Friday October 10th, 2008

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As Tim Tebow tried to strangle the podium he stood behind, he fought back tears. The last question had been asked and answered. The Florida quarterback didn't need to publicly flay himself further for all the failures in a 31-30 loss to 22-point underdog Ole Miss on Sept. 27. Tebow didn't need to say more. But he did.

"I just want to say one thing to the fans, and everybody in Gator Nation," Tebow said. "You know what ... I'm sorry. Extremely sorry. We were hoping for an undefeated season. That was my goal. It's something Florida's never done here. But I promise you one thing: A lot of good will come out of this. You've never seen any player in the entire country who will play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. And you'll never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season. And you'll never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless."

That promise offered the first glimpse this season of the 2007 Tebow. Remember him? It's probably tough with all those highlights of Big 12 quarterbacks and their 300-yard games dancing in your heads, but Tebow is less than a year removed from a sophomore season in which he threw for 32 touchdowns and ran for 23 more and became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. A year ago, Tebow appeared poised to revolutionize the position. This season, something seems off. He has yet to dump-truck a hapless linebacker. Some throws seem aimed instead of launched by a shoulder-mounted cannon. Perhaps most troubling for the Gators, Tebow got stuffed on fourth-and-one in the waning seconds of the Ole Miss loss.

There isn't an easy answer for the change, but here's a guess at a possible cause: It's almost impossible to dump-truck a linebacker when you're trying to carry the football and the weight of the world.

If the contents of his apology didn't reveal some of the forces squeezing Tebow, this quote a few days later in The Miami Herald did. Asked why he put "Why I Pray For Tebow" on the sign at Gainesville's Campus Church of Christ, minister Eric Brown said this to reporter Joseph Goodman: "I'm going to pray that [Tebow] is true to his faith because if he falls and gets caught up in some kind of scandal it will be bad for Christianity."

That's right, Tebow isn't just responsible for leading Florida to a national title. He also must protect the reputation of a faith with an estimated 2.1 billion adherents. No pressure.

OK, the fate of a major world religion doesn't rest in Tebow's hands, but he's so passionate about his faith, he may wonder if it does sometimes. That can't be fun. Neither can constant pressure -- applied internally and externally -- to complete every pass, get a first down on every run, score 50 points every game, all while maintaining a squeaky clean image in one of the sports world's smallest fishbowls. Tebow handled it all with aplomb while playing like Superman in 2007. But even Superman needs a chance to be Clark Kent every once in a while. Tebow hasn't gotten that opportunity.

If the 11th-ranked Gators hope to beat No. 4 LSU on Saturday at Florida Field, Tebow will have to have some fun. While he'll certainly have to avoid the pressure from LSU's ferocious defensive line, he'll have to try harder to avoid the pressure he puts on himself. He'll have to follow the piece of advice Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen offered Wednesday. "Just play the game," Mullen said. "Don't think about it. React."

Florida coach Urban Meyer noticed Tebow's lack of joy last week during a 38-7 win at Arkansas. After Tebow whipped a 21-yard touchdown to Percy Harvin, he jogged to the sideline. Last year, Tebow celebrated even one-yard touchdowns like an 8-year-old who just unwrapped a present on Christmas morning. Meyer saw a guy who looked like a CPA scanning AIG's balance sheet. He told Tebow to enjoy himself a little. So the 240-pound Tebow chest-bumped the coach. "I just wanted him to feel good about himself," Meyer said. "That was his best throw of the season."

Meyer and Mullen know a smiling, chest-bumping, instinctual Tebow is a productive Tebow. Mullen worries he may have put too much on Tebow entering this season, not realizing that Tebow's natural tendency to care so deeply would occasionally cause him to suffer from paralysis by analysis.

"I think we got a little bit too much into worrying about, 'Read this coverage. Read this coverage. Check this.' ... Our expectations of him executing put that on him," Mullen said. "He wanted to be perfect on every play instead of just going hard on every play."

Against LSU, all that reading and checking will get a quarterback buried beneath a pile of purple and gold. The Tigers have the nation's most athletic defensive line, defensive backs fast enough to cover almost anyone one-on-one and an aggressive philosophy that makes predicting their behavior about as easy as tackling Tebow last season.

