Against the Detroit Lions – an upstart team with the league’s 12th ranked defense - Tebow was 18-39 for 172 yards. He also fumbled a ball that was run in for a touchdown and threw an interception returned 100 yards for a score. Believe it or not, those numbers were even padded after the game's outcome was no longer in doubt. The idolized Florida All-American started the game an unreal 8-for-26 for 85 yards. The final tally was 45-10 and it wasn’t even that close. During the game, the Lions openly mocked what’s known as "Tebowing" (defined as “to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.”) Lions defender Stephen Tulloch adopted the pose after the second of seven Lions sacks.
But the post-game assessments of Tebow were, if anything, more brutal than what took place on the field. Deon Sanders on the NFL Network said. “I like Tebow but that was pathetic. That wasn’t the resemblance of an NFL quarterback.”
The Denver Post’s Woody Paige tried the Halloween theme and said, “Tebow was as ghastly as that Regan character in ‘The Exorcist’ who cursed, threw up and spun her head 360 degrees.”
Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports, reporting from the Lions locker room said Tebow was being “”low-blowed with a degree of disrespect that blew my mind.”
One Lions defender said to Silver, “Come on – that’s embarrassing. I mean, it’s a joke. We knew all week that if we brought any kind of defensive pressure, he couldn’t do anything. In the second half it got boring out there. We were like, ‘Come on – that’s your quarterback? Seriously?’ ”
Silver went on to say, “Words like atrocious, terrible, completely exposed and not even close to ready kept coming up in these conversations; a couple of Lions even used the term oh my god.”
You can excuse the Lions for being particularly chippy. The league’s own website NFL.com, shockingly in my view, billed this game as GOOD (picture of Tebow) vs. EVIL (picture of Lions defensive star Ndamukong Suh.) Rudyard Kipling couldn’t have penned it any better. After the game Suh said, “I guess evil won out.”
But it wasn’t evil that won out. It was merit. There is nothing that makes NFL players angrier than, to mix my sports metaphors, the idea of someone born on third base who acts like they hit a triple. After Tebow led the Broncos from the brink of defeat to victory against the winless Dolphins last week, former Bronco and ESPN commentator Tom Jackson said, “He might not be able to throw in the traditional sense, but he has something special. Something mystical. I wouldn’t bet against this kid.” There are a 1,000 similar quotes all saying the same quasi-religious thing: “Throw out the handbook because Tebow has something special we mere mortals cannot explain.”
Those of us who pointed out that Tebow had issues actually throwing the ball were dismissed as haters, know-nothings, or even worse, prejudiced against Tebow because of his piety. Let’s address this. I could care less about the religion of Tebow or any player. Retired quarterback Kurt Warner was always must-see-TV for me, and he has spent more time in church than stained glass windows. The difference between the two is instructive. Warner was never given half a chance to succeed. He was a 27 year old rookie backup who played his way onto the St. Louis Rams after a stint in the Arena Football League. He then played his way into being a future Hall of Famer. His religion was just part of who he was. Tebow, for all the breathless articles about his work ethic, is the picture of entitlement: a first round draft pick, starting in the NFL because assorted scouts, writers, and owners were besotted with his “goodness.” He's handsome. He's wholesome. He does missionary work in the poorest parts of the world to where he circumcises young native children. At the ripe old age of 23, he even penned a memoir.
The right-wing strain of evangelical Christianity to which his family subscribes, bleeds seamlessly into politics. Tebow proudly appeared, during the Super Bowl, in an anti-abortion commercial sponsored by Focus on the Family. FOF is an organization that believes in gay reparative therapy, ending women’s reproductive health, and organizing the far-right fringe of American politics. And yet Tebow was spared the normal media smackdown that “sports and politics don’t mix.” Instead his courage was compared in ESPN to people like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos. [For the record, not only was Ali never given a spot in the Super Bowl to express his politics, he could also actually box.]
There’s something noxious about seeing someone in real-time being manufactured as a leader, a poster boy, and even an icon without proving it on the field. The Tebow experience has been like seeing the DC political media establishment swoon over the “next big thing” for higher office. The difference is that in football, there are no speech doctors, no slickly produced ads, no one who can just play “quarterback” at press conferences and photo ops. You can either play or you can’t. But pity not Tim Tebow. With that smile and sparkle, he can always find a home in national politics: a profession in which neither substance nor merit is required.