Sports Nut

Tim Tebow 2011: Somewhere between Kordell Stewart and John Skelton, there is Tim Tebow.

Somewhere between Kordell Stewart and John Skelton, there is Tim Tebow.

Brian Urlacher and Tim Tebow
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher runs the defense against the Broncos’ Tim Tebow.

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

With three minutes and change left in a dull and ugly 10-0 football game between Tim Tebow’s Denver Broncos and Devin Hester’s Chicago Bears, I turned off the TV and had dinner. A while later, I picked up my phone and checked the scores and gawked.

As I read the top of the game story, though, I felt no urge to scurry off and watch a replay. What was there to witness, in this latest demonstration of Tebow’s knack for Just Winning? The Broncos’ magical comeback had consisted of a batch of dinky passes, a pair of long-range high-altitude field goals, and that boneheaded clock management by Marion Barber and the Bears.

I’d already seen the most spectacular play of the game, when Tebow scampered backwards, rolled left under hot pursuit, and fired the ball up the sideline on a low, flat trajectory, allowing Charles Tillman to make a brilliant tiptoe catch before falling out of bounds. It’s probably worth clarifying here that Tillman plays for the Bears.

As you wrote, Josh, Tebow was mostly awful yesterday. That first-quarter interception by Tillman was the last time anyone for either team would catch a ball from Tebow till the fourth quarter. But with the game on the line, he suddenly started finding his own receivers.

Where do fourth-quarter comebacks come from? One requirement, which seems relevant to Tebow’s run of heroics, is that your team needs to be losing in the fourth quarter. By the numbers at Pro Football Reference, this has been a busy year for late-game quarterbacking: Tebow’s five fourth-quarter comebacks have him tied with Eli Manning of the Giants, just ahead of Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, the Jets’ Mark Sanchez, San Francisco’s Alex Smith, and Dallas’ Tony Romo.

You might notice that nobody’s in a hurry to chalk up some of those other guys’ performances to something ineffable or inevitable. Had the Giants not blocked the Cowboys’ final field-goal try, Romo and Eli Manning might have traded places on the leaderboard. For every hero, somebody else gets to be the schmuck.*

I’ll try to take a break from the culture war over Tebow this time around; it’s getting dumber and dumber down inside that rabbithole. We’ve still got the dopey lady at Fox asking what would happen if Tebow prayed to Mecca after touchdowns—that is, what if Tim Tebow were a devout Muslim who ignored actual Muslim prayer practices and acted like an evangelical Christian—and now there’s Chuck Klosterman bafflingly (and whitely) positing that if Tebow had abused dogs (like Michael Vick), “he would not be polarizing; he would just be unpopular.”

So what in tarnation is going on with Tim Tebow’s football playing? He’s hardly the first guy to make a reputation for Just Winning; he’s not even the only one this year. His fellow greenhorn quarterback, the Cardinals’ John Skelton, came off the bench yesterday in relief of Kevin Kolb to lead his third fourth-quarter comeback this year, running his own record to 4-1. Skelton even has some of Tebow’s anti-rational statistical appeal, with a 50.9 completion percentage to Tebow’s 48.9.

Strange things happen in small samples. Ask the Buffalo Bills, who gave Ryan Fitzpatrick a contract extension with $24 million guaranteed after the team got off to a 4-2 start. Now they’ve lost six in a row.

Football history is littered with the briefly unbeatable. Don Majkowski went 10-6 with four fourth-quarter comebacks in 1989, in the middle of a career that was otherwise 16-24-1. Vince Young had a six-game winning streak as a rookie in 2006, and then an 8-2 spree after taking back his old starting job in 2009. Somehow his game-winning strength of character deserted him completely.

But the player Tebow keeps conjuring, for me, is Kordell Stewart. Stewart was another running college QB who seemed unsound by NFL scouting standards. The Steelers used him for his first two years as a playbook wrinkle, plugging him in at multiple positions, then made him the starting quarterback in 1997. He went 11-5, with four fourth-quarter comebacks and 11 rushing touchdowns.

Then, his disbelievers might point out, Stewart’s Steelers had three straight mediocre seasons. But then in 2001, his believers could counter, he went 13-3 and passed for more than 3,000 yards. But in the very end, he had 77 passing touchdowns and 84 interceptions. He was not unusually effective, but he was unusual, and that was sometimes effective.

Right before I turned off the game yesterday, in the middle of what would be the Broncos’ only touchdown drive, the TV crew had circled the Bears’ safeties to show that they were playing 25 yards downfield—“letting everything happen in front of them so they don’t give up the big play.” But Tebow never attempted the big play. He simply chipped away in the open spaces the safeties had left him, till he got down to the 10-yard line.

And then Tebow made the play where his skills did matter: He dropped back, then started chugging upfield. Just shy of the virtual blue stripe marking the line of scrimmage—when Tebow is playing, that blue line gets a lot of airtime—he veered sharply to the right for a few strides, and then, without ever setting his feet, launched an awkward, one-legged, sidearm-y pass. Here, his unsound throwing mechanics didn’t matter, because the Chicago defense was frozen by the possibility of Tebow running it in himself. Demaryius Thomas was all alone to make the catch.

It shouldn’t have mattered. If not for Chicago’s bungling, Tebow’s bad plays would have outweighed the good. It’s hard to believe the AP writer kept a straight face describing Tebow “leading the Broncos on their game-winning drive”—a drive that went all the way “from their 34 to the Chicago 33.”

Still, the Broncos got the win. And an important, if not decisive, part of it was that Chicago had no idea what to do about Tebow when the game was on the line. The Bears’ conservative late-game defense was exactly what Tebow needed. They were so worried about his crossing them up with a rare deep heave, they let him get down the field. Then they were so worried about his running, they let him complete a touchdown pass.

What I was yearning for, in the end, was the chance to watch Tebow with God’s eyes—that is, with the NFL’s All 22 footage, the proprietary camera angle that shows every player on the field at once, and which the Wall Street Journal reported the NFL regards as too revealing and informative to share with the general public:

Charley Casserly, a former general manager who was a member of the NFL’s competition committee, says he voted against releasing All-22 footage because he worried that if fans had access, it would open players and teams up to a level of criticism far beyond the current hum of talk radio.

The All 22 is what Bill Belichick will be watching this week, as New England tries to solve the particular risk-management problems posed by Tebow’s odd skill set and the Broncos’ skewed game plans. So the Patriots will get more than a quick telestrator scribble on the Bears’ safeties before the back end of Chicago’s defense drops out of the picture. They’ll be able to get a read on what Tebow really means on the football field. The rest of us will have to get by on metaphysics.

Correction, Dec. 12, 2011: This article originally implied that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo would’ve had a fourth-quarter comeback if a Dallas field goal attempt hadn’t been blocked. That field goal would have tied the game, not won it. (Return to the corrected sentence.)