Canada, Land of Zero Tebows

What if Tim Tebow came north? Isn’t there some rich CFL city with a serious quarterback problem...?
New York Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow warms up prior to an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(Ted S. Warren/AP Photo)

Tim Tebow. Say what you want about the man, and you will, but he is good copy. I got into a Tebow discussion the other day on Twitter after I started wishing aloud that he would come to Edmonton and save our CFL Eskimos from the wretched, dare I say almost Rider-like, state into which they have fallen. I was not really being serious. Well, OK: maybe ten percent serious.

About a year ago our genius general manager Eric Tillman decided to risk all on one turn of pitch-and-toss and trade our longtime quarterback, Ricky Ray, for magic beans from a passing pedlar. This decision was second-, third-, and nth-guessed at the time, and it was, we now know, rabidly opposed by head coach Kavis Reed. Ray does not throw the ball very far, or in an especially conventional way, but he has supreme accuracy statistics and had won two Grey Cups in Edmonton with pretty underwhelming teams. (The once-proud Eskies have not had a 12-win season yet in this century.)

Ray was divisive, though, Lordy, not Tebow divisive. But the trade united the city in agreement that the return was disappointing, and the unfolding of the Esks’ 7-11 season emphasized this in an especially brutal way. Peaceable Canada has never approved of the American practices of tarring and feathering or hastening the unwelcome out of town on a rail, but Tillman came within about a micron of it.

As with any healthy, anatomically intact young football fan, my thoughts sometimes turn to the curiously saintly, annihilatingly gifted Tebow. Last year’s Denver Broncos hero has entered the metaphorical wilderness of the New York Jets roster, where he spells off starting QB Mark Sanchez for a few snaps a game, plays on special teams, and for all I know mops the locker room. He is paid well for this, but it is not doing much for what you would call his human capital. In practices, Sanchez gets the vast majority of the “reps”—i.e., the work of simulating real plays. Tebow’s experience as a “punt protector” has been unhappy. There is already tremendous prejudice against him in the league, because he throws a football in a faintly silly way, and the longer he goes without running an offence as a quarterback, the less likely he is to ever be asked to do it again. Catch-22.

In 2011 everyone found it hard to comprehend Tebow’s leadership of a remarkable Denver charge to the playoffs. Nothing about him was conventional—not the way he won football games, not the way he gave interviews, not the way he related to teammates on the sidelines. His biography is unconventional; his religious beliefs are unconventional. And, as you would expect, his statistical record as an NFL quarterback is unconventional. His won-lost record as a starter: 8-6 (pretty decent). His touchdown-to-interception ratio: 17/9 (very acceptable). His completion percentage: 48.1% (vomit-inducing).

On a technical note, I personally put a fair amount of extra weight on the TD-INT figure, and among the reasons is that I watched Ricky Ray build a record-setting completion percentage by virtue of never challenging the secondary deep and being stuck in an ultra-conservative rinky-dink passing offence for much of his time in Edmonton. TD-INT ratio is less dependent on the choice of playbook than completion percentage. Moreover, it seems to me that NFL quarterbacks are increasingly accepting of incomplete passes as a better outcome than hanging onto the ball too long, and that this is sensible. If no receiver is open downfield within about 1.5 seconds, they’ll just chuck the thing away and try again; this at least brings the ball back to the line of scrimmage and keeps them from getting violated by a gang of lightning-fast behemoths. I can’t substantiate it, but American QB doctrine appears to now recognize that an interception is a disaster far worse than even the loss of a down, and that even a sack is significantly horrid—the equivalent of a turnover, basically, seasoned with a healthy dash of injury risk.

Anyway, none of that helps us much in deciding whether Tebow could be a successful NFL quarterback someday, given training he is unlikely to get anyway. The natural question for a Canadian is: what if Tebow came north? He is a wacky-looking duck-winged passer, albeit one who can throw the ball from the 50-yard line into the parking lot, and the CFL is, as people spent all day telling me, a passing league. On the other hand, the CFL is not exactly teeming with elegant, technically proficient quarterbacks, and, again, I suppose Ricky Ray makes for as good an Exhibit A as anyone else. The concept that “the CFL is a passing league” would theoretically suggest that the league might attract good passers who are short on other football virtues like foot speed. In fact, the situation seems to be exactly the opposite; the league is usually full of passers who, as pure throwers, grade anywhere from B to D-minus.

