American Football: Tebow's heroics leave a nation divided

Broncos in play-off picture thanks to deeply religious quarterback with a suspect arm
  • @guyadams

First, he removes his helmet.

Then, as the stadium erupts and his team-mates begin high-fiving, he drops to one knee, rests his chin on a clenched fist, and closes his eyes for a few Herculean moments, to silently thank the Big Guy upstairs.

That's how Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, likes to celebrate one of the last-minute NFL victories which have recently, in the course of an extraordinary late-season run of form, become his trademark.

Fans call it "Tebowing," and on scores of websites and viral YouTube clips, it is formally described as the act of: "getting down on a knee to start praying, even if everyone around you is doing something completely different".

They were "Tebowing" in Minnesota last Sunday, when he orchestrated two field-goal scoring drives in the dying minutes to edge out the Vikings by 35-32, a fifth successive victory which leaves the Broncos top of the AFC West.

And they'll be "Tebowing" at the Mile High Stadium in Denver tomorrow afternoon, when the 24-year-old, who is two years out of college, takes the field against the Chicago Bears, hoping to tighten the Broncos' hold on a spot in the play-offs.

As the NFL's regular season reaches its annual climax, Tim Tebow has become a national talking point, thrilling fans with a nailbiting series of victories, often against absurd odds. Since he was promoted to starting quarterback two months ago, Denver have won six games, and lost just once.

Off the field, his footprint extends still further. An evangelical Christian, who hails from a deeply conservative family, he has both bemused and amused cultural observers with slavish efforts to celebrate his faith, praying on the pitch, and proselytising off it.

A self-professed virgin, who has campaigned against abortion, and supports lobbying organisations opposed to gay rights, Tebow has lately fallen into the habit of beginning his post-match press conferences with a solemn invocation: "First and foremost, I just have to thank my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ." In a nation that has rarely felt more socially polarised, this earnest religiosity has sparked both adulation and loathing. In fact, chatter about his spiritual preferences often seems to overshadow perfectly legitimate debate over his footballing talents.

But even the most atheistic Tebow-hater must wonder if his extraordinary run of victories, which has given Denver a chance to make the play-offs for the first time since 2005, is enough to make you believe in miracles.

It began in Miami on 23 October, when Tebow, starting a game for the first time this season in place of the struggling quarterback Kyle Orton, found himself 15-0 down, with just three minutes of regulation to go.

Having played like a drain for the first 57 minutes, Tebow somehow turned things round, masterminding not one, but two touchdown-scoring drives, and capping the second by running into the end zone for a two-point conversion, to level the scores.

Then, in overtime, he set up Matt Prater for a match-winning, 52-yard field goal.

Two weeks later, against the Oakland Raiders, Tebow again dug his way out of a deep hole. Trailing 24-14 with three minutes to go in the third quarter, he drove the offense to three unanswered touchdowns and a field goal to win 38-24.

The next victims were Kansas City, edged out 17-10, followed by the New York Jets, who watched Tebow steal victory by running in a 20-yard touchdown with under a minute left in the fourth quarter. Then Tebow presided over a three-point overtime victory against San Diego. Last Sunday's win against Minnesota made it six.

No quarterback in history has managed so many consecutive fourth-quarter or overtime victories. And in a sport which, for all its emphasis on orchestration, can be surprisingly spontaneous, his momentum will surely be priceless heading into the post-season.

Tebow's talents still divide opinion, though. Supporters argue that he's a strong runner of the ball, with impeccable instincts (he rarely throws an interception) and the priceless ability to engineer a win when it really matters. But since his college football days – when he garnered headlines for painting Bible verses under his eyes – sceptics have constantly complained that he has an underwhelming throwing arm.

Despite his recent run of victories, Tebow has only passed for more than 200 yards in a game once. And his pass completion rate is abysmal. So far this season, he has connected just 75 times from 158 attempts – 47.5 per cent.

John Elway, the legendary Broncos quarterback who led the club to five Super Bowls, winning two, and now works as its executive vice-president of football operations, has, tellingly, so far passed over opportunities to commit to Tebow as his long-term starter.

As for Tebow, he likes to remind reporters that mortal fate is never in our own hands. "No matter what happens, good or bad, I want to give my Lord and saviour credit," he said recently. "If we win then I'm going to give him the credit. If we lose, then I'm going to give him the credit. Because either way, he's worthy of it."