Was Charlie Ward A Better QB Than Tim Tebow? Probably ...

Henry MiltonContributor IAugust 19, 2009

GAINESVILLE, FL - APRIL 18: Quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the University of Florida celebrates after the spring football orange and blue game April 18, 2009 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Bobby Bowden started a little kerfuffle by claiming that Charlie Ward may have been as good as Tim Tebow. Please note: he didn't say that Ward was better explicitly, he only stated that it was plausible. It is not nearly as far-fetched as Gator fans choose to believe.

After all, Bowden remembers that the national media frenzy over Charlie Ward was as big as it is over Tebow now, and when you consider that Ward's career came before the maximum exposure era of the Internet, blogs, and sports talk radio and also before ESPN became the monster that it is now, that is saying something.

Make no mistake, for two years Ward was the No. 1 star in college football and a major media phenomenon that transformed the sport. Even Madonna—who at the time was the globe's No. 1 celebrity—wanted to meet Ward (Ward declined).

And when Ward wasn't drafted by the NFL, it was a controversy that consumed the media for months (even Nightline did a cover story related to the issue.) So, the people who rolled their eyes when Bowden—who by the way has seen star QBs come and go in his time and even coached a few, including Super Bowl MVP and Pro Bowler Brad Johnson —when Bowden compared Tebow with Ward need to remember how quickly we forget.

Right down to being well known and embraced (and in some circles criticized, see here and here) for being a vocal evangelical Christian, the Charlie Ward phenomenon was every bit as large in the early 1990s as the Tebow one is now. 

Now realize that a direct comparison between Ward and Tebow are useless. Much to the chagrin of many Seminole fans, Bobby Bowden only played Charlie Ward for two years. (A defensible decision as his predecessor Casey Weldon finished No. 2 in Heisman voting to Desmond Howard.) Further, Ward and Tebow played in different systems.

Perhaps more important, the era was different. The wide-open style of football that allows QBs to put up huge numbers (including those who lets face it aren't very good) was unknown to major college football at the time.

What is more, Charlie Ward's shotgun offense at FSU was one of the things that paved the way for our current era of spread football. It can fairly be said that Tebow is in many respects indebted to Ward for the fact that he is playing QB rather than LB or TE, because Ward was one of the first dual threat QBs playing big time college football outside of the veer and wishbone oriented offenses in the Big 8 (and Ward went 2-0 against one of the best QBs in Big 8 and college football history, Tommie Frazier).  

Still, some things should be established by anyone making the comparison to keep things honest.

1. It is obvious that Charlie Ward could run Urban Meyer's offense, for Ward was an option QB in high school. However, whether Tim Tebow could run Bobby Bowden's pro-style west coast offense is subject to debate.

Incidentally, Ward made the transition from option QB to pro-style QB while at FSU, an incredible accomplishment, especially when one considers that Ward began his FSU career as a punter (and a good one!) and divided his time at FSU between football and basketball (Ward never once participated in spring football at FSU).

Meanwhile, we won't find out whether Tebow can run a pro-style offense until he gets to the NFL. Allow me to say if Tebow can come anywhere close to Ward's accuracy, tough and decision-making, he will be an outstanding NFL QB. 

2. Ward's not being drafted by the NFL was no judgment on his merits as a QB. Instead, Ward made it clear to the NFL that he preferred the NBA. Therefore, he would only commit to the NFL were he drafted in the first round. Otherwise, he would evaluate his NFL prospects versus his NBA ones.

The only one willing to abide by his conditions was Denny Green, then coach of the Minnesota Vikings. However, the Vikings' owner would not give Green permission to draft Ward in the first round (similar to Joe Montana and Drew Brees, Ward was not considered a first round prospect due to height and arm strength).

Several NFL teams—including the Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs—called Ward at various points during the draft after the first offering to take him, but Ward "refused to commit to playing football if drafted" (according to the Chiefs).

After the draft Minnesota and several other teams offered Ward a free agent contract equal to that of a second round pick (including signing bonus and guaranteed money), but Ward refused.

Make no mistake, the NFL wanted badly wanted Ward, but Ward preferred the NBA, and would have only gone to the NFL after failing in the NBA. As it was, he had an 11-year NBA career. 

3. It is tempting to go the "Ward was a better athlete but Tebow is a better QB" avenue, but it simply isn't true. Instead, the converse is true.

Tebow is the once in a generation athlete with off-the-charts natural ability. Tebow is bigger, stronger, and would probably be a 1st round draft pick at LB or TE. Yet while lacking Tebow's immense natural gifts, Ward was clearly the more skilled player of the two.

Tebow is the one who is the "athlete playing QB" much closer to Michael Vick and Vince Young, where Ward was the passing QB whose game was much more similar to that of Drew Brees and Sam Bradford.

Had Ward not become a very proficient and skilled pro-style passer, he would have remained a punter (and again a good one!).

4. Please, no talk about how Tebow has all these intangibles, that he is this great leader. Ward was a QB of the football team, point guard on the basketball team, and student body vice president while at FSU, so if you want leadership, there you have it.

Also, it was Ward who finally dragged FSU past their "bridesmaid" label, their "wide right" history of coming up short in big games, and helped Bobby Bowden get rid of his "the best coach never to win a national title" label.

By contrast, it was Danny Wuerrfel who did the same for Florida, and further Florida's second title came with Tebow as Chris Leak's backup (that's right, Florida fans, so none of this "Tebow has two titles to Ward's one!" nonsense. While Tebow did certainly contribute—as did Percy Harvin, Jarvis Moss, DeShawn Wynn, and lots of other guys—it was Leak's team. And for you Florida fans who will never forgive Leak for blowing that Auburn game... Tebow played no better in the loss to Ole Miss).

5. It is fair to talk about rivalries. Charlie Ward played against Miami, Florida, Notre Dame and Nebraska back when those programs were ruling college football, and went 4-2 against them, with both losses very close (also, Ward went 2-0 against some very good North Carolina teams coached by none other than Mack Brown).

By contrast, the Miami and FSU teams that Tebow has played have been a shell of their former selves, and is only 3-3 against LSU, UGA, and in bowl games. Further, Tebow has yet to play the ruling team in college football: the USC Trojans.

Am I saying that Ward is better? No. As a matter of fact, if the Gators run the table this year, it will be fair to say that Tebow will have surpassed both Charlie Ward and Matt Leinart (although not necessarily Matt).


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