Monday, December 19, 2011

Magic Before Tebow's Time

As a football fan, I have no problem with Tim Tebow.

I don’t care that he can’t stand stationary in the pocket and toss a fluid downfield pass like Aaron Rodgers. I don’t care that he can’t methodically pick apart a defense like Tom Brady, and I’m not concerned that he doesn’t robotically advance through his target checks like Drew Brees. It doesn’t bother me that he’s running the Denver offense like Major Harris ran West Virginia’s Mountaineers in the late eighties; it doesn’t irk me that he’s riding a hot running back, defense and kicker to big-time exposure and success. And finally, I couldn’t care less that he exhibits any sort of spirituality on or off the field of play.

What bothers me as an educated sports fan is the fanfare surrounding him. Televised fans, newspaper writers and football analysts are treating Tebow’s unorthodox rise to power like it’s the first of its kind in the NFL. ESPN’s exhaustive, salivating, quasi-Access Hollywood coverage of Tebow’s success has been shoveled at viewers in tunnel-vision style, totally ignoring any historical precedent in order to package the Denver quarterback’s story as one-of-a-kind. A highly-touted college talent with a style not compatible with professional football somehow crack’s a team’s starting line-up and summons his rabid desire and moxie to supposedly unquantifiable success? We've been led to believe that such an occurrence is as likely to happen as the discovery of a unicorn or Bigfoot.

But it has happened, right inside the Buffalo stadium where Tim will be Tebowing this Christmas Eve. If you spent any time around Western New York in 1998, amid the height one Douglas Richard Flutie’s reign, you know this to be true.

Before Tebowmania, there was Flutiemania, complete with charitable sugar cereals, glorious mullets and inventive jump-passes. There were crazy finishes, unexplainable statistical gems, and even a high-profile (and absolutely crooked) loss to the Patriots—all without today’s intense Internet coverage or the omnipresent commentary of 24-hour news networks. How the national media outlets (aside from the Boston Herald's NFL Notes mention last Sunday) have largely ignored their overwhelming performance and circumstantial similarities is either hilariously egregious or hilariously short-sighted; it was only 13 seasons ago that Flutie entered Buffalo’s backfield to incite Van Miller-commentated fandemonium. For whatever reason, Tebow’s rise has been featured as an awe-inspiring development, one the sport, the world and the universe has never seen the likes of.

This simply isn’t the case. We've seen this before. Consider the following:

General Reaction

When Tebow was drafted late in the first round of 2010 by the Broncos—a franchise still looking for the heir-apparent to retired legend John Elway—the move was met by overwhelming national and local skepticism. Fans and critics alike recognized the Heisman-winner and two-time BCS champion to be an absolute college superstar, but a questionable (at best) professional product. Training combine favorites like throwing motion, pocket presence and arm strength all seemed to blur the significant accomplishments and intangibles of the Florida product. Plus, the Broncos had a proven starter in Kyle Orton, which put Tebow securely in the passenger seat. Less than two seasons and a relocated Orton later, we’ve all seen how this hierarchy sorted itself out.

When the Bills picked up fellow Heisman-winner Flutie from the Canadian Football League in 1998, it was an intriguing move, but one met with absolute confusion by Buffalo locals. After Jim Kelly’s successor Todd Collins donned Jack Kemp's no. 15 for one forgettable season as a starter, the Bills front office punched the panic button. Enter the 36-year-old Flutie, who’d spent the last eight years rewriting the CFL’s offensive record books. During his Northern tour, he earned six league MVP awards, three Grey Cups, and one lovingly eponymous song by Canadian folk rock weirdos Moxy Fruvous—all while throwing for an insane 41,355 yards.

What did this mean to Buffalonians? Not a whole lot. The last time Bills fans saw Flutie in the NFL, he was with the Patriots, running for his life from Bruce Smith and throwing for two (2) touchdowns over five games of the 1989 season. Still, Buffalo needed some draw, some buzz-worthy catalyst to ease the fans and franchise’s transition away from Kelly’s departure. And, in a small market where corporate dollars aren’t abundant, they needed to solidify their economic viability in the region by extending their franchise grasp over the border. With this understood, tossing a helmet to the Toronto Argonauts legend seemed to make plenty of sense.

