Agnostic About Tebow
It was hard to come away from the Thursday night Broncos win over the Jets and not be elated. I had the Broncos +6, and – thanks to the urging of Brandon Funston – subbed Tim Tebow into my lineup for Tarvaris Jackson in the 100 K NFFC league at the last minute. (I was cursing Funston all game – and myself for listening to him – until that final drive, of course). Somehow, the Broncos won their fourth game in five tries and did so by driving 95 yards on their final possession after generating almost no offense all game. Even more than usual, Tebow could barely complete a forward pass, and his running game had been largely stifled by a defense that knew what to expect.
But the Broncos defense was unusually stout, Mark Sanchez helped by tossing a pick six and Tebow was in position to win the game on the final drive. While Tebow's been terrible for vast stretches, and he was only able to win the Miami game thanks to Tony Sparano going for two and failing and Denver recovering an onside kick, Tebow's taken advantage of his good fortune nearly every time. On Friday, I had Mike Salfino on our Sirius XM Show, and he called Tebow a "joke," a sentiment echoed elsewhere apparently by front office personnel around the league. Salfino pointed out that Tebow is not generating much total offense and has failed to move the team far more often than not. To Salfino, the only plausible explanation is that Tebow's been lucky and that his run will end soon enough.
Salfino might be right. But I hope he's not, and I think it's worth making the alternative case for a quarterback who makes Vince Young look like Dan Marino in the pocket.
For starters, NFL team performance varies greatly from week to week. The Eagles blew out the Cowboys, lost at home to the Bears (Philly was favored by 9), lost at home to the Cardinals, then beat the Giants on the road with Young under center. This was the same Giants team that won in New England and nearly took the 49ers to overtime in San Francisco the previous week. The Ravens beat the Steelers one week, then lost in Seattle the next. Through six games, the Rams hadn't led for more than six minutes all season, and they kicked the tar out of the Saints. By looking at a team's performance over 3-5 games, we can get a sense of its baseline level of performance, but as has been demonstrated repeatedly this year, we never know how it will fluctuate around that baseline in a given week. I've written in the past that teams move along two axes – the identity one, where the baseline moves, and it's a different team, and the capacity one, where a team of a certain level plays its "A," "B" or "C" game. In other words, sometimes a surprising result is because a team is simply up for a particular game, and other times, that result is due to that team fundamentally being a different animal than it was earlier in the year. In the Rams case, it seems to be the former, as after beating the Saints, they lost to Arizona, barely beat Cleveland and were blown out by Seattle. But in cases like the Giants winning the Super Bowl in 2007, beating heavily favored teams on the road and eventually the 18-0 New England Patriots, it was almost certainly the latter.
It's possible the Broncos have simply moved along the identity axis since Tebow took over for Kyle Orton, i.e., their baseline is now far higher that it was independent of its quarterback play, and Tebow's merely along for the ride. But it also could be the case that the Broncos are still a below average team but have gone 4-1 because they're playing their "A" game almost every time out. If that's the case, there are two possible explanations: (1) They've been randomly on a good run and caught a few breaks; or (2) There's some reason why they're playing harder and more focused than usual. And if (2) is the case, might Tebow not be a factor in bringing it out of them?
Most people concede that good coaches do more than prepare teams and design offensive and defensive schemes; they also motivate. A Bill Belichick or Mike Tomlin-coached team is less likely to come out flat or give away a game than a Norv Turner-coached one, for example. If players can be motivated along the capacity axis by coaches, it follows they could also be similarly affected by players. The book on Tebow in college – where he had great success against a high level of competition in the SEC – was that he was an inspirational leader. Some of that was ascribed to his religious faith, and it's likely some people oversold that angle because it aligned with and confirmed their own views. But just as likely others dismissed his "winner" credentials in college and apparent ability to rally his teammates for the opposite reason: Tebow's earnest display of his faith struck them as ridiculous and mockable. Both camps are letting the larger, cultural polarization confuse the issue. It really doesn't matter why Tebow has the apparent ability to inspire other players (if indeed he has that ability). It's simply worth noting that while most quarterbacks might be discouraged by the fact that the Jets defense dominated them for 55 minutes Thursday night, Tebow didn't seem to be bothered at all. While most of us internalize repeated failure, and to some extent are inclined to lower our expectations in the face of it, maybe Tebow is simply unaffected and approaches the team's 10th drive as if it were the first. It's easy to see how that would have a positive effect on teammates who would otherwise reasonably expect to fail again, given the overwhelming evidence.
Again, this is just a hypothesis, and I'm sure the Broncos defense has moved along the "identity" axis somewhat, i.e., they really are better. And they have gotten some bounces, some of which will go against them in the coming weeks. But I wouldn't be so sure to dismiss these results altogether.
Another reason to think Tebow's run as a successful NFL quarterback might be sustainable is that he's only seven starts into his career. He's very likely to get better so long as he keeps the job, particularly in the throwing department where there's so much room for improvement. Moreover, the Broncos went into the season with Orton, so Tebow's not surrounded by teammates who are ideally suited for this offense. Give him a LeSean McCoy-type running back with speed, cutback ability and receiving skills, and it would only help. Finally, even the teammates he has are still new to this scheme and should get more comfortable with it as the year goes on.
