Friday, December 23, 2011

The geography of Tebow

There's a lot of things in the news lately about which I've been meaning to blog: the Keystone XL pipeline project, Encana accused by the US EPA of having contaminated people's wells in Wyoming whilst fracking, Canadian & US airlines going to court to prevent the EU from charging a GHG emissions tax on flights in and out of Europe, PM Harper's long-standing dream of dismantling the Wheat Board finally coming true...

But instead I'll blog about a phenomenon that's been on a lot of minds lately: Tebowmania. If you haven't heard of Tim Tebow, you probably don't follow either sports media or US media generally. He's the quarterback of the resurgent Denver Broncos, and one of the most recognizable names in American sports, in part because of his strong religious beliefs. Tebow also has a knack for rallying his team in the final minutes of games, and has brought his team back from dead last in October to having the inside chance of winning its division in the NFL and earning a playoff home game.

His story is unusual. He was born to American missionary parents in the Philippines. Serious complications occurred prior to birth, and her doctors recommended she undergo an abortion to protect her own life. She refused, and both she and Tim survived, safe and sound. He grew up to be a star athlete at the University of Florida, QBing his team to a national championship. He has also been very public about his religious beliefs, praying often before, during and after games, and speaking publicly on behalf of the pro-life/anti-abortion movement. He is very giving of his time to charity, and appears to have a sound appreciation of the fact that, at the end of the days, sports are sports and there are more important things.

He was drafted in the first round by a Broncos coach who would be fired not long after, the popular belief being that Tebow was too unorthodox to be a professional quarterback. The template for an NFL QB is New England's Tom Brady: tall, handsome, a strong arm, able to scan the opposing defence quickly, stand firm as defenders rush at him, and launch a perfectly spiralling pass over the shoulders and into the arms of a receiver sprinting downfield. Tebow is in many ways the opposite: he is a runner first, willing to dive head-first into the line of scrimmage for three yards and a cloud of dust, or to run along the line of scrimmage, drawing the defenders toward him and then pitch a short "option" pass to one of his running backs. When Tebow does throw downfield, he rarely tosses a perfect spiral, often fails to spot a wide open receiver, and at the first sign of trouble he'll scramble for whatever yards he can get.

I got to see the beginning of Tebow-mania first-hand. I was on my way to a workshop at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and decided to pop in at Mile High Stadium in Denver to see if I could get a ticket for that day's home game against the San Diego Chargers, a big divisional rivalry. The fact I could walk up to the ticket booth and buy a great seat for 1/2 price tells a lot about the state of the Denver economy. But that's another story. The Broncos had gotten off to a poor start this season under starting QB Kyle Orton, who is a more traditional drop-back QB type. Orton was unpopular with the fans, and was booed resoundingly during the first quarter of the game. His receivers dropped some easy passes, his offensive line was doing a poor job of blocking for him, and Orton's body language showed he was defeated. San Diego got out to an early lead, and things were looking bleak.

The coach eventually put Tim Tebow into the game and the crowd went absolutely nuts. Seriously, you could hardly hear yourself think. And he immediately proceeded to play the worst football you could ever imagine. He fumbled snaps, he ran around looking lost, his passes clanged to the ground yards short of his receivers. It was painful to watch. He completely stunk, no way around it. And yet, something happened. His receivers continued to try hard to get open; his offensive linemen held their blocks as long as humanly possible, and the crowd continued to roar and cheer, and no one left. On the sidelines, every Bronco save Orton was visibly inflated with extra energy.

And then in the last few minutes of the game, Tebow finally made things happen. He started connecting on long passes, he made some nice runs, and the Broncos began a furious comeback. At one point in the 4th quarter, Tebow rallied them to within a missed 2-point conversion of tying the game. San Diego ended up kicking another field goal, so when the last possession of the game wound up in Tebow's hands, he had to try and get a touchdown to win it. He moved his team within striking distance, but a hail mary pass to the end zone as time ran out failed, and Denver lost. But the myth was born. Since then, Denver's won more games than they've lost, often in the final minutes, and they sure are fun to watch.

Why is Tebow so successful? Part of it is, in my view, geographical. With a traditional NFL QB like Orton or Brady, much of the action takes place near the line of scrimmage or around the pocket (where the QB stands and throws). The defensive players (with the exception of those covering receivers) are continually moving forward, typically covering short distances in straight lines. Meanwhile, the offensive linemen are spending half their time (which is the typical frequency of passing plays) moving backwards, trying to protect the QB. Over the course of the game, if the offence fails to connect on its passes, the advantage goes to the defence. In Tebow's style of game, the offensive players are the ones moving forward in straight lines most of the time, the defenders are the ones doing more of the chasing and getting back on their heals. Even if Tebow is only grinding out a few yards at a time for most of the game, it must wear down the defenders. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if you asked defensive players after a game against Denver, they would say they're more tired than they are after playing other teams. Tired defences have trouble covering ground as the game goes on.

Of course, this advantage only goes so far, and if the opposing team is able to score lots of points (as Brady's Patriots did last weekend), it's hard for Denver to keep pace given Tebow's time consuming, grinding style of offence. As for Tebow's religion, I think it's great that he has strong beliefs and isn't embarrassed to be public about them, even if they aren't always my own. Too many pro athletes believe in nothing more than accumulating money and fame, and care little about anyone or anything beyond themselves. I doubt very much God pays attention to football, or that He takes much of an interest in how Tebow's team does. Faith probably isn't as great a factor in his success on the field as we might like to think. Just the same, it is nice to see a clean-living, God-fearing athlete becoming notorious; it's a pleasant change from the low standards we've become used to in superstar athletes of recent years.


Anonymous said...

Great take on the Tebowmania, apparently God missed a few quarters of that Patroits game

Anonymous said...