Tim Tebow and the Psychology of Betting on Human Resolve

Today, NFL teams will announce who they are taking in the draft, and everyone wants to know what’s going to become of the most decorated quarterback in college football, Tim Tebow.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Florida Gators fan, and I’ll freely admit that I want Tebow to do well in the draft. But my biases aside, I think there’s an interesting story in all of this worth investigating a bit deeper than simple fan partisanship will allow.  Tebow may be the best example in the history of professional sports of what happens when raw human resolve meets hard-core risk analysis.

Here’s the situation in brief: Tebow is an unconventional QB, by NFL standards, in that he’s more prone to run than stand in the pocket; more effective in shotgun formation than under center; and he has an exaggerated throwing motion that leaves the ball exposed for too long before he releases it. 

Physically, Tebow is the prototypical NFL QB. He’s 6’ 3”, 245 lbs, and as strong as many linebackers.  But the combination of the three pitfalls above are overshadowing his physical prowess, and possibly for good reason.  In college, Tebow was stronger and faster than many of his opponents. He didn’t have to stay in the pocket because he could run as well as any running back, barring a few, against most college defenses.  He didn’t have to take the ball under center because he ran the option effectively or just kept the ball himself and ran headlong into the defense. And his throwing motion wasn’t a huge concern because most defensive lines couldn’t get to him in time to strip the ball. 

All of that will be much different in the NFL.  Pro defensive linemen are extremely fast, extremely strong, and they don’t let quarterbacks run very often. A QB who can’t sit in the pocket and release the ball quickly is going to get hurt, and fast. Add to that Tebow’s throwing motion issue and it only gets worse. 

The risk analysis combines all of the above and, on paper, makes Tebow a poor QB draft pick.  He dominated in college with abilities that are not applicable in the NFL.  People like Dallas Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones have already come to this conclusion and have openly said (though Jones was allegedly drunk when he said it) that he’d never pick Tebow for his team.  Sloshed or not, I’m sure several owners have thought or said the same thing.

So if that’s all true, why isn’t this the end of the story?  The information available for risk analysis seems to unequivocally result in a NO decision on Tebow for any NFL team.

But this is where we have to check into the rest of the story, which I’m going to call the anti-deterministic position on human risk analysis.  The deficiencies identified in the risk analysis are accurate, but they are also incomplete.  When human beings are evaluated in purely mechanistic terms, the analysis will always fall short—chiefly because humans are not machines, and they are not comprised merely of measurable, material components. 

Your car is.  You might be driving on the highway in heavy traffic and wish that you could deftly weave through the lanes of cars faster than anyone else around you, but if your car doesn’t handle well and isn’t especially fast, forget about it. Same goes for any machine you can think of.  It can be mechanically tinkered with to improve performance, but it will not improve performance itself.  All machines, computers included, are restricted by the boundaries of design, structure and programming.

Humans are not, and Tebow happens to be an especially good example of this fact.  What made him a consistent performer in college football was not simply physical ability, but a combination of physical and mental ability with an intense inner drive—which neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky calls the uniquely human trait of “resolving to do the impossible.”  In terms of risk analysis, that trait is not just a wild card–it’s an observable characteristic just as evident as Tebow’s throwing motion or penchant for running. 

Sheena Iyengar, in her new book “The Art of Choosing”, describes this drive to succeed as “survivorship.”  In its most extreme form, it’s what allows people to make it through the worst conditions—conditions that an on-paper risk analysis could only conclude are insurmountable.  Think of those who surived against the odds in concentration camps, or those trapped in the mountains for days during historic blizzards who live to tell their stories. Human resolve to conquer the unconquerable is quite possibly the most formidable force on the planet.

Bringing this back around to the NFL draft: the same traits that Sapolsky and Iyengar describe are those that Tim Tebow has in spades.  The mechanistic risk analysis that some have pointed to as reason not to draft Tebow at all is just the wrapper on a stick of gum. 

Human resolve has proven this analysis incomplete time and time again, and I have a strong feeling that the same will happen this time.  One forward-thinking team will recognize this and give Tebow an opportunity to prove it. I have little doubt that in time he’ll do exactly that.

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5 thoughts on “Tim Tebow and the Psychology of Betting on Human Resolve

  1. Tebow is a coaches dream player. He is intelligent, he studies the game like no other except maybe Peyton, he is ultimately coachable, he is working VERY hard on his throwing motion and will improve greatly because of his inner drive. He actually respects his coaches and fellow teammates and has the greatest conviction to make everyone around him better than they thought they could be. No matter what happens to this young man in the NFL he will always be a winner no matter where lands and you cant say that for 95+% of all athletes on the planet.

  2. Tim Tebow… what a hack AND so is his mom… Being used by the right-wing NutJobs to further their agenda for cash and publicity…

    No difference in tebow, beck, limberger, hannratty, bachmann, the alaskan swag-hag and many, many more… just sludge on the pavement…

  3. Pingback: Tim Tebow and the Psychology of Betting on Human Resolve – David … | Betting Champ

  4. Obviously the Denver Broncos read your article yesterday and decided that Tebow was worth the gamble. Having said that, I personally feel that way too much thought process is put into evaluating potential NFL talent. Based on history it’s pretty much a crap shoot with pretty long odds. When it comes down to top college talent making the jump into the pros no one, even the talking heads on ESPN like Jon Gruden, have a clue. If he did he’d still be coaching.
    As my mother always use to say “the proof is in the pudding”. Translation, only time will tell as to which draftee becomes a superstar or average NFL player or washes out completely.

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