The Newest Front in the Culture War: Tim Tebow

Back in the day, the culture war in this country revolved around simple things like abortion, evolution, prayer in school, gay marriage, the death penalty, assisted suicide or the size of government.  Today, apparently, it is about how one man’s ability to read a defense, throw a tight spiral on a 10 yard out pattern and whether any of this is directly attributable to God.  Tim Tebow is the latest hot button issue in the culture war of America.

Tim Tebow is a Christian.  Tim Tebow is also an NFL quarterback.  Somehow, his ability to play his position has become a referendum on God by proxy.  You see, Tim Tebow does not play the QB position particularly well by the typical standards that QBs are judged by.  He does not have a strong arm.  He has a long throwing motion instead of a more ideal quick-release motion.  He does not have good mechanics.  When he was coming out of college, a lot of experts thought he was more suited to be an H-back or a halfback than a QB because of his running ability.  They believed he would have to unlearn all of the bad mechanical habits he had that came as second nature to him.  They believed this was going to be practically impossible because in the pressure situations of the NFL that QBs typically find themselves, unless a QB has had the right mechanics ingrained into them early enough, guys like Tebow will revert to their natural throwing motion.  In short, they didn’t think there was any way that Tim Tebow could be a successful NFL QB.

Except that now that he has been given the chance to be a starting QB for the Denver Broncos, he is 7-1 as a starter this year, and 8-3 as a starter including the 3 games he started at the end of last season.  And in doing so, there has been a clear division of fans into the Pro-Tebow and Anti-Tebow world.  And the debate that has arisen makes it seem like there is no room for middle ground.  Either Tebow is the greatest or the worst thing ever.

Tebowmania has taken hold of the NFL and even beyond the sports world.  He has become the ultimate Rorschach test.  Do you see only the good (wins) or the flaws (mechanics)?  Presidential candidates (I’m looking at you, Rick Perry) are name-dropping him in their debates, hoping that the mere mention of is name will be enough to engender themselves to potential voters in the primaries; talk about pandering.  People have gotten to the point where they seemingly cannot talk rationally about him as a player.  “Tebow Magic” has become a way of explaining his 4th quarter comebacks.  Other people are just completely incredulous, chalking him up to being nothing more than a product of the ESPN hype machine.

I feel like I am in a unique position.  I’ve never actually seen Tim Tebow play a game of football.  I have seen some of his highlights in recent weeks, but I’ve never watched a full game in which he has played from start to end.  I do not watch college football, so I never even saw him play when he was at Florida.  The only thing I have to go on is what I have heard everyone say about him, what I have heard from him personally, his pro-life Super Bowl commercial from two years ago (no doubt there’s a bit of latent animosity out there towards him for that for some people), and fantasy football analysis of him.  I’ve been fascinated and perplexed by everything surrounding the guy.  Just this past Sunday I was checking scores and stats online and noticed that the Broncos were down 10-0 to the Bears, Tebow was 3-for-18 and had an INT entering the 4th quarter.  And I thought to myself, “Well, this is about when it’s time for the Broncos to turn it on.”  And they did!  As a sports fan, moments like that are exciting and are what makes sports so enjoyable.  But apparently not everyone can fully enjoy these things because they are so blinded by their perceptions and their entrenchments.

The divide between the pro- and anti-Tebow forces has gotten to the point where it very much like how entrenched people have gotten in this country about certain politicized issues.  Neither side is willing or able to listen to anything the other side has to say, nor are they willing to engage in a productive conversation of any kind, they just want to get their talking points out there and prove that the other side doesn’t know what it’s talking about.  And everything is dealt with in absolutist terms.

Well, I’ve got news for everyone, the truth about Tim Tebow as an NFL quarterback is somewhere in the middle between the two entrenched sides who remain steadfast in their opinion of the guy.

As a Christian, I think it is great that he is upfront and open about his faith.  He isn’t afraid to say what he believes, and he believes very strongly that his professional success has afforded him a unique platform to spread the word about something he believes passionately.  This is not unique.  All kinds of athletes and other various celebrities use their celebrity status to get the message out about various causes or topics that are near and dear to their heart.  Curt Schilling is an outspoken advocate of finding a cure for ALS.  Lance Armstrong is very vocal about cancer.  Tom Cruise has his Scientology.  Barbara Streisand has things which she is outspoken about.  No one in the general public is faced with the choice of having to choose between buying into what a celebrity’s cause or dismissing their professional output.

