How Does Tim Tebow Fit Into the Chip Kelly Offense?Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Given that it happened during the one sliver of the calendar year when every professional sport short of football is in a meaningful stretch of its schedule, Tim Tebow signing with the Eagles feels like the NFL’s version of an SEO ploy.1 You could argue that it’s a signing that somehow manages to detract from both sides’ credibility, which is probably why you’ve heard all the jokes about the move since it was announced yesterday. It’s not even low-hanging fruit. It’s no-hanging fruit.
So, we could all sit here and make jokes for 3,000 words. That could be fun. What seems more interesting right now, though, is trying to figure out how and why this might make sense. Writing about the Eagles and Chip Kelly’s plan over the past few months has increasingly become an exercise in piecing together tenuous strands of logic, but it’s not hard to figure out why the Eagles might be bringing in Tebow. As with many of their other moves, the decision has so many question marks attached that it’s also hard to imagine that Philadelphia is better off for Kelly’s latest transaction.
For your sake and mine, let’s ignore the various Tebow sagas and the hyperspecific context he’s managed to carve out for himself as a football player, at least for a few paragraphs. Just in terms of the skills Tebow has exhibited on the field, does he fit as a possible quarterback in Kelly’s vaunted offensive scheme? Yes. And no. And, more than anything: It depends. Let’s run through the characteristics of the ideal Kelly quarterback and see if Tebow matches up:
Kelly wants quarterbacks who can throw downfield. The Eagles want to discourage opposing safeties from creeping up into the box to stop the run game by having a quarterback who can hit receivers downfield for big plays. Kelly’s emphasis on acquiring tall targets for his quarterbacks also fits that mold; even as he’s let DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin leave, Kelly re-signed 6-foot-3 Riley Cooper, drafted 6-foot-3 Jordan Matthews and 6-foot-5 Zach Ertz in the first two rounds, and took a flier on 6-foot-3 Miles Austin in free agency this offseason.
Last year, the Eagles threw 20 yards or more downfield on 13.7 percent of their passes, the sixth-highest rate in the league. That fits Tebow’s strengths as a passer. His arm strength plays up on deep throws, and while he has issues with his accuracy, the sheer time it takes for a football to move 40 yards downfield allows his receivers to make adjustments that they can’t make on shorter routes. Tebow doesn’t get the sort of velocity that a freakishly strong-armed quarterback like Matthew Stafford gets on his intermediate throws, but his downfield throws have a consistent loft that get over trailing defenders.
During his season as the primary starter with the Broncos in 2011, Tebow was able to find Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas when teams left them alone in single coverage downfield. He just didn’t do it quite as frequently as it might have seemed at the time. On throws 20 or more yards downfield that year, Tebow was 15-of-60 for 496 yards, with three touchdowns and two picks. His 60.4 QBR doesn’t sound too bad, but that was 29th among 33 qualifying quarterbacks that year.2 On all of his other throws — the ones that traveled 19 yards or less in the air — Tebow’s 48.2 QBR was 28th out of 34 qualifiers. The arm strength is an unquestioned tool, but he didn’t really turn it into a skill during his famous season in Denver.
Kelly wants quarterbacks who avoid turnovers. This seems silly — what coach would want a quarterback who doesn’t avoid giving the ball away? — but it’s fair to say that Kelly loathes takeaways. It was part of the reasoning for the team falling out of love with Nick Foles, whose interception rate jumped from 0.6 percent to 3.2 percent last season, and why it went after Sam Bradford, who has thrown picks on just 2.2 percent of his pro passes.
Tebow’s interception rate hasn’t stood out; he’s thrown picks on 2.5 percent of his pro passes, a figure that was at 2.2 percent during that 2011 campaign. Given how aggressive he is as a runner and how badly he tries to extend plays, the Eagles would probably have some concerns about Tebow’s propensity for fumbling. He led the league with 14 fumbles across 14 games during 2011. It’s too small of a sample to say whether he has a fumbling problem, but the reality is that Tebow gets hit a lot. He’s been sacked on 10.2 percent of his pro dropbacks, and that doesn’t include the plays on which he’s scrambled out of pressure. More hits inevitably mean more fumbles.
Kelly wants a mobile quarterback who can be a threat as part of the read-option. Nobody doubts that Tebow can be an effective runner. He’s not the sort of fleet-footed scamperer that Michael Vick or Marcus Mariota were in this same offense, but Tebow can be a very effective weapon in between the tackles, where he’s agile enough to slip into small creases but big enough to push the pile when he gets there. I’ve suggested in the past that Tebow could carve out a role as a short-yardage runner, and if he did make the roster, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Kelly use him in a specialized role as such.
As an option quarterback, though? I’m skeptical. Sure, Tebow ran the option as part of Urban Meyer’s offensive attack at Florida and won two national championships. That counts for something. Then-Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy also implemented a few zone-read concepts with Tebow at the helm during that 2011 campaign, although they were (at best) limited additions to their existing offense. Tebow carried the ball 29 times on zone-read plays that year, averaging a robust 6.8 yards per attempt as part of a schematic concept that would break big at the NFL level the following year.
