A Football Life

Tebow.

That single word triggers a cascade of reaction wherever it appears. Every football fan has an opinion on the guy, and so do most people who normally couldn’t care less about the NFL. He’s a third-year player currently serving as a backup quarterback on a team that didn’t even make the playoffs last year, and somehow he’s still one of the biggest draws the sport has. You might disagree, but that seems to be the official position of the NFL, through its house organ the NFL Network, who are eager to cash in on Tebow with A Football Life: The Faces Of Tim Tebow, the latest documentary about the one of a kind player. (For those counting, this makes at least three Tebow documentaries, after the two ESPN did. Tebow also wrote a memoir.)

The consensus on Tebow is that there’s never been a player like him, so the NFL Network made the obvious conclusion: If there’s no one player like him, maybe we can Voltron up five of them and get there! That’s the gist of Faces: Here are five players that are kind of like Tebow in some way, let’s get them together to talk about him and themselves. 

Those five players are all stars to some degree, including no less than three hall-of-famers in Joe Namath, Steve Young, and Roger Staubach. Doug Flutie and Kordell Stewart round out the roster, and while they’re lesser lights in the NFL firmament, the names should be familiar to anyone who’s been following the game for more than a few years. Each of these players was chosen to represent and reflect on one aspect of the Tebow: Namath tackles fame, Staubach gets faith, and so on. Splice together some Tebow footage with some historical footage of the player in question, intercut that with the player comparing himself to Tebow, repeat five times, and we’re done. 

If you were looking for some new footage of Tebow himself, forget it, unless you count a few shots of Jets training camp and preseason as “new footage.” Why does a documentary about a current player who, by all indications, is not shy about doing press fail to talk to him at all? Sure, the point of the doc is to compare him to these other players, but it seems like a segment where he offers his own thoughts about how he compares to these guys might have been in order. Maybe he was too busy not quarterbacking the Jets to contribute.

That said, if you’d just awoken from a coma and turned on the NFL Network, Faces does do a decent job of explaining what a Tebow is. If you’d spent the years before your coma as an ardent fan of the NFL, you’d even have a pretty good idea of what the guy is all about and maybe an inkling of why he seems to be so special. The college and pre-college stuff, the draft, the playoff run, the Tebowing, the trade, the aw-shucks persona, the religion (of course—Tebow without religion is like peanut butter without peanuts): it’s all there, condensed into about 15 minutes worth of footage around the talking heads from football’s past.

The talking head segments themselves are something of a mixed bag. Steve Young does a solid job of explaining what Tebow would need to do to make the jump to elite quarterback status, while Doug Flutie’s segment seems to be a lot more about Flutie than Tebow, offering only minor points about Tebow’s experience. The other three fall in between, offering a balance of historical context and the odd nugget of insight into the Tebow phenomenon.

In a sense, the whole thing goes a fair way toward puncturing the myth of Tebow—as singular as he’s supposed to be, these guys are all a fair bit like him in one or more ways. Of course, just because Kordell Stewart was a running quarterback that could play a few other positions and made a playoff run once doesn’t mean that he ever became a household name in football homes outside of Pittsburgh, much less homes where football was a foreign language, the way Tebow did. As to reasons why Tebow has transcended the sport and become such a lightning rod? The doc has little to say on the matter, apart from suggesting that social media may have played a part. That’s pretty weak as insights go, since that seems to be the go-to explanation for anything new that’s happened anywhere since social media became a thing. 

As a whole, the doc is not too wonky—it never even tries to delve into what an option offense is, or the specifics of Tebow’s mechanical flaws, for instance—but it’s probably still far too insiderish to appeal to Tebow fans that aren’t also pretty hardcore football fans. Who else is going to give two shits about who Doug Flutie is, or what he has to say about Tebow’s role as an outsider? Who else would even have the NFL Network, for that matter? And it makes essentially no allowance for the football fan who thinks Tebow is a joke. It’s all sunshine and puppy kisses for the Chosen One here, apart from a few generic admonitions to work on his craft to get to the next level. Considering there are at least as many fans who love to hate the guy as those who just love him, that seems like a pretty big omission. That leaves it in a pretty strange niche: a hagiography-cum-history lesson that’s light on new info and insight for hardcore fans, but completely bereft of interest for anyone that isn’t a fan. But hey, it has Tebow in the title, so it’ll probably be the highest rated show the network puts on all month.

Stray Observations

  • Having watched Tebow all last year as a Broncos fan (and covered him as The A.V. Club Denver city editor), there were literally less than two minutes of Tebow footage I hadn’t seen many times before.
  • The opening scene is Tebow and Kurt Warner talking about their favorite Bible verses. We get it. Tebow loves Jesus.
  • Lest you fear that the NFL Network has run out of things to say about Tebow, rest assured. They ran a commercial (twice!) for a special on the top 10 things they love about Tebow, airing Saturday!