Just as no one sets out to become a smooth jazz musician, no quarterback sets out to become a game manager. Young guys growing up want to win the Super Bowl like Favre or Elway did; not a single one envisions themselves winning it like Brad Johnson or Trent Dilfer did.
The term “game manager” has turned into a backhanded compliment for quarterbacks, almost like saying a woman has a “great personality.” It’s good to be able to manage games, of course, but it’s code for saying the guy has a weak arm, limited mobility, and gets by on short passes and handoffs.
Tim Tebow was not a game manager in 2007. He was a force of nature, taking on a Herculean load in hopes of compensating for an impossibly young and overmatched defense. Only the 20-17 loss to Auburn can fully be blamed on the Gator offense; Florida scored 30 against Georgia and lost late fourth quarter leads against LSU and Michigan.
Now in 2008, Tebow has not quite been a force of nature again. His running duties have been reduced drastically to help avoid injuries, and in three of the four games so far Dan Mullen only used a portion of the playbook. The offense has called for Tim more often than not to stay in the safety of the pocket, which in reality hasn’t been all that safe thanks to injury on the offensive line.
To make sense of it all, I tried to boil down his performance last weekend to a couple short sentences, so here goes. Against Ole Miss, Tebow mainly stayed in the pocket and only left to avoid rushers. He ran a small number of designed quarterback runs, and unfortunately he overthrew all of his long throws. He was good on the short and medium ones though, especially the quick ones.
Does that sound familiar to you? It did to me. That is almost an exact description of Chris Leak in 2006, and you can throw in the turnover-laced third quarter meltdown in on top of that. Leak came in and played very well for his age at first, but the constant changing of offensive coordinators and an ill-fitting system his final two years made him inconsistently good. He was kind of like Doug Johnson, only with a completely different personality. Throw out the smashes, and Tebow was Chris Leak.
I will always hold Leak in high esteem for many reasons, but Tebow hit a higher level last year than his predecessor ever did. Ultimately, what we saw last season was not sustainable though; it was a supernova of a year that would likely have burned out if it were attempted again.
This season’s change is like when Tiger Woods changed his swing a few years back. He won plenty of majors with his old one, and Tebow won a Heisman with last season’s style. Let’s not forget though that he first held his bronze trophy with a cast on one hand, a perfect symbol of what kind of toll that season took on him.
Once he can get this year’s plan right, they Gators will be back to cruising on offense just as Tiger returned to winning majors. What is that plan, you ask? It’s to get more people involved and to lighten the pounding on Tebow.
The second part about Tebow taking fewer hits has not been going as well as planned. Without Jim Tartt in the game, blitz coverage downgrades significantly. Sadly, he likely won’t play a full game again thanks to his nagging shoulder injury. That means the plan will have to adapt too; Tebow gets hit enough on running plays as it is, he doesn’t need to be taking hits from passing plays too.
The first part has been hit or miss because Tebow isn’t used to having to keep track of so many people at once. He still has room to grow as a quarterback, and that’s part of the maturation process. He did a great job of distributing the ball against Hawai’i when there was no pressure, so we know he can do it. There’s a matter of doing it in high pressure situations now, and it will take time as any change does.
In other words, he must become a better game manager. I mean that in the strict sense, not in the Trent Dilfer sense. He has always acquired tunnel vision when pressured, and it worked fine Saturday because he locked onto a guy the defense couldn’t stop. Ole Miss nearly picked off a pass because of it, but better defenses in the conference will not be so accommodating.
Some have pointed out that Tebow has not seemed quite right and almost tentative sometimes. I’d wager that’s because he hasn’t internalized the new methods fully yet. He still has to think instead of just being able to react. Last season it was almost like he was back in high school, able to just go make a play whenever and however he wanted to. His body paid a steep price for that luxury.
I don’t know when, if at all, he will reach the point of reacting within the new framework. Maybe it happens mid-season, or maybe it will require another full offseason. He has vowed to play harder than anyone else in the country, so we’ll see about that.
Ultimately, last weekend’s contest had all the hallmarks of a classic letdown game: the Gators had just won against a rival convincingly, they came out flat, they were sloppy with ball safety, they gave up big plays on defense, and the sideline reporter gave the obligatory “there’s just no fire on this sideline” speech in the second half. People are making too much of the 22-point spread for that game; Ole Miss is not terrible and Vegas is not the end-all be-all of sports knowledge. The Rebels had showed enough that anyone should have known they could surprise an unprepared team, and that’s exactly what happened.
Every team has played through games like that. Every coach has presided over games like that. It cannot be laid on any one single player’s shoulders, least of all Tebow. He made plenty of plays all game, but in the end he came up one play short thanks to a missed block on a blitzing linebacker on 4th-and-1.
Arkansas is nowhere near as good as Ole Miss is. The Razorbacks present a perfect opportunity for Tebow to get more comfortable in his new role: the fans will be intense as always, but the defense will not be particularly stiff. It’ll give him a mix of high and low pressure, and he should be able to use it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
It is possible to be a game manager and still make incredible plays. Once Tebow makes that balance second nature, there’s no stopping him.