Tim Tebow: a morality play in faith and football (and maybe even national pride)

Some time back I called Tim Tebow a “faith-based” quarterback. In that article I took on a prominent sports commentator who had lost all perspective and tried to address the ways in which the questions of religion and quarterbacking ability were getting all twisted up around the second-year Denver Broncos QB.

Since that post, some things have changed and others haven’t. The main thing that has changed is that, after an underwhelming first few games, the Doncs have made Tebow the starter. Which is good. First off, Kyle Orton may be a much better quarterback, but he was playing like hell. Second, like I said back in August, Denver isn’t going anywhere this season and the only way to resolve the Tebow question is to play him. If he can play, great. You have your signal-caller and can now turn your attention to the dozens of other severe problems the team has. If he can’t now you know and you can draft a quarterback next year.

What hasn’t changed? The rabid, patently irrational levels of support Tebow enjoys. He’s the biggest topic here in the 5280. He’s the biggest topic on the national sports scene. Seriously – the guy gets more coverage than Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, the Brothers Manning, and all the rookies quarterbacks currently starting combined. That isn’t hyperbole – sit in front of ESPN with a pad and a stopwatch if you don’t believe me. Never in my memory has a player with so little to recommend him on the field been the focus of so much attention. It’s gotten to the point where I expect the feckin’ weather report to begin with an item on #15.

And how bad is it on Denver sports talk? Last week I got in the truck and just as I was getting ready to flip the radio on, I stopped and said “I wonder how long it will be before I hear the word “Tebow”? So I counted. Four seconds. I flipped to the other local stations (we have three Denver-based FM sports talkers and ESPN radio on AM) and they were all talking about Tebow. Then yesterday I headed out, turned on the radio, and the result was like a cheap sitcom: *click*TEBBOW. Instant. Like they were waiting for me.

I’m just about convinced that the media ubiquity of the Tebow craze is the goddamnedest thing to hit America since Beatlemania.

If you’ve been following the drama (which is to say, if you have a radio a TV or an Internet connection), then you know that Tebow is popular with commentators coast to coast. Some are true believers and others are just cynical hacks who know in which direction ratings lie. It’s easy enough to cobble together a debate between one former player who thinks Tebow can make it as an NFL quarterback and another one who doesn’t. But yesterday, as I drove around listening to The Stupid Show, something was different. Boy howdy. After Sunday’s godawful – and sweet hell, I mean abysmal – performance versus the Lions, even the overtly Christian analysts who had been handling Tebow with kid gloves before are upon him.

Let’s review that performance, and understand that the final stat line doesn’t come close to showing how bad he really was.

18/39, 172 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 56.8 rating

  • He was lucky he threw only one interception. There were at least two other throws that everybody in the stadium, probably including Tebow himself, will tell you should have been picked. (I say “Tebow himself” because whatever else is wrong with him as a player, he’s a hard-working, self-effacing kid who is a model character and locker room personality. He never blames others and is as fair as he can be about his own performance. If he could actually play his position and leave the self-aggrandizing PDPs at home I’d wish I had 50 more just like him on the roster.)
  • A vast majority of those completions and yards came once Detroit had the game put away. At 45-3, you’re going to call off the dogs. Tebow was having all kinds of luck hitting open receivers underneath as the Lions dropped way the hell off into prevent. And by a vast majority, I mean probably 3/4.
  • The TD pass he threw was a WR screen. He threw the ball about five yards to a receiver behind the line, who then broke three tackles to score. So Tim had very little to do with it. In his defense, though, he threw a nice ball on the first drive that could have been a TD easily. Decker couldn’t quite get the second foot down and it was close enough that it wasn’t even conclusive on replay. The lord giveth, the lord taketh away.
  • The INT was a 101-yard pick-6 that was just horrific. (Of course, most 100-yard interception returns are horrific.)
  • He also got strip-sacked for a TD.
  • He got sacked seven times, and most of them were his fault.
  • If you paid attention, it’s clear that he’s marginally competent if his first read is open. But I don’t think I saw him work past that and into even a second option in the progressions all day. Tebow reads defenses the way Snooki reads Proust – which is to say, infrequently and without great insight.

All in all, he didn’t do anything Sunday – and I mean this literally – that any third-stringer in the league couldn’t have done. He’s the worst QB on the active roster behind Orton and Brady Quinn and he may be worse than the guy on the practice squad, too, although you never know until you put him in.

And now, even his apologists and boosters in the press are being left with few places to turn.

