Tim Tebow, Urban Meyer and the NFL

This is one of the longest posts I've written in a long time, possibly ever. But as I went to bed early in the morning of February 25, I still felt like something was lacking in that day's Sprints, which concerned whether Urban Meyer did enough to prepare Tim Tebow for the NFL. It wasn't that I didn't believe what I had written; I checked that, because I had a feeling it would be a bit controversial. It didn't dawn on me, until one long-time reader thought I was fighting to the death with someone I'd hardly ever read and another had "no idea where you stand" and my co-blogger felt the need to publicly disagree with me that I realized that something had been lost in translation.

I believed everything I wrote, but I had written it very poorly. There were reasons for that -- the hour it was written and (most importantly for the discussion about length) an attempt to shorten the post -- but it was my mistake. I apologize for not communicating clearly. I'm not apologizing with the conditional "if you misunderstood me," because it's my job to make myself clear. I simply apologize. All the people I mentioned before might not agree with everything I write here -- probably won't. But that's not a reason to leave it at the confusing mess of a post I wrote a few weeks ago.

So here's a second attempt with Florida's pro day taking place this week. It's long because I want to make clear my logic, respond to a few things that have been said, and then try once more to say what I wanted to say.

First, a few points in list form, as it seems to be the easiest way to make sure I'm not misunderstood.

Tim Tebow will do fine. I honestly think that he will have a decent NFL career. I'm not sure it will be at quarterback, at least not as a down-to-down signal-caller, but there's no one in their right mind who has seen Tebow play football and doesn't want to try to get him on the field somewhere.

Yes, the NFL is stupid. Part of the mistake was giving the story a headline that began "Sprints Will Defend the NFL Guys," because obviously the part that should have been written "EVEN THOUGH THEY'RE PROBABALY WRONG!!!!!!!!" wasn't properly emphasized. Yes, NFL coaches shouldn't be afraid to try to fix Tebow's motion on their own and yes, the NFL is full of unimaginative and largely boring offenses. (If  I wanted to really start an argument, I could discuss why I think that is the direct result of the NFL having a playoff.) And so, to be clear, I don't think college football should be a developmental league for the NFL and I don't care for an implication that I do.

Urban Meyer is still a great head coach. I don't believe I have to clarify that I actually think that, but just to make sure that no one gets too carried away with this. I wasn't really trying to make the argument that he isn't, though I do think that the whole episode raises some questions about some of his coaching abilities. Mainly ...

Urban Meyer is not a great head coach for NFL-bound quarterbacks. When your most successful protege is Alex Smith, I don't see how this is even an area open for debate. As they say, Florida fans are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

This is not an argument about the spread offense. There are perhaps some elements of the spread offense debate in this discussion, but the pro scouts are talking about Tebow's throwing motion. They would have the same problems if he ran a spread offense, a West Coast offense or the Princeton offense. Okay, well the last one they might have more of a problem with. That's not to say that NFL folks aren't enraged by the fact that college coaches dare run an offense that isn't just a college version of the same NFL playbook; they are. And it's moronic that they are. But the Tebow discussion is about something else entirely.

I'm going to go a bit out of order or maybe combine some of these points in what I write below. Some of them won't be discussed more at all. But those are the main things I'm trying to get across.

-  -  -

The post started out a few weeks ago when I opened up my RSS reader and noticed what seemed to be something approaching a coordinated campaign defending Urban Meyer against some remarks that an Internet NFL pundit had made vis a vis Tebow's throwing motion. I knew it wasn't coordinated; the thing that has most undermined my belief in a vast media conspiracy (not that I ever really believed it) has been being a member of the media. Individual media organizations are often dysfunctional when it comes to dealing with internal debates about journalism. The idea that we could plot together to influence public perception of an issue -- political, sports or otherwise -- is laughable. But there did seem to be a good deal of groupthink going on.

I was trying mostly to respond to what I thought were some flaws in the pro-Florida, pro-Meyer side of the debate, which seemed to be the only one getting much voice beyond ProFootballTalk. Quite frankly, I still think the argument that

-Meyer never should have tried to change Tebow's motion because it could have hurt Florida's ability to win
-But Meyer tried to change Tebow's motion
-Yet is still a great coach
-But failed to persuade Tebow to change his motion
-Yet is still a great coach

to be a mess intellectually. If he's a great head coach who's not concerned with Tebow's motion, and is a great coach in part because he wasn't concerned with Tebow's motion, then he should have left it alone. If he's a great coach who was concerned with Tebow's motion, and tried to get Tebow to change it, then Meyer can't also get credit for not working on Tebow's motion and does deserve some blame for not being able to change it. The only way this works is if you believe that Meyer shouldn't have tried to change Tebow's motion and didn't. Otherwise, he was at least unsuccessful at what he tried to do and at worst was trying to change something he shouldn't have been trying to change.

