MIAMI -- Watching Tim Tebow Sunday for three quarters, I actually found myself feeling sorry for him, thinking maybe he should be doing his beloved missionary work instead of playing football since he clearly looked like anything but a functioning NFL quarterback.
For three quarters against the Miami Dolphins, Tebow was a how-not-to on playing quarterback in the NFL. He was wild. He threw passes into the benches. He was jumpy in the pocket. He rarely set his feet. To summarize: He was a disaster.
Then it was Tebow Time.
It's hard to describe exactly what that is, but you can feel it building and gaining speed as it comes while you watch the game transform into Tebow's to win. It's as if he grabs the game by the throat and makes it his own -- any way he can, even if it's not the conventional style of so many other quarterbacks.
Down 15-0 with just over three minutes left, Tebow suddenly came alive. He threw two touchdown passes, tied it by running in for a 2-point play with 17 seconds left and then sat back to soak it all in when Matt Prater's 52-yard field goal gave Denver a stunning 18-15 overtime victory at Sun Life Stadium.
"He's never going to quit," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Even when the other team is ahead by 15, they can't let up. He won't. That's what we had here. He's always going to be fighting until the end. That's who he is. Even when he's not playing well, you know he will keep fighting."
The Tebow cult will say it was a magical day, indeed showing how much he's a winner, a never-say-die player who has that special will to succeed. That's their version. That's the now version. That's the version for this week.
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But the big-picture version is this: Those final five minutes are like putting lipstick on a pig. The column I planned to write after three quarters was one of sympathy for Tebow, unable to live up to the expectations or the hype.
This game doesn't erase that. It just makes it go away for a while.
Yet, as one of the biggest Tebow critics out there, I found myself appreciating his fight Sunday. The Dolphins helped him along by going to the soft defense, allowing Denver to recover an onsides kick and fumbling to set up the game-winning field goal. But Tebow seemed to come alive when it was time to do so.
There's a name for that: Tebow Time.
"Early in the game, he was maybe second-guessing things," Broncos safety Brian Dawkins said. "But at the end of the day, he's a guy who's going to continue to fight, continue to scrap and use his arm, his legs, or whatever to get the job done."
That tells you the Broncos players aren't quite sure what to make of his skills, yet they respect the fight in the guy.
It's that fight that draws people to him. It's what made him a success in high school, and at the University of Florida. It's why he won a Heisman Trophy, why he helped Florida win two national titles and has that maniacal following.
The 2008 Gators team that won the national title was honored by the Dolphins Sunday in an odd promotion. That led to a large contingent of Tebow fans and Tebow jerseys. When the field goal sailed through the uprights, the crowd went wild. Tebow did nothing on the final drive but hand off three times after the Dolphins turnover, yet you can bet his legion of followers will claim he led them to the game-winning points.
Doesn't Broncos coach John Fox not throwing it in that spot say something about Tebow? It left Prater, who had missed two field goals on the day, to bang home a 52-yarder to win it.
Tebow just might be one of those players who doesn't look good in practice, might not look good for three quarters in some games, but just finds a way when it matters.
"There are guys like that," Bailey said. "I've been around for a long time, and you just know there are certain kinds of players who get it done when it counts. They might not look good, but when they have to make plays they make them. I think that's who he is."
The Broncos are doing the right thing playing Tebow after benching Kyle Orton. They have to find out if Tebow is their long-term future. Based on Sunday, the verdict is that they still have no idea. How could they?
Fox was asked if this meant Tebow would be the starter moving forward.
"I don't like making disclosures this early," Fox said.
Fox also didn't seem as if he wanted to give Tebow too much praise.
"He made a lot of plays with both his feet and his arm," Fox said. "Guys helped him as far as the receptions they made. That's the NFL. Not every pitch is a strike. It takes some good plays on the ball, and we got those. So, of course, that makes the quarterback look better."
There was nothing that could have made him look better for the first three quarters. Not all the drive and desire in the world could hide the fact that he was downright horrible. His three-quarter stat line was 3-of-8 for 24 yards and he was sacked four times.
But in the fourth quarter alone, he was 10 of 19 for 137 yards and two touchdowns. He ran in on a quarterback draw to tie it.
"I kept believing in the people around me and that eventually we were going to be able to start to get things going, and eventually we did," Tebow said. "It started with little bits, and then we got chunks, but we kept going. It's one of the great lessons you learn in football: When you get knocked down over and over again, you've got to keep getting up."
Anybody who watched this game and came away from it thinking this answers questions about Tebow would be way off base. Even on the two scoring drives, he needed diving catches and some dumb prevent defense by the Dolphins to help him. I wouldn't want to be John Elway or Fox, the men running the Broncos. This isn't the type of quarterback you can win with in the long run, but games like Sunday will provide fuel for those who think they can.
What Sunday does do is remind us that Tebow will fight to the end, no matter how bloodied and battered he may be.
Missionary work can wait -- at least for a while.
Admit it, though: That first 55 minutes had you wondering if it could.