By Stewart Mandel
August 27, 2009

A great debate is currently under way, one that only figures to intensify in the months ahead. Just type the right search words into Google, and you'll find a long string of bloggers and columnists asking some variation of this question: "Is Tim Tebow the greatest college player ever?"

The first time someone posed this query to me earlier this summer, I instinctively rolled my eyes. It's not that I didn't hold the Florida star in the highest possible esteem -- I've cast my Heisman ballot for him each of the past two years -- but even with his two national titles and one Heisman, it seemed far-fetched to suggest Tebow is better than any college player ever to come before him.

Yet all across the Internet, I found people discussing this very possibility with the utmost sincerity. A sampling:

"I was never lucky enough to witness some of the all-time greats like Archie Griffin, Earl Campbell, Jim Brown and Dick Butkus," Robert Gardner writes on the fan site Bleacher Report. "However, I am also lucky enough to have seen Tebow. Tebow has nothing left to prove. He is the greatest college football player of this era, and the greatest that I have ever seen."

"Tim Tebow is already in the conversation for "Greatest Ever," even before this season starts," writes blogger Dan Shanoff, who has started a site devoted solely to Tebow. "... Layer in another national title and another Heisman, and I don't think it's close."

And while Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Mark Bradley gives the nod to ex-Georgia star Herschel Walker, he says: "I would have no trouble putting [Tebow] in the all-time top five among college players, alongside or slightly ahead of Red Grange, O.J. Simpson and Roger Staubach."


I began to think I should start taking this conversation more seriously.

Still, I wondered how to possibly compare players from such disparate eras. How, for example, do you compare Tebow to Staubach, who won the 1963 Heisman while passing for a now-pedestrian 1,474 yards? And that's just discussing two quarterbacks. How do you measure a quarterback against a running back, receiver or a linebacker when they all perform such different jobs?

I decided to focus solely on distinguished quarterbacks over a more manageable time period: the past 25 years. And while titles and trophies are certainly important, they don't tell the whole story. I wanted to come up with a quantitative way to measure Tebow's on-field performance against that of other recent greats, and I wanted it to include every significant measuring stick for a quarterback -- including wins and losses.

So here's what I did. I looked up the career statistics of every Heisman-winning quarterback or Heisman finalist who has played for a national championship team since 1984 and applied the most widely used statistical formula out there: fantasy football scoring. Anyone who's ever played in a fantasy league knows there's a standard scoring system used by most leagues:

• One point for every 25 passing yards or 10 rushing yards

• Four points for every passing touchdown; six points for every rushing touchdown

• Minus-two points for every interception thrown

In addition to these five categories, I added completion percentage. Once I obtained the raw score, I multiplied it by the most important category of all, career winning percentage (as starter), to come up with a final "greatness score."

When I first began the research, I suspected Tebow, who's only started two seasons, would still lag considerably behind renowned three- and four-year starters like Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Danny Wuerffel, but would be in position to surpass them with one more big year.

Boy was I wrong.

Tebow's "greatness score" already eclipses those of all but two of the 19 quarterbacks on the following list and, barring injury, should shatter all previous scores by season's end.

Before I continue, let me just say I fully recognize this formula has its flaws. For one thing, fantasy football scoring inherently favors runners over passers (hence why the top running backs always go before the top quarterbacks in most fantasy drafts), and it was designed for the NFL, where the quarterbacks don't generally run much.

Thus, it should come as little surprise running quarterbacks like Tebow and overall leader Vince Young fared particularly well. One could even argue Tebow's score is inflated by the 22 rushing touchdowns he racked up during his 2007 Heisman season (each of which gained more fantasy points than a passing TD) when Florida generally ignored its running backs.

On the other hand, one could also argue this isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, a good dual-threat quarterback plays a bigger factor in a game's outcome than a straight-up passer. Nor should Tebow be penalized for the fact his coaches often employ him as a de facto fullback. That he's so proficient in both areas only contributes to his perceived greatness.STAPLES: A blueprint for stopping Tebow in 2009

I'm not suggesting we treat the above list as gospel, i.e. that we say Danny Wuerffel was a better quarterback than Ty Detmer because he came in 9.28 points ahead. The main point is simply to illustrate just how high Tebow has climbed before even playing his senior season. Assuming he maintains the same general winning percentage (currently .815, which over a full season would fall around 11-2), and average (by his standards) statistics, he will likely shatter the current high score by 200-300 points.

In viewing Tebow's numbers alongside some of these other greats, I began to get a better picture of just how dominant he's been. Consider:

• While Tebow is unlikely to catch Texas' Young in rushing yards (Young racked up 3,127, Tebow has 2,037), he's already rushed for more touchdowns (43 to 37) and thrown for more yards (6,159 to 6,040) and touchdowns (67 to 44).