One of the reasons I used Volin's piece as one of the springboards for the post was that he is one of the better Florida beat writers. I respect what he writes, and as I've said before when arguing with people, I generally don't debate people whose opinion I don't respect. (I don't always meet that goal, but it's there.)

Part of the problem is that even Florida writers can't seem to agree about what happened between Tebow learning from a great tutor of NFL quarterbacks (Scot Loeffler) and the end of the 2009 season, when if anything the throwing motion seemed to get worse. Year2:

I generally agree with Volin, but then the two of us have followed the Florida program a lot closer than Florio has. Nearly everything that Tebow is doing now with his fundamentals is something he did last year with Scot Loeffler, from the footwork to the throwing motion. When he says now that he hasn't had this kind of fundamentals coaching before, either he's saying what he needs to say to mollify scouts or he, John Brantley, and Loeffler were all lying about what went on in practice last March. This is old ground, and the fact that he has to tread it again is not entirely the fault of the coaching staff.

Now, one of the beat writers generally seen -- fairly or unfairly -- as closest to Florida's coaches, Robbie Andreu:

His release and his throwing motion never seemed to be a problem at Florida. Of course, now that the coaches and scouts (and talking heads) have pointed out how flawed Tebow's motion is, and now that Tebow has changed it, the Meyer critics are almost out of their minds wondering why Meyer didn't do anything with Tebow's passing mechanics in his four years at UF.

My response is: why would he? ...

There was never any sense of urgency at UF to rebuild Tebow's throwing motion because he was so effective passing the ball.

So which is it?

For the record, I don't necessarily buy that nobody told Tebow that his throwing motion was a problem. I doubt it because I first heard about this not from an NFL scout recently, but about a year ago, when Year2 said so.

Even moreso in the NFL than in college, a fraction of a second can be the difference between a catch and a tipped ball, and a tipped ball and an interception. ...

Simple physics says it takes more time to move an object along a longer path, so Tebow's release is labeled "slow." It is not a huge difference, but just think back to Michael Crabtree's catch that beat Texas. If the ball came a tenth of a second later, the defensive back coming to help may have gotten a finger on it.

So Bianchi's narrative that Tebow and Loeffler and Meyer thought about changing his mechanics and decided it would be too risky is probably right. It's the only way that all the events fit together.

- - -

But the discussion hasn't stopped there. Some Florida defenders have now gone to the list of college coaches who mentored NFL quarterbacks but were bad coaches. All of them, it seems, when you listen to those writing about these lists. It's not the best ground on which to fight an argument -- quarterbacks who have lengthy NFL careers is one of the smallest sample sizes on earth aside from U.S. presidents -- but it's gotten enough circulation that it should probably be addressed. I'll use Year2's, both because it was one of the most comprehensive and because I'm trying to debate those I respect.

  1. Drew Brees: played in a spread offense at Purdue under Joe Tiller, who recently retired after a successful career by Purdue's standards but who had some losing seasons.
  2. Brett Favre: came to Southern Miss under Curley Hallman, who would leave to become the worst coach in LSU history. Finished under Jeff Bower, who was good by USM standards but who was forced out after 2007.
  3. Phillip Rivers: played at NC State under Chuck Amato, who was later fired for losing too many games after Rivers left.
  4. Aaron Rodgers: played at Cal under Jeff Tedford, who's done well but hasn't really broken through and is known as a QB guru for developing NFL Hall of Famers Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and Kyle Boller.
  5. Ben Roethlisberger: played at Miami (OH) under Terry Hoeppner, who tragically died from brain cancer at Indiana.
  6. Peyton Manning: played under Phil Fulmer at Tennessee, who was recently pushed out for not winning enough. Studied under David Cutcliffe, who was fired as head coach by Ole Miss.
  7. Matt Schaub: played at Virginia under Al Groh, who was recently fired for not winning enough games.
  8. Tony Romo: played at Eastern Illinois and was missed by all of Division I-A.
  9. Tom Brady: played at Michigan under Lloyd Carr, who retired at the end of 2007 amid fan unhappiness for not beating Ohio State enough.
  10. Kurt Warner: played at Northern Iowa and was missed by all of Division I-A.

Well, that's quite a list. Open and shut case, right? No, not really. Joe Tiller went 24-13 with Drew Brees as quarterback and played in the Rose Bowl and was ranked as high as No. 13. (Not to mention the Outback Bowl appearance in which Brees played so well, those voting for MVP apparently forgot which team had won.) The first of Tiller's two losing seasons at Purdue came in 2005, five years after Brees left the school.

