We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Daniel Engber
To: Luke O'Brien, Barry Petchesky
The Minnesota Vikings are one of the worst teams in football, and that's just on any given Sunday. In their Week 13 matchup against the Broncos, they played without their best player, Adrian Peterson; their rookie quarterback Christian Ponder had an injured hip; and their secondary was missing three cornerbacks and two safeties. So why did it take an Act of God to beat them?
Enter Tim "All I Do Is Win" Tebow. His Broncos offense gave up two points on its first play from scrimmage, then fumbled, then goofed and wobbled its way through a miserable first half in which it managed to hold the ball for just nine minutes, gaining one first down and 46 yards from scrimmage. Maybe I'm one of those "die-hard anti-Tebow fundamentalists," but it occurred to me, early in the game, that even these puny Vikings (27.5 points allowed per game; blessed are the meek) might be able to stop Denver's zone-read offense.
Then came the bolt of lightning. Or maybe it was a rainbow: When Tebow's slow-motion windmill throws get going, it's like he's got the football version of an eephus pitch. "The ball was delivered very slowly, and tossed high in the air, descending over the plate and the spot which the striker designated as the place where he wanted the ball," wrote one reporter after an 1869 game between the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Brooklyn Stars. "The Stars looked upon this style of pitching as little short of robbery although they acknowledged it was in accordance with the rules."
It did feel like petty crime when the 12th-stringers in Vikings pass coverage played down to form in the second half, leaving Denver's receivers open for easy lobs. The line softened up for Willis McGahee, the Broncos' special teams were awesome, and pretty soon it was a one-point game, with Tebow's finger-guns blazing up to the heavens. (Did I see him blowing smoke from the barrels of his index fingers? After shooting at the celestial kingdom? That's weird.) Then it was a tie game. Then there was a kneeled prayer followed by a field goal to tie things up again, and an unfortunate pass from the Vikings' Ponder with a minute to go, an interception at the very worst time. Another field goal, game over, miracle finish, Broncos win. Tebwnage.
One of the great and widely acknowledged joys of watching the Tebocalypse is the statistical meltdown that comes with it. How does a mediocre quarterback with poor mechanics win six of seven games? Check the numbers for Sunday: He completed 67 percent of his passes but otherwise was barely average. One study from a few weeks ago concluded that the Broncos were winning on defense (until they gave up 32 points to the Vikings). Another noted that despite his ugly throwing motion and meager stats, Tebow ranked among the very best quarterbacks in the league in terms of adjusted yards per touch. Then a pair of researchers at Harvard—a college sophomore and a business-school student, it turns out—made the widely cited finding that, according to the numbers, Tebow had been very, very lucky.
Meanwhile, analysts at another website have concluded that a wind set-down effect acting at the site of an underwater ridge near the head of the Gulf of Aqaba might be responsible for Moses's big win over the Red Sea during the 1317 B.C. playoffs. Others wonder if his record-setting 10-plague performance earlier that season might have been accomplished by means of a bloom of dinoflagellates. And Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, reviewed many miles of game film before concluding, simply, that Tebow is "an underdog for a troubled time"— a neckless Seabiscuit.
If you're a fan of the hapless Vikings—or the Chargers, or, like me, the Jets—it's all enough to give you a crisis of faith in reverse. Here I am, sitting on this dung heap of an NFL campaign, when a Tebovian whirlwind comes along in the fourth quarter and knocks me on my ass. Could it be that prayer circles work? Is there a God, after all—a jerky, loud-mouthed, sports-bar God? I know what you're thinking, fellow skeptics: Lots of football players pray, so if there is a God, why would He choose Tebow instead of Ponder as the vessel for His divine game-winning drive? For chrissakes, why would He choose a guy named Tim over a guy named Christian? Maybe good works triumph over faith after all.
But I'm not yet a broken man. The Broncos play the Bears and the Patriots in the next two weeks, and—nothing is impossible!—one of those teams may make like Ted Williams. Sixty-five years ago, Teddy Ballgame came up against the master of the eephus pitch, Rip Sewell, in the 1946 All-Star Game. Williams took one eephus for a strike, fouled one off, and then, finally, stepped toward the mound and did what no one had done before: He whacked a rainbow into the right-field bleachers. If that happens—if, fingers crossed, Urlacher or Belichick or someone else can end this run of miracles—then my lack of faith will be restored. Hallelujah.
Daniel Engber is a senior editor at Slate, and writes for the magazine about science, culture, and sports.