• Nebraska's Tommie Frazier, who won national titles in 1994 and '95 and placed second in the Heisman voting his senior year, is generally considered the greatest option quarterback of all-time. Yet Tebow has already scored more rushing touchdowns than Frazier (43 to 36) and is within just 226 rushing yards of him despite nine less starts to date.

• Tebow's staggering 67-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio is far better than anyone else's on the list. Tebow's ratio works out to 6.10-to-1. His closest competition: USC's Leinart at 4.3-to-1.

• Florida State coach Bobby Bowden recently drew the ire of Florida fans by suggesting his former star, 1993 Heisman winner Charlie Ward, belongs in the same "all-time greatest" conversation as Tebow. Certainly, Ward was a fantastic player, and he played in a much different offense than Tebow, but statistically, it's not even close between the pair of two-year starters.

You could say I was starting to come around.

Obviously, there are plenty of great quarterbacks who never won a Heisman (like Tennessee's Peyton Manning), and there are plenty of national-title QBs who would never realistically enter this discussion (like Tee Martin). So with my curiosity piqued, I decided to compare Tebow's stats to those of several other prominent QBs from the recent era.

Once again, he's at or near the top of the pack.

The main things that jump out to me from this list:

• Once again, Tebow's rushing numbers far exceed those of two highly decorated "mobile" quarterbacks, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick.

• To anyone who likes to suggest Tebow is a product of Urban Meyer's system, note how much higher he scored than Meyer's star quarterback at Utah, Alex Smith, despite Smith's higher winning percentage.

• Most of us never fully appreciated just how special a player Pat White was. How different might his legacy have been had West Virginia not blown its shot at the BCS title game in '07 (by losing to 4-7 Pitt, in a game in which White got hurt)?

OK -- I'm sold. Barring injury or some other unforeseen demise (like Florida unexpectedly careening to the Outback Bowl), Tebow will almost certainly finish his career as the greatest quarterback of the past 25 years. That is, unless ...

(NOTE: An earlier version listed White's rushing touchdowns incorrectly.)

Lest we forget, there's no guarantee Tebow will wind up the most decorated quarterback of this season. Like Tebow, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford has a chance to become just the second player ever to win multiple Heismans. He's already the first player in history to lead the nation in pass efficiency as both a freshman and sophomore and holds two of the 10 highest ratings recorded.

Texas' Colt McCoy has neither a ring nor a trophy, but he was the Heisman runner-up last year, and his team starts the season ranked second behind Florida. Last year he set the NCAA single season record for completion percentage (77.6), and the four-year starter could potentially break another record for career wins (42, held by Georgia's David Greene) with an 11-win season.

Here's how Tebow's score compares to these two on our "greatness scale:"

As you can see, McCoy, who has an extra year as a starter under his belt, isn't far off from Tebow. With another big year, he, too, would likely surpass every big name previously mentioned.

Bradford sits further behind, primarily because of his lack of rushing statistics. In terms of passing, he's thrown for more yards and touchdowns than Tebow and more touchdowns than McCoy. He's also the closest of any other quarterback I calculated to approaching Tebow's TD-to-INT ratio, at 5.38-to-1.

Statistically, Bradford could also pass most or all of the other quarterback greats, though he's unlikely to catch Tebow or McCoy. But regardless of their statistics, both McCoy and Bradford will ultimately need to add a national title to their resume to formally enter the all-time greatest discussion.

OK, OK. I know I said it's virtually impossible to compare players from different positions -- but I was having so much fun with this little formula, I just couldn't help myself. Considering the fantasy system is so favorable to runners, I wanted to see what would happen if I put Tebow's "greatness score" up against one of the all-time great running backs.

Ron Dayne and Ricky Williams sit atop the all-time career rushing chart, but I'm going with the aforementioned Herschel Walker. He's widely regarded as the most dominant rusher since O.J. Simpson, he ranks among the top 10 all-time rushers despite playing just three seasons, and most importantly, he led his team to one national title and very nearly another.

The envelope, please ...

It's close enough to be considered a draw -- but again, remember Tebow has another year ahead of him. Once all is said and done, the Florida quarterback may even wind up with more rushing touchdowns than the Georgia legend.

If nothing else, the evidence overwhelmingly shows people aren't tossing around all those grandiose Tebow labels without merit. There is no conclusive way to compare Tim Tebow or Sam Bradford to Dick Butkus or Red Grange (though I'm sure the Galloping Ghost could have dominated a fantasy league in his day). In terms of the modern era, however, the numbers are awfully convincing in Tebow's favor.

So convincing, in fact, that come January there may no longer be an argument.

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