In Elvis Costello’s “Man Out of Time,” Costello sings of a man running out of time and losing his freedom due to his actions – asking an unnamed individual “will you still love a man out of time.”1 Or both? I’m appropriating the phrase, not the song here to suggest that Tim Tebow is a “man out of time” in a different sense altogether.
The first professional American football league began in 1920 and involved four midwestern communities – Dayton, Columbus, Rock Island, and Muncie. The teams were part of the American Professional Football Association (the league adopted the name National Football League in 1922). The Dayton Triangles2 defeated the Columbus Panhandles (a team that may or may not have been officially part of the league at that point) 14-0.3 The Muncie Flyers fell to earth versus the Rock Island Independents, 45-0.4
Box scores being what they were in the early going of the league, these football games are harder to reconstruct than baseball games of the same period. But, as near as I can figure in the two games, there were at least three passes thrown and completed. Dayton’s Al Mahrt threw a 30 yard completion to Dutch Thiele and Rube Ursella completed one pass for Rock Island. Meanwhile Coonie Checkaye managed to pick up 39% of Muncie’s rather pathetic offensive production in the game with a 13 yard pass.
Of course, the game as a whole was different then with most teams depending on solid defense and running strategies in order to score points. For example, the first two touchdowns for Rock Island were scored on blocked punt recoveries. Bearing these descriptions in mind, Tim Tebow’s performance against the Kansas City Chiefs this past Sunday was, in a word, bizarre for the modern game.
Keep these facts in mind –
- Tebow did not make a single pass attempt in the entire first quarter.
- Tebow’s first try at a pass came only as the second quarter began and was a severely under thrown deep route to Eric Decker.
- By halftime, Tebow had attempted four passes and personally netted 17 yards for the Broncos (-2 on a rush and 19 yards running – both out of the shotgun).
- Tebow’s first successful pass came after nearly 11 minutes had gone by in the third quarter! This 13 yard gainer to Matt Willis made Tebow 1 for 6 (and frankly, that pass was a one yard bubble screen).
- Tebow’s eighth and final pass attempt of the game took place in the fourth quarter and was a 56 yard touchdown strike to Eric Decker. This ball was actually well thrown, catching Decker in stride. It was also the longest throw of Tebow’s young career.
I offer all these tidbits from this particular game up because Tebow looks and feels a bit like a quarterback from another era. A long-gone era in some respects. When another young Bronco quarterback debuted (in a pre-season game) some 28 years ago, he moved his team 75 yards in just under four and a half minutes, completing five of six passes in what where his first ten plays as a professional. John Elway5 of course went on to a stellar NFL career with statistics that resembled they type expected of quarterbacks in the game that professional football had become.
So where does Tebow fit in? Perhaps with the 1932 Bears squad? Quarterback Keith Molesworth completed 25 passes of 64 attempts during a 14 game season that featured not one, not two, not three, but six ties for the monsters of the midway! Molesworth threw for 346 yards that season while rushing for 213. Bronko Nagurski carried the big load with 533 yards on the ground – though Nagurski also threw for 150 yards that year. These are the statistics from the first place team in 1932 – a lower tier team like Staten Island’s Stapletons squad saw its leading back pass for 140 yards for the season!
Maybe it is on these fields of the historic NFL that a quarterback of Tebow’s skill set fits in best. I wondered about his college career numbers – did they hold evidence of a man destined to think about inventing a time machine?
While Tebow’s overall career passing attempts outnumber his rushing attempts, it’s not by as wide a margin as one might think. Tebow threw for 9285 yards and 88 touchdowns over four seasons on 995 attempts. He rushed 692 times for 2947 yards and 57 touchdowns – roughly 41% of the time Tebow made an offensive move with the ball at Florida, it was on the ground.6
These numbers are remarkably similar to those of Julian Edelman at Kent State. Edelman and Tebow are separated by only a year in the college ranks – both men kept it on the ground about 41% of the time their teams were moving the ball. Edelman is also a professional football player, though he is a punt returner and receiver. So how is it that Tebow gets the opportunity to play the quarterback position at the professional level? There is a size difference of at least five inches in height and 40 or more pounds but what Edelman and Tebow were remarkably similar at the collegiate level and both players seem better suited for the game of 80 years gone by.7
Put Tebow on the 1932 Boston Braves squad and I bet the team finishes better than 4-4-2. The Beantown Braves scored only 55 points that season with Honolulu Hughes under center. The Oregon State grad threw for 134 yards and rushed for 28 – Tebow got more than 28 on the ground in Sunday’s game!
So what do we do about this ‘experiment?’ John Elway might consider looking at history, looking at the college stats of Tebow, and asking himself whether the man is simply a very good athlete coming of age to the profession at the wrong time in history. I’m reminded of a question asked of me years ago while I worked as a substitute teacher. Two young earnest professional football fans debated with me about whether an NFL team could ever profitably run the wishbone offense. As I was the ‘go to’ sub for this particular high school, our conversation was revisited repeatedly throughout the spring of 1994.
