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Why Draft Tebow? Lips Like Sugar? Or for the Shotgun/Spread?

He's a quarterback.  That's all he's going to do.
He's a quarterback. That's all he's going to do.

It took a few days, but I'm done grieving.  Like a Raiders fan after another 4-12 season, I'm back for more.  

You see, I've come to accept that Tim Tebow will be the quarterback of the Denver Broncos.  

It may not be at the start of training camp.  And it may not be in 2010.  But it's coming.   And much sooner than you think. 

Josh McDaniels did not trade up for Tim Tebow in the 1st round so that he could throw him into the game for only 4 or 5 gimmick plays.  He didn't draft him to become an H-back in the Wild Horses set.  And he didn't draft him--contrary to reports--because Tebow is the squeakiest and cleanest poster child the NFL has ever seen.  While Tebow might have lips like sugar, he is here because Josh McDaniels intends to make him a starting quarterback at some point in the near future.  McDaniels himself put the notion of Tebow being a gimmick to bed last Saturday, saying about Tebow:

"He's a quarterback. He's a quarterback. That's all he's going to do."

Okay, Josh.  I get it.  I get it.

It's possible that Kyle Orton pulls a Drew Brees and throws 27 TDs and only 7 INTs.  It's possible he leads them to the playoffs and the Broncos go 12-4.  That's why Edison invented the franchise tag.  Sure, this is all possible.  But in the mind of McDaniels, it's unlikely.   

I'm getting the feeling it's 2006 all over again.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  I was younger and the Broncos were just coming off of an AFC-Championship appearance.

You remember 2006, don't you?  It was also the year that the Broncos traded up in the 1st round to select Jay Cutler a year after veteran Jake Plummer threw for 3,366 yard, 18 TDs and 7 INTs with a 90.2 QB rating.   The day of the draft, we heard this gem from Mike Shanahan:

"All you like to do is have competition.  You try to create competition. We've been very fortunate the last couple of years. Obviously Jake is in his 10th year and took us to the AFC Championship Game and played quite well on a Pro Bowl level. (Plummer is) an athlete, he's playing at a very high level and won a lot of games, and hopefully we'll continue to do that with Jake at the helm."

At the time, there were many who saw through this quote, although many were thinking Cutler was going to end up sitting 1 or 2 years for the purposes of "development."  

Fast forward to 2009. Kyle Orton throws for 3,802 yards, 21 TDs and 12 Ints with a 86.8 QB rating. The Broncos trade multiple picks to acquire Tebow in the 1st round of 2010 NFL draft.  The thinking is that he'll have 2 or even 3 years to develop behind Orton or Quinn. In fact, McDaniels gave a similar quote to Shanahan's just the other day regarding Tebow:

"The fact we draft a player doesn't change our depth chart.  Every year, at every position where you draft a player, there's already a starter. Did I call all the linebackers last year because I drafted Robert Ayers?"

And when the Broncos traded for Brady Quinn, McDaniels also struck a similar tenor:

"I talked to him [Orton] right then and I told him this is a competitive thing as far as adding competition to any spot on our football team that we could.  This had nothing negative to do with Kyle Orton. We are just trying to improve the competition at every spot.  

So there you have it.  Competition.  It's a good thing.  And it's in this spirit of competition, I say bring on Quinn and bring on Tebow.  But let's be honest, even if one believes that Kyle Orton is the starter on the depth chart (as we have been told), you don't trade back into the 1st round for a QB because you are simply trying to create a little competition for two veterans.  You do it because that is the guy you intend to build your team around.  

Just like in 2006, Mike Shanahan didn't believe Jake Plummer was the long-term solution at QB, Josh McDaniels feels the same way about Kyle Orton. I thought the Quinn move was the first acknowledgement of that fact. The drafting of Tebow is an even clearer sign.

In short, if you think Tebow is sitting for two years while they work out the kinks, you, my friend, are loco.

This isn't to say that I'm giving up on Kyle Orton, or my personal favorite, Brady Quinn.  It's just that actions speak much louder than quotes, and the actions of Josh McDaniels--along with a contract that has three years remaining--tell me everything I need to know.

So, it's time for me to embrace the reason why McDaniels drafted Tebow--he runs the spread like no one else.  

Jimmy Johnson - King of The Obvious

Jimmy Johnson was recently quoted as saying this about Tebow:

"I don't think Tebow can play in a pro-style offense, not [at] quarterback. I think a team that's gonna look at Tim Tebow. They're gonna make one of two decisions. If they're going to bring him into their style of play, with their coaching staff, they've gotta project him to be maybe an H-back...He can't play quarterback...If you're gonna take Tim Tebow, and you're gonna say, 'OK, I'm gonna have him be our quarterback,' you might as well get rid of your coaching staff and hire a spread-offense coach. So bring in a new coaching staff. Bring in Urban Meyer with him and run that style of offense if he's going to be your quarterback, because he can't play in a pro-style offense."