Countless people in the public eye also take time at the beginning of their acceptance speeches or postgame interviews to “thank God.”  Too often, I find this to be incredibly cliché and an insincere throwaway line.  Tebow is one of the few people who say that and seems genuine when he says that, which is unsettling to some people.

On the flip side of that, people who take umbrage with the “Tebowing” phenomenon need to realize that when you make your faith so public, you put it out there for public consumption and all that comes with it.  Personally, I find the Tebowing fad entertaining, but that’s just me.  Also, how public is too public with your faith?  Jesus said in Matthew 6:5-6, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  How does an athlete like Tim Tebow balance this with routinely kneeling to pray in celebration?  This is not necessarily a question to which I have an answer, but it is one that I think is worth asking.  And as a counter to that, you could just as easily toss in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

I think it is ridiculous to think that Tebow is winning because he has God on his side.  I am sure that there are plenty of Christians on other teams and that the outcome of a sporting event is of eternal significance.  And too many people are willing to give all of the credit to Tim Tebow for the Broncos winning with him as a starter.  In reality, the team as a whole has stepped up.  The team has won, in part, because of Tebow, but as much if not more credit could be given to the Broncos’ kicker, Matt Prater, who made two 50+ yard field goals in the 4th quarter and in OT last week to complete a comeback win, by no means an easy task.  And their defense has been playing very well too, led by stud 1st round pick Von Miller and one of the best corners of all time in Champ Bailey.

However, I think, indirectly, God does have something to do with what is going on in Denver.  Tebow, for all of his faults as a quarterback, has belief in his abilities and an unwavering confidence, and has an ability to get his teammates to believe in their ability to win too.  And that is a huge thing in sports.  This is the same team that was underperforming with Kyle Orton as their quarterback.  And the quarterback position, fair or not, is often as much about the intangibles and the ability to lead than it is about the stats and the arm and how you play the position.  He’s an elite QB now, but Tom Brady was not the Tom Brady we know today when he first took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001.  But he had a similar confidence and belief in getting the job done that rubbed off on his teammates.  And when a team starts to believe in its ability to get the job done, the sky is the limit.  It is at moments like that when a team’s sum truly becomes greater than its parts.  And as a Patriots fan who has never seen him play before and whose team is facing him in just a few hours, I am terrified of what he might do to the Pats porous defense.

To me, the biggest thing the Tebow critics don’t get and refuse to accept is that he gets better in crunch time.  A lot of QBs can put up great numbers, but when the pressure situations come, they falter and fall apart.  That is a criticism that has been made of Tony Romo over his career.  Tebow can put up some awful numbers through the first few quarters, to the point that it looks truly ugly, but he believes that his team can keep it close, they can find a way to pull it out.  There is something to be said for that.  And it is something I don’t think he gets enough credit for, especially since everybody wants a player who gets better in the big moments.  Tebow gets better in crunch time.

At the same time, you cannot turn a blind eye to his poor play leading up to crunch time.  I don’t believe you can consistently succeed in the NFL if your only have two completions for an entire game, or after three quarters of another game you find yourself 3-for-16 throwing the ball.  That is an area he needs to improve.  Right now, he is able to get away with it, but he cannot do this forever.  He is proving a lot of doubters wrong right now and challenging conventions that have been held for forever in the NFL, because he is finding a way to get it done and win games, but one convention he cannot change is that of the scrambling QB.  Scrambling QBs have a shelf life.  They need to adapt or die.  Eventually, his running ability will not be the asset it is right now.  Age or injury always take their toll on scrambling quarterbacks, and once the running ability is not what it once was, they need to have the passing ability to get by without it or be more judicious with it.  That was true of Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Steve Young, and, currently, Michael Vick.

Here is where Tebow should consider himself really blessed by God: His GM is John Elway, one of the greatest, most clutch QBs who ever played the position.  And he could run too.  If I was Tim Tebow, I would tie myself to John Elway’s hip as soon as the season is over, and spend the offseason trying to be a sponge and soaking in as much knowledge and whatever help I can gain from Elway.  You can’t ask for much of a better situation than that.

