Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning and The Slightest Imperfection


We have new ways of measuring things here in the 21st Century.  For instance, search engines can tell us how often someone or something is mentioned on the internet, which can make even the most insignificant proper nouns feel special - a Google search for "Jim Bob Cooter" returns more than 4,000 results.   

But thanks to Google's fancy new autofill feature, key words can be completed and searched for without even typing the whole thing.  Google gives you the most popular responses as you're typing in the words, top to bottom.

So, go to Google and type "Tim", and then hit the space bar.  What's the first name that pops up?

And does this mean that Tim Tebow is the most famous Tim in the history of the universe?

With apologies to Mr. Burton and Mr. Geithner (who were, at least, more popular than "Tim Tebow's Girlfriend", who is apparently more sought after than Tim Allen or Tim McGraw)...this is just one more example that it's Tim Tebow's world, and we're all just passing through.  At least for one more year.


And at the height of his popularity, Tim Tebow actually still has something to strive for.  Whether he makes it in the NFL or not is a topic for another day; since he already has two rings and a Heisman, all indications would suggest that #15 is much more interested in the highest of high standards:  not just another National Championship, but an undefeated season.  Which has never been done at Florida.  And it's the only thing Tebow hasn't done.

So the storybook scenario easily presents itself:  the Gators enter as the overwhelming preseason #1, they go wire to wire in the regular season, Tebow wins a second Heisman Trophy and then captures his ultimate prize on college football's biggest stage in Pasadena with a third National Championship, an undefeated season, and the best case I know of for greatest player in college football history.

That's how 2009 is supposed to go.  Maybe he takes down Colt McCoy for the title this time around, maybe USC finally gets to play an SEC team in a BCS game and that's how it ends, that part doesn't really matter because Tebow has no equal.  The only dragon left to slay is perfection.

And sometimes the story goes exactly the way it should.  If all of the above takes place this fall, no one would be surprised, and it'll even feel right, much as we'd hate to admit that in Knoxville.  That's how the story is supposed to be written.

But when you've already ascended this high and the only thing left to do is be perfect, it's also a very dangerous place to be.  It's not that people want Tim Tebow to fail.  It's that if he does, the story will become exponentially less interesting.  We've already done The Speech.  We've already won Heismans and championships.  If he fails to do the one thing he hasn't done...it's not that people will hate him, it's that with that story broken, they'll look somewhere else for a new one.

If Tim Tebow manages to score front row seats to a Kenny Chesney concert between now and kickoff and runs into Peyton Manning there, they might have a lot to talk about.   

They are similar, Manning and Tebow, and I don't know if we like that or not as Vol fans.  There are great quarterbacks and there are number one overall draft picks and there are Heisman winners...but these guys, on an SEC Football level, are in their own category.  They are once-in-a-generation talents that redefined things for their programs and brought unprecedented success.  With the exception of Manning's contemporary in Danny Wuerffel, you can't name another SEC quarterback in the last 30 years who belongs in the same conversation.

Tebow has been, without a doubt, more successful.  But what Manning was to Tennessee was equally impactful in a different way:  breaking Alabama's ten year hold on the Vols and then leading Tennessee to three straight victories in the series, moving the program to the next step on the ladder with a #2 finish in 1995, and rewriting the SEC passing record books along the way.

Both elected to forego their chance to go to the NFL even though it seemed like they had little left to prove, Tebow from a success standpoint and Manning from a readiness standpoint.  And in their announcements to return to school for their senior seasons, that storybook scenario was quickly written for the Vols in 1997 and the Gators in 2009.

And they're just both really good people, as anyone with a microphone or a byline is so eager to remind us.  Manning's greatest flaw was mooning someone in the locker room, and even his status as league leader in four letter words is merely source material for self-deprication on Saturday Night Live.  It's even harder to skew Tebow's life - his sudden appearance courtside in Orlando was reportedly legit anyway, and that's the best I can do with someone who's probably circumcizing an infant somewhere right now.

These are the people we want to succeed.  When I'm outside the boundaries of SEC territory and I wear my Tennessee hat, you know who people ask about most?  Not Kiffin, not Summitt, not Bruce Pearl's chest...it's Manning, by far.  Just last week I had a conversation in Kentucky with a father of three boys who said he didn't even really like football, but turned his kids into Colts fans because he thought Manning was a good role model.  Even if Tebow never makes it in the NFL, it will always be the same for him in the south.

The story is almost too good...and that's why when it loses the chance to be perfect, we get bored with it being just really really good.

In 1997, the only thing Peyton Manning hadn't done was beat Florida.  In the two previous seasons, the Vols went 14-0 against the rest of the SEC and 0-2 against the Gators.  In 1995, Manning played brilliantly against Florida...the defense just gave up 62 points with an assist from Jay Graham's fumbilitis.  In 1996, you have to temper Manning's 4 interceptions with his 492 yards.

