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Tim Tebow came along at the wrong time

Great guy and great athlete, former Heisman Trophy winner couldn’t stick in the NFL and last week hung up his baseball cleats for good

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New York Mets’ Tim Tebow runs out a ground out against the St. Louis Cardinals during the eighth inning of a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

Tim Tebow retired from baseball last week, bringing an anticlimactic end to a professional athletic career that once had great promise.

His real sport of course was football; baseball was the other woman he ran to when football divorced him. Tebow was the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and led Florida to two national championships. He was the 25th overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft, via the Denver Broncos. His career covered just three seasons — 35 games, 16 starts, eight wins. He signed up for the baseball ride in 2016 and was promoted to Triple-A in 2019. No one expected it to go that far.

Tebow came along at the wrong time in the NFL. The wrong time for option quarterbacks. The wrong time for Good Guys.

He was a famously clean-cut, devout Christian who knelt and prayed on the field and praised God almost every time a microphone was stuck in his face. Tebow, the son of Christian missionaries, had a platform and he knew it. He wore references to Biblical verses on his eye black in college. In high-profile games they generated the most Google searches — as many as 90 million — for the next 24 hours — but then the NCAA banned eyeblack messages (the media dubbed it the “Tebow rule.”).

Tebow didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear, didn’t chase women, didn’t budge from the standards that were once America’s standards. 

Who knew Americans would turn on a guy like that, but they did, just as they turned on Kurt Warner and his wife, the loyal husband and wife team who embraced their faith, too. Americans loved the bad boys, guys like Dennis Rodman and Terrell Owens, and disparaged the good boys. Owens was a team cancer and made a spectacle of himself; for this he was rewarded with a reality TV show. Rodman turned himself into a freak show and was given movie roles and fawning, Elvis-like attention.

Tebow knelt on the field before and after games — the media called it “tebowing” — and he was ridiculed for it; Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem and was made a folk hero.

One website claimed to have conducted a poll in which readers were asked whose kneeling was more acceptable — Kaepernick’s or Tebow’s. The website claimed Kaepernick won 80% of the vote.

If Tebow had come along in the 1950s the vote would have been reversed.

Tebow, a bruising runner at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, was an outlier at quarterback, as well. NFL coach Jon Gruden is certainly prone to hyperbole (as we found out during his work in the TV booth), but, notwithstanding, he once told the Sun-Sentinel, “He’s the strongest human being who’s ever played the position. Ever … He is rare. Tebow is the kind of guy who could revolutionize the game … He can play quarterback in the NFL.”

Tebow’s throwing mechanics were awful — he threw like a pitcher, not a quarterback — but they were awful at Florida, too, and yet somehow this escaped the notice of NFL scouts (and Gruden), who apparently did not have TV sets, video or even eyeballs. His poor throwing mechanics made him comically inaccurate. He completed only 48% of his passes. They went for 2,422 yards, 17 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

If Tebow had come along later, coaches might have adjusted their offenses to accommodate the things he did well. That’s what the Ravens did for Lamar Jackson. That’s what the Eagles are doing for Jalen Hurts, another poor passer.

The Broncos did as much for Tebow the latter half of his second season, in 2011. After losing four of their first five games, they promoted Tebow to the starting job and retooled the offense for him. They ran the ball, passed rarely and added the read-option, which was a college gimmick at the time.

It worked.

The Broncos won five of six games during one stretch and advanced to the playoffs, where they won their first game, against the Steelers. They lost to the Patriots a week later.

That was Tebow’s one moment of NFL glory. In the offseason the Broncos signed free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning and traded Tebow to the moribund Jets and his career began circling the drain. He lasted one season with the Jets. He went to training camp with the Patriots in 2013 and didn’t make the roster. He did the same thing with the Eagles in 2015.

This was a time when athletic, mobile quarterbacks were being converted to wide receivers — Eric Crouch, Josh Cribbs, Brad Smith, Matt Jones, Antwaan Randle El — with varying degrees of success. Why not make Tebow a tight end, some wondered? Or a linebacker? It was reported that teams were open to trading for Tebow if he agreed to change positions, but he wouldn’t do it. 

“For me it’s always about pursuing what’s in your heart, what you love, what you’re passionate about, and I love the game of football but what I really love doing is playing the quarterback position,” Tebow said on the “Dan Patrick Show.” “I’ve had a lot of good opportunities to play another position but that just wasn’t in my heart. It wasn’t something I wanted to do. If I was going to make a change I’d rather make a change to baseball.”

 And that’s what he did until last week, when he called it a day.