"Players win and winners play. Have a lucky day."
Let me get this out of the way up front: I'm pretty much neutral on the topic of Tim Tebow. I'm not invested in his success or failure as an NFL player. I find his overtly religious displays a little grating, sure, but it's his right as a citizen of this country to practice freedom of speech and expression, and I'll take Tebow's brand of publicity over Chad Ochocinco's any day. This is not a referendum on his beliefs or his character.
Now that I've covered every conceivable disclaimer angle, let's get down to it!
Back in September, when the Broncos had Kyle Orton under center and Tebow was still riding pine behind Brady Quinn, I wrote a lengthy rant imploring Denver to either play him in a system that utilized his skill set or trade him to a team willing to do so, because I wanted to see exactly what Tebow could or would be in the NFL. After starting five games this season, only three of which have been played with a modified option system that plays to Tebow's strengths, I ... I still have no idea. As far as I can see, the haters, detractors, praisers, and deifiers are all pretty much simultaneously correct, incorrect, and every little shade of grey in between.
Thursday's game against the Jets did nothing to demystify the convoluted perplexity that is Tim Tebow. In fact, it perpetuated the confusion with gusto. My brain hurt just trying to put it all together.
Let's recap what we've learned thus far about everyone's favorite hot-button, lightning-rod QB.
Point: Tim Tebow wins football games. Denver is 5-5 and a half-game out of 1st in the AFC West. With Kyle Orton under center, they were 1-4. With Tebow? 4-1, including two phenomenal 4th-quarter comebacks. Scoreboard, baby.
Counterpoint: Those four wins? Miami (needed OT to beat the second-worst team in football), Oakland (respectable, especially since the final score was 38-24), KC (meh), and the miraculously self-imploding J-E-S-T, J-E-S-T, JEST, JEST, JEST!!! (I'm not dyslexic; the Jets are just a joke ... get it?) Also, my high school's JV team could win the AFC West.
Point: Tim Tebow's teammates believe in his grit and determination!!! They know he's awesome in the clutch!!! Did you hear those post-game interviews?!?! Seriously, though, it was interesting listening to all the soundbites. Von Miller: "No matter how many interceptions he throws, no matter how many touchdowns he scores, that's Tim Tebow and I'm going to ride with him to the end. I hope he shut up a whole bunch of critics today." Champ Bailey: "[The media] don't see what he has on the inside. Yeah, he might not be the greatest passer. But give him a chance at the end? I've never seen anything like it." Eric Decker: "He gets better as the game goes on. He really does." The locker room has apparently had a collective "Come to Jesus Moment." Pun fully intended.
Counterpoint: They wouldn't need to stage these admittedly awesome-to-behold comebacks if Tebow played at a level above sub-mediocre for three quarters (and change) every game. And they wouldn't have had last night's opportunity if Mark Sanchez wasn't a doofus and the Broncos' defense hadn't made him pay for it. In addition, the outcome looks totally different if Tebow's awful, ill-advised screen pass to Eddie Royal goes for the safety it should have instead of the 8-yard gain it became. In further addition, while his teammates may, by their own admission, be playing their butts off for the guy, John(s) Fox and Elway are certainly not enthused by the prospect of continuing to deal with him. Fox is being as diplomatic as he can in interviews, but he'd clearly rather be working with someone else. And did you see Elway's reaction after Tebow's touchdown run last night? There has not been less enthusiastic applause anywhere. Ever.
Point: Tebow presents an interesting thought: can you win in the NFL in 2011 without a "legitimate" quarterback? Based on results, the answer is apparently yes. While conventional wisdom states that NFL defenses will eventually catch up to the option game and shut Tebow down, I'm not 100% sold on that point of view. Imagine a scenario in which a team truly commits to building a system around him. (It won't be Denver, but let's say someone does at some point.) If they called in Urban Meyer as a consultant and installed the Tebow-era Gators' offensive playbook, who's to say they couldn't be successful? Or give Paul Johnson a call. Georgia Tech destroyed a superior Clemson team this season based on solid defense and their unconventional, tightly-run triple option. Learn that, drill it in preseason, refine the nuts and bolts of that style to an intuitive level. Be sure to surround him with athletic hybrid backs and a solid defense and ... see where it takes you. Why can't that work at the next level? (Hell, the 49ers are 8-1 with Alex Effing Smith under center. Who says you need an elite QB to succeed in the NFL?)
Counterpoint: You, uh, need an elite QB to succeed in the NFL. So far, Denver has kept things close enough for Tebow to do his "miracle victory" routine. Given how terrible he's played through three quarters in most games, guess what happens when they run into elite offenses who hang up vast quantities of points no matter how good the opposing D is? Bad things, that's what. Eventually, you're going to need to throw the ball effectively to win in the playoffs, and he basically can't. Tebow's 2011 passing stats: 44.8% on Completions, 5.67 YDS per Pass, 78.4 Passer Rating. Those numbers would be fine if he were quarterbacking a team in 1936. Nowadays? Preeeeeeeeeetty crappy. Heart and guts and blah blah blah aside, you are absolutely screwed if you get into a shootout with an offensive powerhouse. John Fox even said as much. (Almost literally, in fact. Fox: "If we were trying to run a traditional offense, we'd be screwed.") Denver is winning now. They could win the AFC West and earn a playoff birth without too much difficulty, in fact. Beyond that? You'd be insane to trust a guy who can't really throw a football to win in January or beyond.
To sum up, I got nothing. Is he good? No. At least not in the modern sense of what a quarterback "ought to be." Does he win? Yes. At least under the current circumstances against non-elite opponents. Tebow is a walking, talking, possibly-miracle-working enigma. At this point, that's almost all we know.
Almost. We do know this: nobody in sports is more compelling or mandatory viewing right now. Commanding that kind of attention is rare in this day and age. Doing it without being either an elite superstar or a scandalized public figure? That might take an act of God.