The “Tebow Theory:” Eventually, Somebody Is Going To Build An NFL Offense Around a Quarterback Who Can’t Throw

All Tebow Team

With the arrival of Tim Tebow in New England, this seems like as good as time as any to explore in detail a discussion I’ve had with several football fans.  The NFL of the past few years has become a league infatuated with the passing game to a point where several offenses in this league almost completely ignore the running game. The teams that do this have a luxury in today’s NFL…they have a quarterback who can throw the ball.

The team that has had the most success with this approach is obvious; the New England Patriots. In Tom Brady, New England currently has a guy who is clearly one of the great quarterbacks in the history of this league. Offenses built around the passing game, such as that of the current Patriots, the Peyton Manning-era Colts, or even their predecessors such as the Dan Marino-era Dolphins or the “Air Coryell” San Diego Chargers all shared a common trait; they all had top-flight quarterbacks. Hell, even the Los Angeles Rams of the 1950′s used two all-star quarterbacks (Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin) to set all kinds of early NFL passing records.

The problem with this approach is two-fold. First of all, not everybody can get an All-Pro quarterback. It’s not like they grow on trees.  That begs the question: What do you do if you can’t get one of these “big-time” quarterbacks? Right now in the NFL, there are far too many teams taking the square peg/round hole approach, meaning they are trying to turn guys who just don’t have the requisite skill sets into the ringmaster of an NFL aerial circus. This is why NFL fans get to watch far too much bad quarterback play.

The second problem is less obvious, but still ever-present. There’s a mind-set running rampant in the NFL that a team cannot win without having the prototypical “pocket-passer.”  That’s completely wrong. To see that, all you have to do is look at the list of the last twenty Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, and look at how many of them (noted below in bold) were not the prototypical “pocket-passer.”

  • Super Bowl 28. Troy Aikman
  • Super Bowl 29. Steve Young
  • Super Bowl 30. Troy Aikman
  • Super Bowl 31. Brett Favre 
  • Super Bowl 32. John Elway 
  • Super Bowl 33. John Elway 
  • Super Bowl 34. Kurt Warner
  • Super Bowl 35. Trent Dilfer 
  • Super Bowl 36. Tom Brady
  • Super Bowl 37. Brad Johnson
  • Super Bowl 38. Tom Brady
  • Super Bowl 39. Tom Brady
  • Super Bowl 40. Ben Roethlisberger
  • Super Bowl 41. Peyton Manning
  • Super Bowl 42. Eli Manning
  • Super Bowl 43: Ben Roethlisberger
  • Super Bowl 44: Drew Brees*
  • Super Bowl 45: Aaron Rodgers
  • Super Bowl 46: Eli Manning
  • Super Bowl 47: Joe Flacco

Granted, the number of non-pocket passers to win has declined in the most recent ten years, but the vast majority of those wins are from three quarterbacks. That fuels this false belief.  After all, looking at this list hides the fact that last season the NFC side of the playoffs was dominated by two non-pocket passers, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaerpernick.

That’s actually a big part of what we are calling here at Dubsism the “Tebow Theory.” This theory is rather simple, but to understand it means ditching some current NFL conventional wisdom and looking at some cold, hard facts.

  • FACT: As previously mentioned, the belief in the NFL is you have to have a “pocket-passer” to win.
  • FACT: Every head coach and general manager in the NFL not only wants to win; winning is the predication for them keeping their jobs.
  • FACT: There just aren’t enough “pocket-passers” to go around; the college game is producing more Tim Tebows (a.k.a. “non-pocket passers”) than it is the “traditional” NFL quarterbacks.

Given those three facts, it is only a matter of time before somebody tries to build an offense around a “non-pocket passer”

Don’t misunderstand me, just because there are quarterbacks of this type succeeding in the NFL right now, doesn’t mean these offense were built for that style of quarterback play. If you don’t believe that, just look at the two aforementioned examples.  Neither Russell Wilson or Colin Kaerpernick began the season as the team’s starting signal-caller; they were both mid-season replacements  for guys who could easily be considered the “pocket passer” type.

