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In short time, Tebow has come a long way

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 15, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - You have to flash back. Back before Dwight Howard was Tebowing in public, before Lindsey Vonn was Tebowing on World Cup podiums, before a man with a prosthetic leg decided to Tebow in his kitchen and call it Ampu-Tebowing.

You have to go back before Tebowing was even in the lexicon. Even before you knew genuflecting was the real word for it. Back when it was just kneeling. Because, really, that was only four months ago.

That’s when Tim Tebow was the third quarterback on the Broncos’ depth chart, and it seemed like nothing - not his Florida pedigree, his Heisman Trophy, or his unwavering faith - could change it.

That was when ESPN analyst Merril Hoge couldn’t find a compliment for him. He was actually ripping whatever credentials Tebow had to shreds.

“It’s embarrassing to think the Broncos could win with Tebow,’’ Hoge tweeted.

And that wasn’t just Hoge at his nicest, that was all the Tebow criticism at its nicest.

“It just says a lot about him,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said. “It all hasn’t been good, I can tell you that.’’

You have to go back to training camp when an incomprehensible quarterback controversy just wouldn’t go away. The front office wanted Kyle Orton, but the fan base wanted Tebow. Whether it was intentional or not, Tebow stoked the flames when he told the Denver Post, “My dream, since I was a young boy, of being a starting quarterback in the NFL seemed to be coming true. Then, I felt like it was grabbed back away.’’

You have to go that far back, because it helps explain how wildly hyperbolic Tebow’s success seems now. With Orton under center, the Broncos lost four of their first five games. They made Tebow the starter in Week 6 and they’ve gone 7-1 since.

Few of the wins have been pretty. Three have come in overtime. But Denver has won six straight with Tebow as its quarterback, and his squeaky-clean, hyper-religious, and above-all inexplicably successful ways have been magnified with each win.

Set to face the Patriots Sunday, Tebow laughed when he thought back to where he was just four months ago because it almost seems like another lifetime.

“I guess some of it does feel like a little while ago,’’ he said yesterday. “It definitely has been a little bit of a whirlwind, but it’s been a lot of fun.’’

For helping to lead the Florida Gators to two national championship, he was cheekily called “Football Jesus.’’ For spinning a water-to-wine season for the Broncos, he’s being called the “Mile High Messiah.’’

He’s become a walking case for sports and spirituality. People in his own organization don’t even pretend to try to wrap their heads around it.

“I can’t answer that,’’ Fox said. “I was a P.E. major not a sociology major.’’

At this point, the praise and the scrutiny sound like high-volume white noise. On the one hand, he’s a winner. On the other hand, he’s completing less than half of his passes. The hand with the wins ultimately carries the most weight. Even if it didn’t, Tebow almost artfully ignores the outside opinions, good and bad.

“I’ve honestly done my best to just try to stay clear of it, not pay too much attention, not listen to too much of it,’’ he said. “It’s obviously hard, hard to get that far away from it. But it’s something I learned when I was pretty young at Florida, not to worry about what I can’t control, and that’s something I can’t control.’’

It always goes back to religion with Tebow, but it’s never contrived. He was asked if the past two seasons have strengthened his faith, and for a second it seemed tough for him to ponder. Of all the questions he had been asked over the weeks, he said he hadn’t heard it.

“For me as a Christian trying to grow closer to the Lord . . . One way you strengthen your faith is through obstacles, through adversity, and there’s definitely been some of that.

“Then, also something that strengthens your faith is when you have things go good, how you handle it. I think for me, one of my biggest prayers is win or lose, good or bad, is that I’m the same guy. I honor the Lord either way and I treat people the exact same and I’m not changing no matter what happens.’’

One of the most interesting parts of Sunday’s game is the Patriots’ affinity for Tebow. Coach Bill Belichick wasn’t just high on Tebow throughout the 2010 draft. He went to see Florida when Tebow was an underclassman. They worked him out in Gainesville. Belichick’s face distorts at the suggestion Tebow is a less-than-skilled quarterback.

“I don’t agree with any of that,’’ Belichick said. “I think his passing’s good. It was good in college. He was a very productive passer in college. He’s throwing the ball well [now] obviously. He throws it good short, he throws it intermediate. He can throw it deep. He’s got some very good throws. As good as anybody.’’

As far as how the Patriots intend to game plan for Tebow, Belichick said, “I don’t know if there’s another quarterback in the league that has Tim Tebow’s skill. It’s like Mike Vick. Guys like that, there’s not a lot of them running around.’’

When Tebow came to New England to meet the organization’s higher-ups, he took it as a chance to learn. To Patriots owner Robert Kraft, the idea of an athlete almost forcing the world to consider spirituality and religion is intriguing.

“He’s a real fine young man,’’ Kraft said. “I sort of like that he’s about spirituality, that the country is thinking about spirituality.’’

To be clear, he also likes the thought of halting the ride Tebow and the Broncos have been on.

“I hope we can sort of rain on the parade a little bit, but you never know,’’ Kraft said.

No one in the Patriots’ locker room wants to get caught sleeping.

Defensive back Antwaun Molden played against Tebow last season when he was with the Texans, and said there was one thing he would take from that game that he could pass along: “Be alert every play. Some people say he can’t pass, but when I see him on film, the guy can pass and also run. He’s more accurate than people think.’’

And that’s what’s also compelling. The notion that someone you prepare for all week can still surprise you on Sunday. In theory, the Broncos should have lost to the Raiders or the Jets or the Chargers or the Bears (who had a 10-point lead with a little more than two minutes left).

But with Tebow, you never know.

Fox didn’t reach for any explanations.

“The guy just wins,’’ he said.

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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