After too many weeks of sportswriter mad-cow disease superlative-drenched brain-eating craziness—“Amazing, incredible, phenomenal, incomprehensible, mind-blowing, unbelievable,” Sports Illustrated fulminated last week, and that was only the cover—we can finally sigh in relief and offer thanks to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for placing us back on the path of the wise and righteous.
The epic duel between new versus old, upside versus downside, supermodel versus mom and apple pie, praise Jesus versus praise Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, wasn’t a duel at all. As it turned out, the only commonalities that Tom Brady and Tim Tebow have is first names beginning with T and two-syllable last names. But for the first time since he was a rookie in 2001, it wasn’t Brady who got the majority of attention on the eve of a game but Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida now with the Denver Broncos. Much of it had to do with his fourth-quarter heroics, leading the Denver Broncos to four consecutive come-from-behind wins, all the more resonant since he had a general habit of looking miserable for the first three quarters and just what NFL scouts predicted he would be, an errant passer with throws going all over the place except anywhere close to the hands of receivers. Tebow, an evangelical Christian, is also unabashed in his open displays of religion, praying on the sidelines or after a touchdown, invoking God whether it’s during a postgame interview or on Twitter.
In a world of sports where nobody stands for anything anymore, it made him even more of a water-cooler subject, the most talked-about player in the league, the Christian Comeback. The only thing missing was the quality of his performance, despite leading the Broncos to an 8-5 record. The answer to that came Sunday when Tebow faced his first significant competition in the 10-3 Patriots.
In an easy 41-23 victory, Brady threw for 340 yards and scored a touchdown rushing. Tebow threw for 194 and rushed for 93, certainly not bad but nowhere close to the ordainment of greatness so instantly bestowed on him by a million publications and more millions of fans understandably, if not with completed wrongheadedness, reveling in the play of this infectious kid who is a definite counterbalance to the personality and parity blandness that is making the National Football League into Jell-O but without Bill Cosby. Not to mention that Brady in his 12-year career has thrown for 39,337 yards, has 296 touchdowns, won three Super Bowls, and has an average completion percentage of 63.9 percent, compared to Tebow’s two-year mark of 2,138 yards, 16 touchdowns, no Super Bowls, and an average completion percentage of less than 50 percent.
And honestly, what is more impressive, Brady, a sixth-round draft pick, coming off the bench in his second year in the pros only because of injury to the starter and leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl win? Or Tebow in his second year leading the Broncos to nothing but a possible berth in the playoffs with exciting fourth-quarter victories against such crapola competition as the Oakland Raiders, the Kansas City Chiefs, the New York Jets, the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears (a combined 37-47)?
Because the competition was New England, Sunday was an important barometer for Tebow, since the Patriots have second-worst pass defense in the NFL. It was the day for Tebow to prove that he belongs in the ranks that have caused so much salivating, if not quite at the level of the elites of Brady and the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, because of their considerably greater experience, but somewhere close to it.
He didn’t come close. He knows he didn’t come close. And so do the most ardent Tebowists, however they will moan about lack of supporting cast blah blah blah…
Look at his performance this year with any semblance of rationality, not the immediate media ordainment of false heroes and false villains that is the byproduct of the instant-gratification entertainment culture in which we live and wallow, and what do you have?
You have Tim Tebow.
You have someone who did put together a string of wonderful comeback wins but has proved nothing, like so many other athletes who put together incredible strings of games, or a season, but never came close to sustaining the messianic hope of the hyperventilated headlines. Remember Shane Spencer? Why would anyone, except Spencer himself and my best friend, Lynn, who has watched more Yankee games than Joe Torre ever did? In September of Spencer’s rookie season with the New York Yankees in 1998, he hit 10 home runs, three of them grand slams, in 67 at bats. He never came close again. Remember Mark Fidrych? He went 19 and 9 for the Detroit Tigers in his rookie year, 1976, and led the American League in ERA and complete games, then won 10 games the rest of his career. Remember Rick Mirer? He was the second pick in the NFL draft out of Notre Dame in 1993 by the Seattle Seahawks, threw for 2,833 yards his rookie season, and was runner-up in offensive rookie of the year voting in the AFC. It was all downhill slide after that. There are many more.
That is the company Tebow belongs with right now, not the cover of Sports Illustrated with the platter of all those platitudes that look silly after Sunday’s game. Maybe he will be great. Maybe he will just be a great joke. But right now he is just the latest product of the sports hype assembly line, where the still unproven become prospective hall-of-famers not because of what they have done nearly as much as the irresistible narrative they offer.
In the case of Tebow, it’s the example of the can’t-do kid defying all the critics and scouts who belittled his throwing arm and becoming the can-do kid on the basis of sheer grit. Add to it a little pinch of conjured-up non-controversy controversy, and what do you have?
My feelings have nothing to do with Tim Tebow personally, whom I like quite a bit as a professional football player, despite a throwing motion reminiscent of the submarine delivery of relief pitcher Kent Tekulve when he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, then further honed by Daffy Duck. It has nothing to do with the display of his religious beliefs, which are his perfect right and hardly the first time an athlete has invoked God for scoring a touchdown.
Many say it is demeaning to think that God cares about touchdowns, but given God’s track record in virtually every other sphere of life—famine, drought, epidemic, constant religious war, natural disasters in the poorest places possible—I have come to the conclusion that God does care about touchdowns. A lot.
I say this as someone who only invokes God when I want something of perceived importance—getting into an Ivy League school when I was younger, hoping for a particular Christmas gift (note to wife if reading: iPhone 4S, 32-gig, black). And the track record there hasn’t been so great either.
I want Tim Tebow to succeed. I want him to succeed because he is against the mold of the typical quarterback and the typical athlete who only really cares about the endorsements he gives for products he would never use unless they are free. His religion is conviction, not crutch or convenience.
I am a great fan of the game plan Denver head coach John Fox has installed, using the skills of Tebow to the maximum—a mediocre passer with the running ability of a freight train—instead of the typical coaching philosophy of slotting Tebow into skills that he cannot muster, making the best use of him, not the worst because that’s the way it’s always been done.
But nothing has been settled in terms of how much potential he has and whether that potential, if it is there, can be realized. If he wants to commandeer the loudspeaker system of Sports Authority Stadium in Denver at halftime and lead the fans in prayer, more power to him. But maybe he also needs to spend a little more time watching film of Sunday’s game learning from the master on when to stay in the pocket, when to break the outside to give receivers time to get open and then throw those oh-so-sweet picture-perfect passes.