“Why is there always so much fuss over Tim Tebow?”
That’s the question a colleague asked me last week on our way to lunch. He knows I graduated from Florida, and Tebow seems to be where the conversation drifts after talking about his polar opposite, Aaron Hernandez. He just didn’t get why people always make such a fuss over a below-average NFL quarterback and an average minor-league baseball player.
I didn’t have a very good answer.
Tim Tebow the football player
There were some amazing football players on those 2006 and ’08 championship teams. The most explosive player on any of those teams was Percy Harvin, who was always a threat to take it the distance. There were better NFL players than Tebow on those teams, including the Pouncey twins, Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins, Carlos Dunlap and Reggie Nelson.
Tebow’s NFL numbers were fairly pedestrian. His career QB rating of 75.3 would have ranked 29th in 2017. His career completion percentage (47.8) would have ranked last by more than 5 percent.
An excellent QB at Florida, Tebow won a Heisman Trophy and shattered a bunch of Gators records on the way to two national championships.
That explains why he’s a big deal to Gators fans. Why did he become such a big deal that ESPN decided it needed to dedicate a day on SportsCenter to celebrating his birthday?
Trying to understand Tim Tebow’s popularity
While many point to Tebow’s open expression of his faith as the reason for his popularity, I have my doubts. Again, there are lots of players who openly express their Christianity. And those players don’t receive nearly the same vitriol or deification as Tebow.
Many point to his work with charities and his foundation. It was amazing to see the reaction to the Tim Tebow Night to Shine event. And long after the cameras turned off, Tebow stayed to play catch with disabled kids or visit kids in a hospital. But again — and this in no way is meant to diminish the good works he is doing — lots of college and NFL players do many of the same things.
I thought back to the Tim Tebow experience while he was at Florida, and this is the play that stood out to me.
This play is from the same 2006 game against LSU as the famous jump pass to Tate Casey that gets replayed over and over. But I was in the stands that day and remember this being the moment when I knew Urban Meyer’s spread offense would work in the SEC.
I’d never seen that type of play before. Nobody was within 20 yards of receiver Louis Murphy because LSU hadn’t seen it before either.
That trend of doing things I’ve never seen continued into the NFL. Again, the play most people remember is the long pass to Demaryius Thomas against Pittsburgh to win a playoff game in Jan. 2012. But I’ve seen short slants taken to the house before.
Instead, the thing I remember most about that season is the game against the Bears that the Broncos had no business winning. When Bears RB Marion Barber fumbled the ball in overtime to give the Broncos a chance to win the game, Tebow’s response was to calmly stand up while continuing to sing worship music.
Or how about the game against the Jets on a nationally televised Thursday night game? The Broncos offense did nothing the entire game. Tebow did nothing the entire game. Then, with the game on the line, Tebow ripped off a 95-yard drive accounting for 92 of those yards. All read-option plays. The kind of offense that Merril Hoge insisted would not work with Tebow in the National Football League.
And that — I think — is the root of Tebow’s popularity. He doesn’t do things the way they traditionally work. He challenges the idea that there is a right and a wrong way to do things. And he doesn’t always do things well. But what he does do is approach things in a way where win or lose, succeed or fail, it is going to be memorable. It is going to be something you haven’t seen before.
How this can impact the Gators in 2017
So how does any of this relate to the 2017 Gators football team? Well, what moment stands out when thinking about the Jim McElwain era? For me, it has to be the Antonio Callaway catch against Tennessee. That game was over, and somehow Will Grier and Callaway pulled a miracle.
That type of memorable play has been few and far between — particularly on offense — since McElwain took over. Of course, the memorable plays were all bad under former coach Will Muschamp, which is why all Gators fans scoffed at him being ranked No. 37 in the country among college coaches this week by CBS Sports.
I have noted previously that the McElwain/Nussmeier offense was extremely predictable last season. There is some benefit to having the fundamentals of an offense down pat. But with new QB Feleipe Franks likely taking over, the natural inclination is going to be to treat him as a game manager.
The problem that fans have with McElwain’s offense thus far isn’t just that it’s ineffective, but that it’s also boring. Special seasons don’t come from game managers. They come from putting together play designs that free up relatively unknown receivers like Louis Murphy 30 yards downfield. They come from taking risks that your colleagues are unwilling to take because it puts your players in a position to succeed.
But that requires a willingness to do something that nobody expects, and potentially expose yourself to criticism when it doesn’t work out. It may even require doing something that nobody’s ever seen before.
There’s a 29-year-old outfielder for the Columbia Fireflies who might be able to teach the staff something about that.