Note to Tebow fans: Heisman quarterbacks seldom succeed in the NFL

Sigh. They’re at it again.

The problem with agreeing with the right wingnuts is they still get mad at you if you don’t agree in exactly the right way. And so it was that my column supporting Tim Tebow still drew flak from the Tebowistas, who reminded me again that he was a “bigger, faster, stronger Russell Wilson” and that he won the Heisman.

Well,  he’s not faster than Wilson, not even close, but he did win the Heisman. But does that even matter? Let’s take a look. How have the last ten Heisman-winning quarterbacks who matriculated to the NFL fared? 

The answer is, winning the Heisman is just not a very good predictor of how a quarterback will do in the pros. I’ll break it down. Four of the most recent winners have become or appear to be on the road to becoming elite. I am defining elite as starting for their teams, making the Pro Bowl and winning awards. They are:

  • RG3
  • Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers
  • Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams
  • Carson Palmer, now of the Oakland Raiders

You’ll note that’s a pretty generous definition of doing well, as evidenced by Sam’s inclusion on the list. While Bradford got off to a great start and was Offensive Rookie of the Year, he has not become the franchise quarterback many expected given his physical talents and extreme intelligence. And as you’ll see in a minute, statistically he has not earned the right to be listed with Griffin, Newton and Palmer.

Three of the Heisman winners became journeymen, making a roster and hanging around in the NFL for a few years, mostly in back-up capacities.

  • Matt Leinart, now with his third team in five years, Oakland
  • Chris Weinke, a back-up for the Panthers for five years
  • Troy Smith, now a member of the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League after being on three teams in four years.

And two never made an NFL roster or played, Eric Crouch and Jason White. So add it up. Winning a Heisman gives you about a 1 in 3 chance of doing well in the pros, or said another way, about 2 out of every 3 Heisman Trophy winners are disappointing pros.

Why? What separates the elites from the journeymen? Obviously the ability to pass the ball. The four Heisman winners that have been successful in the NFL can all throw. Using the official passing ratings measure, RG3’s rating is an eye-popping 102.4, Carson’s is 86.3 and Cam’s is 85.3. Tim’s is 75.3. The only one of the four  elites whose passer rating is worse than Tim’s is Sam Bradford at 74.2, and as noted, he’s already in danger of sliding from elite to journeyman status (especially now that he’s under the tutelage of quarterback killer Jeff Fischer). On average, recent Heisman winners that have been successful have had passer ratings 12 points better than Tim. That’s a pretty big spread.

But while Tebow’s passer rating would be out of place with the elite group, it’d be right at home in the journeymen. His 75.3 would be second after Troy Smith’s 77.8 and above  Matt Leinart’s 70.8 and Weinke’s putrid 62.2.   It’s true that some quarterbacks with ratings of 75.3 or lower start in the NFL, but not many. 85% of starting quarterbacks have ratings higher than Tebow. As a rule, a rating of 75.3 gets you a spot on the bench as a back-up, which not coincidentally, is exactly where Tim is.

Now what about the myth of Tebow being bigger and faster than other quarterback? The truth is that Tebow is average sized for an NFL quarterback (6’3”) and small for an elite quarterback. Of the four that made the top group, all four are as tall or taller than Tebow.

If speed mattered, Tebow would still be shit out of luck. Three All of the four elites are faster (including Carson Palmer!) If you look at the one elite that is closest to Tebow, you guessed it, it’s journeyman-to-be Bradford.  Again, Tebow’s 40 yard dash time fits right in with the journeyman group. His is 4.7, exactly the average of the journeyman group! Anyway, if speed made up for not being able to throw, we’d be watching former Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch play in the Pro Bowl. His 40 yard time was a blistering 4.47, right up there with RG3.

So let’s sum it up. Yes, Tim Tebow won a Heisman, but that is not a guarantee of success in the NFL. Of the last ten Heisman-winning QBs who have come to the NFL, excluding Tebow arguably four have been successful, three have done OK, and two have washed out. Tebow’s career is about where it belongs. He’s doing OK. That makes sense, because in terms of size, speed and ability to throw, he fits into the OK group. He was a fabulous college player, but he’s not the superior physical specimen his proponents believe him to be.

If we look beyond the Heisman winner group, Tebow’s sitting on the bench while other young QB’s like Griffin, Newton, Wilson and Luck play for some pretty good reasons. Every last one of them can throw better than him as objectively measured by passer rating. Every one of them is faster and three of the four are bigger.

And as for that old canard, “intangibles,” whatever that means, it’s hard to find three young men with better stories, stronger leadership ability and character than Griffin, Luck and Wilson. (Newton attended Auburn.) Of course part of Tebow’s story is his Christianity, but Griffin is as devout (although he’s not a white conservative, if that’s what “intangibles” means).

Now having said that, I still argue Tebow’s getting screwed, but it’s not because he deserves more because of his ability to perform. He deserves more because he appears to have been promised more by the Jets. They promised him a chance to fail, and they should let him do so.

10 replies »

  1. You know, I made this point (albeit subtly) in a comment on your other excellent post. That you have to go to the trouble of explaining this in a post tells me the following: 1) People don’t read comments with any degree of perspicacity; 2) They don’t believe comments that offer inconvenient truths based on facts; 3) They don’t believe comments that disagree with their world views no matter how skewed those world views may be.

    This makes me despair about what your post’s comments will be like. And about the usefulness/helpfulness/value comments in general. Are you listening, SS?

  2. I don’t disagree with the analysis at all. Winning the Heisman as a quarterback is not strongly correlated with success in the NFL. Tom Brady holds a handful of NFL playoff records for the position and he almost wasn’t drafted. Kaepernick was drafted in the second round, Flacco late in the first, and Aaron Rodgers was the 18th pick in the first round.

    But the Jets didn’t promise Tebow a chance to fail. They promised him a large pile of money. His contract is incentive heavy and based mostly on playing time. He took a $6M advance when he signed, which NY is partially paying back to Denver so Tim got a large chunk of money upfront. By having him ride the bench, NY is saving significant amounts of money.

    Due to his playing time and playoff appearance in 2011, he unlocked incentives which raised his base pay from $540K to $1.1M (lower pay is based on his taking the salary advance) as well as a $472K roster bonus. I think that at $1.5M for working out and going to practice, the Jets have given him what they promised. And if he doesn’t greatly increase your chance to win, why would you as a profit-oriented business play him enough to unlock significant pay increases?

  3. Not sure half a mil is significant for an NFL team, particularly in terms of what they might have gained in promotion from playing him. Large companies, like sports franchises, spill more than that every month.

    • Salary Cap. And as the contract says that NY must pay back a portion of Tim’s salary advance (again, $6M before he played a down) to Denver, he actually costs more like $3M/season against the cap. If he takes 55% of the snaps in his first three seasons, he gets $5M in ’13 and $6M in ’14. It would change his cap cost from $2.6M in 2013 to $7.6M.

      I get the promotion revenue, jersey sales, etc. but the cap is a hard figure and NY has to field a whole team under it. Now maybe NY hasn’t played him to avoid the incentives, but maybe they haven’t seen enough from him in practice to make taking the cap hit from those incentives worth it. If he wasn’t going to take over the team and make them win this season, then he loses from a purely business perspective. (that cap number would make him quite difficult to move too) My understanding is that NY could barely afford his cap money at $2.6.