Monday, October 24, 2011

Tim Tebow's Passion Play

Tim Tebow is doomed. I don't mean that metaphysically, because I'm sure he's going to Heaven. Although, for humor's sake, I hope it's 99% full of Muslims and unprepossessing socialist members of the Church of England.

I don't even mean that from an athletically evolutionary level, although pairing him with John Fox virtually guarantees that whatever abilities he develops will be stamped out of existence by two runs, an obvious heave on third and long, a punt and repeat. Fox evinces a native disinterest in aerial yardage that suggests he won't mind if it germinates independent of his efforts, but until then he'll refuse to nurture it. (Only he could have been more surprised by Jake Delhomme's 2003 performance than Jake Delhomme.) Meanwhile, Tebow's NFL youth plays out like he's been sent to The Ayn Rand School for QBs: Do you know what a quarterback says when he reaches for drills and game tape? He's saying, "I am a leech."

But if anything's doomed Tebow, it's coverage.

Nobody can reasonably claim that they didn't know what quantity they were getting with Tim Tebow. His games were lavishly reported in college, enough that anyone football savvy could run down his biggest liabilities going into the pro game:
running speed that pro defenses could eat up far quicker than their college counterparts;
a time-consuming, long throwing motion that seemed to vary every few tosses;
poor accuracy;
poor defensive reads, which led to his biggest shortcoming,
over-dependence on the run.
All these problems were exposed last year and this Sunday, and none of them should give anyone pause. Yet despite Tebow's constancy, opinion-makers have see-sawed on him.

There have always been contrarians about his talent, those who'd pick the opposite of whatever the prevailing opinion was and run with it. There's a reason Skip Bayless has a job, and now that I've mentioned him, some Google Alert has rung in Bristol and given him another tenth of a cent. But by and large Tebow's career engendered collective swoons far out of proportion to the developments in it.

Before the NFL combine, the dominant argument seemed to be that a cellar-dweller would be foolish not to draft him #1, if only to put asses in the seats while his abilities expanded. (This is always a curious proposition, since a superstar college quarterback only needs two or three spectacular NFL failures to send all those asses back home.) After the combine, his shaky skills — unmistakable to anyone watching during his college games — propelled the dominant opinion away from a #1 pick. Then Josh McDaniels boneheadedly drafted him in the first round anyway, and the sale was on again. Until the preseason, when Tim Tebow played exactly like Tim Tebow.

When the Broncos' fortunes dimmed, Tebow Time chimed, and a shaky Week 16 win was all anyone needed to appropriate the Vince Young trademark that "He Just Wins Ballgames." Then the 2011 preseason returned us to earth. This time, Merril Hoge plunged the see-saw downward about as far as it could go by claiming that Tebow had no business playing quarterback at all. He was, and is, probably right, but apart from an extra season of data about Tebow, the explanations he gave to support his opinion didn't substantially differ from anything critics said before. Hoge spoke with the authority of having seen over 365 days of Tebow's failure to evolve, but it didn't matter, because the see-saw sailed upward as soon as Kyle Orton started to falter.

At this point, the Denver Broncos' attitude toward Tebow seems to be that you can hide making a mistake if you insist on making it repeatedly while loudly proclaiming that it's the opposite of a mistake. It's like the supply-side economics of talent. The Broncos invested a first-round pick in him, and if they just keep reinvesting in the top-tier, benefits will eventually rain down on all. Reality can go suck it. Their faith in a higher power reflects both Tebow's Christianity and supply-side thinking in general: unaccountably rendering time and investment upward eventually results in an invisible hand doling out funbucks.

Thus Tebow started Sunday, improbably leapfrogging the #2 quarterback on the Broncos depth chart (despite the fact that Brady Quinn had obviously earned that distinction for a reason), and immediately the editorial see-saw reached newly absurd heights. (Click here for an artist's representation.) There was no intangible on Sunday that could not be ascribed to some aspect of Tebow's play. After failing to make a read, turning his back on his receivers (for at least the third time in the game), rushing back for negative yardage, then charging through a broken line to pick up a first down, the announcers gushed that "this is what Tebow does for the Broncos," before explaining that "this" thing he "does" could be defined as:
1. Give them swagger.
2. Let them play with confidence.
3. Let them know they have a chance to win.
His numbers reflect that, too: 26 Completions, 322 Yards and 4 TDs, assuming all those numbers include instant replay. He just went out and won that ballgame, assuming Tebow's dancin' with the power of The Spirit also induced the Heavens to make the Dolphins hire Jeff Ireland, Tony Sparano and Brian Daboll — and fumble once.

Because of his coach and because of his own limitations, he's almost certain to crash back to earth, and it's almost certain that the Tebow narrative will bow to admit this new data, then project him to soar again. Like Jeff George, he seems fated to always have the chance to redeem those early hopes, which means that a consensus on him won't be reached until it's beyond doubt that he can't be fixed, that he can't start over again, that a new coach, system or team can't realize the potential that so many commentators decided must be there.

