated America. There probably is not a more prestigious award in sports than the Heisman Trophy, right?
Do you know how many of the other 15 Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks threw more touchdown passes in the NFL than Tim Tebow? Take a guess.
Do you know how many of the other 15 Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks had a winning record in NFL games started?
Do you know how many of the other 15 Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks started and won an NFL playoff game?
College football is a very different from the NFL. College football is not only different in speed and violence and quality. Obviously the players are slower and smaller and not as good. But that’s just the start of things. College football is a DIFFERENT game. It is less about pure execution and more about depth of emotion. It is less about perfect form and more about raw talent. It is less about precision and more about will.
The Heisman Trophy winners, every one of them, lifted their teams and their schools and their fans by playing illustrious and distinctive football: You couldn’t forget them. And, almost none of them can take that extraordinary skill to the NFL.
You know this, of course. You know Heisman Trophy winners often fail in the NFL. You are thinking right now of Heisman Trophy winners who flamed out. But, the truth is, unless you see the list -- one after another -- it’s hard to appreciate JUST HOW MANY of them flame out, just how wide the gap is between the most outstanding playing college football and even a third-string job in the NFL.
In 1989, Andre Ware set 26 NCAA records while running a run-and-shoot offense at Houston that nobody could stop. He was the seventh pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. He started six NFL games before going into broadcasting.
In 1990, Ty Detmer set 42 records at BYU -- he threw for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns in just 12 games -- and NFL scouts were left unimpressed. He was a ninth round pick. He played for six NFL teams and managed 25 starts in an NFL career as a backup. It is one of the better Heisman quarterback careers.
In 1992, Gino Torretta won the Heisman, a much-criticized selection (he beat out Marshall Faulk, among others). But he was a steady hand as he led the University of Miami to an undefeated regular season -- he lost just one regular season game as a starter in college. He never started an NFL game.
In 1993, Charlie Ward threw 27 touchdown passes, just four interceptions, and led Florida State to the national championship. He was not drafted by an NFL team as he went to play in the NBA.
In 1996, Danny Wuerffel threw 39 touchdown passes in leading Florida to the national championship. He was a fourth-round pick, made 10 NFL starts, threw 14 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in his career.
In 2000, Chris Weinke threw for more than 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns for Florida State to win the Heisman. He started 20 NFL games. His team lost 18 of them.
In 2001, it was Eric Crouch who won the Heisman for Nebraska. He was drafted as a wide receiver and didn’t make it. In 2003, Jason White won the Heisman for Oklahoma. He wasn’t drafted at all.
In 2004, Matt Leinart won the Heisman for USC after a brilliant year and NFL scouts liked him -- he was the 10th pick in the draft. He was on numerous magazine covers. He started 11 games as a rookie. He seemed like a future star. It didn’t work out for him. He only started six games after his rookie season.
In 2006, it was Ohio State’s Troy Smith who seemed the consummate leader, as his 30 touchdowns and six interceptions suggested. After four years, he was quarterback for the Omaha Nighthawks in the United Football League. He now plays in Canada.
You could argue, pretty persuasively I think, that Tim Tebow has had a better NFL career than any of them.
Now, that still leaves Johnny Manziel, who is obviously still in college, and the four Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks who were taken at the top of the NFL Draft: Carson Palmer was the first pick in the 2002 draft; Sam Bradford was the first pick in the 2010 draft; Cam Newton was the first pick in the 2011 draft; Robert Griffin III was the second pick of the 2012 draft. Palmer’s career has been spotty, and it’s still too soon to make any definitive judgments on the other three. All four, certainly, have had bigger and better careers than Tebow, as expected.
The point is that while Tebow’s charisma, his odd throwing style, his forcefulness, his often wild throws and his outspoken religious beliefs have made him a national phenomenon, his actual playing career has been fairly predictable. Tebow was the consummate Heisman Trophy winner -- a runner and passer, an inspirational leader, an indomitable force of nature. But what works so well for the Heisman winner in college -- quick thinking, a sense of the moment, fearlessness when a play has to be made, an ability to inspire teammates and thrill the crowd -- doesn’t necessarily translate to pro football.
Oh, maybe a small part of it translates. But NFL quarterbacks do not WILL teams to victory. No, the best NFL quarterbacks stand in the pocket against a furious rush and throw a 25-yard out at precisely the right second so that it hits the receiver’s hands one millisecond before a cornerback sticks his glove in front of the ball. The best NFL quarterbacks look over a defense designed with the same exactness that Apple uses to design its firewalls, and determine who will blitz, who will fall back, who will be in zone and who will be in man-to-man and, most importantly, which receiver will be open in 2.8 seconds. The best NFL quarterbacks sense the rush all around them, the 320-pound freight trains that pour in from every side, and know exactly when is the last possible instant they can release the ball.
Like I said at the top, it is a different game, requiring different superhuman skills. Tim Tebow does not have many of the necessary talents for it. He cannot throw with the necessary accuracy. He cannot release the football quickly enough. In this, he is not alone. In these ways, he is like almost every single college football superstar quarterback.
But unlike most of them, he carved out a place for himself in the NFL -- brief as it may have been. No, it wasn’t necessarily pretty. But he worked his way in as a starter. He threw 17 NFL touchdown passes (only Detmer, Palmer, Bradford, Newton and RGIII threw more). He took the city of Denver on a magical ride for a little while and had a winning record (only RGIII has done that and he’s only played one year). He threw two touchdown passes and ran for another and led Denver to a playoff victory over Pittsburgh (none of the others have won a playoff game).
He made “Tebowing” a thing.
Tebow believes he will get another chance. It doesn’t look that way right now, no, but crazy things happen in sports, especially for those who hear the whispers of self-belief above the shouting of the doubters. Maybe he will find his way back.
Then again, maybe it really is all over. Maybe he won’t ever throw another NFL pass. If so, it really has been a much better ride than anyone realistically should have expected.
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