So when the Gators beat the Vols 33-20 in his senior season, Manning's 353 yards and 3 TDs were overlooked - in part because he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown - and the dream story was broken.  And from that moment, a significant percentage of college football fans - including several Heisman voters - decided that nothing else Manning did really mattered.

Manning would ho-hum his way through the rest of the season.  3,819 yards passing.  36 touchdowns.  A 11-1 record and a #3 ranking in the polls, with an outside shot at the National Championship.  But none of that mattered.  Manning being really really good was old news.  And with the slightest imperfection, people began to look for another story.

The other problem in 1997 was that no one else was providing that story early on.  Curtis Enis didn't have the numbers and Penn State didn't have the wins.  Ryan Leaf was an interesting development, but he was at Washington State and too far off the radar.  Randy Moss even more so at Marshall.  Ricky Williams was a year away from his spotlight.  In short, Manning kept throwing for 300 yards and 3 touchdowns every week as the Vols kept winning, and none of the other preseason Heisman candidates were doing their part to keep pace.  Even with the loss to Florida, by mid-October Manning was, to no one's surprise, clearly the best player in college football, and the Heisman would be his in a landslide.

But that story was boring without the storybook perfection...so the media decided to invent a story of their own.

I'll only say this about Charles Woodson (actually, I'll let Clay Travis say it) - what Eric Berry did last season at Tennessee was, in every way, equal or superior to what Charles Woodson did at Michigan in 1997.  And he can't even win the Thorpe Award.

But Woodson was a unique story, a different approach to the good guy quarterback who produces 300 yards, 3 touchdowns and wins with machine like precision.  Besides, that guy had just won the Heisman Trophy the year before when he was named Danny Wuerffel and not Peyton Manning.

Bored with Manning, the media turned to Woodson, and then inflated his image every single week.  Both players were on teams in the hunt for the National Championship.  Both players were at their best as the season wore on.  But here's the proof for me that people had already made up their minds:

On November 22, Manning and the Vols squared off against Tim Couch and Kentucky, in a matchup that would feature the number one overall draft picks in the next two years.  The Vols won 59-31, and Manning had the best statistical day in Tennessee Football history:  523 yards, 5 touchdowns.  If you're trying to lockup the Heisman, that's how you do it:  have the best game of your career and outplay one of the other marquee quarterbacks in college football in a shootout.

A few hours north, Charles Woodson ran a punt back for a touchdown against Ohio State on the same day.  When some voters were polled the following week as to their Heisman leaning, Manning had lost significant ground.  Even the very best his career had to offer...was no longer good enough.

He did it again two weeks later, in the SEC Championship Game, playing for his first ring.  Manning threw for 373 yards and overcame five Tennessee fumbles to lead the Vols to a dramatic 30-29 win over Auburn, to win the SEC and keep them in the National Championship race.  Woodson didn't even play.

And one week later, the President of the Downtown Athletic Club gleefully announced that the 1997 winner of the Heisman Trophy was "From MICHIGAN...Charles Woodson!"  I can still see the expression on that guy's face, and don't care to look up his name because that information still isn't safe with Tennessee fans.

We love the perfect story.  We love guys like Peyton Manning.  But when you're already this good, and there's only one thing left to do...if you fall short on just the one thing, we'll get bored.  Even if you're just as incredible as you've always been.  Even if sometimes you're even better.  When perfection is all that's left to attain, it's all or nothing.

I respect Tim Tebow too much to truly dislike him.  He's on the short list with Wuerffel and Jay Barker (Alabama, early 90s, kids) of quarterbacks that simply got the job done every single time, that Tennessee never got the best of and ultimately won championships.

But I know that should the Gators fall just once...we will look somewhere else for our story.

It'll work that way in the Heisman voting.  It'll work that way in the polls as well.  Ask Southern Cal.  The Trojans know that if they don't go undefeated, they're not playing for the National Championship.  It's to a lesser degree, but part of the problem for USC is that they're a victim of their own success.  We've seen their story plenty of times.  Lose once, and we'll move in another direction, consciously or otherwise. 

If Florida loses one game, I don't think Tim Tebow will win the Heisman Trophy.  Which is crazy, and I know that it is.  But we've seen this story before in Knoxville.  Tebow will either write his storybook ending, or be a victim of his own success.  If the Gators lose once, the media will find something else to talk about...even if they have to invent it themselves.

And part of me would love to be wrong.  I'd love to see Tebow get rewarded for continuing to be the best player in college football, even if that comes with a loss.  He's still only human.  For now.

But you even saw it in the voting last year.  Tebow was an exciting new story in 2007 on a team with four losses.  He won the Heisman.  Tebow was older news last season on a team that won the National Championship.  Sam Bradford won the Heisman.

Tebow and the Gators have the perfect story in front of them in 2009.  But their own past successes mean that the slightest imperfection will cost them more than they think.  Tebow is already a great player, already a legend.  In his final season, he'll have to do one better:  he has to be perfect, because we've already seen all his other cards.  It's the ultimate challenge in an unfair landscape.

But for players like Tebow and Manning, maybe they wouldn't want it any other way.   

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