Six Open Questions About Tim Tebow

If you can’t stand Tim Tebow, here’s the good news: This will be the last Tebow-related piece I write until at least August, barring some unforeseen incident involving a trade or the Rapture.

The bad news is that it’s going to be another long one.

The Denver Broncos’ improbable run ended Saturday at the hands of a Patriots team that dominated Denver in every phase of the game.  So, too, ends Tim Tebow’s storied season, but not without leaving several questions needing to be revisited sometime in 2012.

1. By what specific set of criteria, if one exists, may Tebow satisfy his critics?  Tim Tebow’s harshest critics—just like his strongest supporters—remain resolute in their opinions despite any evidence to the contrary.  But how many of his detractors can honestly say that he didn’t exceed the level of success they anticipated?  Recall that Denver had gone 5-16 in its previous 21 games before Tebow got the starting job for good in Week Seven of 2011.

I would wager heavily that the critics would have gladly accepted the following proposition back in October: “If the Denver Broncos win the AFC West and then win a playoff game with Tim Tebow as their quarterback for that entire span, then we can rightfully call Tebow a successful and effective professional football player.”

Yet, many of those same people will now say things ranging from “Tebow will never start another game in the NFL” to “Tebow is still the worst quarterback in the league.”

Tebow’s future seems uncertain at best (see below), but his critics have been very consistent in following up each defeat with proclamations that they’ve been definitively proven right in their assertion that he has no future in the NFL.  They’ve met his successes with temporary silence and eager anticipation of his next stumble.  I would like for someone on that side of the argument to list a set of criteria that Tebow could meet that would “prove” him to be a “success.”

That way, if Tebow wins ten games next season and throws for 3,000 yards, or, say, wins a couple of Super Bowls down the road (which I personally think would be very unlikely), these journalists won’t have to bother embarrassing themselves any further by continuing to move the rhetorical goal line such that Tebow could never cross it.

The thing that puzzles me most about his professional critics is that they’re all football fans, yet they almost seem disgusted by the idea of someone who plays like Tebow being successful in the NFL.  One aspect of the Tebow story that intrigues me as a fan is that he is different.  That makes the game more interesting.  The alternative seems to be having Brady, Brees, Rodgers and two dozen guys who play the game almost exactly as they do, except not as well, plus Cam Newton and what’s left of Michael Vick as “acceptable” outliers.

It’s one thing to say that Tebow lacks the skill to be an NFL quarterback.  It’s another to suggest that he’s actually “setting back” the position, or offense, or the sport itself some indeterminate number of years by winning.  That smacks of boring, elitist thinking that compels every player to fit into the same neat, finite model.

I would rather see lots of different offenses in the NFL than everyone doing much the same thing.  This is why the Miami Dolphins were the most fun team in the NFL to watch—by far—for about a season-and-a-half before teams really figured out the Wildcat.  Maybe that will happen to Tebow, or maybe he’ll improve and stay ahead of the curve by increasing his skill set.

Wouldn’t watching that sink-or-swim process play out be compelling?  I believe it would.


1B. When New England beats Baltimore by three touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game, will that get the aforementioned critics to reconsider their blasting of Tebow after the Patriot game?  This one is easy.  Of course not!  Don’t even think about bringing up the fact that the Broncos were banged up (even to the guys who explained the Broncos’ success last week by saying the Steelers were banged up) or that the Broncos’ defense was even less effective than Tebow was (even to the guys who consistently said that the credit for the Broncos’ success should go to the defense and special teams, not Tebow).


2. Are the Broncos prepared to commit to Tebow?  The current braintrust did Tebow few favors along the way, even going so far as to indicate via a leak to the press that Brady Quinn might get significant playing time in the Broncos’ first-round playoff game.  Remember Tebow’s history: He was drafted by the previous regime prior to the 2010 season.  Trading up to be able to draft Tebow in the first round was a controversial move at the time.

The new regime never would have made that same move.  That became even clearer when Tim Tebow dropped to third on the Broncos’ preseason depth chart[1].  Tebow found himself in an unusual position: A first-round draft pick who—at age 24 and with only three starts under his belt—had already been all-but-abandoned by his team.

Tebow finally got his shot to play after Kyle Orton had been horrendous at times and the team carried that 1-4 record.  I wonder in hindsight whether the Broncos internally felt like starting Tebow would actually be a way of accomplishing some combination of the following: (1) making fans happy despite being terrible over the previous season-plus, (2) prove once and for all that Tebow couldn’t win in the NFL, and (3), something a friend of mine suggested, creating a better chance to nab Andrew Luck.

