Wednesday, November 02, 2011

What's next?

I have to believe one of the most fascinating figures in sports today is Tim Tebow.

In fact, I just figured out that he reminds me a bit of ... Doug Flutie. Not in body type, of course.

Flutie, you might remember, came out of Boston College as something of a folk hero. He was very small by college football standards -- heck, he was small by gym class standards -- but he put Boston College on the national radar almost single-handedly by leading the Eagles into the Top 10. There was doubt about his pro potential, but he was so popular that there was fan pressure on the Bills to draft him number one. Flutie solved that issue by jumping to the United States Football League early, although the Bills did OK with someone named Bruce Smith.

Flutie eventually arrived in the NFL, played a little without distinction, jumped to the CFL where he was one of the all-time greats, came back to the U.S., made the Pro Bowl once with Buffalo, and won more games than he lost as a starter. You still could start a debate about him now.

Tebow made about the same impact in college at Florida, also winning a Heisman Trophy. Tebow was big for a college quarterback -- heck, he was big for a fullback -- and he seemed more like an extra running back who could throw a little rather than the classic passer. But his intangibles were off the chart, and Florida prospered.

Tebow figured to get some coaching at Denver and not be ready to step in right away, and that's more or less what happened in his rookie year last year. This year, the Broncos had an open competition at QB, and Kyle Orton was declared the winner ... while Tebow was third, behind Brady Quinn. But the fan base put up billboards supporting him, and the Broncos have given him a shot the next two weeks. He's been poor statistically, but did somehow lead Denver to a great comeback win over Miami. Tebow was bad enough against Detroit Sunday that coach John Fox had to think it over when asked about the coming week's starting quarterback before sticking with Tebow.

There's one extra element with the Tebow story that adds a twist. Tebow is practically the poster boy for "muscular Christianity." He's gone on missions for his church in the summer, no doubt calls his mother regularly, and so forth. While the usual rule in sports fandom is "root for the laundry" -- that is to say, root for anyone wearing the uniform -- I'm sure there are bunches of people out there who are Tebow fans first. And not all of them live in Gainesville, Florida. Those fans are the ones that pushed his autobiography up the best-seller list, making him at the time the only third-string QB to be so successful in publishing pursuits.

The Broncos have a first-round pick, and first-round money, invested in Tebow, and they need to find out if he can play. He needs to play, too. But it's impossible to know just how long of a leash he has. In the meantime, I always wondered what went wrong with Quinn, who sank through the first round of the draft in Cleveland, didn't do much there and was traded for 20 cents on the dollar to the Broncos, where he hasn't been in the discussion lately.

It's a tough spot, and I don't have any more easy answers than anyone else. I'd suggest the Broncos send Tebow to Triple-A, or at least Canada, but football doesn't work that way. John Elway is in charge of the Broncos' operations now, and he is someone who knows a bit about quarterbacking. He and coach John Fox are going to earn their money on this one.

(After the fact, I discovered I had read a column by Phil Taylor in Sports Illustrated a couple of weeks ago that made similar points. Didn't think of it until later, but I guess it had an effect on my thinking.)

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