Favre played one game under Jeff Bower. Curley Hallman got the opportunity to be "the worst coach in LSU history" by going 23-11 at Southern Miss with Favre, including wins against Florida State, Alabama and Auburn.

Chuck Amato was 34-17 at N.C. State while Rivers was there, which included each of Amato's first four years. I'm not sure what the point is about Tedford; he played in the same conference with what I am assured by ESPN was one of the best teams in the country and was just stocked with NFL talent, and was arguably robbed of his breakthrough year by Mack Brown's "Elect Texas 2004" BCS campaign. in any case, I'm trying to figure out if the list is an attempt to prove that Tedford is a good NFL quarterback coach because only one of his highly-rated Draft prospects has worked out or if he's a good college coach because he hasn't had a breakthrough year. Or should that be the other way around?

I'm also a little unclear about what Hoeppner's death has to do with anything. I will point out that he was 48-25 at Miami, led the Redhawks to a No. 10 ranking and came close to leading Indiana to a bowl game. Indiana!

Do I really need to go into Phil Fulmer and David Cutcliffe? Okay, Phil Fulmer hadn't yet won his national title when Manning was at Tennessee and wouldn't until after he left. Four of Fulmer's five SEC East titles were with another quarterback and after Manning graduated. Fulmer clearly was still nearing the top of his profession when Manning was in Knoxville. And David Cutcliffe got fired after his first losing season (after five winning campaigns) at Ole Miss and was not offensive coordinator at Tennessee in either of Fulmer's two losing seasons.

Al Groh's tenure at Virginia is too confusing for anyone to make sense of. Apparently, how good Romo and Warner's coaches are is irrelevant because they were missed by all of I-A. (For the record, Romo's team made the playoffs each of his last three seasons there but lost in the first round, meaning he was essentially the same quarterback he is now. Kurt Warner played only one year as a starter at UNI, and went to the playoffs.)

Tom Brady enrolled in Michigan during Lloyd Carr's second season as head coach. Carr would win the national title with Brady on the roster (though Brady wasn't a factor). He would go 20-5 with Brady as his starting quarterback, win the Big Ten once and lead the team to No. 12 and No. 5 rankings. He was 122-40 and lost five games in a season once -- and that wasn't even the season he retired. (That was also the only year Carr's Michigan team was unranked.)

As far as this:

Manning and Brady played under coaches with a national title but who fell off when the rest of their conferences caught up and they slowed down.

That happened in both cases long after they were at the point at which Urban Meyer is now. Sure, no one -- self included -- thinks that Meyer is going to slow down any time soon, or that the rest of the league will catch up with him any time soon. But who, in 1997 or 1998, would have said that Fulmer would not be able to keep winning in an SEC without Steve Spurrier at Florida?

In other words, even if all the coaches in this list weren't very good, most of them had their greatest success as they were coaching NFL-caliber quarterbacks. Maybe they needed to do more of that, not less.

But think about what this chart asks you to accept for a minute: That Fulmer and Carr were subpar coaches. We can dress it up in language about "falling off" all we want, but the only way this list works is if Fulmer and Carr are bad coaches or were bad coaches at the same time they were contending for national titles. Almost everyone save Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno slows down in their later years coaching. It happened to Bobby Bowden, it has arguably happened to Steve Spurrier and it will almost certainly happen to Urban Meyer if he stays around too long. Fulmer and Carr were great coaches, especially at the point when Manning and Brady were there -- Fulmer might yet be again if he can get a job and some motivation.

Vince Young has been "uneven," unless you count the whole "winning" thing, which I thought was part of what made Tebow great. Mark Sanchez isn't on Year2's list for Pete Carroll, even though he managed the Jets to the AFC Championship Game.

The rest of the coaches "were later fired." Well, yes. That's what happens now in college football. For the most part, coaches are fired or move on. Including coaches who lead teams to undefeated seasons, coach in two BCS bowls or have a school's first 10-win season in 32 years. All of those coaches, in the words of Year2, "were later fired."

And while I threw a little dart in the article about how good a coach Meyer could be if he couldn't get Tebow to accept that his motion needed to change, this isn't that germane to my argument. As long as you're not a quarterback trying to get to the NFL, Meyer is a great coach. That's not what I was trying to argue.

- - -

That said, here's another part of Year2's argument I can't entirely agree with.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe Joe Paterno ever did unless you count Kerry Collins. Meyer, Brown, Saban, Bob Stoops, Steve Spurrier, and Jim Tressel haven't yet, and that hasn't prevented them from becoming legends. That's why it's stupid to say that if Tebow becomes a bust like Smith was, then top quarterback recruits will shy away from playing at Florida.

