Given that ESPN once presented Tim Tebow with a birthday cake on air — in absentia, since he was still employed as an NFL quasi-quarterback when he turned 25 in August 2012 — it must be considered a mild upset that the announcement Monday that he will be joining ESPN’s upstart SEC Network as an analyst wasn’t accompanied by more outward rejoicing.
What, no one could come up with, say, a smiley-face emoticon Tebowing on Twitter? Or a photo of designated Tebow superfan Skip Bayless smiling at the news as if his heart had grown 3½ sizes that day? Seems like a rare missed opportunity for the ESPN public relations posse.
Of course, hiring Tebow was all but inevitable for ESPN, and not just because the network has long and shamelessly admired him. It was documented during his playing days — ESPN will permit him to continue should an NFL offer come along — that his name directly boosted ratings. Can’t blame ESPN for wanting to capitalize on that.
And in Southern football country, Tebow is beyond revered. Putting him on the SEC Network, where he’ll primarily serve as an analyst for the traveling Saturday morning pregame show “SEC Nation,” is equal parts masterstroke and no-brainer.
Though he will debut Jan. 6 during coverage of the Bowl Championship Series title game, he is positioned to develop as a television personality mostly away from ESPN’s main stage, in front of an audience that considers criticizing the former Heisman winner to be just a notch below blasphemy.
ESPN has set him up to succeed by putting him in front of an audience that already regards him as an icon, and working with respected host Joe Tessitore will only help. I’m just not sure he will succeed, at least within the parameters of what makes for a quality analyst.
Can Tebow be articulate and insightful? Can he make a concise and compelling point while a producer is barking at him through his earpiece that he has eight seconds left to spit out what he wants to say? Will he be blunt when the moment calls for it?
“I would love to continue to be someone who’s positive but also be someone that is objective,’’ said Tebow during a conference call Tuesday that included ESPN executives Justin Connolly and Stephanie Druley. “I’ve never had a hard time saying what I believed or standing up for something, and hopefully I can continue to be that same person as an analyst and sharing what I believe about players, about teams, about games.
“I will look at it from an objective prism and try to share an insight with the viewers just like I always have any time I’ve had the opportunity to share.”
As Tebow finished his answer, Druley, a vice president of productions, asked if she could jump in.
“Tim is a very nice person, and we all know the role model that he is, but he’s also a football junkie,’’ Druley said. “He lives, breathes and eats the game. That’s what you look for in an analyst, and the best analysts teach somebody, teach the viewers about the game, and I think Tim will do an excellent job with that.
“I’m confident that he’ll give opinions where it needs to be given. If criticism is warranted, I think he’ll give criticism. But I think that criticism will be educated and well thought-out.”
Even if you’re not one to see Tebow through the prism of unyielding devotion, as so many college football fans do, there’s no denying many of the reasons for his appeal. He is charismatic, generous, seemingly sincere, and relentlessly kind.
He is also savvy, never deviating from the point about his longstanding “great relationship” with ESPN (a term he used multiple times during the 25-minute call). Which leads to what might be his biggest flaw: For all of his appeal, he is not particularly articulate.
As sort of a case study, I dug out a random press conference transcript from Tebow’s playing days that I had in my files. It’s from Jan. 10, 2012, following the most noteworthy win of his NFL career, a 29-23 overtime victory over the Steelers in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Tebow was talking with New England reporters in advance of the Broncos’ divisional-round matchup with the Patriots. He took 16 questions during the call. His answers totaled 1,334 words. Within those answers, he used the word “definitely” 18 times, “great” 17 times, and “excited” seven times.
Here is a typical answer, which was his response to a question about whether the win over the Steelers reminded him of any of his big victories at Florida:
“I definitely was very blessed to have some great memories at Florida and very blessed to have some great teammates and special relationships and some special wins. I think that was definitely a special one Sunday night. I know it was definitely special not just for the win but for the guys that I won it with, for the fans that supported us, for the coaches and all the work that we put in this season, it was definitely, definitely very meaningful.”
That doesn’t exactly suggest he’ll be the next Kirk Herbstreit.
Maybe Tebow, because of his name recognition, doesn’t have to be that good. Maybe passable will suffice. After all, this is a media world in which famed names such as Michael Irvin keep jobs for years without offering much of substance.
Then again, some stars are so bad in the studio — think Emmitt Smith or Joe Montana — that even their status can’t prevent them from losing the gig.
This much we do know about Tim Tebow, fledgling analyst: He’ll work hard to get better.
But as his previous career reminded us, hard work doesn’t always bring corresponding success. Consider me skeptical that he’ll be much better at analyzing football than he was at throwing one.