Spooky Action at a Distance

Teams of scientists working with the CERN Large Hadron Collider announced this week that the elusive Higgs boson has quite possibly been observed for the first time.  The level of certainty provided by the recent run of data isn’t sufficient to consider this a “discovery” as yet, but the early indications suggest a noteworthy shift toward confirmation of the existence of the particle that plays a crucial role in the Standard Model.  Namely, scientists believe that the Higgs boson is the “God particle” that endows matter with mass.

Confirming such a fundamental concept as “where mass comes from” would provide another exciting step forward in our understanding of the nature of the universe.

The Higgs boson is the last remaining predicted but unobserved particle in the Standard Model.  The Standard Model is sometimes referred to as a “Theory of Nearly Everything” in that it addresses many, but not all, facets of the laws of physics in our universe.  The Higgs boson is one portion of this model that is itself a component of a larger (but still incomplete) attempt to solve a scientific mystery spawned decades ago.

Contemplated by a layman such as myself, the field of theoretical physics may be understood as a science of reconciliation.

Limited technology, beginning with our own eyes, allows us to observe various phenomena. The rotation of the Earth.  Magnetism of certain materials.  Electricity via a lightning bolt.  As technology improves, we are able to observe and analyze an ever-increasing number of aspects of the natural universe.  One role physics plays is to explain not only what it is that we are observing, but also how these phenomena relate to one another and interact, especially when independent observation of them leaves explanatory gaps, or even contradictions.

The development of physics from the time of Newton to the era of Einstein was more or less linear, at least in retrospect.  The progress of reconciliation didn’t always come at a consistent pace, and, like all science, some discoveries were predicted years in advance (as would be the case once the Higgs boson is discovered), while others were unexpected.

The Large Hadron Supercollider is the largest machine ever built

Yet, Einstein’s work in general relativity and special relativity seemingly moved us into the final stage of the journey begun by the astoundingly-precocious classical theories developed centuries earlier by Newton.  Einstein’s remarkable efforts on general relativity forever clarified our understanding of the relationships among gravity, space, and time, thrusting us into a new era of knowledge that brought us closer than ever to comprehending the essential nature of our universe.

Put simply, if there were an underlying Truth (capital “T”) to be found, Einstein’s work appeared to move us nearer than ever to discovering it.  It was the next evolution of the Newtonian model of a clockwork universe.

But there was a problem.

Not long after Einstein concluded the work that would earn him a place among the greatest scientific minds in human history, another area of physics began to take shape from its humble nineteenth-century origins.

Quantum physics, which generally concerns the physics of the very small, developed much of its modern theory in the years following Einstein’s landmark work.  The critical challenge it presented and continues to present is that the observable phenomena at the sub-atomic level are sometimes incompatible with general relativity.

This is arguably the central problem physics has faced for about a century, particularly the past fifty years.  Attempt after attempt to create a unifying “Theory of Everything” has fallen short of that goal.

Quantum physics presents a host of strange findings that are incomprehensible from a non-sub-atomic perspective.  The inability to measure both the location and momentum of a particle simultaneously.  The possibility of limitless parallel universes.  Particles that seem to exist in two places at once.  Or, one of the most curious facets of quantum physics, entanglement.

Quantum entanglement stands for the principle that particles separated by some measure of space may correlate in terms of momentum, spin, etc, despite the fact that there is no obvious reason why a change to one particle should be matched by the other particle, given the aforementioned space between the two.  From the point of view of traditional physics, this result (which research has proven time and again to be true) is nonsensical, especially considering that the amount of space between the particles seems to provide no bar to the preservation of the entanglement.  In theory, the two particles could be light years apart, yet still entangled.

Attempting to reconcile a feature such as this with the everyday world we know is beyond daunting.  Any rough “macro world” analogy we might provide, such as a man in New York City whose hand hurts when his twin brother in Los Angeles burns his own hand on a hot stove, results in an example that is gibberish or fantasy when viewed through the lens of empirical science.

So flummoxed by the contradictory implications the existence of quantum entanglement created, Einstein derisively referred to it as “spukhafte Fernwirkung,” which translates as “spooky action at a distance.”

No one disputes the importance of Einstein’s discoveries, but, to the extent discoveries ever have finality in the first place, that quality seemed greatly diminished by advances in quantum theory.

Ever the genius, and despite some initial skepticism, Einstein understood fully that quantum physics wasn’t simply scientific voodoo.  Einstein himself became keen on reconciling quantum physics with his and others’ work concerning relativity.  He spent much of the twilight of his life attempting, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to determine how mid-twentieth-century progress at the quantum level could mesh with our apparently-clear understanding of physics on a macro scale.

Even now, the greatest minds in the field of physics cannot conclusively explain how quantum physics can indisputably function in the same universe simultaneously governed by laws of general relativity.