It’s easy to forget this now (especially after the Colts had such an awful season), but the Broncos were considered in strong contention to be one of the NFL’s worst teams and almost universally selected to finish last in the AFC West.  A 1-4 beginning with the Chargers off to a hot start gave Denver reason to believe this might very well be an even worse year than the four-win effort of 2010.  The Broncos traded Brandon Lloyd, their leading receiver from ’10, in October around the time they benched Orton.

I wouldn’t say the Broncos’ front office had “given up” on the season at that point, but I do believe they were in a mode in which they could have lived with it had the Broncos finished 2-14 or 3-13 and had a shot at Luck.  Furthermore, I think they felt like that was a real possibility with Tebow at the controls.

The Broncos’ coaches sometimes seemed to be constructing gameplans under the premise that the less Tebow was involved, the better chance Denver had to win.  The anti-Tebow crowd would certainly agree with that sentiment.

True, the Broncos tweaked aspects of the scheme following a disastrous 45-10 loss to the Lions, and that helped.  However, there were always moments in games when it looked like the ultra-conservative John Fox was more worried about the other team’s defense scoring than he was his own offense.  I couldn’t help but notice Saturday night that Denver continued to run their outside option play, despite the fact that the Patriots had that completely figured out the first time the two met in December.

That brings me back to my original question.  Will the Broncos, with the chance to have Tebow benefit from OTAs and off-season work he didn’t have in the lockout year of 2011, invest in further developing a Tebow-centric offense?

I’m not saying that they necessarily should.  Doing so would have some notable disadvantages.  For one, Tebow getting injured is more likely than it would be in a typical NFL system because of the number of carries he’ll rack up.  Yet, an offense constructed around him will be far less adaptable for a backup who is a conventional NFL quarterback.

That kind of Catch-22 might be enough for anyone to shy away, much less an organization that is already lukewarm on Tebow.  That’s why I remained unconvinced that the Denver front office and a majority of the coaching staff want Tebow.  That leads me to my next question . . .


3. If the Broncos aren’t committed to Tebow, what do they do next?  There are a lot of issues in play.  First, if the Broncos trade him now, they’re going to take a huge hometown PR hit.  But critics would tell you that his stock will never be higher than it is at this moment, and they might be right.  If Denver waits for his failure to be so profound that it mutes public outcry about moving on, the Broncos won’t be able to get much value back in return on what was a first-round draft pick.

Going all in on Tebow, though, is a risky move.  Denver is in a lose-lose scenario.  That’s why I believe the only thing that will keep the Broncos from trying to deal him prior to next season will be the huge off-field following (and associated income) Tebow attracts.  In a vacuum, removed from sports media and a rabid fanbase, the Broncos front office—or at least this Broncos front office—would be compelled by logic to get what they can for Tebow, rather than giving half-hearted support while secretly hoping Tebow loses his starting job to Brady Quinn or someone else.

I will be absolutely shocked if the Broncos don’t draft or sign a quarterback intended to compete with Tebow this off-season.  Short of Tebow requesting a trade, I would be surprised if they dealt him, even though that move would make the most sense from the perspective of Elway and group.


4. What does the future hold for this guy?  Despite what Stephen A. Smith or Merril Hoge might suggest, there’s little certainty when it comes to predicting how the rest of Tebow’s career will play out.

Certainly, a trade to Jacksonville (which should have drafted him in the first place—and probably would have if he had slipped past the first round) would be an obvious choice.  The Broncos could likely convince the Jags to overpay for Tebow, or at least give up more than any other franchise, thanks to Tebow’s unusual stature in that region.  The Jaguars are also in a rebuilding phase.

In addition, Jacksonville has struggled financially in recent seasons, and nothing would bolster its ticket sales more quickly than bringing Tebow aboard.  Not even actually winning games.   That presents an interesting possibility for new owner Shahid Khan[2].

The problems Denver would have trading him anywhere else would be obvious.  A lot of people aren’t sold on him.  Teams would have to alter their offenses to accommodate him.  Established receivers on any team that gets him will probably demand trades themselves or blast the decision publicly[3].  On top of all that, there’s the huge potential for off-field distractions.  With that in mind, the only other place that I could see him land would be New England, which once again includes Josh McDaniels and could find some creative ways to use him.

