DENVER – During more than two decades of covering the NFL, I've heard players disparage opponents on numerous occasions. As a journalist who has yet to be crushed by the proliferation of trash-talk, I've happily facilitated this dastardly dissing and shared it with the masses when given the chance.
Usually, these statements are designed to rile a rival, or to send a message that a player and his team won't be intimidated. On Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, however, Tim Tebow(notes) was disrobed and demystified by a superior team – and then the young quarterback got low-blowed with a degree of disrespect that blew my mind.
"Can you believe '15'?" one Detroit Lions defender asked after his team's 45-10 immolation of Tebow and the Denver Broncos. "Come on – that's embarrassing. I mean, it's a joke. We knew all week that if we brought any kind of defensive pressure, he couldn't do anything. In the second half it got boring out there. We were like, 'Come on – that's your quarterback? Seriously?' "
It would be one thing if this particular defender could be written off as an outlier, but during the time I spent in the Lions' locker room after the game – and, later, on the phone with various coaches, front-office executives and players around the league – similarly harsh assessments were uttered about the second-year quarterback making his second start of the 2011 season.
Words like atrocious, terrible, completely exposed and not even close to ready kept coming up in these conversations; a couple of Lions even used the term oh my god. They did not appear to be mocking Tebow's devout Christian beliefs – however, at least two Detroit players (middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch(notes) and tight end Tony Scheffler(notes)) made a point of "Tebowing" during the game, imitating the prayerful pose the quarterback struck following the previous Sunday's stunning overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins.
The point that was driven home on Sunday, and quite forcefully, was this: Against a crappy team like the winless Dolphins, the possibility exists that Tebow can get away with 55 minutes of flaccid football and, with the help of a blessed onside-kick recovery, add to the legend forged at Florida, where he had one of the most decorated college football careers of all time. However, against an emerging power like the Lions (6-2), he's as overmatched and vulnerable as an adolescent's eardrums in the front row of a Nickelback concert.
"As long as he felt our pressure," said Lions defensive end Cliff Avril(notes), whose third-quarter sack/fumble/recovery/return produced one of Detroit's two defensive scores, "he was gonna make crazy decisions."
In fairness, Tebow's 18-for-39, 172-yard performance – numbers padded considerably by garbage-time completions, if you can believe that – wasn't solely the product of dubious choices. His limited skill set was also on display, from an acute lack of accuracy, to a deliberate delivery (Avril dislodged the ball while Tebow was extending his arm backward before attempting to pass), to an apparent uncertainty about where to go with the ball.
None of this was necessarily a surprise to the Broncos' brass, including coach John Fox and executive vice president of football operations John Elway. Tebow's flaws were obvious to all trained observers during training camp, which is why veteran Kyle Orton(notes) was named the team's unquestioned starter in August.
Orton's struggles – and Denver (2-5) losing four of its first five games – caused the Broncos' decision-makers to call an audible, a move greeted by great popular acclaim. Yet it's hard to imagine that Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks in football history, saw anything he didn't expect on Sunday. It was as if, by starting Tebow, he said to the 74,977 fans at Mile High, "You wanted this guy? OK, then … Heeeerrrree's Timmy!"
Said one Lions offensive player: "It was like, 'See? Here's why …' "
Realistically, playing Tebow makes sense on a practical level. Trading up to pick him in the first round of the 2010 draft was the highest-profile move of former coach Josh McDaniels' reign of error, and even if the Broncos plan to trade or cut Tebow after 2011, it behooves them to evaluate his potential under game conditions.
It's not Tebow's fault that his draft position heightened already inflated expectations, or that McDaniels got fired last December and a new regime less enthusiastic about the quarterback's abilities was installed. And it's debatable whether the kid has a fighting chance given Denver's obvious talent deficiencies.
Again, this reflects poorly on McDaniels, now the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator, whose record as a first-time talent evaluator is proving to be Millenesque. He made eight picks in the first two rounds of the 2009 and 2010 drafts, yet that crop yielded only three current starters: Tebow, guard Zane Beadles(notes) and defensive end Robert Ayers(notes). Of McDaniels' 19 picks overall, only eight are on Denver's active roster, three in reserve roles.
So, is Tebow being judged in an unfairly harsh light? His legions of fans would undoubtedly answer in the affirmative. They revere him for his work ethic, his values, his leadership qualities and, not insignificantly, his faith.
However – and this is a big however – there's a glaring disconnect between many fans' assessment of Tebow's status as a wholesome winner and the way many NFL players process his presence. To some, the notion that Tebow somehow pushes harder or taps into a higher power than they do is insulting. The NFL is full of maniacally driven grinders who've overcome incredible odds to reach the pinnacle of their profession, and many of them are clean-living and well-mannered, too.
While few NFL players seem to have a problem with Tebow on a personal level, I know plenty who are put off by the mythology and the holier-than-thou fan base that lionizes his every accomplishment and perceives negative depictions of his ability through a persecution-complex-tinted prism.
