In some ways, the NFL is an unflinching meritocracy. With billions of dollars on the line nobody gets a scholarship. The players who can play, play. The coaches who can coach, coach. The executives pair one with the other. Anyone not pulling their weight is gone in a heartbeat.
Yet somehow, people slip through the cracks.
Good players get hurt, or put in the doghouse. Coaches get stuck with players they don’t want. Players land into specific systems that hide their flaws and magnify their strengths—or the other way around. Problems with chemistry and synergy can make working relationships untenable. Success and failure in the NFL are, sometimes literally, a coin flip apart.
Drew Stanton and Tim Tebow are two sides of the same coin. Both moved across thousands of miles in their youth. Both became highly touted high school quarterback prospects. Stanton, a Rivals 4-star prospect, was Rivals’ 6th-best pro-style QB. Tebow was a 5-star, and Rivals’ No. 1 dual-threat QB. Both were multidimensional athletes who had real potential as baseball prospects. Both led their team to a state championship; Stanton in back-to-back years.
“Desire to win is unmatched . . . brings every intangible you want at the QB position.”
Stanton and Tebow attended in-state schools. Both contributed to their teams immediately in unconventional ways (Stanton a special teams gunner, Tebow a situational change-of-pace quarterback). They were strong, vocal leaders who often willed their team to win. Both gained yards on the ground both by accident and design, and through athleticism and toughness rather than speed.
Clearly, Tebow ascended to greater collegiate heights than Stanton did: with a much better coach and supporting cast, Tebow won a Heisman Trophy, and led his Gators to a BCS National Championship. Stanton cracked several Heisman watchlists throughout his career, but he and his inconstant Spartans simply weren’t at that level. Stanton, however, didn’t leave the record books untouched: he lead the biggest comeback win in NCAA history.
“I still believe the positives outweigh the negatives . . . He possesses all the physical tools to eventually emerge as a starting quarterback in the NFL, including the size, arm strength and athletic ability . . . also shows the toughness and competitiveness necessary to make it at the next level.”
Tebow was unquestionably the better college quarterback, but Stanton was unquestionably the better professional prospect. Both quarterbacks went to the Senior Bowl; Stanton completed 8 of 12 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown and was named the North’s Offensive MVP. As McShay said, Tebow’s week in Mobile “could not have gone worse from an on-the-field standpoint.”
Scouts, Inc. graded Stanton as an 87, an “Outstanding Prospect,” a high second-round grade. Tebow got a 78, a third-round grade. Most observers (including myself) pegged Tebow as a third-rounder—whether as a long-term quarterback project, or as an an unholy marriage of Chris Cooley and Kordell Stewart: “fullback/H-back/tight end/linebacker.”
"Has a well-built, natural frame with good arm length, broad shoulders, developed chest, good bubble, thick thighs . . . thick chest muscles, more in the line of a linebacker, with defined calves . . . Shows good athleticism, with nimble feet that defenses must always account for."
The Lions traded down to the 43rd overall pick to select Stanton. Per Scouts, Inc. that was right where he should have been drafted (he was their 41st-ranked prospect). But in the draft, as they say, it only takes one team to fall in love—and then-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels was smitten with Tebow.
The Broncos dealt the 114th, 70th, and 43rd (!) pick in the 2010 draft to move up to #25 overall and take Tebow. That’s right—the Broncos traded away the exact same slot the Lions used to draft Stanton, plus a 3rd- and 4th-rounder, to draft Tebow and make him their quarterback of the future.
"Smart, hard-working and patient with the football. I liked most that I rarely saw him rush things . . . poised in the pocket."
Stanton was not beloved by the Lions coaches; offensive coordinator Mike Martz wanted nothing to do with him. McShay said in the wake of the 2010 Senior Bowl that Tim Tebow needed to be completely torn down and rebuilt as a quarterback; Martz tore Stanton down like that but never rebuilt him. The Lions put Stanton on IR to save a roster spot, and he lost a season of mental and physical practice. Stanton’s mechanics were ruined, and he was getting no coaching and no reps in Martz’s complicated offense.
When Martz was fired after the 2007 season, the Lions simplified the playbook and called in a new quarterbacks coach: former Michigan QB coach Scott Loeffler. Loeffler undid what Martz had done, restoring Stanton’s natural throwing motion. Stanton flashed a little of that magic in a preseason game against the Bengals; he threw a 50-yard touchdown and ran for another. I’m embedding this fan-shot video because it is terrible as it is awesome:
Stanton was again injured, and again stashed on IR, and again his progress halted. After one season working with Stanton, Loeffler was hired away from the Lions by the University of Florida—to polish up Tim Tebow.
It’s here where Stanton’s career as a Lion truly begins, with the hiring of Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan. With every OTA, training camp, and preseason since Stanton has taken a step forward. Last season, Stanton did what everyone had waited for: he started and won a big game for the Detroit Lions. It wasn't always pretty, but he got the W. His contract ended after last season, but Lions GM Martin Mayhew brought Stanton back:
"Scott [Linehan] came in during year three and we saw a dramatic improvement in his ability, his throwing and his accuracy and all those things got better. But still, they weren't quite where you wanted them to be."
"We got into training camp and he had a pretty good camp, he made plays for us in the preseason. And then late in the year, we called on him to play and start and he won some games for us as a starter. I really didn't envision him doing that prior to this season, being able to get that done.”
"I thought he showed a lot of improvement so we plan on having him here this year and seeing if he continues to improve that way."
Tebow went through nearly the opposite path. He was drafted by an organization that believed completely in his ability to be a premier NFL quarterback . . . and then the rug got pulled out from under him. McDaniels was fired, along with anyone who had any investment in Tebow’s success. John Elway and John Fox were brought in to start a new-new era of Broncos Football, and Tebow suddenly had to prove his worth.
Last week, Fox trusted Tebow with the starting job, and Tebow delivered victory. Like Stanton's big win against the Packers, Tebow put some ugly stuff on tape—but he made it happen when it counted.
If you hadn’t guessed, all of the above scouting blockquotes are about Stanton, not Tebow. It’s not a stretch to say that Drew Stanton, as a player, is Tim Tebow’s professional upside. They share weaknesses, only Stanton’s aren’t so weak—and where Tebow’s stronger, like literal strength, it’s less useful in the NFL.
While Tim Tebow's immaculate character borders on caricature, Stanton is quietly one of the best “good guys” around. His relentless charity work has earned Stanton a perennial stranglehold on the Lions’ Robert Porcher Man of the Year award. There will never be a plaque immortalizing a Stanton motivational speech, but Stanton most certainly knows how heavy a football team is when you place one on your back and carry it.
In the infinite possibilities of other dimensions and alternate timelines, there are Drew Stanton who were drafted by a good team that believed in him, and he’s now coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance. In others, Tim Tebows are moonlighting on special teams and goal-line offense packages.
In our corner of the multiverse, Tebow is the starting quarterback for a Denver Broncos organization that could be secretly hoping he fails. As Tebow faces the Lions this Sunday, Stanton will be be watching from the sidelines—possibly in street clothes, inactive as the Lions’ third quarterback.
Will either have a long, successful NFL career? Eh, flip a coin.