Whatever you may think of Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback who has inspired love, hate and his very own Internet sensation, there’s one thing few can argue with. Yes, we may debate whether an NFL quarterback can be successful if he isn’t a very accurate passer. And yes, we may argue over whether his outspoken Christian piety—the home-schooled Heisman Trophy winner is known for eye-black evangelizing—makes him more likeable to fans or more likely to induce eye-rolling for his wholesomeness. But one thing is for certain: He is winning games for his team.
The second-year Bronco is 5-1 since he got the starting quarterback job earlier this season, and by traditional NFL quarterback standards, it hasn’t been pretty. This season, Tebow has only completed 65 of his 143 attempted passes, a 45-percent rate that pales in comparison to competitors like the Patriots’ Tom Brady, who has a 66 percent completion rate, or the Saints’ Drew Brees, who has racked up a 71-percent rate this year. His passing record is weak enough that his own coach, John Fox, has said “if we were trying to run a regular offense, he’d be screwed.”
But Fox is not doing that. He’s decided to run the option, a run-based offensive system that both he and Tebow favor. In Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers, which the Broncos won in overtime with just seconds left, Tebow carried the ball 22 times for 67 yards, apparently the most carries in an NFL game by a quarterback since 1950.
That would be fine if it weren’t so atypical. Because it requires time to score, risks more hits to the quarterback, and doesn’t work as well against the speed of NFL defenders, an option-based offense is rarely used in the pros. Mention of its use produces chuckles from sports analysts who seem to scoff that a play people ran in high school might also be used at the professional level. The Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations and former quarterback John Elway even caused a minor uproar for seeming to question whether Tebow’s unconventional style makes him a long-term answer for the team.
But to me, what makes Fox’s willingness to run the option so unusual isn’t just that the system isn’t used much in the NFL. It’s that a coach has decided to capitalize on a player’s strength and not worry too much about his weaknesses. After all, NFL coaches are known for scouring college rosters each year, looking not just for the best quarterback but for the guy with a cannon for an arm who can be molded into the accurate passer everyone expects to see at the pro level.
That’s hardly unique to professional football. Far too many managers focus too much on repairing their employees’ gaps, trying to squeeze them into the mold of their talented predecessors. At performance-review time in too many workplaces, much of the conversation is on fixing what doesn’t work, rather than on leveraging what does. Despite many studies and wildly popular books suggesting the opposite, leaders don’t let their people spend enough time on what they like doing. Instead, they often push them to spend time doing what they don’t enjoy in order to improve.
Fox seems to understand that’s a flawed approach, and isn’t afraid to say so. “We decided if Tim [Tebow] is going to be our guy, we can’t do that other crap,” he told NFL.com. “We had to tweak it.” His words are a good reminder to any leader trying to mold their most talented people into something they’re not: “You don’t get points for style in this league.”
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