Did Cam Newton "outperform" Tim Tebow in practice at Florida? And does it matter?

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Tebow was the unquestioned starter at Florida from 2007 to 2009. But was Cam Newton better than Tebow at Florida after he won the 2007 Heisman Trophy?

Tim Tebow had just won the Heisman Trophy in 2007, and become the first quarterback in major college football history to score 20 rushing touchdowns and pass for 20 touchdowns in a season. But Tebow had talented players behind him, in Cam Newton and John Brantley — and SB Nation's Bomani Jones reports that Newton "outperformed" Tebow in practices and the 2008 spring game even after hoisting the Heisman.

After winning the Heisman Trophy, according to sources, he was outperformed by Newton in practice, yet Tebow (understandably) remained the starter. Newton was promised an opportunity to start in ‘08, but he never had a real chance given Urban Meyer's affection and preference for Tebow..

Jones writes this in service of making a greater point about Tebow — the seas have parted for him from stop to stop in his football career, whether to ensure that he would be an important part of an offense led by a four-year starter, to get him selected in the first round and not the third, or to presumably secure second place on the Jets' depth chart this year, which has led to the latest Tebow mania, a discussion of whether he opted out of wildcat offense duties this week because he was not given a chance to start.

But the idea that Newton was better than Tebow in early 2008 is not one often discussed, and Newton's skills as a thrower were nowhere near their current NFL-caliber level then, in my opinion, and both 247Sports' Thomas Goldkamp and ESPN's Michael DiRocco also countered the idea of "outperformed."

And long ago, I live blogged that 2008 spring game, and didn't come away from it thinking that Newton was a polished passer:

Orange comes out with Cameron Newton, a Daunte Culpepper/JaMarcus Russell clone, in the shotgun, and he hits Deonte Thompson and Brandon James for two passes to the Blue 45. Then he overthrows everyone on a flat ball on first down, and fakes the back out on second down as he runs for about six.

Newton’s woes continue on third and fourth down, though, as pressure forces an overthrow on third and Newton decides Markihe Anderson is a receiver on fourth. Anderson, in true Riley Cooper form, drops the pick, and Blue will have the ball on downs.

...

Newton’s somehow a better than 50% passer as the Orange team lines up for second and eight, but you cannot stop Cam Newton from throwing incomplete passes, as he throws two to the players in green (note: that would be the grass, Cam) and forces a field goal try.

...

By the way, Cam Newton’s running the two-minute drill like a lethargic blue whale right now, so there’s a lot of promise for the backups here.

I remember Newton being average at best as a thrower in mop-up duty, but he was, even in 2007, a more powerful runner than Tebow. And "outperform" is a relative term: Was Newton better and more dangerous in the Urban Meyer/Dan Mullen spread option than Tebow? Was Tebow bad after a bad outing against Michigan? It's a nebulous word, to be both fair and unfair to Jones, because it has to be: He wasn't there and he's not working with the same facts Goldkamp, DiRocco, and I are working with.

But I trust Bomani (Disclosure: We obviously work together, sort of, and we've discussed this in the past.) on this and other things, and I agree with the larger point about Tebow, too. I didn't write that long post on Tebow and privilege for no reason; I genuinely think that Tebow's gotten some extraordinary opportunities in his life, ones that many, many other people would kill for, and that he's done a lot with them.

Over the last 12 months, the opportunities given to him have been less fruitful: Tebow likely thought he was coming to New York to be a star on a good team, but he was trapped behind a quarterback who struggled all year, and the Wildcat package that the Jets spent most of the preseason playing coy about failed to be more than a gimmick trotted out occasionally. That would be frustrating for any quarterback who had started and won a postseason game the year prior, I think, but Tebow's uncanny ability to have things break his way likely makes this frustration more acute no matter how you read the situation. Charitably, Tebow's had success when given chances, and thinks he can be successful given a chance, and wants only to prove that; uncharitably, Tebow's frustration is with not getting what was promised to him, and is grounded in the petulance of a child not getting his way.

But flip that and you see part of why Cam Newton not getting a promised opportunity to compete for a job is unfair, too: Newton was always about equal to Tebow in terms of measurables, and he only wanted what was promised to him; he handled the aftermath far more poorly than Tebow did, and got a bad rep for it.

Does this matter? Only in the context of playing counterfactual games with Florida football, or understanding Tebow and Newton separately and together. But it also matters because it's 2012, Florida has played three full regular seasons of football without Tebow or Newton being on the field or the sidelines, and yet we're still talking about something that happened almost five years ago.

That is how important those two players were to Florida — even though one's most memorable moment in Gainesville was throwing a laptop out a window — and they seem unlikely to get less important. There's plenty more to be told here, I think, not less.

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