Whither the Cult of Tebow?

Not surprisingly, the Patriots released Tim Tebow. I doubt this diminishes his popularity among his die-hard fans. If anything, it will give them a brief respite until he resurfaces in the Canadian Football League or among the army of TV talking heads.  His release is likely, however, to end the NFL chapter of one of the more bizarre sports stories of my life time.

Tebow’s popularity in the NFL far exceeded his collegiate fame, which was substantial.  At the University of Florida, Tebow played on two national championship teams and won the Heisman Trophy.  He threw and ran for touchdowns like no one before him.  As we have seen in the few years since he left Florida, this may have had more to do with the changing nature of the quarterback position than his unique skills. He was nevertheless an exciting and dynamic presence at Florida.

His Christianity was on full display at Florida, too.  He wore Bible citations instead of eye black, prayed on the field and spoke openly of his faith.  This, of course, caught the attention of Christians (especially those of an evangelical stripe).  Others found this overbearing–even obnoxious.  Regardless, we all wanted someone who played like him at our alma maters.  As a result, he was a polarizing figure, as is usually the case with popular athletes.  Many love them, and many love to hate them.

Despite his college success, Tebow was never viewed as anymore than a borderline NFL prospect.  Prior to the 2010 Draft opinions varied.  Draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. didn’t think Tebow could play quarterback in the NFL.  Former NFL Coach Jon Gruden disagreed.  His best shot, according to many, would be to change positions.  His future was brighter as a tight end or H-back.  After all, many college quarterbacks have made similar transitions in the NFL.  Tebow’s size, strength and athleticism would allow him to do the same.

Tebow had different plans.  So did the Denver Broncos who surprised the NFL by using a 1st round draft pick on Tebow in the 2010 draft.  Denver’s young head coach, Josh McDaniels, planned to play Tebow at quarterback, and Tebow had no intention of changing positions.  He and the Broncos were the perfect match.

I was one of the misguided few who believed Tebow would be an effective, if not star, NFL player. This only proves my inability to assess quarterback play. Several years ago, my alma mater–the University of Kentucky–had an outstanding QB named Andre Woodson. He was big, strong armed and smart. He also had poor footwork and a slow release. I thought some NFL guru would fix that. It didn’t happen. I don’t think he ever took a snap in a regular season game.  Even though Woodson and Tebow had many of the same throwing issues, I thought the Broncos got a steal.  For awhile, it looked like I might be right.

After a rookie season where he played sparingly, Tebow got his shot as a starter in 2011 under new coach John Fox.  With Tebow at the helm the last ten games, the Broncos went 7 and 3.  Tebow was hailed as a hero–perhaps a savior, if that is not too insensitive.  I felt vindicated until I watched him play.  Yes, the Broncos won, but Tebow’s play was wildly up and down.  Big plays were followed by inexplicably bad ones–overthrows, misread defenses and just plain bad throws.  “He just wins” was the defense.  The Broncos opted to sign Peyton Manning, another quarterback who wins, plus makes every throw a quarterback can make.

Tebow then spent one forgettable season with New York Jets where he couldn’t get on the field.  When he did play, he was ineffective.  His fans blamed Coach Rex Ryan.  After his release by the Jets, his old coach Josh McDaniels, now the Patriots’ offensive coordinator gave him another shot.  If anyone could make it work, McDaniels and the Patriots could.  They couldn’t.

There are 5 QB attributes : size; vision; arm strength; accuracy; and footwork. Of these, arm strength is the least important. Joe Montana didn’t have a cannon arm. Jeff George did. An arm needs to be strong enough. That’s it.  The other four attributes can be honed in the NFL but rarely are they ever discovered at that level of play.

Of these qualities, Tebow has one–size. His arm strength is below average as is his accuracy–too many off target throws floated to covered receivers. He also doesn’t see the field well. He holds the ball too long or runs when he should wait for a play to develop. He often throws off the wrong foot and his release is slow and mechanical. By the time he loads up a throw, his receivers are covered.

tebow

See how the ball is upside down? That little hitch can be what separates a college and pro quarterback.

Too harsh? No. Professional sports are perhaps the last meritocracy. If you can help a team win, there is a place for you. The need to win is immediate and construction projects are rarely taken on. Even when they are, the time line is short.

I should note that  I like Tebow or, more accurately, I like what he appears to be. He seems to be a nice, sincere young man. I don’t doubt that he is a devout Christian. None of that matters in the context of the NFL.