All of the above also makes Jacksonville a natural fit for Tebow, except for the small detail that the Jaguars seem fairly enamored with Blaine Gabbert at the moment[4].  Of course, Gabbert had a terrible season.  Like Tebow in Denver, Gabbert may wind up being part of the collateral damage of a regime change.


5. Can people on the left and the right own up to the source of many of their feelings about Tim Tebow?  This is fodder for an entirely separate piece, but: We need to stop kidding ourselves about why a lot of people hate Tebow (or are apologists for him): They’re “true believers” tied to an ideology or viewpoint about religion.

Even without the Focus on the Family connection, many (mostly on the left) wouldn’t like the fact that Tebow publicly mentions his faith.  Thanking Jesus after every football game crosses some invisible line for them into “proselytizing.”  This is a byproduct of our shifting cultural attitude toward religion.

Religion and sexuality gradually swapped places in American culture over the last fifty years in one important respect.  We (or some of us) collectively made a decision that sexuality, not religion, could be on display proudly, while religion, not sexuality, was unseemly and needed to stay hidden to prevent upsetting the sensibilities of those it offended.

Religion is now considered by many to be an uncomfortable or inappropriate topic for any public presentation, except in specific, designated places devoid of non-believers.  The same progressive thinkers who oppose someone exposing his religion to those who might be offended would be first in line to defend public expression of sexuality that might offend others.

In short, a guy like Tebow who appears to be a pro-life Christian will be ridiculed by many as an “awful person,” regardless of what kind of person he actually is.  This is all made possible by a simple idea that it’s perfectly acceptable to hate someone on the grounds that they hold beliefs that are different from the ones you hold most dear.

On a similar note, many religious folks on the right excuse Tebow’s faults because he’s a like-minded believer.  They praise his public display of faith, but a lot of people wonder if his supporters would be so quick to praise him if Tebow’s faith were different from their own.  It’s more likely they would find it as annoying and uncomfortable as many of those who have no religious faith do now.

Those on the right also exaggerate the degree to which Tebow is being criticized as a result of his beliefs.  They fail to realize that many of the football pundits who take issue with Tebow’s abilities are themselves Christians, and, in several cases, Evangelical Baptists like Tebow himself.  On the other hand, many of the people who have enjoyed Tebow’s tenure aren’t Christians at all.

Here’s my own take:  I’m not very religious.  I’m certainly not an Evangelical, nor am I a Baptist.  I’m also not so entrenched in my own religious beliefs that I feel uncomfortable when anyone who holds beliefs different from mine mentions them publicly.

The same holds true for political views (and, admittedly, Tebow skeptics see the two overlapping in his case, despite the fact that he’s been strategically quiet about his political stances).  But simply because I might not have the same views on abortion or some other topic as Tim Tebow will not to compel me to “hate” him or celebrate his downfall.

Why?  Because I believe whether someone is a good person, or an admirable role model, operates largely independently of their political or religious beliefs[5].  Tim Tebow allocates a disproportionate amount of his time to charitable activities.  He puts football into the proper perspective and understands that, as much as he cares about it, it’s merely a means to an end for helping others.  The stories of his good deeds are almost ubiquitous at this point.

For some, none of that is enough.  They have convinced themselves that he is disqualified from being a good person or a role model on the grounds that his politics are presumably different from theirs.  This is a sentiment that has become more prevalent in this country in the past decade-plus, much to our detriment.  Equating decency with someone agreeing with you—refusing to believe that someone can be both reasonable and have a difference of opinion—leads to the sort of nonsense we see from the right and the left in the United States on a daily basis.

That is why I respect him and consider him to be a good role model, and why, moreover, I’m more troubled when people counter-intuitively look past the positive things he does and says and instead say that, notwithstanding all of that, he can’t be a good person—by definition—because he doesn’t believe what they believe.  That is an absurdity of the highest order, and I think it says a lot more about the people making the argument than it does about a guy who may turn out to be just another sub-par NFL quarterback.


6. Final question: When’s the last time a quarterback was held to this kind of standard?  This ties in with the first question I asked.  Before you jump me for suggesting Tebow is being held to a higher standard when, admittedly, he gets a pass from a lot of people for certain aspects of his game, consider the following:

Tebow is no Aaron Rodgers, but Rodgers didn’t start a game until his fourth season in the league.  Tebow is no Drew Brees, but Brees was 2-9 as a starter in his third season and threw more interceptions than touchdowns that year.  Tebow is no Tony Romo, but Romo didn’t start a game in the NFL until he was 26.

