The Passion Play

Mark Milner
January 12, 2012

There’s nobody in sports right now as polarizing, decisive or cool as Tim Tebow. It’s not just a question of religion, politics or even quarterbacking. The divide he creates is more than that; it’s more personal.

I have a friend who, in most other cases, is a rational person. She is not the kind who jumps headfirst into anything or considers alternative viewpoints and has worked as an insurance adjuster. But she hates Tebow. She thinks he’s arrogant, overrated and a fluke. She uses the phrase “Sheblow” to refer to the quarterback. She is not alone, but we disagree.

Tebow is not an amazing quarterback. Contrary to some opinions, he does not just win games. His statistics are subpar, ranging on the worst of any starter in the NFL today. His passing is bad, his release slow and ugly and he struggles to make quick reads and decisions. An example: in the last game of the regular season, a 7-3 loss to the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, he completed just six passes for 60 yards and finished with a QB rating of 20.6.

But he’s not a bad player, either. He has an effect on his own team: receiver Demaryius Thomas has had his best games this year with Tebow behind center, as has running back Willis McGahee. His record as a starter, including playoffs, is 8-4. In Sunday’s game, he had one of his best passing days ever: 10-21 for 316 yards, including two for scores, and a QB rating of 125.6.

Just recapping his season isn’t really the point, though. Tebow’s success – and the visceral reaction he generates – comes from who he is and what he represents. 

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He’s probably the most high-profile evangelical in the country, at least in the popular consciousness. Football in itself is not secular (far from it, actually), but being famous is. In a vacuum it shouldn’t matter what religion someone is, but it does and people are judged for it. Tom Cruise is judged for his participation in Scientology just as Hank Greenberg was judged for not playing on Yom Kippur. Tebow is, too.

Is it fair? It’s never right to pick on someone for what they do in private, but when someone makes a public spectacle of themselves, it becomes fair game. When Sarah Palin started waving Trig around, she opened the door to how fit a mom she was. When Tebow started wearing eye black emblazoned with bible verses, he opened that door.

The problem isn’t so much that Tebow is a Christian as the kind of Christian he is. Over at Grantland, Charles Pierce had the best take. He’s an evangelical, who makes a show of his faith. His family has a history of preaching in the Philippines, where, as the website puts it, they bring “the Good News of the Gospel to thousands of people.” As Pierce points out, the ministries are more into luring people to their specific brand of evangelical Christianity. Tebow is no St. Anastasius, who died preaching to the Persians. Even James Harrision isn’t that level of a headhunter.

That is what needs to be considered when looking at Tebow’s religion. It’s not so much that he believes in a chaste life or has strong opinions about birth control or whatever, it comes down to how he believes in people who worship the same general religion as him: if they don’t do things his way, they’re not doing it right. This, on balance, doesn’t seem too far away from how you’d think a quarterback would talk.

That said, Tebow seems pretty genuine in his beliefs. And more to the point, he’s consistent in them. It’s no accident that TV cameras caught him kneeing in prayer at the end of Sunday’s game. The image we have of Tebow isn’t just one fuelled by his beliefs, but one shaped by the media. One wonders if he’s consciously putting on a show when he prays on-field. After all, he’s no stranger to speaking to crowds about religion – he once preached in front of 10,000 people.

In their last few games of the season, the Broncos were awful. They dropped three in a row, scoring less and less in each game to end the season. But it wasn’t a total team collapse, either. For example, this season, Denver’s defense allowed about 357 yards per game. But in the two losses to Kansas City and Buffalo, they allowed 281 and 351. The Bronco’s collapse came up front, when Tebow couldn’t complete 50 percent of his passes. And in those two games, he was picked off five times. As noted above, he turned things around last Sunday.

While he amassed the best stat line of the night – and with 316 yards, certainly the most memorable – it’s worth noting he still didn’t play well. The last pass of regulation was notably poor: too low, maybe a shade too short, too. I kept detailed notes through the game, and they keep saying a few things about Tebow: he shook off lots of tackles and threw a lot of lob passes. Ike Taylor’s shortcomings as a defensive back show up a lot, too. On Sunday, Tebow was lucky in a lot of senses: he didn’t complete many of his passes (less than half), but the ones he did he either threw deep or resulted in long gains.

Take a second and think about the most memorable image from their upset win. What is it? Is it Tebow shaking off tacklers? Is it Ben Roethlisberger moving like the Tin Man? Or is it the overtime score, a short pass up the middle that Thomas turned into a huge play by shoving his hand into Ike Taylor’s chest, ripping out the Steelers’ hearts like he was Mola Ram?

Was that one on Tebow? Thomas? Was it from a depleted Steelers’ defense? Do you need me to tell you, or do you already have an answer? Those who love Tebow unabashedly will praise him to all ends. Those that don’t will point to other reasons: a poor defense, a lucky seam.

When it comes to religion, my friend says she chooses logic. When it comes to Tebow’s success, she credits everything around him. It probably isn’t fair, but I think she’s saying the same thing twice.

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The Author:

Mark Milner