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Tim Tebow, Football and Religion: Why One of College Football's Most Celebrated Athletes Became One of the NFL's Most Polarizing

Mar 26; Florham Park, NJ, USA; Newly acquired New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow addresses the media at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE
Mar 26; Florham Park, NJ, USA; Newly acquired New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow addresses the media at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

It's been a little more than two years now since the Denver Broncos shocked some of their fans and outraged a few by picking Tim Tebow in the first round of the NFL Draft. Little did we know what was coming next, or what is even more likely to come in the future now that the bright lights of New York City are going to be cast on one of the most unique athletes in any of our lifetimes.

Because Tim Tebow went from being one of the most celebrated college athletes anyone could remember to being one of the most controversial and polarizing professional athletes in decades. Almost everyone has an opinion on Tebow, and few of them are tempered by any superfluous moderation. Either he's an All-Pro quarterback in the making or he's the biggest first-round flop in years. (Some might add their opinion that everyone who talks about Tebow should just shut up.)

While my attention span with most things NFL wanes a little bit more each year -- more on that in just a moment -- the only player outside of my Atlanta Falcons that I tend to follow closely is Tim Tebow. Part of this comes from the curiosity of someone who watched Tebow defy all the odds in the SEC, in part to see if he can also defy all the odds in the NFL. But part of it is because, as much as I would like to dislike Tebow for beating the Gamecocks four straight times, I can't.

I truly like Tim Tebow. While I was somewhat appalled at the receptions he got at SEC Media Days, that had more to do with watching supposedly grown journalists swoon like college coeds when Tebow spoke than with Tebow himself. We all got tired of the media machine that encircled Tebow every time he took to the field, but I've found myself admiring Tim Tebow more and and more as time's gone on.

And I find myself a little bit stunned at the open hostility that faces Tebow. And hoping that he will be a successful NFL quarterback. And worrying that he will never really get the chance.

It's not an original thought to say that we as a country are as deeply divided as anytime since perhaps the Civil War, and that we are divided along more lines than we've thought possible -- political, regional and, yes, religious.

In that sense, once he became a prominent public figure, Tebow walked into a situation not of his own making. Simply by being who he was -- a home-schooled evangelical Christian from one of the more truly Southern cities in Florida -- he was going to be a lightning rod as soon as he became a regular player in the NFL. Not because of football; because of everything else. When he began to take the country by storm in the later part of the 2011 season, Tebow was a Rorschach test for not only what you thought about football, but what you thought about America as well.

Not that football players who are open about their religion are anything new. But many of them provide people who don't share their faith a way "out" -- a wink or a nod for those they want to cheer for, a dollop of hypocrisy for those they want to criticize. It is easy to take someone's faith less seriously when they can be perceived -- rightly or wrongly -- as not taking their faith that seriously themselves.

Tebow provides no such out. He is an evangelical Christian who openly proclaims his faith and, as near as anyone looking at him from a distance can tell, practices it. He has openly said he is waiting for marriage to have sex -- a notion that you might find quaint, but a stance that is nonetheless bold in a culture that idolizes sex symbols. Look for hypocrisy in Tebow's life -- I know of at least one group that I refuse to name that is using a large amount of cash to do so -- and the odds are that you aren't going to find it.

That's hard to process in a culture where cynicism has become the norm. In part, what makes Tebow so frustrating to many is his complete lack of artifice.

That, of course, means that Tebow has to instead be accused of that quintessentially American faux pas: Self-righteousness. Because he espouses a religious belief and credits it in part for his success, and because there is no hypocrisy that anyone can find, he must be flawed in some other way. Self-righteousness fits the bill.

Only it doesn't.

I'm a Christian. I believe that God has given me a talent for writing -- in addition to the writing I do for this site, I am a professional journalist -- and that whatever measure of success I've had in that area has to be credited first and foremost to God. I might not say as much on this site regularly, but that's largely because I don't have someone shoving a microphone in my face and asking me why that great post I wrote on a given day turned out so well.

Otherwise, I hope that I would be bold enough to say what Tebow says: That as a Christian, he believes that the gift he has for playing football comes from God. Tebow has the choice to work on that skill and hone it, but doing so is as much (or more) an act of obedience as it is a personal drive. And having seen that football is going to give him a platform that is available to few others, he's going to use it to promote the most important idea in his life. Who wouldn't?