For many of the same reasons that today I don’t believe Tim Tebow is a good fit for the modern NFL game on a permanent basis, I didn’t (and still don’t) believe the wishbone can work at the professional level. There are moments where exciting athleticism and decision making similar to the ‘bone gets thrown into a game – but at its purest level, no – people know that the defense of professional teams is far too quick and large and disciplined to allow the ‘bone to fully function the way it might for a Maine Maritime.8
Einstein suggested that a large amount of matter or energy can distort the space and time that surrounds it. In theory then, if the energy or mass is great enough, time could be distorted and ‘folded’ back on itself. In one interpretation of Einstein’s theories, a person could only go back into the past as far as when the first time machine were invented. If that theory holds true, Tebow might not only be a “man out of time” but a man out of luck as well.
Einstein came to the United States in 1933 – perhaps if he applied is theories on time and space immediately and developed a machine the Boston Braves9 would have had another candidate for featured back that fall. Tebow could have easily won the job from Jim Musick and pushed for more passes to tailback Cliff Battles. Maybe the Boston team wouldn’t have had enough to challenge the more balanced attack of the New York football Giants (1348 yards through the air, 1624 yards on the ground), but Tebow might have just made enough of a difference to push the Boston squad that led the league in rushing, yet was middle of the pack in scoring.
For now, we’ll see Tebow under center in Denver for the rest of this season. Denver is 4-5 in a weak division and 3-1 with Tim Tebow at the helm.10 On the one hand frenzied Bronco fans are buying Tebow jerseys, ripping off the name and replacing it with ‘Jesus.’ On the other hand, in my buddy Akim’s football pool that he and his friends have been running out of New York City since the 1980s nobody has Tebow and this is a league with about 24 quarterbacks on rosters. In the modern game, the professional success of Tim Tebow probably lies somewhere between ‘Jesus’ and being on no rosters in a small football pool – in another time, Tebow would have been monstrous, so Broncos fans will have to ask themselves “will you still love, a man out of time.”
1. There are differing opinions as to the exact meaning of the song. Is it a love song or a tragedy about an international spy? Or both?
2. Moved to Brooklyn in 1929 and renamed the Dodgers!
3. The first touchdown was scored by Louis Partlow – the second by a guy named Francis Bacon. If you’re scoring at home that makes this Francis Bacon the third most famous after – 1. Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount of St. Albans (1561-1626) and English philosopher, scientist, jurist and pioneer of the scientific method; 2. Francis Bacon, 1909 – 1992, Irish born British existentialist painter (hello Morrissey? Irish Blood, English Heart?).
4. The Rock Island squad played a game one week earlier against a non APFA team from St. Paul, Minnesota.
5. Elway is the current executive vice president of football operations for the Broncos and threw for over 51,000 yards in his career (an average of nearly 220 yards per game). Ironically, in the only Super Bowl Elway won he was uncharacteristic, throwing for only 123 yards and an interception. Elway did rush for a touchdown in that game and was the Broncos second leading rusher of the day – so who knows, maybe Tebow can fit in with Denver tradition.
6. Elway in college? 4 seasons at Stanford, 9349 yards, 77 touchdowns in 1246 attempts; Elway rushed 259 times for -279 yards and 5 touchdowns – given the large negative number, we know that most of those rushes were sacks.
7. By comparison, Ben Roethlisberger fits the more traditional collegiate to professional path with a mere 17% of his playmaking on the ground at Miami of Ohio. Tony Romo is similar, moving the ball just over 10% of the time through rushing for Eastern Illinois. If anything, Romo’s numbers are significantly worse because it’s clear the majority of his rushing ‘attempts’ were really attempts at avoiding sacks. He wasn’t good at it either, never gaining a single positive yard on the ground in college.
8. See Chuck Klosterman’s excellent article “Speed Chess” Grantland 15 September 2011. http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6948865/speed-chess
9.Actually, they changed their name to the Redskins that season.
10. I wrote this article on Monday, November 14, 2011. The Broncos played on Thursday, November 17 and won again with Tebow at the helm (Broncos 5-5, Tebow 4-1). In this game versus the Jets he came out throwing but still only completed 9 of 20 passes for 104 yards. He ran for 68 – more importantly, Tebow won the game on a 20 yard touchdown run at 1:06 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Broncos, down 13-10, received the ball on a punt with just under six minutes remaining and Tebow led the way on 10 of 11 plays as he mostly ran the team up the field. You can watch some highlights here: http://www.nfl.com/gamecenter/2011111700/2011/REG11/jets@broncos#menu=highlights&tab=analyze&analyze=playbyplay