Doubters fueling Tebow's success

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If you're like me, you thought Tim Tebow would be a third-string NFL tight end right now. Maybe some kind of hybrid H-back. At best a gimmick quarterback, like an early model Kordell "Slash" Stewart. Even the biggest Tebow haters could admit he had athletic talent.

I'm not convinced he's a long-term quarterback, but for now he's even better. He's a story.

Tebow is an enigma to some, a hero to others, but a story to everyone. He's a subject of conversation. Of course, it's not just about football with Tebow. It's about faith.

Tebow gets a lot of flak for his overt displays of religious faith. Personally, I find no fault with how he wants to express himself, as long as it's all about love and peace. And I love watching him play quarterback, because in a world of seven-step drops and route trees, Tebow's style is, as Tebow fan Lovie Smith remarked, "a breath of fresh air."

A lot of the blowback toward Tebow, in my opinion and many others, has more to do with the way he was covered in college. The coverage of college sports always veers from overdosing on love of amateur spirit and the never-ending search for vice. Tebow represented the former.

Writers and broadcasters lined up to praise his virtues. It was cool at first, because he was jump-throwing touchdown passes and everything. But it got old really quick.

Since the world isn't made up solely of Florida fans and religion is one of those things we don't talk about, it's easy to see how people soured on the public image of Tebow. After all, in today's world, every fan has a voice, be it through sports talk radio, the comments sections of websites, Facebook, Twitter or an old-fashioned soapbox at Bughouse Square.

During his conference call with reporters, I asked Tebow if he thought sports fans tired of him after his triumphant college career, much like NFL fans tired of Brett Favre.

"I'm not sure," he said. "It's hard to say, hard to really know what other people are thinking. I think I have had lot of support that meant a lot to me. There have always been those people that haven't believed in me and it added fuel to the fire and motivated me that much more."

Fortunately for Tebow and the ebullient Tebowing Broncos fans, he has football faith; faith in himself and faith that he'll get better. Watching him throw, I have my doubts. He has shifty moves, even if he's not Michael Vick fast, but he can't be a running quarterback in this league.

"In option football your quarterback is taking shots," Smith said. "He's not protected like he's in the pocket. And that adds up a little bit. That would be hard to do for a team to have an attack."

But as Smith pointed out, the Broncos beat the Vikings last week with a pretty normal NFL offense.

Tebow kept his cool when I broached the subject like this: "There are a lot of religious athletes out there, but not a lot of option quarterbacks in the NFL."

"It's funny because we do run some option and we do run some 'read,' and we do run some 'zone' and different things, but we do a lot of other stuff as well," he said. "So it's not just an option offense. You looked at our game last week, just our game plan of what we tried to do. We didn't run an option play in the whole Minnesota game. And we ran one or two 'reads' the whole game.

"We played it a little bit differently with our game plan going in. It's not like we're a straight option team. That's a package that we have and we like to use and we feel defenses have to prepare for it. It can really help us in games, but it's not who we are as an offense, if that makes any sense at all."

If you're not used to such a long-winded answer, I could translate that into Cutlerese: "Um, yeah, no."

Everyone had a good laugh at Tebow's amateurish throwing style earlier this season, but now the Broncos are serious contenders to get a playoff berth.

Denver was 1-4 when John Fox benched Kyle Orton for Tebow, and at the time, some thought it was a duplicitous move aimed at showing the fanbase how bad Tebow was at playing quarterback. But with an offense tailored to his abilities and scads of great defensive plays, the 7-5 Broncos have won five in a row and lead the AFC West by virtue of a tiebreaker over Oakland. They're the best story in football, outside of Green Bay at least.

With Willis McGahee and a strong offensive line, the Broncos lead the NFL in rushing yards per game at 158.9 and are 31st in passing at 155.8 a game. Tebow, whose mechanics would make the late George Plimpton blush, is completing a dreadful 47.5 percent of his passes, a number that would get most quarterbacks benched, but he has thrown 10 touchdown passes to one interception. My guess is that most of his misses are out of the reach of defensive backs, too.

Tebow is probably getting too much credit, but his penchant for comeback victories has won him plenty of new fans. He has become a bit of a cult sensation. It's a second career arc, almost. And everyone has an opinion about him, his religion and his abilities. Tebow tries to tune it all out.

"I really do my best in trying not to watch TV, not read newspapers, not go online, that sort of thing," he said. "But some of it you can't help but hearing, because it's over-flooding to your family or your friends, or in the facility, so it's just hard to avoid all of it."

Criticism is manna from heaven to a competitor like Tebow, who actually said that people have told him he can't play football since he was "6 years old." That comment made me wonder what kind of kindergarten he went to, but I got his point.

"I'm just being honest," he said. "I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't fire me up. Or that I don't want to prove people wrong that say I can't be an NFL quarterback, because I definitely do. That's been my dream since I was a little boy. More than anything, I'm having fun living my dream and I'm doing that every day."

At the end of our call, I kiddingly asked him if he could say a prayer for Cutler's thumb. Tebow got the joke.

"Ha ha ha ha ha ha," Tebow said, before composing himself. "I do wish Jay Cutler the best and a speedy recovery. He's been very nice and gracious every time I've been in his presence and had to meet him and talk with him. I wish him nothing but the best."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.