Monday, November 21, 2011

Are We At The High Water Mark of Tim Tebow's Professional Career?

The biggest story of the 2011 NFL season has been Tim Tebow. Since the preseason, Tebow has consumed the national newspaper headlines, the blogosophere, and every television network that covers the NFL, or sports in general for that matter. Considering all that's gone on this NFL season with headlines such as a lock out, Peyton Manning's potentially career ending injury, an undefeated Green Bay Packer team that looks scarier than the 2007 Patriots could have ever dreamed of becoming, the turmoil in Philadelphia, and the reemergence of the San Francisco 49ers, it's pretty impressive that Tim Tebow has been the consummating story of this season.

It began in training camp with the debate over whether or not Tebow or Orton should be the Broncos week one starter. Eventually, coach John Fox declared Orton to be the starter and every news media outlet reported that Tebow couldn't even make second string, losing that right to former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Fans who don't watch the preseason but read distorted headlines found this information to be humorous, and eventually Tim Tebow became a punchline for the casual fan.

Then, in case you missed a bulk of the summer Tebow bashing, Merril Hoge stepped in to make sure you caught up in time for the preseason.

For those unfamiliar with Hoge, he was an NFL player who spent seven seasons as a fullback with the Pittsburgh Steelers and five games with the Chicago Bears before injuries and ineffectiveness lead to his retirement. Hoge was an average blocker, though he did help Barry Foster become a Pro Bowl running back, and Hoge himself was more of a running fullback, and at times a very effective one. Nevertheless, today Hoge presents himself as a film-room guru and a quarterbacks expert on various ESPN shows, and this summer Hoge went out of his way to tweet "...It's embarassing to think the Broncos could win with Tebow!!"

Then came the actual preseason, where the Broncos quarterback situation was the most talked about positional battle in the NFL. In limited action, Tebow looked solid, though because none of his play was with the first team, the media and such found ways to ridicule Tebow's play, and began to designate a place for him on the "all-time busts" list.

But the fans in Denver and around the country never bought in, and after a week one loss at home to the Oakland Raiders where Kyle Orton was completely ineffective, it became even more apparent that despite what the media was saying, the fans who watch the NFL wanted to see Tim Tebow. A 1-3 start, a silly billboard outside of John Fox's office, a couple of plays at wide receiver, and talk about drafting Andrew Luck ensued until Tim Tebow finally got to play quarterback for the 2011 Denver Broncos, and Tebow put together a strong effort, almost guiding the Broncos to an improbably come from behind victory against then division leading San Diego. The Broncos were 1-4, but Tebow looked to be the Broncos starter.

Six weeks later the Broncos are 4-1, with victories of Miami, Oakland, Kansas City, and the New York Jets. Tebow's name has been dragged into MVP discussions, and at this point he's probably the second most deserving player of that award in the league behind Aaron Rodgers. Tebow is also probably to fill the third quarterback spot for the AFC in the Pro Bowl, and right now the Broncos sit one game out of first place in the AFC West.

He's become a cultural phenomenon. "Tebowing" has replaced "planking" as the thing drunks and tourists are most likely to do with their spare time. In a season with no Brett Favre and no Peyton Manning, Tebow has filled the void of "celebrity" athlete that Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have had trouble filling. He leads off every SportsCenter or affiliated show. He may not be the most beloved player in the NFL, but right now he's certainly the biggest, and most importantly he's backing up his celebrity with big, dramatic, wins.

Now the question is will it sustain? Intangibles have gotten Tim Tebow to this 4-1 record, but can intangibles take Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos to the playoffs? Conventional wisdom would say "no." Conventional wisdom also told us that a quarterback can't win going 2 for 8. Conventional wisdom told us that Kyle Orton gave the Broncos the best chance to win. Conventional wisdom told us that down 15 with less than three minutes to go on the road there was no chance the Broncos would beat the Dolphins. Conventional wisdom told us that Tebow couldn't win on the road in Oakland a week after getting embarrassed by the Detroit Lions. And of course conventional wisdom told us that "it's embarrassing to think that the Broncos could win with Tim Tebow!!"

Sometimes conventional wisdom is wrong.

Now I've always said, and I'll continue to say that I think Tim Tebow will be successful in the NFL lining up under center. He's not a tight end, he's not a full back. Tim Tebow is a quarterback. While he may not be a starting quarterback that can win a Super Bowl, Tebow is certainly a piece that a team can use to win one. A team like the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New York Jets who could use Tebow in red zone and short yardage packages where Tebow could come in and move the chains or score, much like Tebow did on the 2006 Florida Gator national championship team. Perhaps a coach like Bill Belichick will see in Tebow the opportunity to fix a run game that has been plaguing his team in big games since the retirement of Corey Dillon. Perhaps Andy Reid or Sean Payton or some other coach not afraid to experiment will bring Tebow in. But the bottom line is that someone out there eventually will.

