x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tim Tebow is bucking the expert opinions

The Broncos' quaterback showed steel in the play-off against Pittsburgh to confound his critics.

Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback, celebrates after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 in overtime.
Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback, celebrates after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 in overtime.

Tebowmania is so last year.

So suggested the media's pro football experts, in print and voice, during the lead-up to the Steelers-Broncos play-off game. They overwhelmingly postulated that the Tim Tebow phenomenon was kaput.

Denver, with their quarterback wrapped in a tight end's body, had closed the regular season in a daze: two wipeout defeats, plus a loss in which they scored three points.

Not that Tebow has ever wowed with statistics, but he was intercepted three times in one game and completed six passes in another.

Few post-season teams have been considered as unimpressive as Denver, who won the AFC West because nobody else wanted to. The rumour mill churned out speculation that if Tebow could not muster a quick start against Pittsburgh's league-best defence, he would give way to his back-up, Brady Quinn.

On most plays, the Pittsburgh pass defenders jammed receivers at the line of scrimmage, then further invited Tebow to air it out by deploying a single safety.

He completed 10 passes, which represents about 20 minutes of work for Tom Brady, but for 316 yards, the last 80 to Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown that ended overtime in a blink. Tebowmania? It is back, baby - though it never disappeared, off the field.

He is the most popular active professional athlete in America, according to a survey by ESPN, the sports network, released this week, having finished ahead of long-time stars Kobe Bryant, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Brady.

His memoir, Through My Eyes, was the country's best-selling sports book in 2011, easily outdistancing the runner-up, ESPN: The Uncensored History. His jersey has flown off the shelves, real and cyberspatial, faster than any NFL player not named Aaron Rodgers.

Last Sunday's Denver game attracted the largest US television audience for a wild-card weekend contest and the largest for any programme since the last Super Bowl.

Much of Tebowmania, a craze its namesake seems oblivious to, is driven by his sincere but polarising personality, one characterised by frequent expressions of spirituality and religious faith.

Casual football fans - mostly Tebow admirers, though some detractors - have joined the legions of dedicated ones to form a vast, diverse audience for Broncos games.

While the public might hold differing attitudes toward Tebow, he appears to have won over the whole of his team with statements such as this after Sunday's win: "A lot of guys stepped up and made me look a lot better than I really am."

One of those guys was the receiver Eddie Royal, who said: "I think, with each week, he is getting better with everything as a quarterback. More experience. He is more comfortable."

If there is a holdout for unquestioned acceptance in the Broncos camp, it is the executive vice president for football operations.

John Elway, being a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, has skyscraper standards for the position. Though he is enamoured of Tebow, Elway seems unwilling to offer an endorsement for the long haul.

"I think we've seen Tim grow in every start," Elway said this week. "Obviously, there's always bumps in the road and, yeah, some games are better than others, But I think if you look at his body of work this year, he's done a tremendous job."

Yet, asked on a radio interview if he were prepared to commit to Tebow beyond this season, Elway hedged, saying all players would be evaluated after the play-offs.

The debate rages on. Does a quarterback who needed overtime to reach double figures in completions - and who still fell shy of a 50 per cent completion rate - in the biggest game of his career deserve a starter's role?

A point in Tebow's favour is that he can confound the best of coaches, as the respected Steelers defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, can attest.

Bill Belichick, the New England coach, who will attempt to quash Tebowmania in the second round today, acknowledged the challenge of gearing up a defence for the unorthodox player who runs an option offence rarely seen at this level.

"There aren't really any teams like them in the league, so there's no other team you can really draw experience from," Belichick said. "What they do offensively is a little bit unique."

Tebowmania has reached a stage where numerologists are buzzing over his pass yardage total (316) against Pittsburgh. His favourite Bible verse is John 3:16.

Aside from the religious convictions, Tebow, 24, has revealed little about himself. Enough nuggets of information have dribbled out to suggest that the former child missionary has not had his head turned by the sudden fame that dizzies other young sports luminaries.

Most experts now recognise that Tebow's intangibles make up for imperfections in technique. Like the defences who dare him to pass, those who declare the demise of Tebowmania do so at their own risk.

sports@thenational.ae