Exactly, JJ.  But guess what, big boy, Tebow is going to be playing for one of the two teams (the Patriots being the other) that copy many of the concepts and formations that Urban Meyer uses at Florida and for a coach that, offensively at least, thinks like Urban Meyer.

One of these concepts (if not the major concept) is the constant and persistent use of the shotgun formation in 3, 4, and 5 wide receiver sets.  The goal is to spread the defense across the field, thin them out, create space for playmakers, and take advantage of mismatches (a linebacker on a wide receiver, for example) using quick passes pivots, and slants.  In 2007, the New England Patriots became the first team in the NFL to use the shotgun for more than 50% of their passes (with Josh McDaniels as the offensive coordinator).  In 2008, as Doug Farrar with the Football Outsiders pointed out, the Patriots (again with McDaniels), Cardinals, and Chiefs were all above 50%.

When I broke down every offensive play for the Denver Broncos in 2009, I calculated that the Broncos had 971 total snaps, 357 of which came from the shotgun.  That's 37% of the time.  Thus, the 2009 Broncos offense didn't resemble the 2007 or 2008 Patriots as much as we might have believed.  Against the league average (32% in 2008) this is quite a lot of shotgun, but for Josh McDaniels, it wasn't nearly enough.  I'm guessing you'll find in 2010 an even greater return to the shotgun.

I'm speculating here, but I believe McDaniels' need to implement more spread/shotgun is a primary reason for bringing in Tebow.  He wants to operate even more spread/shotgun in the future and he believes Tebow is the perfect guy for it.  So this business about Tebow struggling in an NFL, pro-style offense is overblown--at least in McDaniels' mind.  

Now, I could describe how a QB's job is less progression-based under the spread, but our old friend Ted Bartlett did a pretty good job of this as this site,

I know that some people say he can't read defenses, but that betrays a lack of understanding of what a QB does. Tebow wasn't asked to be a progression passer in college, but that's not the same thing as not reading defenses. What do I mean? A progression passer drops back from under center, and looks at a defined order of potential receivers; flanker: covered, tight end: covered, split end: open, throw to the split end. This is what Joe Montana did with the 49ers, and what west coast offenses look for...

...Reading a defense is not nearly the same thing. A great deal of reading a defense is looking at it pre-snap, and divining clues then. Is there a safety in the box? If it looks like a single-high safety, is he in center-field? (If not, it's more likely the box safety will drop back into Cover-2.) When you send a receiver in motion, does a CB follow him, indicating man-to-man? Are the outside CBs lined up tight, or off? Tebow has been exposed to some of this kind of pre-snap analysis, and has successfully employed it. At the snap, he's looked at what people are doing, to verify the pre-snap read. You can't be a successful college QB without being able to do these things, so anybody who says Tebow can't do it doesn't know what the hell they're talking about. 

Bartlett brings up some great points here.  The spread/shotgun--whether it be the type that the Patriots or Colts run--requires a lot of pre-snap information.  That's not to say that the pro-style offense doesn't, but in a spread/shotgun, it's imperative.   So let's not pretend that Tebow is totally clueless.

McDaniels didn't bring in Tebow to run a pro-style offense.  He brought Tebow in to continue what he's been doing--punishing teams with the spread/shotgun, whether it be with the run or with the pass.  To fail to realize this is to fail to realize what has made Josh McDaniels excel as an offensive coordinator.   

The Curious Case of Matt Cassel

In 2008, one of the things that made Josh McDaniels a success was his almost magical ability to transform Matt Cassel from bench to superstar.  Just how did he do it?  Many have speculated.  However, Greg Cosell with NFL films, wrote what I consider to be an enlightening piece about the reasons for Cassel's success in February of2009.  His conclusion?  The shotgun offense.  

His piece was essentially a breakdown of two different versions of Matt Cassel.  The first was the Matt Cassel that came into the Patriots offense and operated under center in pro-style formations.  Here is what what Cosell wrote:

Early in the season the Patriots ran a conventional NFL offense, with Cassel primarily aligned under center. They used the shotgun only as an occasional changeup or, as many teams do, in long-yardage situations.

It became evident Cassel was not particularly comfortable dropping back from center. He often seemed rushed and hurried, with a tendency to quickly lose his reading definition. That's why he ran so frequently. He was not seeing the field with clarity, and his instincts compelled him to leave the pocket whether it was necessary or not.