The result, as we saw on Sunday, is in-your-face Tebowing: Tulloch, after a first-quarter sack, literally knelt over the fallen Tebow while striking the pose. He later said he meant no disrespect – and Tulloch is a thoughtful veteran hardly known for his insolence – but neither he nor his teammates were overly apologetic, either.
After a decade as the NFL's laughingstock, these Lions are embracing a Bad Boy image similar to that of the '80s Pistons, with second-year defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh(notes) playing the role of Bill Laimbeer. On Friday, an NFL.com headline portrayed Sunday's showdown as a struggle between good and evil, with accompanying photos of Tebow and Suh.
"Evil prevails," Suh told reporters after a defensive effort that included seven sacks.
How torturous was it? With 11 minutes left in the game, not long after he'd served up a 100-yard interception return to Lions cornerback Chris Houston(notes), Tebow was 8-for-26 for 85 yards. At one point, the Broncos had seven consecutive three-play drives. He ran 10 times for 63 yards, getting pummeled by safety Louis Delmas(notes) after a 12-yard scramble on the final play of the third quarter. When he threw, he seemed locked in on his primary receiver.
That "IN-COM-PLETE" cheer that Broncos fans like to bust out for opposing passers? They might want to come up with an alternate version to herald Tebow's completions.
Afterward, Fox refused to commit to Tebow as his starter for next Sunday's game against the Raiders in Oakland. "It's too early to say," he told reporters.
A source familiar with the Broncos' thinking said he expected Tebow to last another couple of games until – barring a dramatic improvement on the left-hander's part – the team turns to current third-stringer Brady Quinn(notes), a 2007 first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns. The Broncos would then target a quarterback in the first round of next April's draft, with a trio of Big 12 passers – Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Baylor's Robert Griffin and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden – the likeliest candidates at this point. The draft's projected top QB prize, Andrew Luck, would presumably be off the board before Denver picks.
Until then, the Tebow Dream lives on, albeit in a slightly battered and heavily disrespected state after Sunday's thrashing.
"You've got to go out there and get better," Tebow told reporters in his postgame news conference. "[If] you want it to be different, then make it different."
If he's going to make it different in Denver, he'd better get better soon. For right now, as some of Tebow's opponents will gladly attest, it appears as though he doesn't have a prayer.
Those of us who bought into the Dream Team hype have been feeling mighty gullible as the Eagles staggered out of the gate, but their 34-7 snuffing of the Cowboys Sunday night raised the possibility that they just might have a shot at salvaging a seemingly lost season. Philly (3-4) has now won two consecutive games and, against Dallas, looked like the assertive, explosive team many of us thought the Eagles would be from the get-go. Tight end Brent Celek's(notes) concise, half-joking explanation: "Beast mode." … Speaking of beasts, the Steelers (6-2) officially have my attention after their fourth consecutive victory, a 25-17 triumph over the New England Patriots. Pittsburgh finally defeated a formidable foe in 2011 and, perhaps more significantly, showed it can prevail against the Pats and Tom Brady(notes), who had dominated the Steelers throughout his career. Credit a revived defense for containing Brady and the Pats' passing game, and give it up for Ben Roethlisberger(notes) – the most underrated quarterback of his era, or perhaps any era – who shredded the Pats' vulnerable secondary with a 36-for-50, 365-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Steelers certainly got the attention of the Ravens (5-2), who snapped out of a six-quarter haze to pull out a 30-27 victory over the Cardinals. Baltimore, which began the season by pummeling its AFC North rival 35-7, heads to Heinz Field for a rematch with Pittsburgh next Sunday night. "Everybody knows what type of team Pittsburgh is," Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo(notes) said late Sunday night. "It looks like they're on track now, like we'll get them firing on all four cylinders. Hopefully we'll be running on six or eight cylinders." The Ravens, coming off a desultory, 12-7 defeat to the Jags last Monday night, came out firing blanks against the Cards, falling behind 24-3. They responded with the biggest comeback victory in franchise history. Turn up the volume next Sunday night – there's going to be some serious hitting at Heinz. … The Cards (1-6) blew a chance to end a long losing streak that has now reached six games. The Dolphins (0-7) did the same, squandering an 11-point first-half lead and falling to the Giants 20-17. But the Rams, bless their blue-and-yellow, throwback-style horns, parlayed a strong start against the Saints (St. Louis led 24-0 in the third quarter) into a 31-21 shocker to improve to 1-6 and buoy the hopes of the league's bottom-feeders in the weeks to come. Sunday's fast start allowed the Rams to ram halfback Steven Jackson (25 carries, 159 yards, two touchdowns) into the guts of the Saints' defense. "We never took him out of the game," New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) said of Jackson. "They could stay with him because we never got a lead to make them throw." And when St. Louis did throw, backup quarterback A.J. Feeley(notes) (20 for 37, 175 yards, one touchdown, no interception) was smooth and efficient, with newly acquired Brandon Lloyd(notes) (six catches, 53 yards, one TD) making a noticeable impact on the Rams' underwhelming receiving corps. Consider this unlikely stat: Midway through the 2011 campaign, Feeley has as many victories – one – as a starter as two other ex-Eagles: Kolb, he of the $62 million contract, and deposed Vikings starter Donovan McNabb(notes). If you saw that coming, raise your hand. No one? Didn't think so. … Finally, the Texans (5-3) remained in charge of the AFC South by putting a quick end to the Jags' alleged revival, rolling to a 24-14 victory. That undoubtedly spoiled the afternoon of Terrance (Pot Roast) Knighton, the Jacksonville defensive tackle who last Friday told the Florida Times-Union's Tania Ganguli, "I hate Houston; I hate the Texans. That's probably the team I hate most in the league. I don't know, they have an arrogance about them I just can't stand." My reaction: Really? The Texans are arrogant? We're talking about the franchise that has never made the playoffs and almost always loses big games on the road, right? It's hard to imagine that the Texans are full of themselves – but the fact that an opponent is complaining that they are is probably a sign of progress.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The widespread appeal of Mumford. Or his sons.
