The Tao of Tim

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Pittsburgh were the defending AFC champions. Pittsburgh were favored by many to return to the Superbowl. Pittsburgh had a proven commodity at quarterback. Pittsburgh had a rangy, blitzing defense that led the league in pass defense. Pittsburgh had the brightest young head coach in the league, Mike Tomlin, already with a title under his belt. Pittsburgh had Hall-of-Famer Dick Lebeau using defensive alchemy to confound and confuse. Pittsburgh was a double digit favorite on the road.

Then Pittsburgh got Tebowed.

That’s the headline at least. Tebow beats the 6 time champion. The reality is that the Steelers were banged up, their pro-bowl quarterback was playing on one leg, their pro-bowl center was watching, a starting safety could not play in the Denver altitude due to a medical condition. The reality was the Broncos defense was terrific and the Steelers defensive secondary was awful. Tebow completed under 50% of his passes and the touchdown throw (that ESPN will beat to death for years to come) was a busted coverage on a site adjusted slant where both safeties walked themselves out of position. But the headlines will read Tebow...

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Tim Tebow bends our cultural needle with his every move. He is compelling because of the way his talent, perception, and religion run headlong without hesitation into our own understanding of sports, icons, and Christianity. Tim Tebow is complex, I don't quite know what I am seeing on Sundays and I certainly don't understand the scrutiny and analysis that fills the other six days of the week, I do know we haven't seen an athlete that moves the needle like this in at least 20 years and possibly ever.

The Numbers Don’t Tell the Story

Yes Tebow threw more incompletions than completions. Yes half of his passes wouldn’t make level two of duck hunt. Yes his throwing motion is painful. The stats and analytics don’t lie but they also don’t reveal the story. Tebow isn’t the guy you would choose to lead your team given all the great quarterbacks in the league, but he’s perfect for Denver and John Fox.

Yes Tebow threw more incompletions than completions. Yes half of his passes wouldn’t make level two of duck hunt. Yes his throwing motion is painful. The stats and analytics don’t lie but they also don’t reveal the story.

You can end voting now, because John Fox should be the coach of the year. Why? Because Fox has done what no other coach in the league dares to do, he’s defied convention and historical trends in knowingly and willingly placing his quarterback in a system where he is exposed to contact. Vick ran out of necessity. Cunningham the same. Tebow runs out of scheme. Denver’s offense transformed into a spread structured attack at MIDSEASON. Keep that in mind. Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy along with Fox benched Kyle Orton and most importantly an offensive system after a 1-4 start. Carolina made a similar transition albeit in the offseason and shortened pre-season freeing Cam Newton up to be a portion of the threat he was at Auburn.

Tebow makes you defend the entire field because he can break the pocket and make plays ala Vick and Cunningham. He isn’t nearly as accurate as those two, but he typically isn’t prone to turnovers and Denver has Willis McGahee and his mile high fountain of youth as well as a bevy of other backs to help carry the load. Tebow is actually better when the offense stretches teams vertically. Ask the Steelers.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, but neither do the results. Tebow is not a good quarterback. It’s doubtful the Broncos can win long term with this approach without full commitment to the system, i.e. run first offensive linemen, a Tebowesque back-up quarterback, receivers who are versatile enough to block, work horizontally on screens, and fast enough to stretch defenses vertically. Denver will be interesting to watch in the offseason to see just how serious Elway and company are about working within the world they’ve created.

The Hype Train

Tebow fits the mold perfectly. He’s got a Heisman pedigree, movie star good looks, an awe shucks demeanor combined with a fierce competitive streak. Above all he’s a winner.

Winner, that most compelling of all hype train fuel. It’s cousin “It Factor” runs a close second but we love a winner. We love a guy who’s been told he can’t win who goes out, turns the critics on their ear and wins. Let’s be honest, Tebow has all those other traits but the trait that separates him the other guy is that Tim is a winner where few thought he would be. His mechanical shortcomings, his lack of accuracy, his fullback body all ad to the lore. He’d be an articulate, loser otherwise. We don’t like losers. We LOVE winners.

We LOVE guys who were told no because we've all been told no and few of us know the real joy of turning no to yes. The Tebow “no factor” is aggerated but his "winner factor" is, if possible, underplayed. Tebow was a five-star high school recruit at quarterback. He had offers from Florida, Alabama, USC, Michigan, LSU, you name ‘em they offered. He played in the Army All-American game, platooned Florida to a National Championship as a freshman, won another National Title and a Heisman along the way. He narrowly missed being the first two-time Heisman trophy winner since George Rogers. He won the Maxwell twice, the Davey O’Brien, the Manning and was a three time All-American.

