Well, ever since the inept 1-4 Broncos, in despair, turned the team over to Tim Tebow against the Chargers back in October, the fair city of Denver has been in thrall to a drama I know well.
Long-time readers will recall that I am a native son of Denver, Colorado; but I have made Georgia my home for over a decade. And Georgia being SEC country, I could not possibly avoid the phenomenon of Tim Tebow, arguably the most successful quarterback in college football history.
Folks out West are often astonished to learn how decisively college football exceeds the NFL in the esteem of Southern football fans. “Pro football is just something to watch when we’re hungover” is the boast I’ve occasionally heard.
Similarly, only a transplant to the South can gain anything approaching objectivity as regards the Southeastern Conference in college football. I tend to favor Georgia out of states rights sentiment, but it is a mere lark compared to the intensity of real Bulldog fans — or Roll Tide! fans, or War Eagle fans, or wild crazy Cajun Geaux Tigers fans — or Gator fans.
Thus the Tebow drama a few years back during his outstanding career as quarterback of the Florida Gators kind of washed over me without disrupting the deeper emotions. I admired the kid’s competitive spirit, his earnest Christianity, his football excellence; but it was a detached admiration. I could still appreciate the animus reserved for him by a Georgia or LSU or Alabama fan.
And now here I am, deeply invested emotionally in the improbable success of young Tim Tebow, whose fate is now entwined with the QB hero of my own youth in Denver: I mean, of course, the great John Elway.
So it’s like Gainesville on the Rockies.
After absolutely awful play for 4 ½ games, from all positions but prominently from the QB position, the Denver Broncos pulled their starter and sent out the kid. They did not expect much. 24-year-old Tebow was said to be a poor passer, whose mechanics left him bereft of the indispensable tools to win in the NFL. All through the summer and early fall we heard about how plainly Tebow had earned the backup position, never having even threatened to convince the coaches to start him.
And then amazing happened*.
Tebow won 5 out first 6 games he started. In four of them he led rivieting late-game comebacks: true football heroics, worthy of Elway. In all of the games (even the very ugly loss) he demonstrated toughness, agility, strength, and caution. In several of them he endured miserable pass protection and got tossed around like a ragdoll. He threw the ball rarely. Instead, he dinked around for several quarters with gadget plays, inside running, and safe throws deep down the field; and then, late in the game, he put his talents to work brilliantly. He crowned evasiveness with a taste for judicious contact. And he passed better.
He deftly faked defensive-ends numerous times. He displayed an extraordinary knack for following blockers on QB dive plays, avoiding hits and gaining solid yards. He’s as big as a linebacker. He swatted aside the vaunted Derrelle Revis (whom he admittedly outweighs by 40 pounds) on a tough run late in the game against the Jets. He takes hits, of course, and the question of his staying healthy is a serious one.
His passing across the games has indeed been below average. But also well below average in the critical stat of giveaways. The kid has thrown exactly one interception this year. His numbers decisively improve when operating the hurry-style late-game offense. Yesterday against the Chargers at the end of the first half, he made several tight-spiral, on-time throws, including a brilliant one for a touchdown to Eric Decker.
According to ESPN, in the 4th quarter with the game on the line, Tebow averages nearly 15 yards per pass and over 6 per run. Not too shabby.
In all five wins, Tebow has been a solid quarterback in addition to being among the best running-backs on the field.
Through all this Tim Tebow continues to arouse a noticeable sneer and dismissal from an intransigent portion of the football commentariat, whose judgment seems frequently impaired by personal bias. The commentators will advert toward Cam Newton (another SEC product of high talent) as an obviously superior QB talent, on the grounds of his gaudier passing style and numbers, without realizing that Newton had a chance to beat out Tebow for the starting spot at Florida and failed. The man who stuck with Tebow over Newton just inked a deal to coach at Ohio State for many millions, but what do Ohio State and the University of Florida know about football?
Likewise the criticism of Tebow seems to partake of a larger and more pregnant failure: an implicit denigration of the quality of football that goes on in the SEC. The two defenses that will (in all likelihood, and for a second time this season) face off in the National Championship this year in college football exemplify that quality. Raise your hand if, when thinking hard on it, you estimate that SEC quarterbacks of the past five years have had an easy time of it, facing off against SEC linebackers and defensive lines.
Football is a funny game. You can win it with elegant brilliance, as with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers; or you can win it bruising and ugly-like, by just sort of grinding the opponent to exhaustion. The Broncos are doing it the latter way. Their defense is very formidable. They have numerous playmakers and they put constant pressure on the opposing QB. Coach John Fox deserves immense credit for the improvement in scheme and toughness. On offense, they have recaptured the Denver tradition (which, when finally added to a QB of Elway’s caliber, brought home two Championships to the city) of building off the running game. Tebow naturally thrives in the chaotic finales of football games. He’s better unscripted; ugly plays very frequently turn out in his favor. In this context his lack of bad mistakes (read: turnovers) may be his most telling quality. He prospers in ugly games in part because he doesn’t add to the ugliness with bad decisions.
The Broncos are far from a perfect team. Tebow, already limited as a passer, is basically throwing to two slot receivers and a collection of TEs. His guys have dropped quite a few catchable balls. Daniel Fells nearly blew the game yesterday with a fumble. GA Tech alumnus Demaryius Thomas has yet to break out as a serious threat deep. Broncos’ brass probably regrets the facility with which it dealt away the team’s best wideout midseason.
But this is still a great story. The Tebow magic must be fun to watch from a mile high.
* — I took this phrase from an old friend, longtime Broncos fan, and transplant to another big city whose heart still beats for Denver sports, as shown by his Tebowing image above.