Once the Patriots realized that the pro-style sets weren't working, they ran Cassel almost exclusively out of the spread/shotgun.  Here is what Cosell noticed:

I remember breaking down Cassel's third start, the Patriots' victory over the 49ers in early October. He was very mechanical and robotic in his progressions and reads. If he could determine his throw based on the pre-snap read, he made it. If he couldn't, and he had to process information as he dropped, he struggled. 

In addition, Cassel wasn't demonstrating the willingness to pull the trigger on tighter throws at the intermediate and deeper levels. Those are the kinds of plays that work off five- and seven-step drops with the quarterback under center.  What the Patriots learned as the season progressed was that Cassel was far more comfortable and relaxed playing in the shotgun. 

That defeat was the first of six consecutive games in which 88 percent of Cassel's pass attempts came out of the shotgun. The shotgun spread, often with three wide receivers, stretched the field horizontally. And the ability of the Patriots' outstanding coaching staff to dictate with formations, shifts and motions allowed Cassel to get rid of the ball decisively. It was predominantly a short passing game, with the throw defined quickly and the ball coming out fast.

Cassel had more rhythm to his drop and set from the shotgun. He was poised and comfortable, and he saw the field with more clarity. This led to more patience in the pocket, with less of a willingness to take off and run prematurely.

The other critical element that resulted from the widespread use of the shotgun was the functional space it provided Cassel in the pocket. There was more immediate distance between Cassel and the bodies in front of him, and that gave him room to step up and deliver.

In the last seven weeks of the season, the Patriots were primarily a shotgun passing team. They did not call a lot of drop-back plays. Why? Because Cassel was simply not very good at it.

For a first-hand look at what Cassel was doing in the shotgun/spread, check out this video from week 16 of 2008. You can see for yourself how effective Cassel was out of this formation, making easier pre-snap reads.  His mobility was also enhanced out of the shotgun/spread.

Remember, the Patriots finished the year 11-5 and should have made the playoffs.  And we know what happened to Cassel.  He became a very rich quarterback.  What I think McDaniels learned from his experience with Cassel is that the spread/shotgun can work quite well in the NFL.   Moreover, with a somewhat mobile quarterback like Cassel, it's even more potent.

So potent, in fact, that this McDaniels drafted the most successful spread/shotgun QB in the history of college football just to run the system for the Broncos.

Writers and "Retreads"

In some ways, you can't blame the traditional media for their lack of belief in Tebow.  They have seen other QBs come from the spread system only to be chewed up by the pro game.   The latest is Alex Smith, although the verdict is still out. But they haven't seen a spread QB come into the league and actually run the spread offense.  This fact has been pointed out by Urban Meyer himself:

"I think it would have worked years ago," Meyer said. "No one has had enough - I don't want to say courage - no one has wanted to step across that line. Everyone runs the same offense in the N.F.L. A lot of those coaches are retreads. They get fired in Minnesota, they go to St. Louis. They get fired in St. Louis and go to San Diego. I guess what gets lost in the shuffle is your objective is to go win the game. If it's going to help you win the game, then you should run the spread."

So if you are a writer and/or a draft pundit, and you have been listening to "retreads" tell you that a spread quarterback can't be successful, I guess it never occurs to you to question the pro-style offense itself. If you are told again and again that NFL players are too quick and too fast and that zone blitzes off the edges will always defeat the shotgun/spread offense, it might never occur to you to notice that Peyton Manning has been burning these kinds of blitzes in the shotgun/spread for years. If you are shown that a guy like Matt Cassel can go from high-school athlete to pro-bowl-caliber QB using the shotgun/spread, it's simply tempting to chalk it up to a fluke. And if you are shown evidence from a group like the Football Outsiders that teams operate more effectively out of the shotgun, you might be tempted to write something like Pete Brisco wrote about Tim Tebow:

"By far and away the worst pick in this draft. Wow. How can you justify trading away Cutler and picking this kid. He's a fifth-round pick -- at best. Now we know why Josh McDaniels will last one more year in Denver. Horrible. Just horrible."

This kind of writing reflects a lack of understanding of what Josh McDaniels wants to do schematically.  It also shows a gap in understanding of what McDaniels is trying to do with the drafting of Tebow.  While you may think that Tebow won't be successful, you can certainly come to grips with the thinking behind the pick.

McDaniels once said he's going to put an offense out on the field like something we've never seen before.  Now I realize what he meant.  The shotgun/spread is going to be more prevalent next year in Denver, and I, for one, will be interested to see how McDaniels pushes its limits and barriers with Tebow behind center.  The QB power?  Some option football?  Stay tuned.

Until then, I hope that Orton and Quinn fight like hell to prove McDaniels wrong.