Lastly, people should keep in mind that how they feel about Tim Tebow is not a referendum on God.  Christians should not feel like they are obligated to support him blindly without reservation or criticism.  And non-Christians should not feel like rooting for Tebow is a tacit endorsement of God.  At the end of the day, it’s a helpful reminder to keep in mind that it is sports and it should be fun.  It’s a game where adults are being paid millions of dollars to play a children’s game.  Sit back and enjoy the spectacle of sport unfold.  If you’re a Broncos’ fan, you’re within your right to be over the moon with what is happening.  If you’re a fan of another team, you are well within your right to root on or jeer Tebow and the Broncos and not have it be about his beliefs.  And if you want to embrace him because of his faith, that is fine too.  What isn’t fine is to accept or reject his play based solely on his beliefs.  Don’t unnecessarily simplify what is happening and dig in just because you feel like you have to be pro-Tebow or anti-Tebow.  There is a wide middle ground.

~Moose

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Handicapping the Suck for Luck Sweepstakes

With a little over 1/3 of the regular season completed, it is shaping up to be an interesting final 11 weeks of NFL football.  And not just for the teams that are fighting for a playoff spot and have a legit shot at the Super Bowl.  There is a special prize awaiting the team with the worst record at the end of the year in the form of Stanford QB Andrew Luck, the consensus #1 pick in the coming 2012 Draft.  The hype surrounding Luck is growing every week, and it is making him out to be the most highly touted, can’t miss #1 pick quarterback to come out of college since Peyton Manning.  I’m not suggesting that teams will blatantly tank their seasons in order to try to get the #1 pick for next Spring by using the term “Suck for Luck” here, but there are a number of teams in the race for the #1 pick and more than a few teams that need help at QB.  And landing an elite QB can turn around the fortunes of a franchise.  Based on a combination of record, overall team talent, division strength, team need, and remaining schedule, I think there are 11 teams that are in play right now for Andrew Luck.  Here’s a look at them:

12. Carolina Panthers (1-5) – They are listed here because of their record only.  The bottom line is that even if they do end up with the #1 pick, they won’t take Luck, because they’ve already found their franchise QB in Cam Newton, who is better than anyone thought he would be this soon.  Even though Newton is a talent, the Panthers still need more talented players on their team.  And even if they wouldn’t be interested in Luck, they could trade the pick to the highest bidder for a pretty big ransom.

11. Cleveland Browns (2-3) – Their wins have come against Indianapolis and Miami.  Not impressive.  Colt McCoy is serviceable as a QB, but they have to play a ball control style of play because he just can’t chuck it all over the field.  They’ve still got two games against both Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  They could climb up this list in the coming weeks.

10. Washington Redskins (3-2) – They may have a winning record right now, but I don’t think any objective observer wouldn’t consider them the worst team in the NFC East.  And they’ve just made a QB change from Rex Grossman to John Beck, neither of whom is a desirable option.  Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if they only won one more game the rest of the year.

9. Seattle Seahawks (2-3) – A well-earned 2-3 with a tough starting schedule.  Still, their lack of talent, particularly when Tavaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst are your QBs, is low enough to keep them in the running for the season.

8. St. Louis Rams (0-5) – Talk about a tough schedule.  Philly, NY Giants, Baltimore, Washington, and Green Bay to open the season?  No wonder they’re 0-5.  What makes it bad, though, is that they’re not even averaging 10 ppg.  Dallas and New Orleans are next, which likely means 0-7.  But then their schedule gets easier.  And the Rams are probably in the same situation as the Panthers, with Sam Bradford as their franchise QB.

7. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) – The Chiefs are threatening to make a move off of this list.  I thought with Jamaal Charles going down for the season and the way they played the first two weeks that they would be a front-runner in this.  But even though they were the quickest out of the gate due to injuries, they have fallen back to the pack.  And with Oakland this weekend without Jason Campbell, they could be on the move.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5) – They dumped their incumbent starter at QB before the start of the season, and handed the reigns over to rookie QB Blaine Gabbert.  He’s shown some flashes, but this is a bad team with a bad coach.  The question is whether Gabbert is the QB of the future for them of not.  If they bring in a new head coach for 2012, he will not be beholden to Gabbert in any way.

5. Minnesota Vikings (1-5) – The Donovan McNabb Era was incredibly short-lived.  He does not have anything left in the tank.  Minnesota plays in a tough division (NFC North), has turned the offensive reigns over to a rookie QB (Christian Ponder), and their only consistent offensive weapon is Adrian Peterson.  That and a decent defense should be worth a few wins, but no more than a few.

