In a sports culture dominated by ironic humor, the Broncos quarterback is unusually earnest
We live in world saturated with irony and post-irony, and this affects how we consume mass culture—including sports. Athletes today are not judged solely on their on-field abilities but by how willing they are to show the culture at large that they get it, that they have their own brand of ironic humor.
Peyton Manning isn't popular just because he was on pace to smash every meaningful NFL passing record before his career-threatening neck injury. Fans like him because of the look-at-how-goofy-I-am sense of humor he displays in commercials hawking everything from credit cards to cell phones. Cam Newton is the frontrunner for rookie of the year due to his strong arm and able legs, but his Superman celebration and knowing smile help make the case that he is destined to be a superstar in the NFL.
It's refreshing, then, when someone serious comes along and refuses to partake in the ritual. This is one reason Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow is fascinating to die-hard football fans and casual viewers alike, despite his questionable skills as a professional quarterback.
In less than two NFL seasons Tebow has gone from shaky pro prospect to emerging cult hero. The primary reason for this is that he plays the quarterback position in an unusual manner. Football fans are accustomed to a certain level of redundancy—Aaron Rodgers is on track to have one of the greatest seasons ever played by a quarterback, but he is essentially rehashing what Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady did during their own record-breaking seasons. This conventional style of quarterbacking is predicated on accurate downfield passing and efficient decision-making—Rodgers has completed nearly 72 percent of his pass attempts this season and only thrown four interceptions. And even though Rodgers is more athletic than the average NFL quarterback, like Manning and Brady he prioritizes getting the ball into the hands of his receivers and only runs when that is not an option.
Tebow, on the other hand, has used a run-first, pass-second strategy, something analysts have long crowed would never be possible. We may never see another quarterback who, in a pass-first league, can lead his team to victory while only attempting eight passes—which makes his games must-see television.
But the more interesting factor, the reason Tebow is more than just a passing fad based on new player formation, is his personality. Tebow is a serious young man in a silly adult world. He is an irony-free individual who seems uninterested in developing an athletic persona based upon rehearsed machismo or wink-wink self awareness. He's content to be himself and to give answers that are more straightforward than his downfield passes.
To quote Grantland's Jay Caspian Kang, Tebow "eyes up the zeitgeist, smiles, and says a prayer for its soul." To put that quote into perspective, Aaron Rodgers recognizes that same zeitgeist, accepts its logic, and then tries to figure out which camera he should wink at.
That's not to say Tebow is without distinct personality traits. On the contrary, he is as well-known for his outspoken religious beliefs and for the ways that he adamantly displays those beliefs, whether it be via Bible verses inscribed in eye paint or in thanking his "lord and savior Jesus Christ" at the beginning of interviews, as he is for his play on the field. Tebow's refusal to tone down his religious fervor partially accounts for why he continues to command so much attention.
It's possible to make the argument that Tebow is just another celebrity athlete who is simply choosing to sell people on the good book rather than a certain brand of sneakers. But his method of presentation makes him vastly different from his counterparts.
The degree of sincerity Tebow displays while presenting himself to the public is what makes him distinct. When Tebow scores a touchdown—something he does much more frequently than most NFL quarterbacks—he doesn't partake in some celebration that entails showing the world he's Superman or pretending to don a championship belt. He either reacts with workmanlike satisfaction or unbridled joy. These types of celebrations are uncommon in the professional ranks but rampant on the fields of pee-wee football, where the young competitors are unaware of the people watching them but very much engrossed in the joy of competition.