Tebow’s most amazing trait? Humility

Sportswriters and ballplayers have nothing in common so much as an urge to utter four favorite words:

I told you so.

It’s become the coin of the realm in this business. Nothing inspires such opportunistic passion as a chance to hate the doubters and doubt the haters. I generalize, sure, but just the same, I find that most people in the press box (hell, yes, myself included) and the locker room would rather be right — or merely perceived as right — than be good. Sacred seems the chance to prove the doubters wrong. Hating can be hilarious; it offers a chance to tweet some one-liners. Then again, what’s mean-spirited fun to one man becomes motivation to another.

The exception — a glorious one, I would argue — is Tim Tebow, who threw for two touchdowns (including the 80-yard game-winner on the first snap of overtime) and 316 yards to lead the Denver Broncos past the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 in overtime Sunday at Sports Authority Stadium. He was not intercepted. He did not fumble. What’s more, he ran for 50 yards, a number that includes four first downs, one of them a touchdown.

Yes, football is a team game. Tebow would be the first to tell you that. Just the same, he was the reason the Broncos won. He was 6 for 22 for 60 yards seven days ago against the Kansas City Chiefs. But he was masterful against the Steelers. That was the difference.

“I just needed to play better,” said Tebow, testing his own capacity for understatement.

What happened Sunday night was more than an upset. It was more than a thrilling playoff win for the Broncos. It was an epic rebuke to Tebow’s legions of doubters. Call it Tebow 3:16. (I mean, as long as everyone seems intent on demeaning religion by cross-pollinating it with sports, why the hell not?)

Tebow came out for the postgame presser in a knit cap and a vest, jeans and sneakers. He offered praise to God (which, for some reason, doesn’t bug me so much when he does it). He spoke of how privileged he was to spend time before the game with Bailey Knaub, a 16-year-old who has endured 73 surgeries battling Wegener’s granulomatosis, a rare disease that attacks vital organs. And he credited his teammates — wideout Demaryius Thomas (204 yards, the game-winning score), presumably first among them — “who make me look a lot better than I really am.”

That’s all great, but I had to wonder if some part of him didn’t want to tell a whole bunch of people “I told you so.”

I can’t think of an athlete, who has been judged by such bipolar standards. Tebow began the season as a bum. Then he became a savior (not just the garden-variety redeemer of a franchise, but spoken of as a true messianic figure). Then he became a bum again. By Sunday morning, ESPN’s various broadcasters were pontificating on his crushed confidence and predicting his replacement by Brady Quinn, who is not only a proven failure as an NFL quarterback but hadn’t thrown a pass all season.

After all that, if anyone was entitled to a self-righteous “I told you so,” it was Tebow. Instead, he said: “I’m just blessed to have an opportunity to be the quarterback for the Denver Broncos and play in a game in front of such great fans and with great teammates.”

That leaves it to me to tell you what really happened. Yes, the Steelers — nine-point favorites on the road — had some injuries. But according to the numbers, they were also the best defense in the league. Their plan was simple: dare Tebow to beat them throwing the ball. Toward that end, they kept blitzing their safeties. After all, they were going against a guy who couldn’t get 61 yards off the Chiefs. Tebow wasn’t going to beat the Steelers with a vertical passing game, right?

But he did. Once again, Pittsburgh sent the safeties on the first play of overtime. That left Thomas alone with cornerback Ike Taylor. Tebow hit him on the run, and Thomas did the rest.

“Once I stiff-armed Ike, I knew I could take it all the way,” Thomas said.

With the safeties blitzing, there was nothing between Thomas and the end zone. An 80-yard touchdown ended the overtime just as it began 11 seconds earlier. The stadium erupted in a way I have never seen, not at a football game.

Other salient details of Tebow 3:16 include Thomas’s other catches of 51 and 58 yards in the second quarter. Then there was Tebow’s 8-yard touchdown run. For all that is said of what he cannot do, little is said of what he can. He’s the only passer who can double as his own red-zone fullback. Finally, the biggest number of all: Zero. Tebow committed no turnovers.

And being neither as good nor as modest as America’s saintly quarterback, I don’t mind telling you a bit:

I told you so.