Tim Tebow is a 24-year-old first-round draft pick.  He was tied for third in the NFL in yards per completion with 13.7.  He was tied for fourth in the entire league in yards per carry and was first among quarterbacks.  Defenders intercepted only 2.2% of his passes.  No quarterback had more game-winning drives (six) or comeback victories (five) than Tebow had this season.

More to the point, he helped guide his team to the playoffs, notwithstanding that Denver was picked to finish last in the AFC West, was 1-4 at the time he took over, and was coming off a 4-12 season.  This year marked the first postseason appearance for the team since 2005.  Not only that, but Tebow actually played very well in a playoff win over the defending AFC champs.  He also happens to be overwhelmingly popular.  Denver does not have another proven quarterback on its roster, and the starter Tebow replaced now plays elsewhere.

When is the last time a second-year player with that type of resume, in that kind of situation, had no solid assurances about his future with his current organization?

I can’t think of a single one.  Ever.

Love him or hate him, you have to give this much to Tebow: He’s certainly unique.

_____________

[1] The Broncos were somewhat coy about even announcing this.  I recall vividly in the preseason after the Denver media reported Tebow’s status going on the team website to see that he and Brady Quinn were technically listed as “co-#2″ behind Orton.  I had never seen this done by any other organization.  They were obviously sensitive to the public pressure of local fans.
[2] How many writers, especially those Tebow critics who lean left and hate his perceived politics, are champing at the bit to write the “[Probably] Muslim owner trades for Evangelical Tebow” story?  I would guess at least 316.
[3] One underrated aspect of the rise of Tebow in Denver has been the fact that they have one of the weaker (or at least most unheralded) receiving corps in the league.  Despite what Colin Cowherd may think, the Broncos easily had the worst receiving group of all the playoff teams.  It’s going to be a tough sell for any established receiver or tight end to embrace Tebow and the redesigned offense that comes with him.  Defensive players and offensive linemen actually tend to gravitate to Tebow because of his toughness and willingness to hit and be hit.  Many receivers would just be looking to feed their kids.
[4] Interesting points about Gabbert: He’s also a young QB who is even taller than Tebow, almost as heavy, faster (though not as physically strong), and scored an impressive 42 on the Wonderlic.  Having said that, he toiled in relative obscurity this season and had a year that Football Outsiders called the fifth-worst season they’ve ever measured by at least one metric.  If it weren’t for the fact that he’s a rookie, he would be imminently-replaceable.
[5] Obviously excluding extreme ideologies that would support, for example, unjustified violence.  But everything I have in mind here within mainstream American political discourse would not fall into that category (despite what some on both the left and right suggest).
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10 Responses to Six Open Questions About Tim Tebow

  1. Keith P. says:

    I disagree. Ergo, you are a Nazi.

  2. Mike Austin says:

    I’m glad that the people who are annoyed by Tebow’s expressions of belief now know how I felt when I watched every award show ever.

  3. Brian D. says:

    Hi. Great conversation-starter, but there are a few things that I strongly disagree with. This isn’t an attack on you, Tim Tebow or the article, but it addresses a few counterpoints that I think are important in this debate. With all this said, good for Tim Tebow to exceed everyone’s expectations and maintain such a positive attitude – it’s a very inspirational story. . .

    Criticism of the Player:
    I sincerely believe that most people separate their criticism of Tim Tebow the player from Tim Tebow the personality. Kurt Warner espoused religious views in press conferences throughout his career and while some people took issue with it, far less criticized his abilities as a quarterback than are criticizing Tim Tebow now. I think that’s because he consistently excelled on the field in both the fundamentals (all four quarters) AND the clutch performances. A quarterback who can’t do both will be criticized without fail.

    – Prototypical Qualities without Guts: A joke in Philly goes “Q: how do you spell Tim Tebow backwards?” “A: Donovan McNabb” – you see, a quarterback that consistently produced and won games, but didn’t have the grit that Tim Tebow has to perform in the clutch will get just as much criticism, if not more.

    -Guts without Prototypical Qualities: The analyst criticism of Tebow reminds me of Doug Flutie & Jeff Garcia. Two quarterbacks who were incredible in the clutch but lacked prototypical QB qualities. In the end, these guys can beat the odds – but are a gamble for owners who have $120MM invested in payroll to win the Super Bowl. Over a long-term contract, it’s less likely that this type of individual will continue to beat the odds / pull off miraculous come-backs and beat the most elite NFL defenses / game-planners. Now is Kyle Orton the answer – of course not. But it seems understandable to me that Denver is keeping their options open.

