Now that the Super Bowl is over, the scouting combine and the NFL draft begin to rise in the consciousness of NFL fans. And no player eligible for this year’s draft will spark more debate and more variable opinions than Florida QB Tim Tebow.
The knocks on Tebow revolve around his passing fundamentals – footwork, accuracy, and an especially slow release. The positives on Tebow revolve around his intangibles – his leadership, his desire to win, his character, and even his ability to inspire fans to buy tickets.
As we think about intangibles, two comparable quarterbacks come to mind.
The first is Donovan McNabb. Think back to 1999, a year in which five quarterbacks were drafted in the top 12 picks in the draft. I covered that draft from New York City, and it was remarkable that the green room that year featured five quarterbacks and RB Ricky Williams.
But of those five quarterbacks, only two are still in the league – McNabb and Daunte Culpepper. The other three – Tim Couch, Akili Smith, and Cade McNown – flamed out of the league incredibly quickly. And Culpepper, after a few Pro Bowl seasons in Minnesota, has settled in as a backup type at this point in his career. Of that quintet, only McNabb has become a long-time starter.
And there’s little doubt that McNabb had the greatest intangibles of any quarterback in that class. His Syracuse career was punctuated by a last-minute drive on which he vomited on the field but continued to stay in the game and move his team down field for a win. That kind of leadership and desire to win delineated McNabb’s intangibles from the rest. In McNabb’s case, intangibles plus athletic ability plus skills have made for a wonderful NFL career. He was a great pick for the Eagles with the third overall selection.
But intangibles don’t always lead to stardom. The second comparable to Tebow is Byron Leftwich, who was the seventh overall pick by the Jaguars back in 2003. Leftwich’s slow release was an issue, and he was not at all nimble in the pocket, but his intangibles were beyond reproach. His teammates loved him, and Leftwich would give all to win, as shown when he played with a broken shin and had his offensive linemen carry him downfield between plays against Akron. When I saw that, I figured Leftwich was a shoo-in success as an NFL quarterback.
Only he wasn’t. Leftwich started for about three and a half years in Jacksonville, but when he got injured in 2006, David Garrard took over and Leftwich lost his starting spot. He was cut the next offseason and has bounced around, mainly as a backup, ever since. And now his delivery is so painfully slow that he gets beaten up in the pocket and gives defenses way too many chances to recover. For Leftwich, intangibles can’t overcome mechanical deficiencies, and that makes him a disappointment as a former top-10 draft pick.
So is Tebow a McNabb, a Leftwich, or something even less than Leftwich? The signs I’ve seen aren’t good for the Gator nation’s favorite son. The coaching he has received has been frankly inadequate in preparing him to be an NFL quarterback, and as a result it’s unlikely Tebow will be an NFL starter who’s even as good as Leftwich has been. And if that’s his ceiling, a team can’t take Tebow in the first round.
Tebow isn’t elite enough as an athlete to be a guy who you draft and figure out how to play later, and he’s not enough of a quarterback prospect to be the lynchpin of your draft. If a team wanted to take a flier on him in the fourth round or so to see if they could improve his mechanics, speed up his release, and better his footwork over a three-year developmental period, that would be a risk I’d be comfortable with. But drafting him any higher smacks of an owner’s ticket-selling mandate or a scout’s pipe dream.
Admire the intangibles all you want; they’re not going to overwhelm the holes in Tebow’s profile as an NFL prospect.