Tim Tebow is apparently back, and so are all of the sideshows that come with him: the bewildered announcers, the hot mix of superlatives and incompetence, the clotted biceps, and the try-too-hardness yet sheer stage-command of the man. This time, we are told, he is a more polished product – as well he should be given that he has been on this quixotic quest to become a capable NFL quarterback since 2010. Think about that: Tebow has been working on his flaws for five years now with that strange, eager scalding desire of his. What, just what, if he makes it?
Tebow is either dauntless, or a deluded lunk. The one thing he is not is meaningless. The Philadelphia Eagles and their madman coach Chip Kelly closely inspected him in March, and apparently found him worth a shot, despite the presence of Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley on the roster. This is significant, because it means that an athlete can, just maybe, lift himself above his apparent incapacities by faith – not sweetgrass-accented professions of devotion to Jesus, but faith in the actual value of work, faith that if you put in the time and the grind, something worthwhile will happen, even when nothing at all seems to be happening.
For the past 18 months Tebow was out of football and couldn’t get a serious look from anyone unless it was on a college network. But he continued to work on his mechanics with throwing coach Tom House, who has tutored all the recent NFL greats from Tom Brady to Drew Brees. In March, House told the NFL Network, “What amazes me is this young man, with no job prospects, has prepared just as hard as he would if he were the No.1 quarterback for an NFL team. He’s busted his butt … He’s much more accurate than he was. I think he’s ready.”
Working with House sounds like it must have been sheer unabated tedium. A former major league pitcher, House has developed a small biomechanical analysis facility on the University of Southern California campus that insiders consider a state-of-the-art lab for training and maintaining quarterback arms. House stuck tiny sensors all over Tebow’s body, and then filmed him with eight cameras rolling at 1,000 frames-per-second, to get a three-dimensional picture of his throwing motion. He then meticulously broke down the motion into small correctable sequential pieces, and tailored drills to perfect the right rotation, timing, and mechanics.
Most NFL quarterbacks who go to House have sound mechanics with just small inconsistencies. Then there was Tebow, with his staglike legs yet long, tilting, sidelong delivery that compromised everything he tried to do. You could almost hear the heavy gears turning, the grinding of crank and chain as he played. He got away with it with the Denver Broncos in 2011, because he had such a magnificent gift for fourth-quarter leadership, and a great cast and defense surrounded him. His play was a combination of thrilling cluelessness and painful halting, as he led the Broncos into the playoffs. But when he went to Rex Ryan’s chaotic New York Jets, it was like the power was suddenly cut. His inaccuracy sapped him, like kryptonite, and his brief 2013 preseason stint with the New England Patriots seemed like the obvious end.
Anyone who has studied sports science knows that behind athletic confidence is conditioning, not just in the fitness sense but also in the neurological one. Repetitive physical excellence is a matter of neuro-plasticity, of training the brain to message the muscles to perform precise movements with consistency. That’s where NFL-level throwing accuracy comes from, more than natural ability. Painful to the ego as it must have been, Tebow needed the past 18 months away from the NFL to attempt to retrain his motion and to hard-wire it. House has estimated that Tebow probably did 10,000 reps working on his motion over the past couple of years.
What no one can know is whether Tebow’s great experiment in neurology worked. It would be one thing if Tebow was 18, but can a 27-year-old five years into a career truly rewire all of his reactions? Kelly was asked earlier this spring after he brought in Sam Bradford what he was looking for in a quarterback. Kelly replied, “When you’re assessing individual players, I’m watching skill-set. How does he throw the ball; can he make this throw; can he make that throw; have you seen him throw the out; have you seen him throw a comeback; have you seen him throw a dig; have you seen him throw a deep ball?”
Presumably, during Tebow’s tryout with the Eagles in mid-March, Kelly saw enough throws to convince him it was worth at least exploring with a one-year contract, even if only as a gimmick or two-point-conversion specialist. After all, if Tebow could marry his winning persona to even moderate accuracy, he’s a powerful weapon. Of the quarterbacks on the Eagles’ roster, only he and Sanchez have won playoff games.
But can Tebow’s throwing motion hold up under game pressure, or will he revert to a dodging stag? There’s no real precedent. Tebow is going on faith, his belief that “tribulation worketh patience, and patience, experience, and experience, hope.”
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org