Cult classic

Andy Dalton, Matthew Stafford and Alex Smith have all put up good numbers -- but the season revolves around Tebow. Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

This article appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 12, 2011, "Interview Issue."

THE DREAM OF AMERICA -- a meritocracy -- is the basic draw of sports: your best against mine, the scoreboard oblivious to pedigree, race, class or gender. The promise of pure competition is perhaps the biggest reason we watch.

Except that it's a lie. Merit remains what it has always been: a myth. Pedigree, race, class, gender, politics or something as simple as good looks might not determine sports outcomes as it might, say, Ivy League admissions, but it has always affected the final score -- especially if you happen to monitor more than just points.

Take Andy Dalton, the surprising quarterback of the surprising Bengals. The rookie has put up a fine season, especially given his charge of replacing Pro Bowler Carson Palmer. So have Matthew Stafford in Detroit and the redeemed Alex Smith in San Francisco. Each QB may take his team to the playoffs. Yet the saga of the season revolves around Tim Tebow, the most polarizing figure in the NFL. Since winning Denver's starting job after Week 5 via fan coup, he's shown a determination to win and an ability to shine in crunch time. He has admirable guts and a leader's spirit. He isn't, however, a particularly good quarterback.

Maybe it's the college success, the squeaky-clean image, the in-game toughness, his religion or the underdog, populist nature of his success. Whatever the reason for Tebow becoming a phenomenon, it has little do with merit. He is all passion, for and against, all anecdote, all subjectivity. Where one fan sees a gutsy comeback, another sees that a better QB would have made a comeback unnecessary. Tebow's ball protection is either evidence of leadership or simple probability, for throwing interceptions is really hard to do when you're handing off 50 times a game.

His legend began to grow during a five-game midseason stretch that saw the surging Denver defense give up just 15.5 points per game in four wins. To his minions, Tebow's leadership was responsible for rousing rookie linebacker Von Miller. But his own play was awful. The QB didn't throw for 200 yards once, complete half of his passes against any one opponent or -- outside of the Lions, who mashed him 45-10 -- catch a good team on the upswing. It's clear Tebow is a project, a tough kid trying to find his way, and this is where sports' meritocracy breaks down in favor of star power and the cult of personality.

What makes the fervor surrounding Tebow all the more baffling is that his on-field skill set isn't particularly unusual, for there have been other unorthodox quarterbacks -- Doug Flutie, Fran Tarkenton and Michael Vick, for example -- who constantly fought being measured by what they couldn't do. Other than victory by anemia, we're not seeing anything new.

For the most recent history lesson, enter Vince Young -- national college champion, electric runner and big athlete. In 2006, he took up under center for the Titans, and the needle screeched off the record. When he scanned a defense, he looked more like he was staring at a chalkboard, woefully attempting to grasp the secret of the combustion engine. When he threw the football, dog owners rejoiced: He looked just like them tossing
a Frisbee on the beach. But like Tebow, Young won. He made the Pro Bowl twice and guided his team to the playoffs in his second year. Thing was, while Young was terrific in the short term when he was surprising defenses, it was not sustainable. As a starter, he's thrown 42 touchdowns and 42 interceptions. He's now serving as Vick's sub in Philadelphia.

A similar fate awaits Tebow. There's a chance that at some point -- after playoff victories and regularly engineering more than one TD drive a game -- we'll look back and see that his humble beginnings actually marked the start of a remarkable career. But today, the furor around him sounds and feels like noise. Little of it has to do with Tebow himself and more with what his hungry public needs him to be -- a public that ignores that his coaches are protecting him better than they did Kyle Orton (who was allowed to throw an average of 31 passes per game to Tebow's 23), as the terrific Broncos' running game and defense emerge.

But the public won't be able to ignore Tebow's failings forever. Wait until the NFL has a season's worth of game film on him. My suspicion is that merit will return Tebow to the bench, where his season started. In the meantime, I am far more willing to believe in the legend of Von Miller.

Howard Bryant is a columnist for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter and like us on Facebook.