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The Case for Tim Tebow

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This is what you expected, right? Here you have a young quarterback perpetually impatient with the play, ready to trust his legs as much as a good throwing lane and unafraid of a hit in a way that terrifies his coaches, and he could get pushed into the starting role -- at least partially, you could argue -- because of his name. He's had a few starts, so there's little to project off of. "At first, he wanted to run every time he got back there," says his coach, who insists there is not a single play in the playbook designed for his quarterback to run. "I think he could be a running back in this league," a teammate says. "I've seen [him] run over linebackers and then bounce back to the huddle." And to go with the running problem, the lefty with the big college stats doesn't have a big arm. But he knows the angles, and how to explain away flaws. "As far as arm strength goes, there are people who have been successful with less. Joe Montana, to name one," the quarterback says. "John Elway was 'confused' before he 'arrived.'" It all makes Tim Tebow so hard to evaluate. Thing is, these quotes aren't about Tebow -- they're about Steve Young. Year of the Quarterback ESPN has dedicated 2011 to examining one of the most crucial positions in all of sports -- the quarterback. Year of the QB " Those coaching frustrations, the teammate views, the player himself -- it's all from a Chicago Tribune story that was written eight months before Tebow was born (he's 24 now), about a 25-year-old Young, who was being handed the keys to the Tampa Bay offense in November 1986. It's a reminder that the NFL has always had issues with this type of quarterback -- the kid who can pass, but a lot of his instincts don't fit the traditional NFL model. Ultimately, Young struggled and was traded away from Tampa in frustration; he was viewed as a bust. He didn't become a starter, then a star, for years. Perhaps Tebow also will be traded at some point, a wasted pick, a project for another coach. But there's also good reason to think that Tebow can be a very good NFL quarterback because, in the same way Tampa once miscalculated on Young, there's reason to think we haven't done a good job of accurately deciphering what a quarterback like Tebow can do. In a great GQ profile on Tebow from 2009, regarding Tebow's NFL prospects, Jason Fagone wrote that he "has a way of making you feel like there's no relevant history to contend with. Like you can just sweep that all aside … the statistics and the metastatistical arguments about what the statistics aren't capturing." We can already see that there is relevant history in a player such as Young, if not a certain outcome. And now, there's also a statistic that better captures Tebow. Total QBR shows that Tebow's best game as a pro was an 8-of-16 passing performance against Oakland in which his QBR was 83.3. Of his three starts, this game also had Tebow's highest passer rating, at 100.5. But his QBR score is so high because it encapsulates that Tebow also ran for 78 yards on 8 carries and, in one remarkable play, turned a third-and-24 into a 40-yard touchdown run. This is nothing new for Tebow -- he ran for 2,947 yards and 57 touchdowns at Florida and, if you add only rush attempts and sacks, was hit close to 800 times without missing a start -- but most traditional QB statistics don't recognize that. Although QBR sounds built for Tebow, a brilliant runner and merely developing passer, it really helps guys such as Josh Freeman and Aaron Rodgers more. Both are fantastic throwers who quietly run often and effectively. Still, in that game, according to QBR, Tebow created just as many expected points with his legs as he did with his arm, and did so on just nine total runs. The bottom line is this: If you want to evaluate Tebow as a quarterback, you have to understand that what he lacks as a passer can be made up for by what he brings with his legs. This isn't a new argument, but it now has additional context. For instance, QBR shows that quarterbacks who can run are vastly more dangerous in the red zone -- if you recall the famous Tebow jump passes at Florida, you know exactly what this means. It also speaks to development. If you consider this running stuff just a youthful compulsion that NFL coaches must break out of the young colt, you're wrong. Tebow, at 23, ran for 227 yards on just 43 carries last season, including six touchdowns. Michael Vick at 31 hasn't kicked running -- he topped 600 yards last year. At 37, Young ran for 454 yards and six touchdowns. Yes, players slow down. But it's not about age; guys who can run, will. Evaluators are right -- Tebow is not yet a quality NFL passer. Too often his accuracy on even simple throws is poor, and he tends to hold back on throws into the conventional, but tight, NFL windows, those hanging tires through which quarterbacks must be able to throw. Still, his total QBR score outpaced that of teammate Kyle Orton last season -- Orton is a much better passer but a statue in the pocket, costing the Broncos points with sacks -- and Tebow's 82.1 passer rating in 2010 would have been the best among rookies if it had stretched for 16 games. Is there reason to think Tebow's accuracy will grow? Well, why not? We've had this argument before. As a college passer, he threw for 9,286 yards at a 67.1 completion percentage. He had 88 TD passes against just 15 INTs. This was all out of an offense that won't be coming to an NFL stadium near you, but compare that with Vick's final year at Virginia Tech, where he completed just 54.2 percent of throws and threw just nine TDs against seven INTs. Vick is a superior athlete to Tebow and has a bigger arm, but he's also more brittle. That Vick played quarterback at an MVP level past the age of 30 -- as he did for much of last year in the same dual-threat format that Tebow will offer -- given his own battle with learning to throw in an NFL offense, makes the idea that Tebow somehow can't do the same extremely short-sighted. Tebow, were he to start in Week 1, would continue to be as raw a passer as you can find in the NFL. But this unrefined product is a lot better than some believe, and he might even be more valuable than Denver's other option. Last year in Vick's "Monday Night Football" masterpiece, a six-touchdown performance against the Redskins that included two running touchdowns, Young gushed that the performance exemplified "the fruition of the position." It was a nice thought, a nod to the totality of quarterbacking that we haven't previously measured. It was also kind, given that, in that total sense, Young was clearly forgetting about himself. And people who give Tebow no chance to succeed as an NFL quarterback are being similarly forgetful. Chris Sprow is a senior editor for ESPN The Magazine and Insider. He reports and edits on many sports and works year-round with Mel Kiper on NFL draft coverage. He also oversees ESPN's Rumor Central and has been a regular guest on ESPN networks in that role. You can find his ESPN archives here and on Twitter here.

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