But listen to the laymen, the fans with the #15 jerseys, the ones who chanted “TE-BOW! TE-BOW!” as Orton melted down. The ones who call the sports talkers and say that John Elway’s early stats were as bad as Tebow’s (which is occasionally true, but utterly beside the point because in college John had demonstrated that he could pass accurately, something Tebow has never done). The ones whose main argument was that you should put Tebow in so we can see what he can do. You have to give him a chance to prove he can’t do it. Well, by that logic you should start me, because I’ve never proven on the field in a real game situation that I can’t be an NFL quarterback, either. It’s as though te objective record of his college years and what the coaches see in practice don’t really count at all.

Listen closely, because you can predict exactly what they’re going to say. It goes like this:

  1. If the Broncos win, it’s because Tebow is the real deal.
  2. If they win but he sucks, the stats don’t matter. All that matters is that “he’s a winner.”
  3. If they lose, it’s not his fault. The play calling sucked, the team played poorly, the management traded away his weapons, etc. But that’s okay, just stick with the plan and he’ll win because he’s a winner.

Which brings us back to why I called him a faith-based QB. The structure of these arguments is exactly like religion. Exactly. In a religion, the truth of the religion is a given. All further data is interpreted in light of the precepts of the religion. Supporting data is foregrounded (she prayed and her cancer was miraculously cured) and data that doesn’t support the belief system is ignored, dismissed or systematically explained away (because the lord works in mysterious ways, or the lord always answers prayers but sometimes the answer is no, etc.) Structurally, the truth isn’t something you seek or that you arrive at, it is the thing you’re given a priori.

It isn’t just religion that works this way, of course. Political systems are like this, to be sure. Economic systems (by all means, go read The Black Swan). As a PhD student I certainly dealt with my share of “social theories” where the process was functionally the same as any other ritual proof of the Truth of the givens.

And of course, it happens in sports.

Listening to the apologists and the Tebow passionistas right now is instructive. Perhaps in its way it’s even illustrative of America, writ large. We have, forever, been a nation with a powerful set of ideologies, and no facts, no matter how glaring, have ever been allowed to get in the way of “the United States is the greatest nation on earth.”

At some point, though, whether you’re a nation or a football fan, you have to realize that the refusal to acknowledge facts doesn’t mean they cease to exist.


  • it is strange. When they were pushing Tebow, they argued it wasn’t about religion, but football pragmatics–Tebow had decent preseason stats against the fifth string so he’d “earned” the start. But now that the Lions have destroyed and mocked Tebow, and one has even said to leave religion on the practice field, all of a sudden its about religion again. Puh-lease. This has always been about religion. Well, I said in a previous comment thread that all of you idiots who can’t tell the difference between what you wish were true and what is true are going to get that boy hurt. So let’s get it over with so he can move on with his life.

  • Until NFL teams start running the spread-option, QB’s like Tebow are going to struggle. Meyer didn’t use him in passing situations, so i suppose that Urban thought it wasn’t worth teaching young Tebus how to read a defense, go through progressions and execute proper footwork.

    It will be an NFL wide problem too, as the spread is getting more popular at the college level, because it works there. I’m not sure it can work in the NFL, where all the linebackers are fast and everyone can read the plays. There’s only so much time each week for college practices, only so much the players can learn. The spread gives offenses an advantage in that with talent it’s relatively simple to implement and execute while being difficult to defend. A spread-option QB has basically one read, the DE, for a great number of the plays the offense will run.

    And when the spread-option is run correctly, it forces defenses to cheat so heavily to defend the run that there are wide open slants. Those are easy completions for even a mediocre passer. Spread-option bread and butter.

    Maybe Tebow can cut it, but he’s a long way from ready for the NFL. He looked good in a system that made him look good against competition nowhere near what he has to beat now.

    • The thing you note – the speed of the defenses – is why the spread will never work at the pro level. I mean, elements of it already work because you can use it as a passing tool. But not as a run tool. Defenses are so damned fast that it’s already just about impossible to run around the corners anymore. Notice how all your successful runners make a living tackle to tackle?

      And in the NFL you just can’t run at all if the defense knows that you can’t pass. And you can’t run OR pass if you can’t read the defense.

      I hear people saying what you do, that Tebow may be able to do it eventually. I see no reason to believe that at all. I can’t think of a single guy who made it as an NFL QB who, at this stage of his career, had so many glaring tangible flaws. Could it happen? I guess anything is possible. But I’m taking all bets.

  • Ah, that “Maybe….” was a throw away. I don’t think he’ll make it either; not now. If he had sat for a number of years behind another QB and gotten coaching it would be more likely.

    A good defense can beat the spread in college too, especially if the QB isn’t a very good passer. Seven or eight in the box and blitzing regularly (so long as it doesn’t lose contain on the edge) will stuff the run. Tight coverage from the corners takes the slant away. Make the QB beat you with his arm and under pressure. Generally he won’t.

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