Without a single playoff down being played, it’s a fairly safe bet that Tim Tebow will go into the books as the biggest storyline of the 2011 NFL season. His unorthodox approach to the position, polarizing reception among fans, players, analysts, and his overt Christianity have rocked the foundation of the NFL discussion cycle. Like Denver’s Tebow-specific Read Option offense, Tebow forces football fans to make clear-cut decisions. His makeup is so obtuse that there could be entire online dating sites based solely on how you feel about Tim Tebow. Do you like your quarterbacks to be able to throw the ball? Do you value individual statistics over team wins? Do you view athletes as role models? Do you watch college football? Do you believe in a separation of church and gridiron? The fact that these questions so aptly define where you stand on Tebow makes him not only the most discussion-worthy football player of 2011, but the most polarizing.
The only other player I’ve experienced that even approaches this level of polarization is Ray Lewis. A decade before Tim Tebow ever pulled on a Broncos sweater, Ray Lewis was forcing football fans, and Ravens fans, to ask similar questions of themselves. If God is forming His All-Pro team and gives points for effort, Lewis and Tebow are probably standing arm-in-arm calling the coin toss as captains. For NFL fans, judgement of the two is far less simple.
Unlike Tebow, Lewis’ approach to his position is prototypical. Whereas Tebow was crafted by Urban Meyer to be a staggeringly efficient cog in a very specialized machine, Lewis is the epitome of a middle linebacker. If football players had secret identities and played in some sort of emotionless, Orwellian dystopia, Lewis would be one of its most universally-revered figures. Instead, of course, Lewis plays football in a complex society with a blend of cultures and values, where emotion is interpreted a thousand different ways and character counts in the hearts of the public.
Because of his lack of a traditional skill set, Tim Tebow was passed up by most NFL teams, most actively by Lewis’ Baltimore Ravens, who traded the 25th pick of the 2010 draft to the Broncos in order to select the Florida QB. Chuck Klosterman wrote that the essence of punk music is doing something technically poorly while still doing it meaningfully (e.g. Sid Vicious playing bass guitar). If this is true, Tim Tebow is the most punk rock quarterback in football history.
[I’ve unnecessarily addressed the technical differences between Lewis and Tebow intentionally and probably exhaustively. I have to do so because, as is the case with polarizing figures, people feel very strongly about these things. I must unequivocally state that I do not think Tim Tebow is or will be a better football player, at his position or otherwise, than Ray Lewis.]
The link between Tebow and Lewis begins with Genesis and ends with Revelation. Whether you revere or revile Tebow for his Bible-beating, scripture-quoting, “Tebowing” ways, you must acknowledge that the original “Tebow”er was certainly Lewis. As S.L. Price’s 2006 Sports Illustrated cover story most deftly illustrates what many in Baltimore already knew, you cannot have a conversation or even hear one with Ray that does not involve his faith.
Many, many NFL players are not just of devout faith, but of extreme faith. It goes far beyond the postgame prayer circle. As John Feinstein chronicled in Next Man Up, the 2004 Ravens underwent an internal rift orchestrated in part by Deion Sanders, who wanted to install former NFL wideout Irving Fryar as the team’s minister. Many of the players take these things seriously, even if they don’t display them on the field. Obviously, this is where players like Sanders, Lewis, Tebow, Reggie White, and Kurt Warner before them break off from the wide swath of NFL Christians. They are not just devout, they are demonstrative. The only difference between Lewis and Tebow in this regard is Tebow thought of the Bible-verse eyeblack first, and Lewis has a signature dance instead of a signature pose.
Right now, I’d wager that more NFL fans would say they “hate” Tim Tebow than fans that “hate” Ray Lewis, although it’s probably closer than those of us in Baltimore would care to admit. Tebow is a hot-button topic that has jumped the shark into mainstream culture. Lewis is an NFL mainstay who has had time to meld in to the football fan’s consciousness. Ray Lewis is a nuanced character. He preaches love and family values and on Sundays screams “hunt these boys!” into the faces of his coworkers. The unquestioned fact is that on a fateful January evening in 2000, his poor choice in friends cost two men their lives. While the matter has been laid to rest in and out of court with Lewis paying financially, spiritually, and with an obstruction of justice charge, there will always be fans who boil Lewis down to “a murderer.” Tim Tebow however paints himself into a corner, intentionally and overtly. He is, to both believers and critics, exactly what he intends to be. Ray Lewis does this to a point, but the brand on him in some fans eyes is inextricable. I’m fairly certain it’s worse to be called a “murderer” when you technically didn’t murder anyone than a “really religious person” when that’s exactly what you are.
In his career, Ray Lewis has also shared a crucial trait with the young Tebow: In spite of the positive and negative hype that surrounds them, they unquestionably win games. The Ravens are 75-39 all-time in the regular season when Lewis is in the lineup, a winning percentage of 66%. As a starter, Tim Tebow is 8-4 in his young NFL career, a winning percentage of 66%.
You can do as I have and run down all the reasons why you might hate or love these players that have nothing to do with football technique and skill. Whether it’s Lewis celebrating every half-tackle or Tebow playing quarterback with an unprecedented earnestness, there is plenty to pick apart if you are looking for it.
Tebow and Lewis are diametrically opposed forces in the football ecosystem. The way we view them and what that says about us personally is eerily familiar.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com