Even when he was at the bottom of the Broncos roster, there was still hope for Tebow as an NFL quarterback. A former first-round pick who had already defied plenty of odds in football and in life, betting against Tebow was almost sacrilege.
But just months after being a symbol of hope and triumph in a league consumed with numbers and bottom lines, Tebow’s name is synonymous with quarterbacking ineptitude and a stark reminder that attitude and determination are not enough to last in the NFL.
Just how does a player go from being the subject of a documentary to the brink of elimination from the NFL ranks in such a short amount of time? Well, we have to look at how Tebow became such a huge icon in the first place, starting in the Sunshine State.
While it is difficult to pinpoint one specific reason why Tebow’s popularity has transcended sports, to Tebow, nothing defines him more than his religious belief.
Shortly after moving to the Philippines to serve as a Baptist missionary, Tim’s mother, Pam, contracted amoebic dysentery. During treatment, she discovered that she became pregnant with Tim and that the medications she was taking would result in a stillborn child.
Despite a high risk of losing her own life, Pam refused to have an abortion. By nothing short of a miracle, Tim and his mother survived, and Tim dedicated his life to serving the God he believed saved his family.
This is the core reason why Tim Tebow spent his spring break circumcising children in the Philippines. This is why he put out Super Bowl ads to speak out against abortion, ignoring the public relations consequences.
This is why he does things like this, an hour after a game with no cameras around:
Best shot I can get of Tebow throwing with guy in a wheelchair twitter.com/jjones9/status…— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) August 27, 2012
This is not an act. Tebow truly believes in his religion, and it has driven him to become the man he is today. Religion allows him to keep everything in perspective, and as much as he wants to win a football game, he understands that there are more important things in life—which is how he got the core of his following.
More Than a Football Player
Compare Tebow to a player like Collin Klein, the former Kansas State quarterback who is trying to convince NFL scouts that he is more than a high-character, running quarterback with limited passing ability.
Tebow is a national champion and a Heisman trophy winner, and Klein was a finalist for the award. He wants to win just as bad as Tebow, and their on-field skills are almost identical.
So what makes Tebow, well, Tebow?
Tebow did not reach college football immortality by simply winning a lot of games and accolades. He did it with this press conference, following an early-season loss to Ole Miss.
Florida won every game from that point forward and then won a national championship.
When Tebow scores a touchdown and wins a game, it simply is more meaningful to casual fans than if someone else does. People appreciate hard work and determination because they can relate to it in their own lives; no one can relate to having Aaron Rodgers' right arm and making NFL quarterbacking look easy.
This is why, when Tebow wins a single playoff game, it is seen as a much greater feat than when someone like Colin Kaepernick takes over his team and leads them to the Super Bowl. Kaepernick got plenty of credit for what he was able to accomplish, but SportsCenter is not going to celebrate his birthday.
Becoming a Pro
As any NFL draft evaluator will tell you, great college production does not translate into the NFL. Specific physical traits do. This is the reason why you see relatively unheralded players like Jason Pierre-Paul explode in the professional ranks.
This is also the reason why great college players like Tebow disintegrate when they are not playing against future accountants and insurance salesmen every week.
The NFL has seen plenty of great college players fail in the NFL—but they have never been confronted by the unstoppable high-character train of Tim Tebow before.
Despite a horrendous throwing motion, an inability to make the most elementary of reads (including the option), overrated athleticism and nightmarish footwork, Tebow earned the esteemed title of "former first-round pick" when all was said and done.
And that's because of nothing more than his off-the-charts intangibles.
Success in the Mile High City
It was hardly all fun and games for Tebow during his time with the Denver Broncos. Despite flashing in a handful of starts in his rookie season, he remained the backup quarterback in 2011 with a new head coach in place, John Fox.
The Broncos started the 2011 season with a dismal 1-4 record. Most of their problems were on the defensive side, and an experienced coach like Fox had little interest in trying to fix things with a young quarterback who could hardly complete passes in practice.
However, in the middle of Week 5, Fox succumbed to the public pressure and benched Orton in favor of the popular backup signal-caller. Tebow rallied his team to make the game close in a losing effort, but he gave Fox no choice but to start his immensely popular quarterback for the rest of the way.
The rest is history.
Tebow led the Broncos to a string of miracle, come-from-behind victories that captivated the sports world. He won games while completing as little as two passes. He scored under 10 points to win. He benefited from an almost inexplicable improvement of his defense and offensive line.