One of the big reasons why Wilson and Kaerpernick were successful when so many other non-pocket passer quarterbacks were not was their offensive lines.  More importantly, it wasn’t that the 49ers and Seahawks offensive lines aren’t great (because they are), but because they have dominating interior lines. That’s a crucial fact in this discussion, and one that gets almost no play.  I’ll come back to this point in a bit.

For now, it is time to look at the undeniable reasons why sometime in the near future, somebody is going to break the current NFL mold and build a new version of offense.

Why They Will Do It:

1) Because the College Game is Producing more “Tebow-Like Guys” of Consequence Than “Traditional” Quarterbacks

Before I go any further, I’m going to have to define “Tebow-Like Guy (TLG).” What I mean specifically by the term TLG is a quarterback who doesn’t fit the current NFL definition of what a quarterback should be. According to the convention, NFL quarterbacks are 6’3″  guys who stay in the pocket and throw the ball, period. That’s Tebow’s main problem; it isn’t that he might be a shitty quarterback, the league is full of those. His problem is the fact that he represents a challenge to the conventional wisdom.

If you doubt that, remember that there is an occasional dispensation from this rule; Drew Brees has been allowed into the fold as shown on the list of the twenty most recent Super Bowl winning quarterbacks shown above, not because he’s won a Super Bowl, but because he owns some big-time passing records.  Granted, Tebow isn’t the sort of guy who is going to throw for 5,000 yards, but if he manages to win a couple of Super Bowls, I bet he gets let into the club.

As far as lists are concerned, look at the one of quarterbacks drafted this year, after breaking it down to the “traditional” vs. the TLGs (shown in bold):

  • E.J. Manuel
  • Geno Smith
  • Mike Glennon
  • Matt Barkley
  • Ryan Nassib
  • Tyler Wilson
  • Landry Jones
  • Zac Dysert

That’s an interesting breakdown, not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of position. The majority of the quarterbacks taken are of the “traditional” flavor, but only one of them was taken before the fourth round.  This becomes significant when you stop to consider where the current 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL were drafted. Only eight were not drafted in the 1st round. Don’t be fooled by the number of “traditional” quarterbacks taken; look at the fact the guys taken in front of them were “TLGs”

  • Drew Brees (2nd)
  • Andy Dalton (2nd)
  • Colin Kaerpernick (2nd)
  • Matt Schaub (3rd)
  • Russell Wilson (3rd)
  • Tom Brady (6th)
  • Matt Flynn (7th) – assumed to be Raiders starting quarterback in 2013
  • Tony Romo (undrafted)

Let’s be honest, that’s a pretty good list of quarterbacks. Matt Flynn is the weakest link in that chain, and two NFL GMs have traded for him.  But it also means the “square peg/round hole” has brought us a lot of sub-par quarterbacks drafted way too soon in the hopes they can become a “big time” quarterback.

Here’s another thing…this also means that quarterbacks drafted after the third round are long-shots to mean anything in this league, so the fact that two TLGs went before any “traditional” quarterbacks in a league starved for quarterback talent is a highly significant development.  It also leads us to reason #2.

2) The “Conventional Wisdom” is Already Cracking

Ever since Curly Lambeau brought the forward pass to the NFL, the passing game has never stopped growing in it’s favor with both fans and coaches. That’s why the majority of quarterbacks on the Dubsism List of The  30 Greatest of All-Time, the majority either played in the pass-happy post “1978 Rule Change” era, or were gunslingers before their time. But it is only in the past couple of decades where the pure “pocket passer” quarterback has taken over.

Ironically, it is in that same post-1978 era where the “non-traditional” quarterback has really had some major impact.  While 1978 was at the end of the careers of Roger Staubach and Fran Tarkenton, these two Hall-of-Fame “non-traditional” quarterbacks were a major reason the “Mel Blount rule” ( the one that outlawed “bump-and-run” pass coverage and changed the definition of pass interference) was implemented, so that more quarterbacks who couldn’t extend a play with their legs could get as many open receivers as these guys did. There’s no accident that with in two years of the passing of the “Mel Blount rule,” the Los Angeles Rams were led to a Super Bowl by Vince Ferragamo, a pass-happy CFL quarterback.