    Criticism of the Personality:
    I really take issue with the whole notion that sexuality & religion have swapped places in society due to an idea that it’s acceptable to hate someone if they hold beliefs that are different. While ‘The West’ has certainly become more open over the last 50 years in many ways (sexuality included), religion, sex & politics continue to make people uncomfortable in certain contexts and an NFL post-game press conference happens to be one of those contexts. If week-after-week, an athlete were to attribute his performance to the strong leadership of Rick Santorum – or to his wife’s heroics in bed, people would be equally uncomfortable (less so the ones who like Rick Santorum, as is the case here). And the whole reason they feel uncomfortable in this unexpected context is that most people believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion – not that they hate people who believe something different. They (and myself included) feel that using this context to promote an agenda so consistently and eggregiously is exploitative and, yes, preachy. This probably isn’t Tebow’s intent – he seems like a good kid who was raised a certain way. And there are no rules against it, so he is free to continue. But I think the backlash is understandable.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      1. I agree that a majority of the criticism directed at Tebow has to do purely with his on-field ability (or lack thereof) and playing style.

      2. I never said Denver shouldn’t keep its options open. In fact, I think they should trade him now, since the current regime obviously isn’t committed to him. I listed the disadvantages that come with Tebow in the article.

      3. I think you’re conflating two different things I addressed in the article. What I’m saying is that, first, attitudes toward open expression of sexuality (i.e. that it may make you feel uncomfortable, but you dare not tell someone to keep it to themselves) and open expression of religion have flip-flopped to a great degree. If you look at that Slate article I linked to, that author quotes a Bible verse when addressing Tebow’s religiosity as a way of suggesting that Tebow literally go “into the closet” to pray, rather than exposing the public to his beliefs. If someone who were, for example, gay, were told not to tell people that because it makes them uncomfortable, that same author would have a fit.

      Secondly, and separately, there’s the notion from both ends of the political spectrum that it’s valid to hate someone or question who they are as a person if they don’t share whatever core ideological beliefs you have. I find this, in a word, stupid. I would say only a handful of the best friends I’ve had in my life were on the same page as I am politically. Some strongly disagreed, some never even discussed politics at all. That didn’t make them worse or better people than I am, but I think a lot of ideologues are so enamored with their own beliefs that they *equate* their ideology with intelligence or character. They refuse to acknowledge that someone who disagrees with them could be smart and/or good.

      It would be like a hard right-winger saying anyone who is pro-choice is morally defective because they support baby murder. Or, as more than one of my lefty friends has said, Tim Tebow is an instrument of hate because he aligned himself with an organization that doesn’t support gay marriage.

      Once a person reaches the point that he simply equates any contrary position to “hate,” he becomes so closed-minded as to be useless as far as discourse goes. However, the closed-mindedness is a separate cultural feature from the inversion of attitudes about sexuality and religion. I wasn’t attempting to connect the two directly.

      • Brian D. says:

        Good points – well said. I do wonder whether Tebow is grandstanding a bit with the on-the-field praying and see the logic in both sides of that debate (i.e. your note about ‘in the closet’ praying vs. sexuality). Guess you have to hope he is being authentic, and he does seem like a pretty authentic guy. And we can only be so lucky if the biggest problem among NFL players is too much praying.

        Totally agree on all points about the need for rational discourse, especially when you can’t turn on the radio without hearing nonsensical vitriol on both sides. I hope we haven’t reached a point where that is “acceptable” as you say – it just happens to be acceptable to some cable news and shock jock radio audiences (albeit alarmingly large audiences). All a good tie-in to this campaign season and hopes that reasonable people can prevail, regardless of political affiliation.

  4. Chad Dreyer says:

    There is a fine line in the ESPN world about evaulating a player based on his football acumen or his overall worth in society as a decent human being. Stephen A. Smith and Merril Hoge are doing thier jobs as pundits to try and frame Tebow’s potential realistically, but all the while ignoring the most important metric of wins versus losses. The problem still exists that while he can win some important games, they can always clamor that he never will never consistently win them as the Bradys of the world can. But the sample size is still small, and he’s only played two playoff games, so next year will be nothing if not compelling.

    As for the national sentiment of Tebow, I don’t think he loses any sleep over it. His list of who he wants to gain favor with is likely limited to his closest friends, family, and (obviously) his maker. I would give anything to be so secure in my own estimation of self-worth.

  5. Ryan says:

    Another well written post.

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