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Do I Believe in Tim Tebow?

Ignore the overtly Christian QB at your intellectual (and spiritual?) peril

Marc Tracy
December 13, 2011
Tim Tebow after the game Sunday.(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Tim Tebow after the game Sunday.(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

This is a post about Tim Tebow. For those who can’t take it, then, as they say on your local television network, more at 11.

Tim Tebow is a second-year quarterback for the NFL’s Denver Broncos who entered the league as perhaps the biggest celebrity in the annals of rookiedom. At the University of Florida, he won two national championships (one as a starter) and the Heisman Trophy. He became a phenom due to his outspoken faith in Jesus Christ as his personal savior (his parents were Christian Baptist missionaries), which only gained resonance from his life story: his mother’s pregnancy went awry, and he was expected to be stillborn and she was advised to have an abortion; she refused, and he was the result. During the Super Bowl after his final college season, she and he starred in a pro-life ad sponsored by the socially conservative Focus on the Family. His throwing motion is unorthodox, to put it kindly; his throws take too long and leave him extremely exposed to strip sacks. The option offense he ran at Florida, in which the quarterback is as much a runner as a passer, was widely believed to be unfeasible in professional football. Last season, he started only three games. He did not begin this season as Denver’s starter, either. The clamoring from Denver’s fans and the stagnancy of their offense under Kyle Orton—a very serviceable, traditional drop-back-and-pass QB—led to Tebow’s being started in Week 7, when the Broncos were 1-4.

In Tebow’s eight starts, the Broncos have gone 7-1. Six of those wins have been by a score or less (the one loss was a blow-out). One keeps waiting for Tebow to do something different, but every game, it seems, it’s the same: mundane first half or even first three quarters, and then it’s Tebow Time (yes it has a name) and Tebow somehow finds—wills?—his team a way to win in the fourth quarter. At some point, this will get, or has gotten, so bizarre that the connection to Tebow’s faith will seem/seems absolutely unignorable for even the most cynical and/or stats-happy football fans as well as the most un-Christian of people. (The rabbis and imams of Denver love him.) For me, Tebow has become a genuinely disquieting as well as genuinely thrilling experience.

Before we get into the conviction of things unseen, a few facts:

• Tebow is aided by an underrated, strong defense. Ditto his kicker.

• It is possible that of the seven teams he’s defeated this season, none will make the playoffs.

• The Carolina Panthers have achieved success running a similar, college-style spread offense with another young athletic quarterback, Cam Newton.

• The very unorthodoxy of that offense gives Tebow and the Broncos the advantage of surprise and unfamiliarity.

But still. No honest football fan would deny surprise, even shock, at what Tebow has accomplished (especially given that his supporting cast on offense consists of a washed-up running back and maybe the worst pass-catchers in the league). On Sunday, playing at home against a depleted Chicago Bears team—a game, in other words, that the Broncos really should be considered at least even to win—Tebow did not complete a single pass in the second or third quarters. The Broncos entered the fourth quarter down 10-0. With ten minutes left, they were down 10-0. With five minutes left, they were down 10-0. Getting the ball back with less than five minutes on the game clock, somehow—after one touchdown, missed onside kick, lucky clock mismanagement by an opposing running back, and another drive down half the field culminating in a 59-yard field goal—it was overtime. They did not get the ball first in sudden-death overtime. They still won. Of course they won, as they had the week before and the week before and the week before, in strikingly similar fashion.

I am as surprised as you to get this sappy. I was long a Tebow-hater; when I find myself rooting for him in the fourth quarter, I have to stop and realize I am doing it. Describing Tebow is as difficult as describing, well, faith. And I’m aware that there are explanations. It could be, for example, that the Broncos’ grinding style of play simply tires the opposing defense out more than most offenses do, a trend that would only be accelerated by Denver’s mile-high altitude: this would explain hypercompetency late in the game and may be the equivalent of the hallucinogenic natural gas at Delphi that explains what the Greeks believed to be their Oracle. Most of all, we are still dealing with an incredibly small sample size. And the New England Patriots will likely destroy Tebow’s Broncos this weekend, as indeed the less-good Detroit Lions did earlier this season; or maybe it will be a close game, and Tebow won’t supply fourth quarter heroics; or maybe he will, but they won’t be enough. Or maybe he will do this thing yet again.

My friend Jason Diamond of Jewcy argued weeks ago, persuasively, that Tebow’s ostentatious displays of faith should turn off not only Jews but Christians who have listened to Jesus’ teachings about humility. (And that was before this weekend; Jason’s a Bears fan.) I agree. But I feel, right now, as though I am left with something that makes no sense at all unless it makes perfect sense. As a skeptic, I feel confident this will resolve itself into a rational order in the long run. As a secular humanist, Tebow’s public displays of religiosity discomfort me and his anti-choice politics—the message that his mother is just not just a fortunate, brave lady but actually a model for other women who might face a mortally dangerous pregnancy—appall me. As a Jew, I believe in an impersonal God who routinely cares not a whit for matters far more important than the AFC West, and who anyway did not send his only son to Earth as a sacrifice for Tim Tebow or anyone else. But as an American, I am happy that many people who would never even think about such things are confronted by them in the person of Tim Tebow. And, also as an American, I know that if God were to send Americans a sign that He exists and that the Christians are the ones who were right about Him all along, His messenger would undoubtedly be an NFL quarterback.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.