So the coaches have tried to make Tebow stop thinking so much on the field. "Don't worry about that," Mullen said. "Let's just simplify some things and get back to fundamentals and play fast. The whole focus is on playing fast. That's the key to this stuff."

Meyer was quick this week to point out that Tebow leads the SEC in passer efficiency rating (148.05) and that the Gators lead the SEC in scoring (36 points a game). Through five games last year, with Tebow leading the charge with a 185.45 passer efficiency rating, 11 passing touchdowns and eight rushing touchdowns, the Gators averaged 42.8 points a game. Think the extra touchdown missing from that average wouldn't come in handy on Saturday?

The coaches could do more than simplify the offense. Instead of trying to protect Tebow, they may want to consider cutting him loose. Tebow has better improvisational skills than Drew Carey, and Florida will need LSU wondering Which Tebow is it Anyway? to beat the Tigers. LSU has underachieved a bit on defense this season, but the return of linebacker Darry Beckwith from injury this week combined with the stakes should ensure defensive end Tyson Jackson, defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois and company play to their potential. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Lee played well in the Tigers' win at Auburn on Sept. 20, but some of LSU's defenders have been around long enough to know that a night game in The Swamp can rattle a young quarterback. They know they'll need to contain Tebow to keep Lee from feeling he has to produce a touchdown every series.

Of course, that won't matter if Florida's coaches contain Tebow first. Meyer and Mullen entered this season with the best of intentions. They wanted to stop running Tebow so much and let the backs carry the load. That way, they wouldn't suffer a repeat of last season's loss to Georgia, when Tebow -- hampered by a severe shoulder bruise suffered a week earlier in a 20-carry effort at Kentucky -- was a sitting duck in the pocket. They succeeded in reducing Tebow's carries, from 87 non-sack rushing attempts through the first five games of 2007 to 54 this season.

But the coaches predicated that plan on a stable of quality receivers, an offensive line that should have been the equal of last year's and on the emergence of freshman backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Harvin has been the only legitimate receiving threat, the line has not met expectations and the backs have broken free only against inferior opponents. Against Hawaii and Arkansas, Rainey and Demps carried 25 times for 340 yards and five touchdowns. Against Miami, Tennessee and Ole Miss -- not exactly a murderer's row -- Rainey and Demps carried 19 times for 60 yards and no touchdowns. The tiny speedsters play best when they get the ball in space. What's the best way to create space? Throw a few passes, and then slam Tebow up the middle for eight yards. The defense will have to choose whether to pack in to defend Tebow up the middle or spread out to defend passes on the perimeter. Voila. Space.

LSU's Jean-Francois may have helped Florida and Tebow. In an interview last week with The Orlando Sentinel, Jean-Francois said a clean shot on Tebow would be like "a car wreck without a seatbelt." He also said: "If we get a good shot on (Tebow), we're going to try our best to take him out of the game. With his size and his heart, it's hard to get a clean shot. ... If he does get hurt, there's a trained medical staff at Florida, so you can go to the training room on Sunday." Jean-Francois has been unfairly vilified this week for these comments, which, naturally, were semi-retracted with a prepared statement. He never implied in his original statement that anyone at LSU would play dirty. He said what any good defensive lineman is thinking. Still, the Tigers had better hope those comments don't produce the same reaction from Tebow as the ones from Florida State linebacker Geno Hayes last year.

Days before the Seminoles faced the Gators, Hayes said Tebow was "going down."

"The bigger they are, the harder they fall," Hayes told reporters. "Hopefully we can go out there and shatter his dream."

That Saturday, Tebow clinched the Heisman by throwing for three touchdowns and running for two more despite playing most of the second half with a broken right hand. Hayes was last spotted sliding off an end zone-bound Tebow.

Tebow's reaction to Jean-Francois should plant a tiny seed of doubt in the Tigers. "Part of it's true," Tebow said this week. "We do have a good training staff." That sounded an awful lot like a joke. Someone so quick with a quip might be open to having a little fun again. If that's the case, if some trash talk manages to yank Tebow out of his own head and back into his 2007 mindset, Jean-Francois may have just handed Superman back his cape.

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