The ongoing debate over Tim Tebow’s legitimacy as an NFL quarterback revolves around philosophy as much as football, and has broad implications for sports and beyond.
Stephen Jay Gould divided modern thinkers into two categories: neo-Platonists committed to the “central tendency” of any given system, and their antagonists who emphasize “richness of variation.” This division nicely tracks the polar positions on Tim Tebow.
Tebow’s critics insist that he can’t throw the football, at least not with the accuracy and sharpness required of NFL quarterbacks. Tebow’s supporters counter that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Tebow’s ability to run, they argue, more than compensates for his throwing deficiencies. What’s the difference whether you advance the ball in the air or on the ground? Denver, which looked hopeless earlier in the season, is 5-1 since Tebow took over at quarterback. What counts is not how, but how many.
Tebow’s critics reply that when the defense knows you can’t throw, they will focus on the run. Thus, by lacking a credible passing threat, Tebow dooms his team’s running game. He forces the Broncos into an unconventional offense (they use the pass/run option much more than any other team) that can work only against weak opponents, and beating weak opponents won’t get you deep into the playoffs.
I’m with Tebow’s supporters (while agnostic about how he will pan out). For one thing, his critics stack the deck. If Denver loses in the Super Bowl, they will claim vindication. Sure, the team went far, but it was only a matter of time before the Broncos ran into an opponent that made them pay the price for their heretic approach.
Only one team wins the Super Bowl, and it usually has a quarterback like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. There aren’t enough guys like that to go around. If you’re not fortunate enough to have a quarterback with a Hall of Fame arm, you better look for other ways to win. If you’re fortunate enough to have a quarterback with a weird skill set that wins games, you’d be foolish to worry that he can’t win every game. Not even Brady does that.
The skepticism surrounding Tebow may ultimately come down to this: the establishment becomes wedded to a vision based on a sport’s central tendency, and fails to realize that the common approach presents only one way of winning. It may be the easiest way, but it’s not the only way.
Knowing this, the best coaches adjust a team’s style to its personnel. Pat Riley built his Lakers teams around the fast-break. With Magic Johnson at the helm, why not? (Riley’s predecessor, Paul Westhead, earned a pink slip because he clung to the half-court offense and alienated Magic.) But when he took over the Knicks, Riley realized that, with a front-line of Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason, his new team could best succeed by being the antithesis of his old. The erstwhile coach of “show-time” inculcated smash-mouth, grind-it-out basketball, and the team thrived.
Other coaches, such as Don Nelson and Mike D’Antoni, contribute to the richness of variation by introducing idiosyncratic styles of play they happen to enjoy. After teams coached by Riley and Chuck Daley succeeded through lock-down defense, it became the conventional wisdom that only a team built along those lines could win. Nelson and D’Antoni went in the opposite direction, playing “small ball” that permitted innovative offenses.
Like Tebow and the Broncos, they attracted brickbats. Despite tremendous success (Nelson was Coach of the Year three times, and both he and D’Antoni coached several teams that vastly exceeded expectations), they were lambasted. Thank goodness they were willing to pay that price. A sport becomes monotonous when all teams play the same style.
There’s no sport in which a single template for success renders all others ineffective. Different approaches produce good results. You can dance and jab or plow forward and slug, rush net or stay back, and so forth. The key is mastering what you do, not doing any particular thing.
But, at any given time, there’s likely to be a mob wedded to a central tendency. Tim Tebow and the Broncos coaching staff are discovering that winning isn’t everything: if you go against the grain you catch hell, and the moment you lose a game or two, folks will say you were doomed all along. Such is the mindset of those who fail to appreciate the richness of variation that enlivens sports.