Cosell Talks: Tebow, Sanchez, & New York, New York

From the Desk of Greg Cosell, Greg Cosell, Inside the Game, New York Jets

Upon reflection, I believe Tim Tebow was traded to the right team. This is a football opinion, not one based on his marketing or cultural icon value. In many ways, Rex Ryan and the New York Jets are contrarians. Their profile runs counter to the accepted notion that the NFL is a passing league driven by the play of the quarterback.

Their track record supports this point. In 2009, Mark Sanchez’s first season, the Jets were one half away from going to the Super Bowl. Sanchez was not very good as a rookie, but the Jets led the league in rushing and total defense. In fact, to take it one step further, they ran the ball more than any team in the NFL, and Sanchez threw the fewest passes of any 16-game starter, by a significant margin.

That season, also Ryan’s first as Jets head coach, exemplified his world view of championship NFL football: run the ball with power and efficiency, dominate with a turnover-based defense, use the quarterback as a complement — more role player than foundation. While the running game and defensive statistics were not quite as good in 2010, and Sanchez incrementally improved, the template remained the same, and the Jets again advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

Last season, the core methodology took a precipitous fall. Gang Green ranked 22nd in rushing, and 20th in points allowed. The quarterback could no longer be a complementary player. He had to be the focal point of the offense, and by extension, the team. Sanchez’s limitations as a passer prevented him from filling that role effectively, and the Jets season fragmented.

The overriding point is this: The Jets’ profile has not changed. Their ability to execute it has. Enter Tebow.

Let’s talk football, not vague and ultimately meaningless concepts like “Tebow is a winner.” At this point, Tebow is not a competent passer by NFL standards. His best attribute is his ability to run the read option. That helps an offense in two ways: It adds production to the running game, essential to the Jets’ philosophy, and it creates more favorable matchups in the passing game because of the defensive imperatives that result from the read-option element.

Tebow’s problem, exposed over the last month of the season (the playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was the only exception), was an inability to make the necessary throws to exploit those matchups. In the NFL, eventually your quarterback has to make throws, and they have to come from the pocket.

Here’s the caveat. If the Jets can re-establish their profile with a tempo-setting, time-consuming running game, which Tebow theoretically can help, and a physically dominant turnover-based defense, then you minimize the number of throws that Tebow has to make. The defense is the critical piece to this puzzle. If they play the way they did in 2009, then you can limit Tebow’s throws and better camouflage his weakness. That’s the bottom line.

I am presenting this as if the read option will continue to be successful as a staple of an NFL offense. That’s not a given. As the 2011 season progressed, the Broncos opponents defended it better tactically. They had seen many more snaps of it. The corollary was that Tebow did not take advantage of the one-on-one matchups in the passing game. He did not throw the ball well. Even in some of the games the Broncos won, like Chicago, the offense was completely shut down for the large majority of the game. Overall, when all of Tebow’s plays are charted — and that’s what teams do once the season ends — his grade is not very high. The evaluation is based on his individual play, elements Tebow could control, not the ability of Matt Prater to make low-percentage field goals or Marion Barber making decisive mistakes late in the game.

I also am presenting this as if Tebow will be the starter. We’ll see. But let’s talk about Tebow as a spot situational player based on down and distance, field position, whatever the case may be. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Jets want to utilize Tebow in the tight red zone (10 yards and in), or maybe the full red zone (20 yards and in). In addition, they want him on the field on third down, when they have six or fewer yards to get, because of his running ability. Maybe they want him on the field on every third down. Ryan indicated he could play 20 snaps in some games. He would not be a spot player at that point. If fact, you would have a quarterback platoon system, dependent upon the specifics of a given game and the situations presented.

Can this work in the NFL? My guess is almost all football people would say no. Only the Jets know what they really intend to do. One thing I do believe: If the Jets hope to successfully return to the profile that led them to consecutive trips to the AFC title game, then they will envision Tebow as a legitimate starter, not a backup or spot player. Of course, all this will be moot if Tebow does not significantly improve as a passer. Competitiveness does not make an NFL quarterback.

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