After the Bills threw a $25-million multi-year contract at the prototypical (albeit unproven) Rob Johnson later that offseason, it appeared Flutie would be holding that helmet for the foreseeable future. But, when Johnson proved to be as durable as a wet paper bag, Flutie’s sideline days in Buffalo were replaced with an eventual on-field circus


Tebow’s size is often questioned not because he’s too small, but because he’s not built like a quarterback. At a stout 6-3, 240, the guy’s built like a halfback-fullback hybrid, one who’s more equipped to plow through linebackers then float passes over safeties.

In Flutie’s case, he would’ve flattened your mother for an extra two inches of height. Listed at a generous 5-10 and 180, he was barely suited to check bags at the Ralph Wilson Stadium gates let alone star as quarterback inside them. It was a supposed handicap he maneuvered around in a variety of ways, whether regularly rifling jump-passes over defensive ends or using gaps in his offensive line’s blocking schemes to sidearm passes to backs and receivers. And, through his underdog resourcefulness, he connected with a fan base and city forever wary of being told they’re too small or simply not good enough.

Unorthodox Play

Tebow has fascinated legions of people by running the option, scrambling for time or tanking through the early stages of most of his professional appearances. But, however unorthodox by professional standards, the guy knows what to do to pull things through; he knows how to revert to simplicity and summon a time when we were all kids, playing tackle football behind high schools or near playgrounds. His passes or runs may not be pretty, but they all go forward when they need to.

Find video of Flutie through that ’98 season and you’ll see broken plays, ad-libbed laterals and stunted Hail Marys, ones reminiscent of his epic Boston College toss back in ’84. In maybe his most famous performance of that season, he followed a 38-yard sideline dart to Eric Moulds with a one-yard naked bootleg on fourth-and-goal in the game's final 15 seconds to beat the previously unbeaten Jacksonville Jaguars. The day’s outcome coined the term, “Flutie Magic,” which came to define any goofy way Flutie proceeded to pull out games or scores—no matter how unorthodox his methods.

“Winner” Label

With Tebow’s 7-2 run this season, he’s been labeled “a winner,” a description often assigned to guys whose success escapes easy definition. The Broncos were a terrible 1-4 when he took the wheel, reeling and nowhere near the playoff picture. Now, they’re at the top of the AFC West, ending a six-game win streak with a 41-23 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. At the national level, nearly all the team’s success has been simply attributed to Tebow somehow willing this team to dramatic win after dramatic win. Have his late game heroics been impressive? Sure. But, easily buried in his engineered endings has been Matt Prater’s three game-winning kicks, the Broncos opportunistic defense, or their offense’s NFL-leading rushing attack (163 yards-a-game).

Still, despite this trio of accompaniments compensating for Tebow’s putrid 124 yards-a-game passing average, Timmy’s getting the bulk of the credit. He’s the one on ESPN; he’s the one on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Not much was different with lil’ Dougie.

Though he was barely breaking the 200-yard passing mark in most of his ’98 starts, he was 8-4 in games he finished for a team that started 0-3. Fans would forget the mediocre numbers amid the exciting scrambles and creative tosses; they’d ignore the stats and enjoy the wins. But, while eventual NFL Comeback Player of the Year Flutie was at the forefront of the success—the face of the franchise on Sports Illustrated and Everybody Loves Raymond-featured Flutie Flakes—his teammates were putting up the supporting numbers to drive them forward. The ’98 Bills were ranked third in takeaway/giveaway differential, sixth in total yards allowed, and had a 1,000-yard rusher (when it still meant something) in Antowain Smith. Eric Moulds also turned in a breakout season when teamed with Flutie, as he snagged 67 catches for 1,368 yards.

All these attributes helped the Bills win, and the victories classified Flutie as a winner. Well, the victories and street-legal Flutie magic.

Christmas Habits

Tim Tebow accepts Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. He’s very outspoken on this matter, and everybody knows it—but why does anyone care? Athletics and religion have been linked since the first parochial school joined Christian teaching with halfback sweeps and baseline jumpers. Players and coaches join hands at midfield to say a postgame prayer following every NFL game in every American city. After games, players regularly thank or credit God and Jesus in front of video cameras and microphones, and have done so for decades. (Kurt Warner did it regularly through two MVP seasons and one Super Bowl title with St. Louis.) Why is Tebow’s effusive profession of faith such a big deal? In a violent sport played in a country founded on religious freedom, a guy should be able to thank whoever he pleases after he survives three hours of said violent sport. Pro football should be so lucky to replace its various drug and legal scandals with players addicted to biblical verses and missionary work—especially at Christmastime.