4. Denver Broncos (1-4) – The time that America has been waiting for with bated breath is here: Tebow Time in Mile High.  Tim Tebow takes over at QB for the ineffective Kyle Orton.  Denver seems to be in the best position they could hope for.  Tebow is talented and dynamic, but might not be a legit NFL QB.  Lucky for them, Tebow fans and Broncos fans don’t seem to care, because they have worked themselves into such a frenzy over him.  The Broncos are in a win-win situation because they can give the fans what they want by starting Tebow, and make an actual evaluation on him in the process.  If he is a wild success, it’s great for them.  If they keep losing, they can say, “I told you so…” to their fans and move on.  Also, they traded their #1 receiver this week in Brandon Lloyd, the leading receiver in the league last year.  The Broncos are under a new regime in John Fox as head coach.  And, oh yeah, a former Stanford QB is also their president: John Elway.

3. Arizona Cardinals (1-4) – Sure, it may be too early to close the book on the Kevin Kolb Era in Arizona, but it might not be in a few weeks.  So far it looks like they got fleeced by Philly in that trade.  Their division is arguably the worst in the league, so I don’t expect them to win too many non-division games.  And San Francisco seems to have a firm grip on that division, and they’ve got to play them twice still.

2. Indianapolis Colts (0-5) – Of all the years that Peyton Manning has a serious injury that knocks him out for most, if not all, of the season.  This could be shades of the San Antonio Spurs landing Tim Duncan the year that David Robinson was injured.  It’s stunning how absolutely awful the Colts are without Manning.  Not just on offense, but their defense too.  When you play against Manning, he has an impact on both sides of the ball, because opposing offenses have to play against his ability to put up points and move so quickly up and down the field.  Their head coach seems out of his depth even more so than he used to.  Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne look downright pedestrian without Manning.  It’s interesting to see the difference between the Patriots without Brady (11-5 in ’08 without Brady) and the Colts without Manning.  You may think it speaks about the players and their value to their teams.  But it really speaks volumes about the organizations and the value of team depth vs. putting all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak.

1. Miami Dolphins (0-5) – Even though the Colts are bad, I think Miami has a legit shot at 0-16.  They lost their starting QB for the year recently.  Replaced by Matt Moore, who was atrocious in a few starts for Carolina last year.  Their coach is clearly on the hot seat and seems a little combative about his team losing.  Reggie Bush is expected to play a prominent role in their offense, when history has shown he should only be touching the ball 10-12 times per game.  The worst part, though, is that they are awful at home.  For some reason, the Dolphins are 1-11 in their last 12 home game, dating back to December 2009.  That’s unbelievable.  Not playing well on the road is one thing, but not being able to even hold your own at home is not a good sign.  Miami, right now, is the front-runner for Andrew Luck.

~Moose

Coming Full Circle

That game last night was NOT what I was expecting.  That was not the outcome that was supposed to be.  That was not my New England Patriots out there on the field last night. 

For five months, the Patriots were this unstoppable force that could not be denied.  History was theirs for the taking.  They racked up gawdy numbers and set records.  They blew teams away.  They were accused of running up the score.  They were toying with other teams offensively.  There was the Patriots and everyone else in the league.  Ever since the victory in week 9 over the Colts, the season had felt like a coronation, like the games were almost a foregone conclusion(never a good sign).  They even managed to win games they had no business winning(@ Baltimore on MNF).  And in the end, it all means nothing. 

The Patriots lost in the Super Bowl for the first time in the Belichick Era.  Not only did they lose, they got out played, out coached, and out muscled.  Tom Brady took a beating.  The high-scoring offense that was not held below 20 points all year only managed 14 when it mattered most.  With the exception of their opening drive and their last drive, they looked nothing like the team they had been all year.  Up 14-10 with 2:42 to play, the Giants got the ball back and marched down the field.  The Pats D had several chances at turnovers on that drive, which would have sealed the deal.  Instead, Eli Manning made a miraculous escape from the clutches of the entire defensive line and chucked the ball 30 yards to David Tyree.  After that, the rest was basically a gimme. 

I’ve seen the Patriots lose in the Super Bowl before.  But not when they were clearly the better team.  Obviously, not on that night, but looking at the season and the talent of both teams, it’s clear the Patriots were the better team.  But that didn’t matter.  As the famous statement so properly states, on any given Sunday and team can beat any other team.  The Giants pulled off one of the greatest Super Bowl upsets of Super Bowl history.  The 2007 Giants were the 2001 Patriots and the 2007 Pats were the 2001 Rams.  The Patriots have come full circle as an organization.