Such is the difficulty in explaining Tim Tebow.

Myriad experts buried Tebow prior to his ever taking a snap at the professional level.  His throwing mechanics were terrible.  His release was too slow.  He held the ball too low.  His offense at Florida did little to prepare him for the pro game.  His passing accuracy wasn’t nearly up to NFL standards.  His footwork was questionable at best.  True, his abilities as a power runner were rare for a quarterback, but that asset would be mitigated or eliminated by an NFL defense.

Even as they praised him for being a “fine human being,” pundits questioned whether Tebow would be able to be an NFL quarterback given his unique but finite skill set.  Even most of those who thought he had a long-term future in the NFL envisioned him as something other than a starting quarterback.  Perhaps a tight end.  Perhaps a situational player.

Although useful, statistics occasionally run counter to public perception.

We live in an era of sports fandom dominated by statistics and analysis.  The very concept of “intangibles” is anathema to the current crop of young, talented, progressive-minded, often cynical sports journalists.  That war is already long-settled in baseball, where any advocacy for taking into account qualities that aren’t tied to numbers (or even advocating using the “wrong” metrics as a method of evaluation) will attract vitriolic attacks from those who have won this battle.  At a minimum, those who run afoul of these new mores will be deemed incredibly stupid and/or pre-historic.  Tebow also irritates this portion of the media because, among other reasons, so many of his advocates cite unquantifiable concepts like “inspiration of his teammates” or “knowing how to win” as his greatest strengths.

Statistics are important in football, albeit less so than in baseball.  But football takes a back seat to no sport in terms of player evaluation.  Players are measured and scrutinized in nearly every way imaginable at the NFL Draft Combine.  Teams employ a healthy number of personnel whose primary responsibility is to evaluate the prospects and help predict performance.  Millions of dollars are at stake when teams make incorrect predictions and poor decisions.

As such, like the SABR movement did in baseball over the past generation, NFL teams are looking to make the “science” of evaluation as exact as possible.  Sabermetrics have been an invaluable tool in granting baseball organizations a more accurate view of players’ abilities and possible future performance.  Similarly, football scouting has become infinitely more sophisticated and specific over the past thirty or forty years.

With that sophistication and specificity came a sharper consensus about how an NFL quarterback “should” look and play.  When an otherwise-highly-regarded college quarterback doesn’t precisely fit that mold, pundits raise questions about that player’s ability to do well at the NFL level.  Drew Brees (due to his modest height) comes to mind as an obvious recent example.

Unlike someone such as Brees who had a single drawback among otherwise-lauded traits, Tim Tebow’s defects seemed too numerous and too great to overcome.

Here is what has happened since Tebow replaced Kyle Orton as the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos prior to their Week 7 game against the Miami Dolphins:

Broncos 18, Dolphins 15 (Denver trailed 15-0 late in the fourth quarter)
Lions 45, Broncos 10
Broncos 38, Raiders 24 (Denver trailed 17-7 and 24-14 in the third quarter)
Broncos 17, Chiefs 10
Broncos 17, Jets 13 (Denver trailed before Tebow scored in the final minute)
Broncos 16, Chargers 13 (Denver trailed by 3 in the fourth quarter, won in OT)
Broncos 35, Vikings 32 (Denver trailed by 8 in the fourth quarter)
Broncos 13, Bears 10 (Denver trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter, won in OT)

The curiosity here is not merely that the Broncos have won these games, nor is it even a matter of how they’ve won (including four consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks).  It is that they have been able to do so while Tim Tebow remains the player most thought him to be[1].

Football purists know a “real” quarterback when they see one.  Even if they may quibble on the details of the prototype, they could all agree that that ideal wasn’t Tim Tebow.  One such person was the Broncos’ Executive VP for Football Operations, John Elway, who ascended to that position after Tebow was already on the roster.

Elway embodied the ideal QB model during his Hall of Fame career.  He has, at times, seemed as disappointed as Rachel Phelps, the scheming Cleveland Indians’ owner in Major League whose team’s winning ways upset her plans to move the franchise to Miami.  Elway (before backtracking recently) reiterated earlier this year that Tebow’s play had done nothing to alter the Broncos’ need for a solution at quarterback[2].

Despite Tebow’s flaws, he has managed to forge a 7-1 record as a starter, plus a near-comeback against San Diego in a now-forgotten relief appearance just before he replaced Orton for good.  His winning percentage as a starting quarterback is second only to Aaron Rodgers’ perfect 13-0 mark.

What I am here to tell you is that this does not make sense.