As for Flutie, he wasn’t known for talking about his spirituality, but did attend local Catholic services in 1998. Why do I know this? Because the entire Flutie family sat behind me on that season’s Christmas Eve. His rebellious mullet and stone-cold leather duster inside St. Mary of the Lake were only overshadowed by the baby in the manger—and not by much.

* * * * * * *

If the two players’ similarities are statistically foretelling for Tebow, then he should be itching for the playoffs. In Flutie’s only playoff appearance in a Buffalo uniform, he shook off uneven regular season passing performances to scorch the Dolphins secondary for 360 yards and one long touchdown pass to Moulds. Though it was in a losing effort, those numbers still left analysts baffled. How could someone so atypical of the prototypical quarterback find so much success in a game built to magnify his shortcomings? How could he defy boundaries formed and solidified over decades? And, in doing so, how is he able to connect so succinctly and popularly with the modern sports fan?

In first Flutie and now Tebow, fans have rallied behind a guy ramming the football down the throat of convention; they’ve reveled in watching a player rebel against their supposed limitations. People deal with parents and bosses and coworkers telling them they’re not good enough every day. Some will succumb to those opinions and, eventually, prove to be no good at one or many endeavors. Others will find motivation in sticking it to their critics, in proving the naysayers wrong. In 1998, Doug Flutie did that on a nearly weekly basis. In 2011, Tim Tebow’s doing the same thing.

Unfortunately, Flutie’s ending in Buffalo wasn’t nearly as magical as its beginning. Buried under an irrational benching, a quarterback controversy and the infamous Music City Miracle scam were mere remnants of the freewheeling playmaking that made Flutie’s time in Buffalo so memorable. Some Bills fans still claim that season’s excitement—as well as the luxury suite and season ticket sales triggered by that excitement—saved the franchise from relocating; others have dismissed it as a season lost to a grinning Jimmy Johnson in Miami. If a moment or stretch of time is lionized, fans will build you up as high as they can hoist you. But, in some cases, when the moment drifts off, those same fans will drop you just as fast. As time has passed, Flutiemania—and its place in either national or Buffalo athletic lore—has faded away.

As for Tim Tebow and his aura of perseverance, maybe it’ll continue. Maybe he’ll press on toward the playoffs and into further seasons of pro football brilliance; maybe he’ll crumble under savvy defenses or key team injuries. Denver management will either make him a long-term Bronco or a short-term attraction. Magazines and television talk shows will tout him as a hero or a failure; the chosen one or a major bust. His meteoric professional rise is still on Tebow Time, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Incomprehensible runs like Denver’s don’t happen very often. But, in Buffalo, we know such mystifying seasons have happened before.

(Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to "Aluminum Park" by My Morning Jacket.)


Apeoj said...

Pretty fair on Doug and well written. One part of the Flutie magic was hearing every expert say it was impossible for him to play with the "gods" in the NFL and then see him on many occasions make those gods look like mere mortals. I saw him pass over linemen that "shoulda just batted that one down." I saw him run circles around backs with vaunted "world class" speed. The NFL is full of chumps and cheap shot artists in the right place at the right time. That is why mortals like Doug or Tebow can have their moments.

Apeoj said...

Pretty fair on Doug and well written. One part of the Flutie magic was hearing every expert say it was impossible for him to play with the "gods" in the NFL and then see him on many occasions make those gods look like mere mortals. I saw him pass over linemen that "shoulda just batted that one down." I saw him run circles around backs with vaunted "world class" speed. The NFL is full of chumps and cheap shot artists in the right place at the right time. That is why mortals like Doug or Tebow can have their moments.

jeane Farrell said...

Mike, Very well written. Your memory of past football games continues to amaze me every time I read another one of your blogs. Anyway, a lot of great memories when Doug Flutie played for the Bills and lived in our neighborhood. Christmas Eve Mass I'll never forget, with Doug, his wife and kids sitting right behind us. I enjoyed reading every thing you wrote but I bet Doug Flutie would feel really proud if he got to read this and hear all the nice things you said about him.