I grew up in the 1970’s. With maybe the exception of Muhammad Ali, the most popular American athlete was a running back for the Buffalo Bills. There were action figures of him sold to kids–my brother had one. He made movies. His games were broadcast on national TV. He made commercials. His name was–and is–Orenthal James Simpson. If you said “O.J.” or “the Juice” everyone knew the player to whom you referred. His name still resonates, albeit for entirely different reasons.  NFL teams would line up for the next O.J.  They would certainly hope he was a better human being than the original, but most teams would take their chances.  As a hard-core fan, I can tell you that I would rather have a team full of O.J.s than good people who can’t play.

(It is possible to so rotten a person that no NFL will want you, but it takes some doing.  Just ask Tebow’s former Florida teammate, Aaron Hernandez.)

On the same day Tebow was cut loose,  Vince Young and Matt Leinart were also released the same day.   They were also college stars and “winners.”  NFL quarterbacks? No. They just aren’t good enough.  They faced the same fate as Tebow.  This is where some Tebow fans will disagree with me.

Tebow fans fall into two categories.  One is the run of the mill football fan, those who like players who wear the correct uniform.  If you’re a Jet fan, and he’s a Jet, you like him.  The other group is those who liked, even loved, him because of his religion.  To this latter group, Tebow was more than a football and to be judged on something other than his skills.  This mushroomed Tebow’s popularity above that of the typical NFL player.

Tebow is hardly the first devoutly religious professional athlete.  For example, Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on Yom Kippur.  Since this predated evangelical Christianity’s current embrace of Judaism, he was hardly lauded for this stance.  Akeem Olajuwon drew questions about his observance of Ramadan while starring in the NBA.  Muhammad Ali drew much flak for his conversion to Islam.   Make no mistake, it is Christianity, not religion, which helped elevate Tebow above his peers.  This is where Tebow is different.

There is a strong feeling among many that Tebow should be a good quarterback.  Good people should do well.  One need look no further than another Florida quarterback to see that it doesn’t work like that.  Danny Wuerffel was Tebow before Tebow.  He played at Florida.  He is a devout Christian.  He won the Heisiman Trophy.  He also tried for years to succeed as an NFL quarterback.  Wuerffel was never more than a journeyman back up.  That doesn’t make him a bad person, of course, just a bad quarterback (at least by the exacting standards of the NFL).

Christians, like most religions, embrace persecution.  To be persecuted means that you are sacrificing of yourself for God.  We like that.  It makes us feel better.  It was easy for Christians to view Tebow as being a victim of persecution when he was criticized.  If a TV analyst said Tebow’s release was too slow, that analyst was wrong.  People even suggested that the Broncos won under Tebow because of God’s intervention.  When Vince Young, a star college QB with similar limitations, had the same success early in his NFL career, no one attributed it to God or even Young, for the most part.  Good defense and good luck were Young’s allies.  If anything, Young may have been persecuted.  Why wasn’t God on his side?

Tebow’s Christian fan base is perhaps unique in sports.  This is a group otherwise unconcerned with sports who cheer for him as though he was the first Christian to play pro sports.  Social media exploded with posts about Tebow’s greatness.  “He just wins” was the excuse for any of his poor play, as though the Broncos’ smothering defense drew its strength from Tebow’s mere presence.  I knew folks who didn’t know who John Elway is who became rabid fans of Tebow.  His jersey became the NFL’s best seller.

All of this was unfair to Tebow who has never seemed all that impressed with himself.  He just wants to be a quarterback in a league with no patience.  His best–and probably only–chance of making it in the NFL now is at a different position.  At this point, he is unwilling to do that.  That’s fine, and I can’t say that I blame him.  Football is a hard way to make a living.  One might as well have lofty goals.

So, what now for Tebow?  As football fans know, he faces a tough road.  Once a player is released, he joins the vast sea of players looking for a team.  Young, Leinart and dozens of other borderline players are his competitors but without the media circus that comes to town with Tebow.

Even Tebow’s most zealous fans must accept this:  He wasn’t cut because he’s too good a person or a Christian.  The NFL is chock full of Christians.  In fact, I’ve never heard of a team releasing a star player because he was too nice.  It didn’t happen here, either.

That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize that some take great pleasure in Tebow’s struggles, some because they just don’t like the teams he played on.  Others, in truth, dislike his religion and his display of it.  Even a cursory trip through social media will show people taunting like Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments (“Where’s your God, now, Moses!?!?!?”).  Those are the likely the same folks who take pleasure in the failure of others as though it were actually a success for them.

If you are true Tebower, I suggest you take heart.   If Tebow’s calling is truly a higher one, he will find a better stage.  One can easily envision him on television pontificating about college or NFL football.  I suspect he’ll be fine.  I’m not so sure about his fans, though..

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

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