Watch Tebow running the read-option on tape and he leaves a lot to be desired. He doesn’t seem to have a great knack for reading his initial key quickly and often either guesses or makes the wrong choice with the football, blowing up plays in the process. In college, Tebow was able to get past those problems because he was able to run around or through defenders. That’s far more difficult to pull off at the professional level, especially with defenses now far more comfortable attacking the zone-read than they were even in 2011.3 I’m sure Kelly has seen that and bets he can help coach Tebow to make the right read far more frequently, because that’s what coaches do.
Kelly wants a quarterback comfortable with controlling the tempo of the game. While the common narrative is that Kelly likes to play as fast as possible, Chris Brown has written in the past about how Kelly isn’t always about playing at top speed. Kelly unquestionably wants his quarterbacks to be capable of going no-huddle and making their adjustments at the line of scrimmage while playing at a breakneck pace, but they don’t need to do that on every single possession.
Here, Tebow sticks out as a poor fit. While Meyer plays around with tempo now as Ohio State’s head coach, he didn’t play at a particularly fast pace or use the no-huddle regularly during his time with Tebow in Florida. Meyer wrote off the idea of playing at such a tempo after four days of spring practice in 2007, saying that it reduced his coaches to signalers. Meyer specifically referenced Tebow in noting that the faster approach prevented Tebow from being a leader in the huddle and suggested that Tebow’s presence there “held them back from going full up-tempo.”
Kelly wants a quarterback capable of quickly moving through his progressions to find the open receiver with an accurate throw. At its best, Kelly’s offense is simple and brutally efficient; it uses the numerical advantages provided by its various mismatches to create simple reads and quick, efficient plays. The best sort of quarterback to take advantage of that is one who is going to be capable of moving through his progressions and responsibilities at an above-average rate, knowing that when he does find a window, he needs to get the ball in before it closes.
That simply isn’t Tebow. While he was able to succeed at Florida, he was succeeding in a system where he was afforded more time to read the field and bigger windows for his targets. Even after working with Josh McDaniels and McCoy in Denver, Tebow was one of the most inaccurate passers in recent league history during that 2011 season, as his 46.5 percent completion percentage was the fifth-worst since 1990 for a passer with 200 throws or more. Tebow’s release, notably slow heading into the league, didn’t improve sufficiently during his time as a starter to call it a positive. He’s worked on his release with various coaches inside and outside the league after leaving Denver, and Kelly will surely have some mechanical input, but it’s just difficult to imagine Tebow’s characteristics4 jelling with the qualities Kelly looks for in his passers.
I keep mentioning that, with Kelly’s coaching acumen, he could find a way to get the most out of Tebow, but that brings up another way in which the Eagles might not benefit from this signing. Bringing Tebow in as the backup or developmental quarterback behind an established starter who already runs the offense is one thing. The Eagles aren’t in that sort of situation. They have to develop Bradford, their nominal starter, who hasn’t played since the middle of 2013 and will be learning Kelly’s offense for the first time. They’re still going to need to focus on preparing Mark Sanchez, who has only been around for one year and will be the second-stringer.
Now, on top of that, there’s Tebow. Every minute that Kelly, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day spend working on Tebow is another minute they could have spent coaching up Bradford or Sanchez. While the financial cost of the deal is likely negligible even if Tebow does make the roster, the opportunity cost of devoting coaching resources toward him that could have otherwise gone to one of Philadelphia’s other quarterbacks is more tangible.
And while Eagles fans will rightly note that the organization can cut Tebow in a couple of months without owing him any money or having him take meaningful regular-season snaps, it’s also true that this isn’t like signing your typical developmental quarterback prospect. The Patriots were able to take a flier on Tebow and move on because they were a stable team with a very clear hierarchy and plan.
When the Jets acquired Tebow, however, it ended up being one of the things that ripped the team apart. There’s a reason former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum said that trading for Tebow was the most notable mistake he made during his tenure with the team. Trading a mid-round pick for a quarterback prospect who didn’t work out isn’t typically the most damaging thing a general manager does, but it’s no coincidence that Tannenbaum brought up Tebow as opposed to, say, drafting Vernon Gholston sixth or trading for Brett Favre. Tebow has an outsize impact on his team, even if he doesn’t matter much to what happens on the field.
And that’s why I would be concerned if I were Chip Kelly. It’s not an issue with Tebow himself, but a problem with the perception issue already surrounding this team. If Kelly gets his moves right — if DeMarco Murray stays healthy and Byron Maxwell is a shutdown corner and they draft this year’s version of Odell Beckham Jr. in the first round — nobody cares if the Eagles cut Tebow in August. If the other moves don’t work out, the decision to sign Tebow will become a flashpoint, another sign that Kelly was just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something stuck.
Rightly or wrongly, Tebow could become the picture of what went wrong during the Kelly era. It’s the latest curiosity in an offseason full of risks for the league’s most fascinating team.