So while Tebow's slow release and poor accuracy doom him from ever being a traditional pocket passer, and the leadership angle might still be overhyped for various cultural reasons, I'm not convinced this experiment can't work. The conventional wisdom is wrong all the time. The "regression to the mean" police told us Jose Bautista couldn't sustain his pace in 2010, and certainly couldn't improve last season. So while some are certain it's only a matter of time before Tebow's exposed, I remain agnostic. And I'm absolutely plugging him back into my lineup against the Chargers this week.
What About Us?
While Kris Jenkins graphically described the physical punishment to which NFL players are subjected, he neglected to mention the anguish sports bettors and fantasy players suffer on a regular basis. And while players like Jenkins typically have careers of a decade or less, the hard luck gambler is usually in it for life. Seriously, though, the article is well worth a read as it details what NFL players go through with unusual bluntness.
What to Take Away from Week 11
• The NFL is such a week to week league it should surprise no one the Eagles went from losing at home against Arizona's backup quarterback to winning in New York with theirs. Of course, John Skelton was no ordinary backup – he was pushing Kevin Kolb for the starting job – that is, until Skelton was demoted mid-game in San Francisco behind Richard Bartel.
• The Giants simply cannot run block, and at this point every run call is a wasted play. Brandon Jacobs got 21 yards on 12 carries last night, and the Giants fell to last in the NFL with 3.2 YPC. Ahmad Bradshaw might return any week now, but I'm not sure how much it's going to matter.
• Victor Cruz moves very well with the ball and when he's focused actually has good hands. Somehow he's supplanted Hakeem Nicks as the team's top target, though Nicks is still getting back up to speed after an injury.
• Despite being just 5-11, 195 Percy Harvin is one of the NFL's toughest runners. He led all receivers in broken tackles during his rookie year and last year was second in yards after the catch. He's had trouble staying healthy and isn't known for his route running, but could be big down the stretch as a runner and receiver, especially with Adrian Peterson out.
• Week 11 saw more scrubs post big numbers than anytime in recent memory. Kevin Smith scored 3 TDs and had 201 total yards, Jerome Simpson had 152 yards receiving, Nate Washington went for 115 and two scores, Jabar Gaffney had 115 yards receiving, Chris Ogbonnaya had 115 yards and a score and Andy Dalton led all passers with 373 yards through the air. Of course, I used Calvin Johnson as my "stud" pick in Yahoo!'s Fantasy Football Live Guru contest, and somehow he couldn't score one of Detroit's seven touchdowns. The two Smiths are the most likely to keep it up as Kevin is just 24 years old and healthy again, while Torrey is the Ravens only deep threat and big play guy in the passing game.
• The Bucs looked like last year's team in Green Bay, with Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams all making plays throughout the game. I've speculated that maybe the lockout hurt that trio as they're all young and not as used to playing with each other as many veteran players, and if that were the case, you'd expect them to be more in sync in the second half.
• Philip Rivers' last interception – when he tossed the ball into coverage while appearing to want to throw it away – would have defied belief had he not made similarly inexplicable decisions all year long. Many have speculated as to why Rivers isn't himself this year (undisclosed injury, personal problems, loss of Darren Sproles and injuries to Antonio Gates, e.g.). but it's clear to me Norv Turner's soul is now operating Rivers' body.
• That Mike Shanahan started Ryan Torain again after a 10-carry, 20-yard performance at Roy Helu, Jr.'s expense is coaching malpractice. When you're winning Super Bowls and finding diamonds in the rough on a regular basis, you can do the illogical and deserve some slack. When you haven't won in years, and your team is a doormat, it's time to start the younger, more explosive player who might establish himself as key member of your next winning team. Starting Torain again this week would be akin to giving Graham Gano a contract extension.
• Maybe the Seahawks' defense is underrated, but why has Sam Bradford (4.5 YPA Sunday) not developed at all? He's in danger of going down the David Carr career path.
• Aaron Rodgers has 31 TD passes and two TD runs, and there's a still a week to go in November. He's on pace for 50 TD passes, 5072 passing yards, three TD runs and 282 rushing yards. Barring injury, he'll be the No. 1 overall pick in a lot of leagues next year, and even though I like to wait on QBs, I can't argue against it. Only Arian Foster and Calvin Johnson would merit consideration in his stead.
Things to Watch in Week 12
• Aaron Rodgers in Detroit against the league's No. 2 pass defense by YPA (6.0).
• Battle of top defenses between the 49ers and Ravens.
• The Patriots against whatever version of the Eagles shows up
• Tim Tebow against the anti-Tebows, the Chargers.
• The Giants look to bounce back in New Orleans on Monday night
Beating the Book
Broncos +7 at Chargers
Maybe I'm buying high and selling low here, but the Chargers have to show they're worthy of being seven-point favorites over anyone, let alone a resurgent Denver team that's won in Oakland and against the Jets of late. Maybe San Diego miraculously turns it around and rolls this week, but I don't see how anyone can count on that. Back Denver.
Broncos 24 – 23
Last week we won with the Redskins to go 6-5 in this forum, 8-6 on the week and 75-80-5 overall. We were 10-7 in this forum last season and 40-27 over the four years of the column (we skipped Week 17 in 2007). From 1999-2010 we've gone 1565-1387 against the spread (53%, not including ties). The full article comes out Wednesday night.
Surviving Week 12
Last week was largely uneventful unless you had the Jets or Giants. I had the Pats who actually looked vulnerable for the first quarter or so before they steamrolled the Chiefs the rest of the way. Let's take a look at this week's slate:
|Team||Opponent||% Picked*||Vegas ML**||Vegas Odds|