21 March 2012

Tim Tebow and the option quarterback's dilemna

I thought Tim Tebow might be different. Through hard work, outrageously good luck and sheer, guileless charisma, I thought he could avoid the common fate of talented collegiate option quarterbacks trying to make it in the pocket passing-oriented NFL: square peg, meet round hole. Now switch positions to tight end. Or receiver. Or defensive back. And maybe Tebow can still make it happen. If he ends up landing with the New York Jets  maybe he can beat out the eminently beat-outable Mark Sanchez; if he ends up elsewhere, maybe he can avoid second or third-string status.

I'm starting to doubt it.



The fun thing about Tebowmania is that it exploded conventional football wisdom. That guy runs like Mike Alstott ... and throws like an Olympic shot-putter ... and he's a winning professional quarterback? Tebow's imprudent scrambles and Black Hawk Down tosses and fourth-quarter soul possessions by the ghost of Joe Montana made a mockery of reasonable expectations, of everything we thought we knew about the sport. Tebow raised a giant, symbolic middle finger -- note: he would never raise an actual middle finger to anyone over anything, unless it was to point out the impending Rapture or something -- to the jadedness that comes with experience. To knowing how the movie is going to end. (Those two crazy kids? Yeah, they end up with each other). Week after improbable week, he brought us back to Being a Sports Fan, Circa Age 8: when you watch every game thinking anything is possible, and haven't yet seen enough to realize that, no, actually, the spread is usually right, experts know what they're taking about and anyone with half a brain and a chance to sign Peyton Manning would dump Tebow the way Brad Pitt dropped Jennifer Aniston.

Really, it was easy to see this coming. And it's equally easy to see where it's going.

Tebow will be a decoy. A gimmick quarterback. A slash. A fullback, perhaps. That's the NFL way of things. It happened to Eric Crouch. It happened to Antaawn Randle El. Unless you're Lawrence Taylor, you bend to the league. Not the other way around. I wrote nice reported essay about this a few months ago for the PostGame; at the time, Tebow was getting the opportunity under center that so many other option quarterbacks -- Freddie Solomon, J.C. Watts, Charlie Ward, Scott Frost - never did. I suspect that's over now. I suspect that's back to business as usual. I suspect he'll play the good solider and do whatever the his new club asks him to do -- but I also wonder if he'll blossom, like Randle El, or struggle, like Crouch:


... Randle El was fortunate: when the Pittsburgh Steelers later asked him to line up as receiver, he already knew how to play the position. More importantly, he bought into the switch. He ultimately thrived, playing 10 seasons with the Steelers and Washington Redskins, even throwing a gadget touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. By contrast, Crouch wasn’t able to make the same adjustment. He didn't much want to. And football -- violent and consuming, brutal and demanding -- is a game of want. Playing quarterback got his motor running, his adrenaline flowing. Playing receiver? Not so much. During training camp with Rams, he would leave work dejected, come home defeated. His daughter would wonder why daddy was so sad and silent. Following a gruesome preseason leg injury, Crouch retired, giving back a $395,000 signing bonus. The Green Bay Packers called. We'll give you a shot at QB. The day before Crouch left for training camp, the team signed Akili Smith. Change of plans. Can you play defense? Crouch quit again, came back, learned to play safety, worked very hard on backpedaling. He latched on with the Kansas City Chiefs, bounced to NFL Europe. He found himself Germany, playing for the Hamburg Sea Devils, watching quarterbacks Ryan Dinwiddie and Casey Bramlett warm up. Hamburg coach Jack Bicknell -- who once coached another too-small quarterback, Boston College’s Doug Flutie -- took notice.


Eric, you sure you don’t want to play quarterback for me?


Crouch laughed it off. He didn’t know if Bicknell was serious, couldn’t remember the last time someone asked him that. Not since college. They never discussed it again. "But every day, I thought about it," Crouch says. "Every day, I watched those quarterbacks warm up and thought, 'That should be me.'"

When Tebow warms up for some team as an H-back, what will he be thinking?