Thank Heavens for Innovation, From the Web to the Gridiron

Given a sporting chance, technological marvels always rise to the challenge, from Web to gridiron.

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Innovation happens when you least expect it.

When the National Science Foundation gave out its first six digital library grants in 1996, one of them went to Stanford University. At the time, Sergey Brin was pursuing a doctorate as an NSF graduate research fellow, and Larry Page was looking around for a thesis topic. Page settled on a mathematical ranking of popular links throughout the nascent World Wide Web. He and Brin developed a prototype called "BackRub" through the NSF-funded digital library research project, which later morphed into the Google search engine. So innovation, in this case, came from an NSF grant and a thesis project.

A modern technological marvel that has generated hundreds of thousands of new jobs, the GPS system wasn't born because private companies were investing and building things. It happened because physicists were looking for answers to huge questions about the universe and developed "atomic clocks" that were precise to within a billionth of a second. Those timepieces, once they were linked to satellites launched by the U.S. Air Force, became the modern global positioning system.

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And Qualcomm, which developed one of the central technologies at the center of wireless mobile phones--code division multiple access, or CDMA--that helped revolutionize the cellphone industry, first started developing its initial products for the nascent technology based on a tracking system used by long-haul truckers. Qualcomm grew so quickly that it was able to buy the naming rights to the San Diego Chargers's football stadium in 1997.

Which leads me, of course, to Tim Tebow. (Bet you didn't see that hand-off coming, did you?)

The New York media, and fans, have had a field day with Tebow, the overtly Christian, chiseled hunk straight out of Hollywood Central Casting for a superhero, but not necessarily an NFL quarterback. He was booed at the end of the second quarter in his first game in a New York Jets uniform Sunday because he was taking their starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez, off the field for the "wildcat" formation, which throws many of the modern rules of quarterbacking out the window. Sanchez was having a good game as a traditional drop-back quarterback, and the fans wanted to see more of him and less of Tebow.

Their team's eventual 48-28 demolition of the Buffalo Bills in the first game of the 2012 season, in which Tebow played a very minor role, mostly silenced the booing.

But I'll make a prediction right now. At some point this season, the Jets's innovative offensive coordinator, Tony Sparano, will start to find a way to keep Tebow and Sanchez on the field at the same time consistently. And, when he does, it will bring yet another innovation to the offensive side of the football equation.

In short, when Tebow and Sanchez are on the field at the same time consistently, it will cease being a "gimmick" and become a new form of offense that defensive coordinators across the NFL will be forced to deal with. Right now, they face just two, basic forms of pressure--to prevent a drop-back quarterback from passing to lanes, and to keep running backs from breaking into the secondary.

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Adding Tim Tebow to the outside as a slotback runner/receiver who can run or pass after the ball has been pitched to him could change the offensive game in football yet again. It adds a third, basic offensive scheme beyond running and passing.

But it requires a highly unusual sort of person at the center of that innovation--like Tebow. And it requires someone with a history of innovation--like Sparano, who used the wildcat effectively when he was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins--to sort through how to put both Tebow and Sanchez on the field at the same time.

My prediction is that Sparano will find that path--and upset yet again the way football is played. But, in truth, that's why the NFL is quite possibly the greatest brand in sports history. It is always innovating to meet new challenges. It doesn't wait for complacency to set in--it allows innovators to try things, and the field of battle always settles the score.

During the 1980s, when San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh unleashed the "West Coast offense" on the NFL--a scheme that took a modified spread offense and introduced short passes just across the line of scrimmage instead of running plays--critics mocked him. Today, nearly every NFL team uses some form of Walsh's innovation. There had been a great deal of experimentation before his--Walsh himself had been tinkering with the offense for a decade--but it was the 49ers coach who took the huge risk on the biggest stage.

Likewise, the "nickel defense" began as an innovation of Philadelphia Eagles defense coordinator Jerry Williams in 1960 as nothing more than a way to defend against a highly unusual, Tebow-like tight end, Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears. Williams added another defensive back to help prevent passes to Ditka--and the Chicago Bears's assistant coach, George Allen, later adopted the concept, coined the idea as his own, and started using it consistently in obvious passing situations. Today, the nickel defense is common--especially against Walsh's West Coast offense.

Gimmicky plays can lead to innovation in the NFL (just as they can lead to breakthroughs in industry and commerce). The Eagles's attempt to defend against the Bears's Ditka is an obvious example.

The notion of using a receiver--like a slotback who lines up parallel to a quarterback under center--has been tried successfully as a "trick" play in the NFL already. In cases where a receiver has some experience as a quarterback, such trick plays have worked--like the time the Kansas City Chiefs's wide receiver, Mark Bradley, tossed a 37-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Tyler Thigpen against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008.

So, hence, my prediction. At some point this season, Sparano will deploy Tebow as a slotback, with Sanchez under center. Sanchez will pitch the ball, laterally, to Tebow, by rule preserving his option to still pass the ball--and creating a third point of attack for defensive schemes.

Because Tebow has already shown the ability to break through on running plays without any sort of an organized blocking scheme in front of him, it will make it even more difficult for opposing defensive sets to guess run or pass when the ball hits Tebow's hands on such a pitch from Sanchez. In fact, it will put enormous pressure on defensive ends and outside linebackers to adjust quickly.

Finally, there's an obvious reason Sparano will find a way to put Tebow and Sanchez on the field together consistently. Tebow's a winner. Whatever else you might think of him, he gets jobs done in pressure-filled situations that make most people wilt--football coaches love that sort of thing.

So that's why I believe we may be about to see something special out of Sparano and Tebow--you have a play-caller with a history of innovation, and a play-receiver with an unusual set of talents who's willing to let history mold him in tough situations.

Let the games begin.