But no quarterback did more to perpetuate the value of the “non-traditional” quarterback than Randall Cunningham. Not only did Cunningham’s high-wire act in Philadelphia electrify the NFL, his transition to the ring-leader of a record-setting 550+ offense that may very be the NFL last, purest example of a truly “vertical” passing game. Ever since then, NFL GMs have been drafting “athletic” quarterbacks in the hope of finding the gold we first saw in Philadelphia green. Don’t tell me the Buffalo Bills wouldn’t love to be able to call E.J. Manuel “another Randall Cunningham.” The same goes for the Jets and Geno Smith.

randall cunningham flying

How many NFL teams right now would trade what they have for a quarterback for Randall Cunningham in his prime?

What it boils down to is NFL teams are all so desperate to win, and win now, that they are already willing to go outside the accepted norms. It is just a matter of time before somebody figures out the right way to do it. Again, the concept of team construction is a crucial one; more on that is coming in a bit.

3) Because It Will Be A “Nothing To Lose” Decision

Look at the three facts mentioned in the opening.  Coaches and general managers win or get fired…with no exceptions. Even Norv Turner eventually got a pink slip.  So, if you are an NFL coach/GM with a team that hasn’t seen a winning season and you can’t get the “traditional” quarterback, you have two choices. You can either try the “square peg/round hole” approach which you’ve seen fail countless times get a bunch of coaches and GMs fired, or you can roll the dice on a whole new system. Like I said, so far we’ve seen an NFL graveyard full of headstones etched with “this quarterback solves all of our problems.” Just like #2, at some point, somebody is going to take a shot going outside the box, by not only going “non-traditional” quarterback, but by committing to build around him.

Who Will Do It

1) The Guy Who Realizes It Has Been Successfully Done Before

This is the part that the NFL “traditional quarterback” purists just don’t want to admit because it screws their whole argument about quarterback play. Look at what I’ve said about this before:

Old quarterbacks are the prima donnas of the NFL;  Tebow threatens their entire belief system.  It is the John Elways and the Boomer Esiasons who helped create the “fuck it and chuck it” NFL.  It is what defines them, and it is that model of the NFL that keeps them in fat jobs as commentators and general managers. Anybody who has even the remotest shot at success by doing anything other than filling the skies with footballs is a not only a religious heretic who must be burned at the stake, but he is screwing with how these gymnasts in shoulder pads collect paychecks.

The problem is that these prima donnas don’t realize that the “fuck it and chuck it” NFL is not the result of three decades of great quarterback play, it is the result of rules that have been deliberately set in place to encourage the growth of the passing game. In fact, one can draw the observation that quarterback play has gotten worse and needs to be supported by rules that protect it. My fellow SportsBlogMovement member Patrick Young  made a great point about this recently:

For decades the NFL has been beating the “QB’s are the most important people alive” drum like some sort of cultish chant, but it wasn’t until recently when they changed the game so it was actually true.

Holding flat out doesn’t apply to Left Tackles anymore. You need written permission to tackle a QB, and even then you must do so below the waist but above the knees. And God help you if you tackle them to hard. And to paraphrase the all new rules regarding defensive backs:

You aren’t allowed. Whatever it is you want to do, don’t. Sorry about your luck. Have you thought about the benefits of being a wide receiver?

And don’t think I’m one of those guys that wants some brutal cage match with players getting carried out on stretchers. I’m not supporting violence for the sake of violence. But unbalancing the game has repercussions. If the NFL wants to protect its QB’s, then make the players protect their QB. Not in the boardroom with a rulebook. On the field by other players.

Know what happens when you send 5 guys out in the pattern as receivers? It means you only have 5 left to protect the QB. If the defense blitzes 6 it still leaves them in man coverage and makes your lineman outnumbered. So chances are if you send 5 guys out in the secondary (which happens all the time nowadays) your QB is going to get hit.

That isn’t football. That isn’t brutality. That’s just math.

Want to protect the NFL QB’s? BAN SENDING MORE THAN 4 PEOPLE INTO THE SECONDARY.

