Tim Tebow is the most controversial, sensational, polarizing, attention-grabbing, ratings-pulling, page view-grabbing backup quarterback in the history of the National Football League.
Whether Tebow's incredible college career is proof of his NFL readiness or irrelevant to his chances of pro success, he has been the subject of almost 24-hour, 365-days-per-week debate around office break rooms and major network TV sets for years.
Football experts (and not-so experts) have spilled countless gallons of virtual and actual ink and expelled entire balloons' worth of hot air on whether Tebow deserves all the spilled ink and passed gas.
But finally, blessedly, football fans across the country are getting sick of talking about whether Tim Tebow is worth talking about.
So let's talk about why he needs to be the Jets' starting quarterback.
Because Mark Sanchez Shouldn't Be
In the aftermath of the trade for Tebow, NFL.com reported head coach Rex Ryan told reporters there's "no question" that Mark Sanchez is "of course" the Jets' starting quarterback. But why? Why isn't there a question? Why isn't there any doubt?
Sanchez was the No. 5 overall pick in 2009. The Jets made three substantial investments in him: the trade with which they acquired the No. 4 pick, his rookie contract and his recent contract extension. But they haven't ever gotten anything close to a return on those investments.
Sanchez made a lot of noise his rookie season with a few timely touchdown passes; even Ryan began calling him "Sanchize" a few weeks in. But Sanchez is not a difference-maker. He's never elevated the team around him; at his best, he's only allowed his runners, receivers and defense to win.
Mark Sanchez by the Numbers
The first Sanchez number you need to know is his adjusted net yards per attempt. Tabulated by Pro-Football-Reference.com, ANY/A is yards per attempt adjusted by sacks taken, touchdowns thrown and interceptions thrown.
As a rookie in 2009, Sanchez's ANY/A was 4.1—27th in the NFL. In 2010, that improved to 5.4 ANY/A—good for 23rd. In 2011, he was still ranked 23rd in the NFL, but his ANY/A regressed to 5.1.
Sanchez does not throw well downfield. It shows in his approach to the game and the way his coaches draw up his offense. He doesn't look downfield to make plays because he doesn't have the arm strength or deep accuracy to attack defenses.
Sanchez will never be the kind of quarterback who elevates everyone around him—like Peyton Manning has. Sanchez will always be, at best, an ankle-biting caretaker.
Unfortunately, he's not great at that either. His career completion percentage is 55.3 percent, which would be OK for a bomb-it-downfield riverboat gambler—but for a quarterback whose calling card is efficient execution, it's just not good enough. For reference, Rex Grossman's career completion percentage is 55.2 percent.
Bottom line: Mark Sanchez will never "lead" his team to a Super Bowl championship. At best, he'll someday fail to prevent his teammates from making it to the Promised Land, despite his performance under center.
Compensating for Sanchez's Shortcomings
Let's step away from the numbers and look at Matt Miller's B/R 1000 scouting report. Sanchez is "at his best when he's on the move," using his natural athleticism to escape the rush and buy time. Miller says Sanchez also "struggles to read the field" because of his slow decision-making.
So, what do the Jets do? They smartly use his strength to negate his weakness with rollouts and bootlegs.
When he rolls out, Sanchez can use his athleticism to simplify his reads. With half the field out of play, Sanchez has one, at most two, reads to make before getting rid of the ball.
The other way to relieve pressure on Sanchez is the same way the 2000 Baltimore Ravens relieved pressure on Trent Dilfer: make the running game and defense so good the quarterback can't screw it up.
Comparing to Tim Tebow
Nobody thinks of Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez as similar quarterbacks, but their limitations as passers are very similar, indeed. For right now, let's put aside "clutch" and "he just wins" and other superstitions and evaluate Tebow and Sanchez as passers.
Let's look at Tebow's B/R 1000 scouting report: Tebow isn't quite as accurate over short distances as Sanchez (5/10 instead of 7/10), but gets the same 7/10 mark when throwing on the run. Tebow's grade for deep accuracy (5/10) is just behind Sanchez's (6/10). Miller gave them both a 6/10 for arm strength. Tebow's decision-making drew a miserable 1/10 from Miller, but Sanchez's 4/10 isn't anything to crow about.
The difference between Tebow and Sanchez is not in what they do poorly, but in what they do well. Sanchez has picture-perfect technique and solid pocket awareness; at USC, he was impeccably groomed as a classic drop-back, pro-style passer. Tebow is huge and strong and athletic; at Florida, he was unleashed as a human weapon.
Tebow's physical, mental and (possibly imaginary) intangible gifts made him a great college quarterback, despite being a poor passer. Sanchez, in form and style, is a bona fide pocket passer—he's just not much better than "poor" at it.
Tebow Gives the Jets the Best Chance to Win Now
Are you ready for your mind to be blown? The way the Jets minimize Mark Sanchez's limitations is the same way the Jets will minimize Tim Tebow's limitations.
Tebow, like Sanchez, will lean on his running backs and defense to win football games. Tebow, like Sanchez, will run a lot of bootlegs to maximize his athleticism while simplifying his decision-making. Tebow, like Sanchez, will be asked to complete a light diet of short passes, mixed with a couple of surprise long bombs a game to try and catch the defense napping.
But while Sanchez's athleticism gives him the chance to make throws on the run and make something out of nothing on broken plays, he's not a threat as a runner; defenses will never hold themselves back from stopping passes to make sure they don't lose contain. Defenses will never game-plan to make sure they have an answer for Sanchez's running.
But the Jets have begun installing a Wildcat-like running package to further capitalize on Tebow's strengths, according to Dave Caldwell of the New York Times.
This is what Tebow brings to the table—not "clutchness," not "will to win," not any kind of magic or aura, but a real, credible threat to gain yards on the ground. Defenses have to spend time preparing for Tebow's running, so they have to spend less time preparing for his passing.
Whenever an offense can keep a defense guessing, that's a huge advantage for the offense; it's a big advantage the Jets can press with Tebow behind center but not with Sanchez. When defenses prepare for Sanchez, they're just preparing for an unremarkable pro-style quarterback. When defenses prepare for Tebow, they have to reconsider almost everything they typically do.
What About the Future?
The sad truth is, neither of these quarterbacks is going to be a difference-making pocket passer in the NFL. Sanchez has made small improvements over his first three years, but unless he undergoes a Rich Gannon-style, late-career rebirth, he'll never be more than he is now.
Tebow may eventually iron out some of the kinks in his delivery, but he'll always be unconventional, always be limited as a passer and always be someone whose team is built around him, not on top of him.
The Jets made it to the AFC championship game in each of Sanchez's first two years, over which he had a 19-to-33 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In his third year, he threw 26 touchdowns to 18 picks, and they missed the playoffs!
Clearly, this Jets team will go as the defense and running game goes. They don't need their quarterback to play like a Manning brother; they need him to keep the defense honest and move the chains when called upon.
Right now, Tim Tebow's better at what they need their quarterback to do—and with the Jets underwhelming again in 2011, Ryan doesn't have the luxury of waiting for the future. He needs to win now.
He and the Jets need to start Tim Tebow in 2012.
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