If there’s one thing about pro sports today that drives me nuts it’s this: Few people try new things. I mean try REALLY new things. Crazy things. Wild things. Improbable things. Everyone plays it relatively safe. Everyone colors, more or less, within the lines.
I remember thinking this clearly a few years ago when Randy Moss came into the NFL. Do you remember what a miracle Moss was those first couple of years? Nobody could cover him. He was bigger than anybody you could cover him with. He was faster than anybody you could cover him with. He could jump higher than anyone you could cover him with. And if he had a step on you, there was no way anyone could catch him.
Do you remember? Moss caught 17 touchdown passes that year, a rookie record, one that I suspect will stand for a long time. That Vikings offense was one of the best in NFL history, with Moss and Cris Carter and Robert Smith and the rejuvenated Randall Cunningham. That team went 15-1 and, you will recall, lost perhaps the most heartbreaking game in the team history of heartbreak, that NFC title game against Atlanta. That was an amazing offense.
But here was the thing: It was still, more or less, a conventional offense. And Moss was so good, I thought they could have been more.
See, at some point during the season, I wondered why the Vikings didn’t simply throw bombs to Randy Moss, you know, 25 times a game. I mean that offense was innovative, by NFL standards. But it wasn’t INNOVATIVE by, you know, imagination standards. Moss was unlike any player any of us had ever seen.* I couldn’t understand why the Vikings wouldn’t just have all kinds of fun with him. Throw bombs to him on 12 straight plays. Put the Hail Mary play into your every-down package. Force teams to triple-team him, quadrupole-team him, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, the guy was like Gulliver, you could have put all 11 Lilliputians on him and he would have found a way to get the ball. Plus, Cris Carter would be standing there all alone.
*I’ve written this little story before, but it’s always worth reliving. In 2003 the Kansas City Chiefs started 9-0 despite having a spectacularly awful defense. That’s how good their offense was. Well, after improving their record to 12-2 they went up to Minnesota to face a Vikings team that was really a shell of that awesome 1998 team. But they still had Randy Moss, who was still impossible to cover when he felt like it. That day he felt like it.
And it led to perhaps my favorite play in NFL history. The Vikings had the ball on the Chiefs’ 21, and Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper went to the line. At this point, the Chiefs decided to show blitz approximately three hours before the snap. Seriously, it was as if they had sent a wire to Culpepper before the play.
DAUNTE (STOP). WE WILL BLITZ NOW (STOP). DO WHAT YOU THINK IS RIGHT (STOP).
And it wasn’t just any kind of blitz. It was a corner blitz. And the cornerback the Chiefs decided to send? Yep: The guy standing in front of Randy Moss. Culpepper stepped back, he was confused. He was not confused the way he would be later in his career, after Chardon Jimmy and I drafted him first in our fantasy football league and he found new and exciting ways to throw interceptions. No, he was confused because he decided that this had to be some kind of strange trap, you know, blitzing with the defender who was in front of Randy Moss. The Vikings did not even seem to have an audible for a defensive maneuver this stupid, so Culpepper improvised and went into a sort of game of charades audible that could be translated like this:
1. Culpepper points at Moss: “HEY RANDY! HEY! RANDY! OVER HERE!”
2. Culpepper points at defender in front of Moss: “THAT GUY IS BLITZING! YEAH! THAT GUY! I KNOW, RIGHT? I CANNOT BELIEVE IT EITHER!”
3. Culpepper points to end zone: “RANDY. YOU RUN TO THE END ZONE.”
4. Culpepper throws invisible ball: “I WILL THROW IT TO YOU FOR A TOUCHDOWN.”
5. Culpepper shakes his head sadly: “I KNOW! I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT EITHER.”
The Chiefs defenders — keenly sensing that something was brewing — stayed in the blitz. Culpepper took three steps back, and threw downfield to Moss for a touchdown. It was awe-inspiring.
I wish teams — especially teams going nowhere — would just try experimental, creative, wild stuff. Why not? Oh, we know why not: embarrassment. Everyone’s worried that if they try something too crazy, it will come off like the jazz odyssey in “Spinal Tap Mach 2.” It will come off like Ted Turner managing the Braves for a day. It will come off like the Cubs “College of Coaches” where they had coaches rotate as managers every few weeks.
