Late last night, alone in my TV room and still struggling to get back onto east-coast time, I watched Tim Tebow’s improbable 95-yard game-winning drive, and marveled at the uniqueness of his unfolding storyline.
As the dumbstruck commentators on NFL Network made clear, we are witnessing something unprecedented in the otherwise rigid, groupthinkian world of the NFL – a team that has completely (and, thus far, successfully) adjusted its overall strategy to align with the strengths of its newest, most essential player.
Well, that’s not exactly it; after all, franchises often build around their best player to build a championship team. But what’s so noteworthy is that in order to support its new field general, the Denver Broncos are also ignoring decades of conventional wisdom about what a successful NFL quarterback looks like – and does.
To wit: look at the three top-ranked quarterbacks in the league – Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees – and there’s a unanimity to their core competencies: a quick release and accurate delivery. Judged against this standard, Tebow might as well be playing flag football; his release is long, slow, and awkward, and he is painfully inaccurate (as evidenced by his 44.8% completion rate). Indeed, for the bulk of the games he has played thus far in his short career, you almost want to look away, so unusual is it to see a player at that position so clearly ill-equipped to do what NFL quarterbacks do most of the time: stand tall in the pocket, read the defense, and quickly deliver the ball into tight windows.
But then there are those other moments – like last night’s game-winning drive – when Tebow does what he does better than anyone: get outside the pocket, read the defense, react to what he sees, and run to the open space. He is a classic option quarterback – a skill-set of great value to many of the country’s most successful college programs, and of little interest to the NFL, where, conventional wisdom has it, the overall speed of the professional game, coupled with the excessive pounding a quarterback takes while running the option, make the offense a non-starter.
To be sure, there are other factors at play that make Tebow such a charismatic, polarizing figure – particularly his deep, public, evangelical faith. Purely from a sports perspective, however, what makes him so compelling is that, despite his seemingly fatal weaknesses as a player, he just. Keeps. Winning. (the Broncos were 1-4 when he became the starter; after last night’s upset victory, they are now an even 5-5 and within reach of the playoffs).
Of course, the bulk of the Tebow story has yet to be told, and the overwhelming likelihood remains that one of the league’s more archetypal quarterbacks will be the one to raise this year’s championship trophy. But for now, the education of Tim Tebow is also a chance for the rest of us to be reminded of some essential truths: that we must continually create spaces for new ways of seeing and understanding old systems; that we should always play to a person’s strengths, not their weaknesses; and that, sometimes, our institutions – and not the individuals who inhabit them – should be the ones to do the adjusting. As Williams College president Mark Hopkins advised one of his graduating classes, nearly two centuries ago (!), the mark of a true learning organization is “to regard the mind, not as a piece of iron to be laid upon the anvil and hammered into shape, nor as a block of marble in which we are to find the statue by removing the rubbish, or as a receptacle into which knowledge may be poured; but as a flame that is to be fed, as an active being that must be strengthened to think and to feel – and to dare, to do, and to suffer.”
Run Timmy, RUN!
(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)