Tim Tebow takes the Ten Commandments seriously. Which is why he must feel pretty conflicted about the millions of football fans who (until this weekend) ignored that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” part and treated him as the messiah.
For the four people in America who haven’t yet heard of him, Tebow is a 24-year-old second-year quarterback for the Denver Broncos, who are in the midst of a second straight embarrassing season. While at the University of Florida, he played on two national championship teams and won a Heisman Trophy. He’s also a devout evangelical Christian who does missionary work in the offseason and used to paint Biblical quotes in his eye black. He's given rise to the hilarious "Tebowing" meme, in which people imitate his on-field prayers by dropping to one knee in bizarre situations. But after Tebow's atrocious performance against the Detroit Lions last weekend, it's time to redefine the word. Tebowing (verb): To collapse under the weight of the world's out-of-control expectations.
Before the 2010 draft, many experts had Tebow marked as a third-rounder. Yet the Broncos traded up for him, giving the Baltimore Ravens three draft picks in exchange for the right to pick him 25th. He was unquestionably a phenomenal college player, but Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell have taught us that sterling NCAA numbers don’t guarantee success on Sundays. There were real questions about his throwing style, and even the most optimistic commentators thought he’d need several years of development before he was a reliable pro quarterback. Any lingering illusions about Tebow’s readiness came crashing down this weekend, the first time he played against a good team. An interception, three fumbles and seven sacks will do that.
It’s hard to blame Denver fans for drinking the Tebow Kool-Aid considering the utter dysfunction of their team, but it’s pretty remarkable how completely they gave up any semblance of perspective—moving from cautious optimism about a big gamble to assuming an untested youngster can save the team. But even more noteworthy is the number of non-Broncos fans who have gotten in on the Tebow hype machine. In a season with no shortage of interesting storylines, a second-year quarterback on a terrible team has managed to dominate the NFL conversation. For months, you haven’t been able to flip on NFL Primetime without seeing his grinning face. He might save the economy. He might be a saint.
All of this points to a burning desire for the best players on the field to also be role models, a wish that’s as old as organized sports. The only reason people were so shocked by the revelation that Tiger Woods was a serial womanizer was because they had conflated driving a golf ball 300 yards with being a good person. Tebow has the opposite problem: He’s a completely admirable guy (even if his public evangelizing goes a bit far) in a league with a serious crime problem who also happens to be a bad NFL quarterback. Someday he might become a mediocre NFL quarterback, or even a good one, but this weekend made clear that we’re a long way from that day.
Some pundits have argued that the interest in Tebow means the NFL has a “star problem” (particularly as it relates to quarterbacks) but I don’t think that explains it. Aaron Rodgers has emerged from Brett Favre’s shadow to become arguably the best QB in the league. Mark Sanchez has lost none of his pretty boy glamor, and Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger still have the ability to make huge plays. Matthew Stafford is having a breakout year for the Detroit Lions. A common trope is that Stafford and Rodgers lack the personality to make them true stars, but can you name anything about Tebow’s personality other than the fact that he’s a super-Christian? I know I can’t.
No, Tebow mania is due to nothing more than what fans and analysts have projected onto him. Ever since the 2010 draft, people have talked primarily about his “intangibles”—the work ethic and “will to win” that were somehow bound to make him successful on football’s highest level. Overemphasizing these traits in athletes we want to succeed is well-trod territory, and usually a sign that they don’t have the actual talent professional success requires. When the first thing people say about you is that you’re a hard worker and a missionary to boot, you might not have what it takes to win professional football games.
None of this is Tebow’s fault. What else can he do but work hard and play when his coach sends him into the game? I genuinely feel bad for the guy—quite a statement from a Raiders fan. I hope he’s no longer the starter by the time the Raiders and Broncos square off in Oakland on Sunday (though the Broncos say he will be). I hope he’s learned his lesson and will stop the ostentatious displays of piety when he scores, but also that opponents won’t have the opportunity to mock him like Detroit players did on Sunday. Most of all, I hope that the next time a guy with great intangibles and suspect skills comes into the NFL, fans remember this week and take it as a lesson on how not to react. Nobody wants the face of their team to Tebow.