And before that happens Tebow first needs to come down from the high that he's on now. It would be great to see the 2011 Denver Broncos go from 1-4 to the playoffs. I think that will happen. After that, who knows? But one thing I can say is that thus far, conventional wisdom has been wrong. You can say NFL defenses will eventually catch up, "but catch up to what?" is what I'd reply. Tebow hasn't been playing quarterback well at all. Some might even arguing he's playing the worst quarterback that any QB with a 4-1 record has ever obtained. And conventional wisdom would state that Tim Tebow's passing will only get better as he sees more in game action.

Maybe this time conventional wisdom will finally be wrong, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Should Jimmy Clausen Get a Second Chance?

It was only two years ago that Jimmy Clausen was being discussed as the number one quarterback in the NFL draft if an injured Sam Bradford decided to come back for a junior season.

In football, two years can be a lifetime, and for Clausen it only took 10 starts for the Carolina Panthers to give up on their 2010 2nd round pick. Cam Newton, Carolina’s 2011 first round draft choice, is more than just the quarterback of the future in Carolina, he’s the identity the franchise had been searching for since their inaugural season in 1995. He’s what some in Carolina had hoped Jimmy Clausen could be.

But thus far Jimmy Clausen has been nothing but a powder keg of potential. Countless reports have been written about how good Jimmy Clausen was going to be since his junior year of high school in 2005. He was called the “LeBron James of football,” and every big name school from USC, near his home in Thousand Oaks, California, to Tennessee, where his brother Casey lead the the Volunteers to three winning seasons, tried to recruit Clausen. Clausen opted for the glory of Notre Dame, where then head coach Charlie Weis salivated over the opportunity to inject Clausen into his pro-style offense.

But the Clausen/Weis era was a disaster for Notre Dame, leading to Weis’ firing after the 2009 season, which lead Clausen to declare himself eligible for the 2010 NFL draft. Early projections saw Clausen going in the early first round, but draft day 2010 was less kind. Teams such as Buffalo, Jacksonville, San Francisco, and Cleveland, all seemingly needing quarterbacks, passed on Clausen until he ended up in Carolina, a situation that looked excellent for the young passer, given that long time Panthers starter Jake Delhomme was moving on, and the Panthers were a team only a year removed from the two seed in the NFC.

But 2010 was such a disaster in Carolina that John Fox, the head coach who drafted Clausen, lost his job. Wide receiver Steve Smith publicly griped about Clausen’s poor play, and it was even rumored that Clausen’s teammates vehemently disliked him, a reputation that had been following the young passer since high school.

But Clausen is still young, and at age 24 he’s played in a lot of games, seen a lot of adversity, and has played for some excellent coaches to potentially learn from. In the long run, his awful rookie campaign and this year on the bench could supplement his three years as a starter at Notre Dame towards developing Clausen into a better NFL player. Perhaps he learned from his shortcomings as a leader in Carolina and can one day become a captain elsewhere.

But right now there’s nothing Jimmy Clausen can do. Barring a major injury to Cam Newton, Clausen will not see the field the rest of the 2011 season. Odds are that Carolina will fully endorse Newton at the end of the year and part ways with Clausen’s salary, allowing Clausen and his agent to decide where the best place for Jimmy Clausen to continue his NFL career will be.

But there’s one problem: teams traditionally don’t invest their future in other teams damaged goods. Clausen will also hit a market that includes Kyle Orton, David Garrard, Vince Young, Brady Quinn, Chad Pennington, Matt Flynn, and potentially Peyton Manning. Though Clausen is likely viewed as having more upside than those players (based entirely on age), odds are that at least some of those players are going to inherit the open starting jobs, forcing Clausen to follow Matt Leinart and the aforementioned Young in taking backup jobs in situations they seem as potentially fruitful.

Or maybe Clausen won’t be so lucky. Maybe teams like Jacksonville, Cleveland, St. Louis, Minnesota, Seattle, or Arizona won’t want him. Maybe Clausen will be forced to sign on as a backup to a well-engraved starter such as Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, or Matthew Stafford. But Clausen doesn’t deserve that, not yet.

But for Jimmy Clausen it’s never been about learning, growing, and developing. Dating back to his days in high school he’s been expected to be great, resulting in a sense of entitlement. And while the LeBron James comparisons have become laughable, Jimmy Clausen should get another shot to be an NFL starter. Clausen has potential and he has talent, what he didn't have were the intangibles, but this summer some NFL team will buy into what the scouts have written one more time, and give Jimmy Clausen one last chance to prove they're right.