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The real Tim Tebow effect

Tim Tebow, the famous NFL quarterback turned MLB player turned NFL tight end, is under criticism for returning to football

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Former Florida football player Tim Tebow speaks to fans after he was inducted in the Ring of Honor at Florida Field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Gainesville, Florida.

Former Florida football player Tim Tebow speaks to fans after he was inducted in the Ring of Honor at Florida Field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, file photo.

Associated Press

Former NFL quarterback and minor league baseball player Tim Tebow could be coming back to the NFL.

But not everyone is happy about it. That’s how it often goes for Tebow, who ESPN’s Anthony McFarland called a “polarizing former athlete that we can’t stop talking about.” He is well-liked and he is disliked all at once. And with Monday’s news, we’re seeing the Tebow polarization play out in real time.

Reports surfaced earlier this week that Tebow is expected to sign a one-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are currently coached by Tebow’s old coach, Urban Meyer. The two won a pair of college national championships together at the University of Florida in 2006 and 2008, Tebow also won the Heisman Trophy for most outstanding college football player in 2007.

Tebow, who played quarterback throughout his college and most of his professional career, would join the Jaguars as a tight end. The Jaguars reportedly have five other tight ends on their roster: Chris ManhertzJames O’ShaughnessyLuke FarrellBen Ellefson and Tyler Davis.

Tebow, meanwhile, hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2015. He worked as a broadcaster for the SEC Network and became a professional baseball player. He played four seasons in the minor leagues and amassed a .222 batting average, getting 222 hits on 1,119 plate appearances. He played 306 games in total and had some memorable moments, hitting a home run during his first plate appearance in Single-A minor league baseball for the Columbia Fireflies. Before that, he smacked a home run on his first pitch in an Instructional League game for the New York Mets in 2016, as I wrote for the Deseret News.

His dating life also made news. (Tebow married former Miss Universe Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters in 2019.)

In the days following the news of his possible NFL return, some national media turned the conversation toward questions of talent, how far your name really goes, privilege and nepotism.

“Here’s the quandary with Tim Tebow,” ESPN’s McFarland said. “Tim Tebow was a really good college athlete who some people around the country think has been treated with a lot of privilege — decent athlete who’s been given a lot of things and a lot of chances. Other people ... love his story about faith and his relationship with God and perseverance. ... He’s got his allegiance.”

Tebow has a lot of fans and has been a media darling for years. The term “Tebow effect” has been around since his college days. He’s a clean-cut Christian — someone who is hard to hate if you identify with his values, McFarland said.

“He is polarizing because on one hand, everybody who believes in his values — they believe in Tim Tebow regardless if he can play a down of football,” McFarland said. “And on the other hand, you have the football people who say, ‘Hey, it’s great you have your faith, it’s great that you’re a tough guy ... but you can’t play football anymore, you couldn’t hit a baseball.

“He’s not a good player. He’s just a polarizing human. He’s a polarizing former athlete we can’t stop talking about.”

Tim Tebow’s talent vs. popularity

Talent does play a role here as McFarland suggests. Does Tebow deserve to return to professional football after six seasons off? As far as baseball goes, he did perform better than expected for some scouts. But baseball and football could not be more different.

Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver and now free agent Dez Bryant found himself perplexed over Tebow’s return, especially since Tebow hasn’t played a game since 2015 and Bryant, once a star wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, has been working to make his own return.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush II and Jemele Hill both brought up what might be the biggest discussion topic — Tebow is returning to the league before Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who knelt for the national anthem. He hasn’t been signed by a team since leaving the San Francisco 49ers after the 2016 season. Kaepernick has become a symbol of the power of Black athletes to stand up to racial injustice. He signed a deal with Nike in 2018.

So there are a lot of people who are critical of the Tebow move.

But there’s an appeal to seeing Tebow return, too. It doesn’t hurt that he is a popular guy. In 2016, Public Policy Polling surveyed 410 fans about their favorite quarterbacks. Tom Brady led the way with 16% of the vote. Tebow wasn’t far behind with 7% of the vote (though he was ranked as the second least-favorite quarterback behind Brady, too), according to Forbes.

“I was told specifically, ‘You can’t talk enough Tebow,’” former ESPN personality Doug Gottlieb told Forbes. “Is it ridiculous how much you have to talk about Tebow? Yeah! But for whatever reason people can’t get enough of that story.”

Part of the appeal for Tebow was in his good nature, his faith and his clean-cut attitude. Our own Doug Robinson explained it pretty well back in February 2021 when Tebow said he was hanging up his cleats.

“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,” Robinson wrote. “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.

“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,” Robinson wrote.

Tebow seems a safe bet to stay away from drama and he is, for better or worse (depending on who you ask), well-liked. And he could embrace a role that is more commonplace in today’s NFL — switching positions.

“You have to admire Tim Tebow’s work ethic and resilience. He probably could have carved out a decent NFL career if he embraced switching positions earlier,” said NFL reporter Manish Mehta.

He has tried out the tight end role before during his stint with the New York Jets and it didn’t exactly pan out well. But Tebow could get a longer experience with the Jaguars if he takes on a role similar to — yep, you guessed it — former BYU quarterback and current New Orleans Saints stud, Taysom Hill.

“His chances would be higher if the Jaguars were to create a role for Tebow similar to what the New Orleans Saints did with Taysom Hill,” according to ESPN. “Tebow certainly could be an effective runner out of the Wildcat and the threat of a pass would naturally be there every time he took a snap. But even then, it would be for only a handful of snaps a game.”

What Tim Tebow’s return really means

So, really, why is Tebow returning? What encouraged Meyer to bring him back?

It’s really unclear.

It doesn’t look like he’ll actually make the team, nor does it seem like he’s going to draw in ticket sales or be a locker room leader. He’s entering a squad full of athletes who have been active in the league, whereas Tebow has spent the last few years sidelined. So, truly, there’s not a ton of pros to him joining the Jaguars.

“Bottom line is this seems to be Meyer doing a favor for one of his favorite former players,” according to ESPN.

So what does all of this mean? Probably not much. Tebow will sign a deal to practice and try out for the team. But it’s unlikely he’ll make the full roster by the time the new season starts.

Then again, who knew that Hill would be such a success story? Could Tebow find success once again in a new role with a new team? Is there still some Tebow magic left? Tebow fans will love the fact that he has another shot at stardom. Tebow has been known to pull off a miracle or two.

Both sides of his fandom — those who support him and those who don’t — will have their eyes on what happens next. And, if nothing else, all of this is a clear sign that it is Tebow Time once again.