Obviously, this is a hard loss to swallow for me, someone who bleeds Patriots colors.  I fell in love with the game of football watching the ’88-’92 era Pats whose best record was a paltry 6-10 under Dick MacPherson.  I endured those aweful 1-15 seasons and 3-13 seasons in the hopes of someday cheering for a winner.  And it is those early days that will help me to get through this bitter loss as a fan.  Because I came of age as a fan in those days, I can manage to find comfort in the fact that the Pats are the team of this decade.  That they are still the model franchise in the NFL and in all of sports.  They did not achieve their goal of winning the Super Bowl this year and they did not achieve a perfect season, but they are still in the discussion of best teams ever along with the ’60s Packers, the ’70s Steelers, the ’80s 49ers, and the ’90s Cowboys.  That will have to be enough.

For now we live in a world that turns my stomach.  A world where Bill Belichick got outcoached by Tom Coughlin.  And where both Peyton and Eli Manning are champions and Super Bowl MVPs in back-to-back years.  And now the Manning family will officially be considered NFL royalty.  And that disgusts me.

Even more disgusting is that the ’72 Dolphins are allowed to endure.  Mercury Morris is validated.  That makes me throw up in my mouth.  For as many people as apparently disliked the Patriots, a lot of them would have at least been thankful that the Pats had shut up the ’72 Dolphins if they had gone 19-0.  Instead, they linger.  Like the smell of cigarette smoke from the previous tenant that you just can’t get out of the apartment you just moved into.

The Patriots have achieved much more in my life than I could have ever imagined.  I hoped, but didn’t necessarily fully believe they could upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.  That was the greatest moment of my life as a fan(yes, even better than the Sox winning in 2004).  Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX, respectively, legitimized them as winners and made them a dynasty.  I think this season spoiled Patriots fans in a lot of ways.  Hopefully, we learn our lesson.  I think more than anything, I have to say that I am just blessed as a sports fan.

The Patriots success this decade puts me in a unique situation as a sports fan.  Because of their talent and success, anything less than a championship is considered a real disappointment.  There is no middle ground.  There is no satisfaction in going so far only to come up short because to come up short is to underperform.  It is a tough place to be, but given the alternatives, it’s a good problem to have.  I’m sure it’s what Yankee fans have experienced for the past decade. 

Still, the chance at perfection is something that will linger with me as a fan for a long time.  Something so amazing was within reach and they couldn’t take hold of it.  Super Bowl XLII was the epitome of the No Effing Way Game.  The No Effing Way Game is something that occassionally happens in the Madden video game series.  Invariably, as you are progressing through a season in franchise mode, there will always come one game where the computer basically says, “There is no effing way you are going to win this game.”  When this game rears its ugly head you can simply hit reset and start over if you get too frustrated by the whole scenario.  Obviously, not the case in real life.  That was what happened to the Pats Sunday night in Arizona.  They made it through 18 games before the No Effing Way Game showed up.  This season was probably the only chance of a perfect season I’ll ever see.  And even if the Patriots win more Super Bowls, there won’t be that little bit extra about it like this year had.

In retrospect, this season will be disappointing, but not entirely forgettable.  I know that I’ll remember the records that the Pats set.  I’ll never cease to be amazed that Tom Brady threw 50 TDs in one season, a number that literally boggles my mind.  And he finally won an MVP award, which officially solidified his induction into Canton.  So those are good memories I’ll take from this year.  But that’s about it.  And I’ll get over the loss.  I’m reminded of Tom Hanks in Cast Away.  I know what I have to do now.  I gotta keep breathing.  Because tomorrow the sun will rise.  Who knows what the tide could bring?

So now, it’s time to move on.  Free Agency in the NFL will start in less than two months, and the draft is in April.  It’ll be an interesting offseason for the Pats.  It’s entirely possible that Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Troy Brown, and Junior Seau will retire.  Asante Samuel has probably played his last game as a Patriot as his play has probably priced him out of the Patriots spending ways.  I fully expect Randy Moss to be back.  And I’m excited to see a full season of Laurence Maroney.  The Pats will definitely have some holes to fill.  I’d love to see them go after CB Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency and some LB/OL help in the draft.  This team should still be the prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl next year.  It’s just not as sure of a thing anymore as it used to be.  So be it.

In other news, pitchers and catchers report in a few weeks.

~Moose