And if you think that’s crazy or idiotic, ask any QB, at any level, in any league, how many times he has made it to his fourth option, much less his fifth. Ask an NFL QB how many times he has thrown to his 5th receiver and he will give you a number pretty close to the same number of times he wished he had just played flute in the band instead of playing football.

Look, I’ve played Madden since it was on the Sega Saturn, but that doesn’t mean I actually want my football games to 31-28 every week. If you had given Montana and Rice this environment to play in…well…they would probably still be playing. Think 23 TD’s between Brady and Moss is impressive? Given the same rules Marino and Clayton would have had 30. EASILY.

Truer words have yet to be written,  but it is the inverse of Young’s point which proves mine. How long would some of the crap-tacular quarterbacks we now see in the NFL have lasted in the 1960′s? Even some of the greats of this era would have never made it in the NFL of that era.

Boil it all down to quarterback gravy, and what you get is that teams still won championships without guys who threw for 4,000 yards and 25 TDs a season. There’s even quarterbacks in the Hall-of-Fame who weren’t terribly gifted passers. Her’s where I invoke the “Kerry Collins” rule.  Do you think Kerry Collins is a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. If you do, then please stop reading immediately and have yourself rushed to a neurosurgeon because there is obviously a tumor growing on the common sense lobe of your brain. But look at how many quarterbacks who have been enshrined in Canton have less career passing yards than Collins. Again, the guys who weren’t terribly gifted passers are in bold.

  • Kerry Collins 40,922
  • Joe Montana¹² 40,551
  • Johnny Unitas¹² 40,239
  • Jim Kelly² 35,467
  • Steve Young¹²  33,124
  • Y.A. Tittle² 33,070
  • Troy Aikman¹² 32,942
  • Sonny Jurgensen ²32,224
  • Randall Cunningham* 29,979
  • Len Dawson¹² 28,711
  • Terry Bradshaw¹² 27,989
  • Joe Namath¹ 27, 663
  • George Blanda¹² 26,920
  • Bobby Layne¹² 26,768
  • Bob Griese¹² 25,092
  • Bart Starr¹² 24, 718
  • Norm Van Brocklin²  23, 611
  • Otto Graham¹² 23,584
  • Roger Staubach¹² 22,700

¹ – Won Super Bowl or AAFC/AFL/NFL Championship

² – On the Dubsism List of 30 Greatest Quarterbacks 

* - On this list for comparative purposes because he is the prototypical “TLG” (non-traditional quarterback)

While that is another example of why a large number of teams in the NFL would take an in-his-prime Randall Cunningham over whatever quarterback they have today, the guy who really serves as the on-point example here is Bob Griese.

Like Tebow, Greise was a multiple-time All-American. Like Tebow, Griese was not a terribly gifted passer, despite the fact he also pitched for the baseball team at Purdue. However like Tebow, Griese made up for this by capitalizing on his athleticism and leadership skills.  Besides being a pitcher and a quarterback, Griese was a guard on the Purdue basketball team, and also handles the punting and kicking duties when he wasn’t quarterbacking the football team. Much like how Tebow was the engine that powered Florida Gator offense, there were several Purdue games in which Griese scored every one of Purdue’s points.

This all led to Griese being selected by the Miami Dolphins with the 4th overall pick in the 1967 Draft, ahead of future Hall-of-Famers Floyd Little, Alan Page, and Gene Upshaw. Griese started the 1967 season as the Dolphin’s back-up quarterback, but starter John Stofa  broke his ankle in the first game, which began three largely lackluster seasons with Griese at the helm of the struggling expansion team’s offense. Griese showed the occasional flash of brilliance, but the wins were rare, and after a third consecutive losing season in 1969, the Dolphins fired head  coach George Wilson.

Proof that looks are deceiving: Be honest, when you picture Hall of Fame quarterbacks, you don't picture "nerd" glasses.

Proof that looks are deceiving: Be honest, when you picture Hall of Fame quarterbacks, you don’t picture “nerd” glasses.