He was projected to be 3rd round draft pick. That’s pretty decent considering the miniscule percentage of players who are drafted. The fact that Josh McDaniels took him in the 1st round was a reach but he was rated by some services as the third best quarterback in the class. Tebow isn't an underdog. He's won at every level including two of his seasons at Florida where he was the offense, singularly.

Tebow has talent. He’s not getting by on smoke and mirrors. He is getting by, once again, because John Fox has adapted a system to fit his talents. Again the question is once everyone in the league has tape on the offense and begin to scheme around it how successful will he be. Will the NFL now react similarly to quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III who is a legitimate world class athlete or will the league stick to status quo and attempt to jam a square peg in a round hole? Is there another Fox who will transform an offense around a center piece that is not prototypical?*

For Whose Glory?

What makes Tebow so compelling is that unlike the scores of sound bite spouting teflon quarterbacks, the Bradys, the Mannings, the Breeses, etc, Tim’s sound bite inevitably leads with a shout out to God’s glory. Maybe it’s this that makes me so uncomfortable. This is why I can’t listen to his post-game interviews or his press conferences. What’s interesting is I share his evangelical bent. I just don’t go about the same way. Maybe if I were 6 feet 3 inches of athleticism who could play at the highest level I would be different. I’m not. I’m a shade over 5’11 and totally slow twitch.

The real danger is that the hype train always, ALWAYS, runs out of steam. What happens then? From a theological perspective, Christ, who has Christians we are supposed to model, was not a hype train guy. He actively avoided it. He prayed in quiet places not in bursting stadiums. He avoided crowds, getting in boats, going into houses, avoiding cities to do so. He worked as though no one was watching. That was and is kind of the point.

In all honesty I’m uncomfortable with Tebow the same way I get uncomfortable with Jesus t-shirts or tracks handed out outside malls or contemporary Christian music. I don’t think it’s wrong, I don’t even think it’s bad necessarily it’s just not my brand of Vodka. Tebow is polarizing. That really means that emotions or attitudes toward him will run the full gamut. For everyone who loves his singing praise music during pre-game there will be somebody who is turned off by it. Being polarizing isn’t bad, it’s just polarizing. The argument exists that as long as one person identifies with Tebow the other extreme doesn’t matter. I get that but I still sit in discomfort.

What happened next should fill a place on Fox’s mantle. They took the Tebow offensive package and implemented it full-time. Spread framework causing opponents difficulty preparing for the Broncos. The Broncos approach is to shorten games by running, depending on a vastly improved defense to keep games close and hope the offense eventually wears down their opponents mentally and physically and takes advantage of big plays set up by the run. The principles are not unique to football, just unique to winning in the NFL, see the Packers, Saints, Patriots, etc. We love the hype train in America. We loved the first real conductor Muhammad Ali. We went goo goo when Broadway Joe predicted his Jets would beat the Unitas Colts. We were starry eyed over Mary Lou and the perfect 10, MJ and his Jordanaires, we shuffled to the Superbowl with the Bears. Lately we have seen Phelpsian heights, Kobe’s title runs, Shaq’s media savvy, and Lebron’s talents finding a new home in South Beach. We love the sizzle even if the steak is overdone.

I don’t know how I feel about Tim Tebow. I know I have to watch him and I kind of expect the internet to explode when he does something. I appreciate and am thankful for his faith but I’m also hesitant because the hype machine rolls on and it doesn’t care the consequences. We loved Phelps and his 12,000 calorie diet until those bong pictures emerged, MJ was bullet proof until he was a Wizard, Namath became a Ram and later made his worst pass at an ESPN sideline reporter, the hype train didn’t care. It welcomes and discards passengers with cold efficiency. The length of the ride may vary but the outcome is always the same. I wonder how it ends for Tebow. In the mean time the Patriots await in Foxboro. I’m sure I’ll tune in.

The Patriots have the greatest coach in recent NFL history. The Patriots have a three time Champion in Tom Brady. The Patriots are tough to beat at home. The Patriots had the best record in the AFC. The Patriots are the number 1 seed.

They’re ripe to get Tebowed.

*For the record, I don't count John Fox as an elite coach but I do credit him for doing what all coaches SHOULD do: Put players in a position that maximizes talent, ability and winning.

Posted on January 8, 2012 and filed under Sports.