With the exception of one brief and legitimately, giddily glorious moment two winters ago, the whole Tim Tebow Thing never quite made sense. To the extent that Tebow's short, low zenith was great, the not-making-sense part was what made it great. The thrill of it, those weeks when Tebow's Broncos kept winning games they should not have been able to win thanks to Tebow-powered comebacks that should not have been possible, lay precisely in how implausible-unto-impossible it all was. There was no justifying or quantifying how this heroically limited quarterback managed to touch something very much like greatness and win his team a bunch of games without ever exactly playing well, at least in the way that quarterbacks are generally asked to play well. And yet he did it, and kept doing it, and it was good and fun and weird in the best and most benign way that sports can be. For a while, anyway. At least the football part.
For all the silly, cynical nonsensicalities and sentimentalities and cheapjack politicizations and goofy-glib positivisms that we were told and sold by a Tebow-crazed media corps during that frenzied and happily irrational period of 2011, there was some legitimate wonder to what Tebow did during his golden half-season, and something awesome in every possible sense about how he managed to keep doing it. If the din and overstatement had ended when the ride did -- with Tebow and his irrational brilliance ruthlessly rent and ground beneath the brutally rational treads of New England's dominance machine in the second round of the playoffs -- it would be something fans would look back on fondly. If it had been that, we would be a lot less tired, probably, and so many of us wouldn't recoil and wince out a smirk upon hearing Tebow's name. Certainly, the very real prospect of Tim Tebow not having a NFL job in 2013 would feel very different.
It would mean less, at any rate. The very real prospect of the end for Tim Tebow would, had Tebow just been left alone and not been so incautiously and dopily transformed from mildly thumbheaded option quarterback to Warrior Prince and then transubstantiated into some dim culture war totem, mean just what it really means: That this particular scatter-armed passer can't find a NFL gig, for various reasons. It'd be a simple, easily understood thing, instead of what it is now. Which is something wholly, exhaustingly different, and dumber, and which makes the dreariest sort of sense.
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It is not now, and has never been, Tim Tebow's fault that the Tim Tebow Thing became the Tim Tebow Thing. This was at the time, and still is, the funniest and most interesting part of the whole thing. At the center of this idiot whirlwind -- the bellowing thumbnail hagiographies that arrived fresh daily on ESPN's First Take alone ensured that the whole thing cost everyone in range a dozen or so IQ points -- was one of the less-intriguing athletes imaginable. Which is not bad, but not necessarily debatable, either. Tebow was a starchily upstanding yes-sir-no-sir type, quick to shout out his savior but generally projecting less spiritual fervor than semi-narcotized bliss. A nice, courteous guy, as everyone who ever interacted with him even briefly would tell you. But also, in terms of raw personal charisma, the equivalent of a glass of whole milk with a fistful of Xanax dissolved in it.
As a player, on the other hand, Tebow was weird, if necessarily much more intriguing when he was effective than not. When things were working for him and the college-style bespoke offense a desperate Broncos team built for him, Tebow was sui generis. He was a linebacker-sized human playing quarterback like an exceptionally human linebacker, with all the sacks and fumbles and flubs and two-hop passes that entails, except when suddenly he wasn't, when he striped a perfect throw at the perfect moment, or suddenly erupted into himself and started powering past linemen and trucking terrified safeties.
Most of the time, though, watching Tebow was just weird: here was a great college quarterback trying to do the same things he did in college, which were the only things he did even marginally well as a quarterback, and failing and failing until suddenly, strangely succeeding. He was, the vast majority of the time, not very successful in this pursuit, but he also was, for that brief while, a winning NFL quarterback despite completing fewer than 47 percent of his passes in 2011 and fumbling 14 times, as many as Matt Moore and Blaine Gabbert and three more than any other NFL player. Those are not cherry-picked outlier statistics. This is Tim Tebow the quantifiable quarterback, and he was that even when he was the most important football player in the universe. The beautiful part, and the memorable bit, was how that didn't matter for as long as it didn't. The rest of it, though…
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For a while, Tim Tebow won football games for reasons that were next-to-impossible to quantify and very difficult to explain. This was all very good. The problem came when people set out to explain it in the dumbest, loudest manner posible. ESPN was hilariously, shamefully bad in this regard, incessantly ladling thick, clumpy room-temp Tebow gravy on top of everything -- watch this Tebow-infused interview with a baffled and not-amused Liam Neeson, if you dare. But ESPN was not at all alone in appropriating Tebow's ride for any number of small, stupid purposes. In contrast to the more extreme and partisan instances of this, making Tebow the main ingredient in some snack-sized serving of low-calorie, grade-D linkbait seems pretty benign.
This is how we came to experience Tebow fatigue, and then after that an active if offhand rage at his stubborn omnipresence, at watching one loud haircut after another hold him up as a vehicle of divine will, or as the anthropomorphized triumph of some other secularly sacred, tenuously tang-ed intangible, or some thing other than a football player. This strange, fantastically mild quarterback became a human dog whistle, and grasping politicians and garden-variety grievance farmers were quick to blow it, deafeningly. The commonality in the noise was that all involved made Tebow about them -- used him to advance whatever screeching, no-sided argument they were itching to have anyway, or as an excuse or justification or trigger to feel some bile-steeped feeling they were going to feel anyway, and always as a way of making a point that's fundamentally always about the person making it. Tebow is still getting used like this, and if he can't find a NFL job next year -- or if he does, honestly, it doesn't matter -- he'll still be worked up as some martyr-avatar by people who feel, for whatever not-having-much-to-do-with-Tim-Tebow reasons, as if that's something they ought to do.
This is lousy and loud and no fun for any of us, but it's also hugely unfair to Tim Tebow. All that cynical hype and refracted narcissism conspired to make Tebow much bigger than he ever should have been, and the nimbus of noise and gassy grievance that follows him everywhere will have much to do with him not getting a job, if he doesn't. That part's kind of a bummer.
The funny part, and the part we'll someday wonder at, is that all this fury and frantic overage surrounded a sub-middling quarterback. Tebow's six game-winning drives in 2011 were impressive and memorable and great, if never quite as significant as they seemed. But, also: Arizona's John Skelton engineered five game-winning drives that year, none of which were given the discursive or (wince) theological significance that Tebow's were. John Skelton is John Skelton -- a fifth-round pick from Fordham University who owns an 8-9 career record and a mediocre 53.6 career completion percentage that is still significantly better than Tebow's career mark. He at least has a roster spot with the Cincinnati Bengals, but there's no guarantee that Skelton will have a job next season, either. I'm not writing a column about that, and no editor here or anywhere ever would've asked me to do so. He's just John Skelton, as surely as Tim Tebow was always just Tim Tebow. The difference is that Tim Tebow has never been allowed to be just that.