Those who fall into the anti-Tebow camp will point out that the defense has been excellent (conveniently omitting the Oakland and Minnesota games), the special teams has been outstanding, and that Tebow has gotten incredibly lucky at times: For example, the two Marion Barber blunders last week in the Chicago game, or the Bears’ decision to go into more of a prevent look on defense in the fourth quarter.  This is all true and accurate and relevant, but still doesn’t suffice as a complete explanation.

Unfortunately, Hoge has recently changed course and followed the ESPN company line to praise Tebow. This is a shame, since his original assertions (including most of this one) have not been proven wrong.

They will also point out that, as described above, all of the problems Tebow has always had stubbornly persist for an ever-growing audience to witness each week.  His passes often look horrendous, as if thrown by a personal protector during a fake punt.  His mechanics are still wonky.  He plants off the wrong foot at times.  He overthrows receivers by ten yards.  He usually can’t hit anything when he rolls to his right.

They’ll say that Tebow is a constant in this equation, not a variable.  He is who he always has been and will forever be.

They’ll add that he’s merely this year’s Vince Young or Doug Flutie, or perhaps Trent Dilfer.  Yes, he may have exceeded their single-season accomplishments by some measures, but simply because he has been a party to more surprising victories does not mean that this is truly novel.  As in baseball, wins aren’t a good metric for an individual player’s success.  At a minimum, what we’ve seen from Tebow is not “magic.”

Somehow, though, Tebow also has the lowest interception percentage in the league.  Not the lowest number of interceptions, the lowest percentage.  He’s in the top five in the league in touchdown percentage and yards per pass completion.  He’s second in the NFL in yards per carry.  Not second among quarterbacks, second among all players.  He is, of course, tops in the league in comeback victories.

I repeat: This does not make sense.

Everything I know about football — even taking into account prevent defenses, great special teams, Von Miller, and everything else — tells me that it should not realistically be possible for an NFL player who has trouble consistently throwing a spiral to become a suddenly-great quarterback in critical situations.

This should not be possible under realistic conditions.

Looking at the oft-repeated example from last week, Tebow was 3-for-16 for 45 yards during the first three quarters against Chicago.  He then went 18-for-24 for 191 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime, and two or three of those throws were intentional incomplete passes.  His completion percentage went from 19% to 75% as he helped the Broncos to victory in a game Fox commentator Daryl Johnston called “a non-winnable situation.”

His stat lines from other games reveal numerous head-scratching results.  He only completed two passes(!) in the Kansas City game, but he accounted for both touchdowns in the 17-10 win via a bomb to Eric Decker and a TD run of his own.  He had played so poorly (or so it seemed) against Miami that the CBS broadcast team was actually surprised when he returned to the field with five minutes left and his team down by 15.  He promptly threw two touchdown passes and scored the game-tying two-point conversion.

The detractors — the same ones who have branded Tebow a non-NFL quarterback from day one — reiterate and maintain that all of his issues still exist.

Here’s the entire point: They are absolutely right.

And, for some reason, it doesn’t matter.  It should.  But it doesn’t.

In the same way that the greatest genius of the twentieth century initially scoffed at the concept of entanglement, experts who know more about football than I ever will cannot wrap their minds around Tim Tebow.  It’s not because they’ve been proven wrong.  It’s precisely because they are right.  The talent evaluators are right about his motion and abilities, the journalists and stat-heads are right about the inadequacy of his measurable performance.

The critics are right about every Tebow defect.  And, still, he wins.

He shouldn’t.  But he does.  Just as everything we know about physics at the macro level tells us that what we observe at the quantum level should not be possible.  And, still, it is.

That is the crux of this.  It isn’t that general relativity is wrong.  It isn’t that quantum physics is wrong.  No matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how impossible, both are correct.

It isn’t that the anti-Tebow camp is wrong about him.  It isn’t that Tebow’s defenders are wrong about him.  No matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how impossible, both are correct.

When the boundaries and implications of quantum physics began to expand, the capital-“T” Truth that once seemed to have mankind on the precipice of a humanity-altering discovery suddenly appeared to be just as distant as ever.

Enter string theory.

String theory is a modern attempt at not only explaining the nature of the universe in an all-encompassing way, but also, in doing so, reconciling the world of general relativity with the strange models of quantum mechanics.

The trouble with string theory is that it not only hasn’t been proven, but it is also probably unprovable by any known means.  It may be unprovable by any achievable technology.

This creates something of a dilemma for scientists: Once we get too far away from proven (or provable) models and move into the realm of theory that, while logical, cannot be tested empirically . . . are we still scientists?  Or are we philosophers?

Such is the danger when Browning’s notion of man’s reach exceeding his grasp comes to fruition.

We like things to add up.  We like tidiness.  We also like to believe that revelations of undeniable weight have not only intrinsic, immutable value but some permanence as well.