New head coach Don Shula turned a 3-10-1 set of sad sacks into a 10-4 playoff team in one season by doing one thing. He quit expecting his quarterback to be the sole source of the offense. Rather, Shula installed a exceptionally boring ball-control, running-centered offense. within two years, that approach created the only team to go a full season undefeated, a team that didn’t even have it star quarterback for a major portion of the season as Griese broke his leg in the fifth game of the season.  Griese didn’t return until the AFC Championship game, and even in the Super Bowl win over the Washington Redskins, Griese was clearly not the focus of the offense. He threw only 11 passes in that game, completing 8 of them for 88 total yards.

Bob Griese and Don Shula are just one example from that list. Tom Landry had to transition the Dallas Cowboys’ offense away from an aging gunslinger in Don Meredith to Roger Staubach, a 27-yer old rookie from the Naval Academy who a lot of people thought couldn’t be an NFL quarterback. You can tell a similar story about Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh, and with Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr in Green Bay.

2) Somebody Willing To Do An End-To-End Rebuild of The Offensive Line 

This is really an off-shoot of the previous point, and one that touches on that point I keep saying I will come back to later. Well, now is “later.” The biggest component in making the best out of a “non-traditional” quarterback is to construction of the team around him. I’m not talking about formations or any of that other crap. I’m talking about the guys you have on the team.

One thing that changed in the pass-happy era of today’s football is something I alluded to earlier. The dominant position on the offensive line has shifted outward for the sake of pass protection. Thirty years ago, eh left tackle was nowhere near as important as they are today. In that era and before, offensive line play was dominated by guards and centers. Look at the team I used as a previous example, the Miami Dolphins of the early 1970′s. In front of Bob Griese were center Jim Langer and right guard Larry Little, who are both in the Hall of Fame, and left guard Bob Kuechenberg, who should be in Canton.

That’s not the only example either. Just look at the Green Bay Packer running game that dominated the NFL of the 1960′s. Every yard that offense gained on the ground, and every one of those championships came on the shoulders of All-Pro talent on the interior line…Jerry Kramer, the best player not in the Hall of Fame springs to mind. All you have to do is take a look at the Dubsism List of the Greatest Offensive Linemen and look at how many of them played on championship-caliber teams.

But the best example is from a team I haven’t mentioned yet.  Between 1982 and 1991, Joe Gibbs coached the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl wins, and did it with three different quarterbacks. The key was that Gibbs always had an offensive line tailored to protect Redskin quarterbacks. It only makes sense, because Joe Gibbs learned the hard way about the perils of not protecting your quarterback, courtesy of Lawrence Taylor.

It’s really no accident that a discussion of protecting quarterbacks comes down to Lawrence Taylor.  Taylor is the single biggest reason why the focus of offensive line play moved outside. Prior to Taylor, the biggest threat to quarterback came form the line, in the form of guys like Alan Page or the recently departed Deacon Jones. The trouble came when defenses realized they couldn’t fight through blocks and get to the quarterback in the new world of the three-step drop and quick -release passes of the Bill Walsh “west coast” offense, so along came the “edge” pass rushers like Taylor and Derrick Thomas. The pass-rushing linebacker became so popular offenses had to  shift the focus of the line to the blind-side tackle position. The irony is that when 49ers, the inventors of the “west coast” offense,  shifted the focus of their blocking schemes to protect Joe Montana, it was Giants’ nose tackle Jim Burt’s hit on Montana in the 1986 NFC Divisional Playoff game that nearly turned the 49er quarterback into a potted plant.

jim burt hit on joe montana

The bottom line is that the real focus of any offense has to be the front five and their ability to protect the quarterback, and that protection scheme has be tailored to the type of quarterback a team has.

3) The Guy With The Stones To Buck “Tradition”

This is where Bill Belichick comes in. Face it, if there is a guy in the NFL right now who has the caché to do pretty much whatever the he wants to, its the Patriots head coach. You and I both know that Belichick is the one coach in the NFL that could make Tebow his starting quarterback tomorrow, and all the Belichick apologists at ESPN would simply say “well, he must know something we don’t.”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Belichick would make Tebow his starter. I’m not even saying he should make Tebow the starter. To do so right now would be pure fucking lunacy.  The odds that Bill Belichick tells Tom Brady to grab a clipboard while he’s flipping the keys to the Patriots’ offense to Timmy Rah-Rah are roughly the same as me being elected Pope and President of North Korea while getting a chain blowjob from the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. In other words, I’m just saying Belichick is one guy who could buck the NFL conventional wisdom, if for no other reason than he has three Super Bowl rings.