And I fail to see how that should be threatening or insulting to anyone. Tebow is not demanding that those who watch him or root for him share his Christian faith -- though I'm sure he hopes that some choose that faith because of his witness. He's simply being who he really is. In an era of cynicism and winks and nods of all varieties, where celebrities and politicians poll their choice of clothes and how to announce their divorces, where handlers tell every famous person how to do almost everything, it's refreshing to see someone who just doesn't care about all that.

Someone who's going to be what he's going to be, even if that means he's going to be conscripted into a cultural war that he did not start and has shown only the faintest of interests in participating in.

- - -

But the football would be enough, even if it weren't for the cultural and religious fault lines that lie under every move Tebow makes. Because the fact of the matter is that Tebow is quite unlike anything professional football has ever seen. And while we in college football like the innovative and the new, the NFL and many of its fans prefer to think that the game as it's currently played in the pros is as perfect as it's ever going to get.

I've talked with a colleague at work that exemplifies the trend. When I say that I largely find the NFL and its copycat offenses boring, he's quick to point out that there's a reason that everyone in the pros runs a similar offense -- because it's the best athletes in the world facing the best athletes in the world, making the "pro-style offense" the only one that has a chance of succeeding. And that's why the idea that someone like Tebow can be successful in an unconventional way is threatening.

Because if the NFL and its West Coast-infused offenses are really the best kind of football, if they have to be played a certain way to give anyone a chance in the NFL, then Tebow can't be successful. And if he does find a way to steer a team to and through the playoffs, then he will explode the myth that professional football has less offensive variety just because it's the highest level of football. He will begin to raise questions about 30 years of professional football orthodoxy, and begin to show that there are other ways to be successful. Or -- worse yet -- that there are better ways to play professional football than the way it is currently being played.

In other words, he will annihilate the belief by many fans who prefer NFL football to college that their coaches are playing three-dimensional chess while ours are playing checkers.

Of course, professional fans now point to the 0-3 end of the 2011 regular season for Denver to point out that Tebow can't be successful. The Broncos, after all, mustered only 40 points over their last three games.

So they have proof that the Tebow offense doesn't work in the NFL.

And here's where we get to why I worry that Tebow will never get a chance to succeed: Because you can't truly use what happened at Denver to figure out whether Tebow can consistently lead a team to victory. There is a chasm of difference -- and any football fan should be able to acknowledge this -- but there is a chasm of difference between turning a pro-style offense into an Urban Meyer-style spread-option offense on the fly and actually building a spread-option offense from the ground up.

The former involves coaches trying to make adjustments and mix plays from week to week and asking players to do things that don't come naturally to them. The latter is a five-year building project that requires hiring the right coach and drafting the right players and figuring out how to account for the fact that, yes, the defensive players in the NFL are smarter and faster and better than the average defensive player in college.

The problem is that there aren't a lot of opportunities for a five-year building project in the NFL, particularly not one that would endure lopsided losses at first and still might not work after all. Fans are conditioned to think that, with the right moves, last year's team with the No. 1 pick at the draft can be this year's No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

And the fact that a Tebow offense is not what NFL fans are used to might actually cause the fans to turn on the team more quickly, because any losses will likely be blamed on the new system, even if the team tries to prepare the local fans for what's about to happen.

Any general manager that tries it is risking his career on the proposition that the overwhelming majority of the NFL intelligentsia is wrong. And sometimes you're Billy Beane and you try something like that out of desperation and it works. But if what Beane had tried didn't work, it would have ended his career in baseball and set the Oakland A's back at least a decade. Any general manger looking at odds like that in a league that thinks it has a patent on the recipe for instant success would almost have to be crazy to take the chance.

- - -

And so we end up betwixt and between, with Tebow drawing attention and celebrity because of his uniqueness but never put in a situation where he has an opportunity to really, truly succeed. NFL teams are trying to fit the proverbial square peg in a round hole -- trying to make Tebow a traditional quarterback, or put him in the Wildcat or do any number of things to capitalize on his celebrity without turning the game into something that they're not familiar or comfortable with.

Maybe we'll never get a definitive answer. Maybe Tebow will bump along like this for years, winning a few games in the clutch but never finding the consistency (or getting an offense that will make him a consistent threat) to enjoy the kind of less-qualified success and acclaim he received at Florida.

And while that might drive some of us to distraction, either at the teams who misuse him or the media members who seem incapable of ignoring him, you have to think that it won't bother Tim Tebow all that much.

There are advantages to being who you are and knowing your purpose in life.