But even the most brilliant and knowledgeable physicists in the world seem to have hit a wall.  We may never be able to reconcile how general relativity and the laws of quantum mechanics can both simultaneously be correct.  For now, we must make peace with contradictory notions.  To try to reconcile the two may require resorting to a quasi-scientific solution.

We’re in that same place with Tebow.  Those who revere him and those who revile him over off-field topics, real or imagined, will never move off of their positions.  However, for those of us focused on football, we must accept the fact that Tim Tebow is a poor “NFL quarterback” . . . who somehow remains very effective, even if those two ideas were (are?) incompatible.  We are left with two contradictory notions that remain equally valid: (1) Tim Tebow does not have the skills to be a good “NFL quarterback.”  (2) Tim Tebow is nonetheless a successful NFL quarterback in his own right, and not entirely because of his supporting cast.

My mind and my instincts both say that this can’t continue.  Like the wildcat fad of a few years ago, teams will begin to adjust to Denver’s unconventional offense.  It will become more and more difficult for the Broncos to have success against quality teams.  They’ll still be dangerous for the rest of this season, but will probably wind up at 9-7 or 10-6 and get blown out by Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs.  Tebow’s effectiveness will be limited next season, and the Tebow-centric offense will be as marginalized by 2013 as the wildcat is now.  Tebow will go down in NFL history as a latter-day Don Majkowski.  He’ll be a part of Bronco team lore forever, and he’ll be remembered on some level for this run and his great college career, but will largely be forgotten in a decade’s time.

This is the general relativist in me talking.

The Broncos face a 10-3 New England team this Sunday.  All of my football acumen leads me to the conclusion that the Patriots should win this game by at least two touchdowns.  They have the best offense in the AFC.  They’ll be able to put 30-50 points on the board, even against Denver’s solid defense.  Bill Belichick will be able to gameplan defensively for Tebow’s narrow abilities and force him to make mistakes that other team’s haven’t.  A result akin to Tebow’s one loss (a 45-10 drubbing against the Lions before the offense was retooled around him over the next couple of weeks) wouldn’t be out of the question here, although the Patriots’ suspect secondary may make it more like a 42-24 or 38-21 game.

On the other hand, the Broncos’ season stopped making sense almost two months ago.  I see no reason why it should resume doing so now.

Until it does, I’ll enjoy every second of it.

It is different.  It is exciting.  It is polarizing.  It is compelling.

It is, above all else, not entirely explainable.

Long live entanglement.


[1]The opposition to Tebow, of course, is about more than his throwing motion.  People object to his religiosity and the perceived ideology that comes with it.  I’ve heard two left-leaning acquaintances of mine just in the past week state that they openly root against Tebow and/or refuse to watch his games unless absolutely necessary because they perceive him as an instrument of “hate” (meaning views different from their own).  They believe any success he experiences will lead to “dangerous” potential results for our country.  Of course, were I to suggest that I won’t see a Sean Penn movie because of his views, they would attack that stance for the absurdity that it is.  My own view is that I’m neither an evangelical nor a Baptist, but I enjoy football.  So, I stick to that.
There’s also the issue of Tebow oversaturation.  Sometimes these two go hand-in-hand, but the latter is simply the normal human response of growing weary of hearing about the same story over and over in the media.  Basically, people who take issue on these grounds will naturally come to hate any person or team that appears on ESPN too often.  See also Red Sox – Yankees.
Neither of these fall into the category of what I’m describing above or are within the scope of this article.
[2]This entire saga must be particularly frustrating for Elway.  He was the anti-Tebow: The ideal quarterback as constructed from scratch in a factory.  Absurdly strong arm.  Superb scrambling and running ability.  Quick release.  Big frame.  High “football IQ.”  In short, great at everything.  All strengths, no weaknesses.  Perhaps the most talented all-around quarterback ever to play the game.
Yet, he began his career with two strikes against him.  First, a controversial proclamation that he would resume his professional baseball career rather than sign with the hapless Baltimore Colts, a move that forced the Colts to trade him to Denver for pennies on the dollar.  Even during a time when sports media wasn’t as ubiquitous, this created a fair amount of negative PR for Elway outside of Denver before he ever suited up.
Secondly, Elway found himself in an offensive system that did little to showcase his talents.  Elway nonetheless quickly emerged as one of the league’s best players.  However, had he not been operating within the Dan Reeves system, Elway may have set passing marks that would have rivaled Dan Marino’s.
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7 Responses to Spooky Action at a Distance

  1. Pingback: Six Open Questions About Tim Tebow | The Axis of Ego

  2. Pingback: Best of 2011 | The Axis of Ego

  3. Nice! One small correction:

    “Einstein’s Nobel-winning efforts on general relativity forever clarified our understanding…”

    Einstein actually won the Nobel for the photoelectric effect, not for general relativity!

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