This seems like a fate antithetical to Cam Newton's. Prior to the start of this season, sports punditry's consensus was that he had "running college quarterback" problems similar to Tebow's and that the Panthers were fools to waste a #1 pick on him. Then Newton exploded for about billion passing yards over two games, and pundits jumped up to say, "Hey, this kid could be pretty great!" As Newton's performance diminished, and the league started to anticipate him and force him into making rookie errors, the see-saw settled in a sensible middle. In short, "We were wrong about him, but he's surrounded by a rebuilding team facing a lot of injuries, and he has a lot to learn this year."

The disparity between Newton's treatment and Tebow's could be chalked up to passive racism and diminished expectations for black quarterbacks, because that attitude certainly hasn't left the league. On the whole, though, it's likelier that no NFL journalist or opinion-maker has any reason to feel egregiously wrong for being wrong about Cam Newton. He wasn't a great NFL-style QB coming out of college. No one expected him to be more of a pocket passer in his first game, nor to see him use bootlegs and his running threat to disrupt coverages and make accurate downfield passes instead of breaking free for eight yards of rushing and injury potential. Moreover, Newton bounced around programs in colleges, never settling with any one system, which naturally disrupted his evolution in an environment that gave him more latitude for messy improvisation.

Newton exceeded expectations in part because the expectations rested on unreliable data and in part because he obviously worked hard to learn about NFL play. He's a positive story, because he's applied himself, but also because nobody who voted against him has to feel any real shame in voicing an opinion based on an inconsistent college sample that could mislead anyone. Being reasonable about Newton's prospects now doesn't force anyone to account for being unreasonable before.

Tebow's problem, then, isn't really his. Expectations for him will rise and dip like an EKG of a cardiac event, because those creating them have to rush to ratiocinate both the new statistics he provides and also their own bizarre previous predictions. It's a pity that Tebow hasn't changed, but it's a greater pity that his abilities are subject to their own limitations and to producers' desires to goose ratings on Around the Horn and SportsCenter, to editors' desires to sell issues via cover stories and to pundits' desires to separate themselves from the pack by boldly "calling" his entire career.

These judgments orbit him — the gravity of his own actions and the recapitulation of others' pronouncements — irrespective of the fact that he was pretty much the same guy Sunday as he was in the preseason, and last season, and the last preseason, and college and practically back through high school. There will be a few tastemakers who brazenly embrace accountability for the narrative they tried to package, but it's in the best interests of those many who willfully and wholly fucked up to keep slapping a new label on the Tebow product and hand it back to the marketplace.

Ironically, the shallowest and most constant pitch for Tebow will likely be that of sportsman-evangelist, his religiosity offering the one safe through-note of his career that pundits can sound again and again. Although he probably won't mind, it still minimizes him, looking past what he is, for good or ill, to what still conceptually works. Oddly, this distorts his faith, too, making it a commodity-0bject that supersedes himself instead of being a facet of his personality.

Sunday, basketball writer and The Classical co-founder Bethlehem Shoals tweeted, "Only with Tebow do you realize just how quasi-religious so much of the NFL (all sports, really) narrative language is anyway." It's a funny statement, but not all that unusual. This is, after all, a league where almost all successes are attributed to the Lord, while all failures bear no mark from Him, save as an opportunity to help the athlete overcome them. As fervid, intense and vaguely sinister as we might find all those Arabs who invoke God at seemingly every opportunity, we forget that the first thing Drew "Guantanamo" Brees said on hoisting the Lombardi Trophy was (translated into Arabic), "Allahu Akbar!"

What distinguishes Tebow is that old pro-wrestling concept of "living the gimmick." Like old-school heel wrestlers with "Nazi" personas who'd keep speaking in a German accent even at the grocery store, just in case fans were around, Tebow doesn't drop his evangelical focus anywhere — except he's actually sincere. He's always been like this, even since high school. While someone like Michael Irvin talks the Jesus talk after screwing hookers, snorting piles of coke, carrying bricks of marijuana and stabbing a teammate in the throat, devotion wasn't something Tebow arrived at following a public-relations nightmare. It's even seemed to have totally inhibited the traditional college athlete bacchanalia — which is, let's be honest, pretty much why you go to college in the first place. (Aside from learning about post-structuralism, which is like figuring out how to shred on guitar, only instead of a guitar it's, like, words and everything, man.)

Tebow's been so consistently an athlete-evangelist, even going so far as to affirm that in writing on his face, that the whole of our understanding of him will probably be hung on that fact after debates about wins and losses fall away. At that point, he'll become a vehicle for argument about faith, reward and work. If he fails, critics will wonder why someone allegedly blessed by God to such a great degree couldn't be further blessed by becoming a better quarterback, or argue instead that God's bounty is reflected in a bad quarterback's earning $10 million anyway. He'll be proof of the munificent dickheadedness of an all-retarded Creator, some bozo with checks promoting failure upward via the St. Peter Principle. Tebow, meanwhile, would surely be modest about it all, finding in failure a test to discover a new resolve in himself, a new calling of lay ministry or activism or just going back to school.

He will probably never be a good quarterback. When he finally flunks out of the game, it will be on terms his actions or play dictated, but the result won't be wreathed in those terms. What he will be then is what he is now: largely secondary to what those daily hiccuping history need him to be. Pundits will champion him, and deny him again and again and again, or acclaim him and accuse him, and then leave it to the indifference of his career stat page to condemn whatever the numbers add up to.