Yeah, that College of Coaches was a dumb idea. And it was also awesome. Why not? If it doesn’t work, so what, the Cubs were dreadful anyway. But if it DOES work, holy cow, you have a place in sports history. And sometimes these crazy ideas really do work. The Royals Baseball Academy got the team eight-time Gold Glove winner Frank White. Frank Chirkinian’s decision to put a camera in the Goodyear Blimp essentially created golf coverage as we know it. Roone Arledge’s decision to put Howard Cosell in the booth created Monday Night Football as we know it. Michael Chang’s underhand serve unmasked Ivan Lendl at the French Open. And so on.
The overall point here is that if I owned a terrible NFL team, I would get Tim Tebow and invent a whole new pro offense around him.
There isn’t anything new to say about Tim Tebow. Everyone has marked their territory on the guy, including numerous unnamed Jets’ players. He cannot be an NFL quarterback as we have imagined them. You’ve seen the movie Kung Fu Panda, right? In the movie, Jack Black’s Panda is basically useless as a fighter. At some point, his teacher says: “When you focus on Kung Fu, when you concentrate … you stink.” That’s Tim Tebow as quarterback. Basically, he stinks at throwing.
But, then the teacher realizes that Po the panda loves to eat, and so he comes up with an amusing but cool training strategy. And I can’t help but wonder: What if someone completely reimagined the quarterback position? There has never been anyone quite like Tim Tebow. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s driven. He’s smart. He’s virtually indestructible, or so it seems. And he’s a force of nature. To me, it seems the guy could be a weapon unlike anything the NFL has ever seen. One play he’s the quarterback. The next he’s the halfback. The next he’s the fullback. The next he’s the wildcat. The next he’s the tight end. You could line him up in the single wing, the wishbone or the I. You could line him up at receiver, where he could be a dual threat (love the double pass!), or you put him in the slot, where he could probably be a Gronkowski type if given the chance.
Now, admittedly, New York is probably not the place to try and invent the Swiss Army Knife Tebow Offense because the media is all-encompassing, and every stumble would be portrayed as the end of the world as we know it. Anyway, it’s pretty clear that the players aren’t on board. The Jets, I suspect, are doomed to a season of utter mediocrity with their orthodox quarterback, Mark Sanchez, playing sheltered football in weeks that are sometimes good and sometimes bad.
But there are a lot of terrible teams out there. They are not only terrible in record, they are simply terrible — uninteresting, uninspiring, underperforming, underwhelming. Are you telling me that some of these coaches — men who have spent their lives studying this game — could not invent a whole new offense, some kind of super-mixture of old and new, traditional and futuristic, to feature a 6-foot-2, 240-pound athlete who can run, catch (we assume), throw (at least in this setting) and play at least five different positions?
Maybe it wouldn’t work. Maybe it would be an embarrassing bust. But maybe not. And anyway, what do some of these teams have to lose? It seems like everybody in the NFL runs, more or less, the same stuff. Every now and again there will be a blip of innovation, and if it is successful then everyone will copy it.
But mostly it feels — not only in the NFL, but across sports — like there’s a paralyzing fear of trying something really different. And I don’t get it. The Kansas City Chiefs are one of the worst teams I have ever seen … but hey, they’re conventional! The Jacksonville Jaguars are both spectacularly bad and heartily ignored … but they’re doing the same stuff as everybody else! The Carolina Panthers have Cam Newton — CAM FREAKING NEWTON — at quarterback, and they run an offense so bland, doctors recommend you don’t listen to games while operating heavy machinery.
I would love to invent an amazing, crazy, wild and inspired offense for Tim Tebow … and I’m not even a football coach, I’m talking about just doing it for Madden 2013. There have to be real coaches out there who would be able to come up with amazing ways to use the guy, to roll him left and right, to start him behind the center, then move him to H-Back, then move him to tight end, then have him throw on the end-around… with him the possibilities really are endless. It could be awesome. And it could be disastrous. It could earth-shattering. And it could be a colossal megaflop. That’s what’s so exciting about it.
When I hear people say, “Tebow cannot be a quarterback in the NFL,” I agree wholeheartedly. He can’t, no way, not how the quarterback position is currently constructed. But I really believe that he could be something different. I think that, in the end, is the big reason why he still fascinates people. It isn’t just his lack of throwing ability — there are a lot of guys who can’t throw. It isn’t that he was a great college quarterback — lots of great college quarterbacks flop in the NFL. It isn’t just his faith, either — there are many players across sports who build their lives around their faith.
Yes, I think it’s all of that, but it’s something else too. There’s the gnawing feeling that Tim Tebow could be something new, something amazing, something cooler than anything we’ve seen. And, like I say, this is one thing about sports today that drives me crazy. I suspect nobody will ever try it.