No, it's not. First of all, Nick Saban never even tried to build his teams around five-star quarterbacks -- his first national title winner was a former minor-league baseball player, and his second one was a three-star recruit. Yes, highly-rated dual-threat quarterbacks might continue to go to schools like Florida and Ohio State, but many of them probably aren't going to the NFL anyway. But five-star recruits who want to go to the NFL as quarterbacks would not be well advised to go to Penn State or South Carolina or Ohio State or Alabama or Florida. (I'm not including Texas, because I think Vince Young is a decent NFL quarterback and we'll have to see on Colt McCoy. If McCoy is even moderately successful, Mack Brown will be able to argue that he's a better crafter of NFL talent than Meyer -- in regards to dual-threat quarterbacks alone.) And I can guarantee you I'm not the only one saying that. The coaches recruiting against those schools will say it.

Some of those schools will still get quality quarterbacks, sure. But if I were a parent and my student actually had a decent chance of playing quarterback in the NFL, I would discourage him from going to those schools. (Maybe less so South Carolina, but only for sentimental reasons.)

But again, "Urban Meyer will never be able to recruit another talented quarterback ever" isn't precisely the argument I made, which was:

Five-star recruits go to college both to win national championships and, let's be honest, prepare for the NFL. If you can't get five-star recruits, it's hard to win national championships. So, unless Bianchi is actually putting forward the idea that Meyer and others shouldn't care at all what happens to the football players they coach as long as they win while at college, then his dramatic flourish at the end of his column isn't true.

My point there wasn't really that Meyer won't be able to recruit five-star quarterbacks at all, though I can see how that would come across. My point was more that he should care about whether those quarterbacks achieve their goals. Because without them, he wouldn't achieve his.

- - -

That, most of all, was what I found a bit cavalier in the arguments of Florida fans and beat writers in all this. Thanks, Tim Tebow, for helping Florida into one of the greatest eras in team history. Now, we owe you nothing more than a degree (that you had to work harder to get because of your athletics responsibilities) and a ring of honor ceremony in five or ten years. As for that whole NFL dream you've had your whole life? Well, good luck with that, but it's not our concern.

On one level, of course, they're correct, Urban Meyer gets paid to win football games, and his contract will be renewed or not on that basis. (Assuming he doesn't go through another midlife crisis.) That is his job in the strictest sense of the word, and any notion from Florio or anything else that it isn't -- or that something else is -- is wrong.

But I think that Meyer and Florida do, in fact, owe Tebow more than that. Just like Tennessee coaches owed Eric Berry a chance to be in the best place at the best time and South Carolina coaches owed Eric Norwood those opportunities. As a head coach -- even at a place like Florida -- you only get a few players in your career that can truly change a game on their own. And only if your lucky do you get a player like Tebow, who we now seem to forget was only a few months ago being called the greatest college football player of all time. Now, he should be grateful for his degree and his cameo apperance in a Focus on the Family commercial.

I could care less whether Meyer made things easier for the NFL "coaches" who don't like to do much coaching and prefer their quarterbacks know the system before their first training camp. My concern is whether Meyer doesn't have some responsibility to Tebow.

It's not like Tebow put his NFL future ahead of all else. In fact, in deciding to return to Florida for his senior season, he ended up losing some points. Because every NFL team has a section of their file on Tebow that has "SUFFERED CONCUSSION" highlighted, underlined and circled. With the increasing focus on concussions in football and their effects on players, it's a legitimate concern to have. And it will make more than one GM worry not just about whether to put Tebow at quarterback, but also whether to put him on the field in a place where he might be more likely to get hit and hit hard.

As I said, I think Tebow will ultimately be fine. He'll have some good years in the NFL, maybe surprising us all and doing well as a quarterback, maybe as a tight end or an H-back, maybe in some way we don't anticipate. And if so, all of this will be forgotten.

And if he doesn't end up successful, it's not completely Meyer's fault. Even if he didn't tell Tebow that the mechanics would be a problem, there were any number of media outlets that would tell him that. Even if Meyer quietly hoped Tebow wouldn't change anything or even asked him not to, he probably wouldn't have risked a public fight with his most popular player if Tebow didn't agree.

And if Meyer did all the right things in trying to get Tebow's mechanics right, and the quarterback didn't follow that advice or coaching, I have no quarrel with Meyer. Again, the part of the argument that I took issue with is the perception that Meyer should be concerned with only his win-loss record and nothing else.

Yes, Meyer's only job is to win football games. But that isn't his only responsibility.

At least, it shouldn't be.

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