2. This slice of wisdom from JaMarcus Russell in Jon Wertheim's Sports Illustrated profile of the former Raiders quarterback and quintessential draft bust: Russell, according to Wertheim, "likes Drew Brees(notes) [though Russell says he throws off his back foot too much].' " In other news, Russell believes Shaun White is a good snowboarder but thinks he sometimes forgets to tuck his chin on the second rotation of the Double McTwist 1260. Russell also admires Meryl Streep's acting but says she squints her eyes too much in an effort to evoke comedic emotions. And he believes Emeril Lagasse is a capable chef but quarrels with his frequent use of cayenne pepper in appetizers. Oh, and on behalf of Brees and all other NFL quarterbacks of the past decade who've devoted more attention to developing their craft than Russell – which is to say all of them – one final thought: Yo, JaMarcus – have some more Purple Drank.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Urban Meyer was hugely successful during his coaching stints at Florida and Utah, and one of the qualities that helped him motivate players was conveying a sense that he had their backs. So I wasn't surprised to see that, in a recent interview with the Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows, Meyer stuck up for Tebow and 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who starred for him at Utah. However, Meyer was so arrogant and self-serving that a reality check is in order – and I know a lot of NFL coaches and executives who'll be pleased to read this one. Here's what Meyer told Barrows: "It's amazing to me in the NFL that if you're on a really bad team – bad offense, bad defense, bad kicking game – then it's the quarterback's fault. … I watched coordinator after coordinator come out of [San Francisco]. The defense was ranked near the bottom every year. It's a really bad team. And all of a sudden, it's, 'Well, Alex can't play.' And I'm thinking, 'What are you talking about? Alex certainly can play.' It's the same thing with Tim. So quarterbacks, they get far too much credit and far too much blame." Translation: When I had those guys, we had good players, and they were awesome QBs. Then they went to the pros and played with crappy players and for coaches who (unlike me) weren't able to bring out the best in said players. Therefore, no matter how poorly Smith has played at times – or how poorly Tebow might play this season – it's not either guy's fault. Riiiiggggghtt.
Look, I'm not sure whether Meyer has plans to coach again or if the NFL is on his radar, but if so, he can expect to get a chilly reception from a lot of folks at the NFL scouting combine and at league meetings. After all, Meyer was among the least accommodating college coaches while at Florida when it came to meeting the needs of visiting scouts and other talent-evaluators. And he was right there with Nick Saban in his sanctimonious splendor in the summer of 2010 when the Alabama coach temporarily banned scouts from team facilities during Crimson Tide practices, essentially equating them with agents, whom he had publicly compared to "pimps." Meyer used the word "scumbags" to convey a similar message in conjunction with closing a couple of summer practices to fans and media. Because, you know, Meyer is the emblem of purity and nobility in this crazy, twisted world of ours. I'm sure Meyer's defenders would ascribe this behavior to the coach being fiercely protective of his players and program. Well, can you imagine how Meyer, during his time at Florida, would have reacted to an NFL coach taking a shot at the Gators the way he just brutalized the 49ers and Broncos? You can bet he'd have launched into an over-the-top diatribe that railed against his detractors and defended the virtue and righteousness of one man: Urban Meyer.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"He is good. Scary when he gets out of the pocket. Holds the ball a bit so nice for rushing"
– Text Sunday evening from Vikings defensive end Jared Allen(notes), on Cam Newton(notes), after Minnesota's 24-21 victory over the Panthers.
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Jared Allen on Vikes' comeback win ]
"Bad day at the office … but we have plenty more to go!!"
– Email Sunday night from Brady, staying upbeat after the Pats' defeat in Pittsburgh.
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