"Tebowing" became a thing. "Tebowtime" was made a regular occurrence on Sunday afternoons. Tebowmania stretched beyond the NFL universe and into pop culture around the globe. Tebow became an icon and a symbol of hope, whether it was justified or not.
Tebow's biggest moment came in his playoff win against the Steelers, when he threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in overtime. If a "normal" quarterback had been behind center, the play would be forever remembered for Thomas' great catch-and-run.
Instead, this was just another instance of Tebowtime.
On to the Big Apple
The Broncos' subsequent beating at the hands of the the Patriots the following week was largely forgiven by Bronco faithful. They were satisfied with the roller-coaster season Tebow had provided them. This was Tebow's world; they were just living in it.
For Tebow, this was the peak of his professional career.
Yes, the Broncos managed to make the playoffs, but no team can sustain success over the long term with miracle comebacks, and Broncos president and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway knew he needed to make a change.
Elway eventually found his way out of Tebowmania by winning the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, and he shipped Tebow off to the New York Jets soon thereafter.
At this point, the Jets were coming off of a tumultuous 8-8 season in which they blew an 8-5 record to miss the playoffs. Mark Sanchez was being accused of laziness, which only added to the drama of adding Tebow for the sake of having a Wildcat quarterback under new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.
Nonetheless, Tebow was a Jet, not to mention the only backup quarterback to have his own press conference bigger than any that the incumbent starters had ever had. And boy, was he excited:
As it turned out, the 2012 Jets were the most anticlimatic disaster in the NFL.
As many predicted, Sanchez failed to improve, the Jets missed the playoffs and Tebow's presence became a distraction. The idea that a high-character player like Tebow could keep the Jets together only backfired. The team's grand plans for an unstoppable Wildcat package were grounded, as Rex Ryan and his coaching staff vastly overrated Tebow's abilities as both a runner and a thrower.
During the season, a Daily News report listed mostly anonymous Jets players and officials who took unprovoked shots at Tebow, calling him "terrible." Tebow took the comments in stride, but it became clear that his popularity was not appreciated on a losing team.
Still, Tebow knew that his biggest asset at this point was his character, and saying anything was only going to prevent him from getting another starting gig, either in New York or elsewhere.
But everyone has a breaking point.
It was not until Rex Ryan elected to bench Sanchez in favor of Greg McElroy after a playoff-eliminating loss to the Titans in Week 15 that Tebow's allure began to wear off. His human side finally came to light:
Sources told @richcimini Tebow "looked furious" when told he wasn't the QB. I'm just glad he proved he could look furious.— Ian O'Connor (@Ian_OConnor) December 20, 2012
Tebow is simply not a good enough player to overcome even the slightest hiccups in character.
Of course, anyone would have been angry for getting passed over, especially when you consider that this may have been Tebow's last chance to get a chance to start an NFL game. But for Tebow, this comes with the territory of trying to turn a high-character reputation into a career in the NFL.
Indeed, the reality of the NFL was starting to sink in for the former Florida star.
Where (or if) Tebow plays in the NFL is yet to be determined. The Jets will try to trade him, but his value is at an all-time low. At the peak of his career, the Jets paid a whopping price of a fourth-round pick for him.
More to the point, the Jets have shown just how damaging Tebow's popularity can be to a team. Those who blindly support and follow him everywhere he goes—"Tebowmaniacs"—have fueled his demise as much as they have helped him.
Whether a team is looking for a starting quarterback, a backup or a fullback, they can find solutions that will not provide the distractions that Tebow does. Why trade for Tebow when you can just draft a late-round quarterback (who is likely a better passer) who wouldn't bring ESPN cameras to their training camp?
Tebow is now treated like Terrell Owens, in that decision-makers see Tebow as more of a destructive force than an asset—which is incredibly ironic considering how different the two personalities are and how well-intentioned Tebow is.
The dramatic rise and rapid decline of Tebow's professional career is a stark reminder that players without NFL talent simply do not last in the NFL, no matter how hard they try and no matter how much they want to succeed. Perhaps Tebow is just another one of those great college players not fit for the NFL, though his exceptional character garnered acclaim that most others never would have received.
Considering everything else that Tebow has accomplished in his young life, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, because this world could use a lot more Tim Tebows.