There’s no doubt Tim Tebow’s performance last Friday night against the Buccaneers wasn’t one to remember.
He played the entire second half and completed just 1 of 7 passes for minus-1 yard, with an interception, for a 0.0 passer rating. That stat line was the source of plenty of wisecracks from fans and media around the country over the weekend. On sports talk radio in Boston Monday, the discussion was about when, not if, Tebow will be cut.
But as you watch the Patriots face the Lions Thursday night in the third preseason game, remember this: Exhibition games offer only a small window into the overall progress of each player and unit.
We’re seeing only a snapshot. Bill Belichick, who has evaluated three weeks of practice and interacts with the players every day and knows their injuries and their positives and negatives, sees the whole picture.
“There are a lot of things that happen in preseason games that could be an aberration, one way or another,” Belichick said. “We’ve had 20-some practices, and two games, so I think that there’s a lot to be seen in those practices out there. I mean, if there wasn’t, I don’t know why we’re doing them.”
Yes, we’re talking about practice. And in training camp, practice is almost as important as the games — sometimes even more so. In many cases, the practices are better simulations of the regular season than the preseason games. The contact may not be full and the pass rush isn’t quite as fierce, but Belichick can recreate any scenario he wants in practice: two-minute drill, red zone, uptempo, etc.
Belichick said he evaluated Tebow, like all players, last week based on three days: how he did in practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then of course how he did in the game Friday.
“I’d say to evaluate, you kind of need to see the practices,” Belichick said on his weekly WEEI appearance. “Over the course of training camp, what we look at is the entire body of work. Certainly the trend is important [to get] better as training camp goes on. That’s the idea.”
Tebow was pretty awful against the Bucs, but he played just 20 snaps, and threw only seven passes. Most of the players on the field with him, on both teams, won’t be on an NFL roster in Week 1. We don’t know how many of his incompletions are due to a miscommunication with the receiver, or a missed signal, or simply a bad decision or throw by Tebow.
Meanwhile, Tebow gets hundreds of snaps and makes dozens of throws each week in practice. Occasionally, he even gets to play with the starting offense, and against the starting defense. Again, the playing speed isn’t quite the same in practice as it is during the games, but the environment is much more controlled, and the evaluation is more precise.
Belichick said he has seen a lot of improvement out of Tebow throughout the first three weeks of training camp, even if his stats don’t tell that story (a 17.7 passer rating and completing just 26 percent of passes). Tebow’s overall decision-making, both in games and practices, is much more important than his stats.
“I think he’s definitely picked up the offense and has been able to function efficiently in that,” Belichick said. “He obviously has some skills that are unique relative to our other quarterbacks, and I think his overall execution of the passing game has improved, definitely, over the course of training camp.”
And this isn’t just about Tebow, of course. It’s easier to evaluate an offensive lineman, for example, when he faces Vince Wilfork in practice than when he’s facing third-stringers in preseason games.
Even evaluating Tom Brady and his new stable of receivers based off preseason games isn’t easy. Brady is 18 of 20 for 172 yards and two touchdowns, and Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, and Zach Sudfeld have all made great plays. But they’re mostly facing vanilla defenses that aren’t game-planning to stop the Patriots. And some of the top opposing players, like Darrelle Revis, stand on the sideline instead of playing and risking injury.
This is not to discount the value of preseason games. They are a good way to evaluate how the players handle themselves in one-shot scenarios. At practice, if the players mess up on a play, Belichick can have them run it over again. But in the games, obviously, they only get one chance.
Only the Patriots coaches watch the daily practice film, and for the bubble players, the preseason games are their only chance to show the rest of the world what they can do.
“I tell guys all the time, ‘There’s 31 other teams watching you play in this preseason, and you better keep that in mind,’ ” veteran running back Leon Washington said.
And it’s important for the coaches to be able to see which players can execute their assignments and handle playing under the bright lights in front of 60,000 fans, and which players get caught up in the moment.
Preseason games “are an important part of the evaluation and if it’s a good evaluation, it might be the most important thing,” Belichick said. But “just because you put a guy out there in a preseason game doesn’t mean you’re getting a great evaluation. He may not be competing against somebody that’s relevant or what they’re doing may not really be indicative of what his skills are or aren’t. I just couldn’t make a blanket statement like that.”
Blanket statements are for fans and talk radio hosts. All Belichick knows is that there’s a lot more to a player’s development and evaluation than how he does on a handful of snaps in a preseason game.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin