Tim Tebow, the person and the football player, isn't particularly interesting to me.
I will admit that in recent weeks when it has come to my attention that the Broncos were within striking distance of an opponent late in the game, I tuned in to see the conclusion once or twice. And those moments have been entertaining.
But that’s hardly unique to the Denver quarterback.
What does interest me is the way people have reacted to Tebow’s performance in the last couple of months. It seems that the people who talk about this subject for a living, invariably make it sound like the football-watching population is hopelessly polarized.
Like a lot of things, it’s being presented in black-and-white when the reality is that it’s much more nuanced. The shades of gray are probably limitless but, because I’m not going to turn this into a book, I’ll try to contain the different Tim Tebow camps to three categories:
1. The casual observer
This person does not consider Tebow to be the second coming, and he doesn't much care whether Tebow succeeds or fails. He's just along for the ride, perhaps even enjoying the whole thing, "ironically."
2. The people who are not actively supporting him
This is a much more diverse group than some would have you believe and, in most cases, "hate" is not the appropriate word to describe these people.
His most vocal critics (meaning the ones with the microphones) are mainly pundits who insisted that he would never be able to play quarterback in the NFL and will maintain their sense of unconditional rightness regardless of what Tebow does.
Among his armchair-critics you’ll encounter people who dislike him because of the teams he’s been affiliated with, stats junkies, skeptics and people who just don’t like hearing about one guy for half of every episode of SportsCenter.
Many of Tebow’s fans will insist that people hate him for his beliefs but, in this country, that line of thinking is probably a bit delusional.
Most polls suggest that around 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, so the fact that this theory seems to be the most popular one out there simply speaks to the limitless ability of many advantaged people to view themselves as victims.
3. The people who love him
Like some of the people who hate him, many of these people are completely blind to any evidence contrary to their opinion. A lot of these people adore him because of his Christianity or because he seems like a good guy. Many others love him simply because of the teams he’s played for.
To me, the third category is by far the most interesting. The first two aren't particularly unique, especially within the context of sports.
In the case of the casual fan, jumping on the Tebow bandwagon isn't much different than someone who gets really excited when a school like Butler makes a run though the NCAA Tournament.
Sure, it's really exciting, but this person probably isn’t going to sign on for a lifetime membership in the fan club.
The second category is very normal as well. Most people won't give up on a conclusion they've drawn easily, and that goes double for contrarian media personalities with reputations to protect.
In other cases, people have all kinds of reasons for disliking teams and athletes (most of them completely irrational) and that’s not even remotely unique to Tim Tebow.
But the third category, for me at least, is really difficult to fully understand. I've been subjected to most of the arguments for it by now and they just don't seem to tell the entire story.
The first, which is that it's purely because of the excitement of Denver’s recent come-from-behind wins, hardly seems worth addressing. This argument seems to fall within the realm of the casual fan (who will lose interest the moment Tebow becomes boring), not the true devotee.
The possibility that it could have much to do with his overall performance seems unlikely as well because, aside from the occasional game-winning drive, he's been remarkably mediocre.
Completing less than 50 percent of your passes and ranking 28th in QB rating is usually a good way to get yourself benched, not beloved.
The answer to this criticism is almost always the same: "He just wins.” This tired platitude is simply a way of getting around the impossibility of trying to explain how Tim Tebow is the man responsible for Denver’s success.
The string of victories that Tebow was credited with—just prior to the three game losing streak which nearly cost them a spot in the playoffs—was presented as a mystery that no one could ever hope to explain.
But in reality, Denver has been winning games using the oldest strategy in the book—by running the ball and dominating on defense.
The not-so-minor detail that Willis McGahee might be having his best season as a pro (just under 1,200 rushing yards with a 4.8 ypc average in the regular season) has been ignored.
And the defense, in the games that Orton quarterbacked, gave up an average of 28 ppg. In Tebow’s regular season starts (leaving out the Miami game entirely, since both Tebow and Orton played about equally) the defense only allowed 23.5 ppg
In the games that Denver won with Tebow as the starter, that figure drops to 17 ppg.
I think most people would agree that the argument that hits closest to the mark is the one focusing on his religious views.
Not only is his faith in line with the mainstream of American, an astounding new poll found that 43 percent of responders really do believe that God helps Tebow to win football games.
Faith is an interesting and powerful thing, and sometimes it affects people in strange ways.
I was reminded of Tebow's fans a couple weeks ago when I read that Kelly Clarkson endorsed Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul, then saw her record sales spike.
Political ideologies (particular Ron Paul's brand) influence people in many of the same ways that religious faith does, and associating yourself with either is a good way of intensifying people's feelings about you.
People go nuts for shared experiences like that. And it goes far beyond just religion and politics. It’s a whole range of things: hobbies, television preferences, and even those happy moments when you meet someone who cheers for your hometown team even though you're half a world away.
The fact that he's white also probably has something to do with it. That's not at all to say that his fans are racist, but the vast majority of Americans are white Christians and they share that experience with Tebow.
And that, I think, is at the core of it. It's not purely the fact that he is a Christian that makes other believers adore him—that's absurd if you stop to consider the reality that the vast majority of professional athletes in America are also Christian—it’s that he wears it on his sleeve.
Not only does he talk the talk, every story about him makes it seem like he’s genuinely walking the walk a well. That’s why so many will end up defending him to the very end.
Even if he eventually goes on an 0-6 stretch and never starts another game, the explanation will likely be the same as the one that many use when a personal prayer goes unanswered.
“God works in mysterious ways.”
Tim Tebow will be defended for years, with all the obstinacy of someone arguing their own self-worth, because already he’s become the very image of what mainstream American likes to think it sees when it looks at itself in the mirror.