Not to mention, Bill Belichick is most likely a guy who knows that everything I’ve up to this point is undeniably true. The conditions in New England right now are all wrong for such a move, but two or three years from now when the Brady era is over might be a different story. After all, the Patriots are old and in need of a rebuilding, Tom Brady is eventually going to be done, and the transition of one “franchise” quarterback to another (à la Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck or Joe Montana to Steve Young)  happen about as often as a successful Kardashian marriage. The clouds  for the proverbial “perfect storm” it would take to make this happen could very well be forming in the New England sky.

Having said that, please understand that I’m not saying that this is going to happen in New England, nor am I saying that it is going to happen with Tim Tebow. But mark my words, someday in the near future, for all the reasons and under the conditions I’ve stated. Those clouds I mentioned could form quickly over any of the franchises out there thirsting for a rainfall of winning. Right now, Minnesota is trying to make a legitimate NFL quarterback out of Christian Ponder. I’ve already mentioned what the Bills and Jets are going to try to do with E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith respectively. The Panthers could get smart and try to build something around Cam Newton, who for all intents and purposes is just a bigger Randall Cunningham. For all we know, there may be a team out there right now with designs on current Heisman Trophy winner and future high draft pick Johnny Manziel.  The possibilities are endless.

It was Vince Lombardi who said “winning is everything, it’s the only thing.” That’s really the big reason why this is going to happen. NFL coaches and general managers get paid to win and they are going to do everything in their power to do just that.  Sooner rather than later one of these guys is going to figure out that in the NFL the future really is the past, which means the future of the NFL’s present conventional wisdom about what constitutes quarterback is  going to take its turn as the past.

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6 responses

  1. There is no better place Tebow could have ended up in than New England. Under the tutelage of Belichick and Brady, Tebow can learn how to be a true NFL QB. This was Mr. Tebow’s perfect fit.

  2. Well done. I agree with Sam about how there is no better place that he could end up.

    The Kerry Collins thing is enough to make me want to throw up. I had no idea he was ahead of Montana. Sad.

    If Tebow had Randall Cunningham’s frame would he be in better shape? Probably. You said that there would be plenty of teams who would love to trade their current QB for Randall Cunningham in his prime, I would say Carolina has to be on that list.

    Meehan

    1. If Kerry Collins makes you want to puke, then I suppose its a good thing that I didn’t tell you Vinny Testaverde has 46,233 career passing yards.

      The best thing about Tebow being in New England is that no matter what happens, Belichick is not going to allow this to become a circus like ti did in Denver and New York.

      And Tebow’s problem isn’t a body type thing. Its not even a throwing thing. It the fact that he’s never going to be the kind of guy you can count on to win a game with his arm alone. But he can make up for that in so many other ways if he has the right situation.

      Worse yet, its not even a passing accuracy thing. Tebow isn’t a terribly accurate passer, but he doesn’t have to be. If you don’t believe that, just go look at the list of guys with the highest completion percentages.

      http://www.pro-football-reference.com/leaders/pass_cmp_perc_career.htm

      I’ll warn you in advance…Mark Sanchez ranks ahead of Johnny Unitas.

  3. And for some reason not included on your list, another non-prototypical quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, led his team to a victory in Super Bowl 45.

    Good breakdown. Look, the game has always been about forward thinkers and I agree with you, players are bigger and faster which means pockets close quicker.

    Tebow might not be ‘the guy’ who represents the official change-over to ‘an out of pocket presence but at least he has two national championships, one Heisman Trophy, one chastity belt and kind words spoken in a Dubsism post to hang his hat on.

    1. Good catch on Rodgers. That omission has since been corrected.

      But to be fair, Rodgers is also a guy who can stay in the pocket and destroy a defense as well.

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