My instinct is that Canadian football’s larger field would be good for Tebow, and his athletic dominance would assert itself strongly up here against our overgrown farm-boy defenders. What strikes me above all else, though, is that at least the poor bastard would get to take snaps. Back when NFL teams were more likely to start a three-legged dog at quarterback than a black athlete, the CFL served as a refuge, a proving ground, and an academy for successful black college QBs like J.C. Watts, Condredge Holloway, and Warren Moon. Later, Doug Flutie would overcome the challenge of congenital dwarfism to become perhaps the league’s greatest player, establishing his bona fides so convincingly that he was eventually welcomed back to the NFL.

So isn’t Canada the natural place for Tebow? Nay, isn’t there some rich CFL city with a serious quarterback problem…? You can see how my sports-fan mind runs when it is left untethered.

I thought the answer to the question was actually pretty clear: the CFL, which adopted a proper salary cap in 2007 and fancies itself a blue-collar club where a second job is a virtue, has dropped down the ladder of choices for quarterbacking talent. When I was a kid Warren Moon came to Edmonton almost directly from a Rose Bowl game in which he was the MVP for Washington. Now our league’s two best established quarterbacks are older guys from Sacramento State and Utah State. At one point not long ago Ricky Ray actually left the league briefly, as its reigning highest-paid player, for a distant shot at maybe being third on the New York Jets depth chart. That doesn’t bode well for enticing the current #2 to Canada.

Twitter did not do a very good job of convincing me that the CFL hasn’t actually gone from being the equivalent of AAA baseball to being more like the All-American Girls League. When I griped about the dearth of young quarterbacks—keeping in mind that Travis Lulay is already 29 and Drew Tate, who will probably win a couple of MVP awards sometime, is 28—an interlocutor came back at me with down-roster names: the Leos’ Mike Reilly, the Riders’ Drew Willy, and “the guy in Edmonton” (that would be Matt “Legs Aren’t Supposed To Bend Like That” Nichols). These signal-callers may have bright futures, but I thought the fact that they played college football for SUNY Buffalo, Central Washington, and Eastern Washington spoke more for my point than against it. Is our CFL becoming the “border-state D-II school” league, or what?

Which is about when it occurred to me that my opinion wasn’t based on much more than a gut feeling, and that I could look for a documentable, quantitative answer to the question. Science! I found a means of identifying the best U.S. college football programs, in the form of a list which weights them by total appearances in the year-end AP poll. The order of the list is credible and the means by which schools are assigned points is logical. And it is not hard to find a list of CFL quarterbacks with the year each one joined the league. So you could use that, I reasoned, to reckon the volume of elite QB recruitment for any given CFL year.

The one adjustment I think you’ll agree is necessary is that, if you’re adding up players, you don’t want an Oklahoma player to be worth literally 50 Southern Miss guys. I represented schools by the base-10 logarithms of the totals in their historic ranking, which has the effect of making a recruit from Oklahoma worth about 3, a guy from Texas Tech about a 2, and somebody from a school that has rarely cracked the top 25 a 1 or thereabouts. To work through an example, the total for new QBs in 2009, a poor year, includes a 2.1 for Jared Zabransky (Boise State), a 1.7 for Casey Bramlet (Wyoming), and a 1 for Adam DeMichele (Temple). Funnily enough, 2009 is the season Lulay arrived, but he hails from outsider university Montana State. Awarding him a zero is kind of the point of the exercise, even though he has succeeded in the CFL and those other players haven’t.

This method of charting QB recruitment in the CFL is an example of what The Great Tukey called “exploratory data analysis”; we aren’t over-concerned with rigour, just looking at the data in one particular way while recognizing that other choices are possible. Here’s what the data for each year look like:

That’s not a very helpful view, since we can’t see the trend, so let’s connect the points with lines:

Still kind of confusing and spiky. What The Great Tukey would recommend here is running a smooth line from left to right, through the middle of the data, to reveal the trend. This ate up a lot of paper and graphite in his day, but now we can tell a computer to just draw what’s called a “LOESS”-smoothed line through the data with a shaded 95% confidence interval around it. Robot servant, do our bidding:

I’d say this rather confirms my fears. The trendline starts out high, at a time when the CFL was practically an equal competitor for elite talent; it remains steady between 1970 and 2000, with the upward bump we would expect (if only from the larger number of available jobs) during the ignoble period of attempted U.S. expansion; and, at the near end of the series, a nosedive.

A trend is not destiny, but I think it’s broadly true that the Fluties and Tebows of the world do not take the CFL as seriously as they once did. Flutie showed us what one star can do for the league’s image, and, for better or worse, Tebow is in some ways the biggest football star on earth. The idea of making quarterbacks exempt from the salary cap does not seem ridiculous to me; we could even, say, grant circumscribed exemptions to players receiving Heisman votes, or simply give every team one “superstar” exemption of the sort Major League Soccer permits. That bend in the trend, if it represents a real phenomenon, might make it worth considering.