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Tebow's late mastery covers up early blemishes

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – There were so many great things Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow(notes) did Sunday that it's hard not to get lost in them.

There were the 15 points he guided the Broncos to during the final three minutes to force overtime in an eventual 18-15 victory over the winless Miami Dolphins. There were the two pinpoint throws he made in the clutch after making one ugly toss after another for the first 55 minutes. There was the smile he helped bring to the face of Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway, a man who knows more than a few things about improbable comebacks.

There were the endless interviews he did, including a few private moments with a physically disabled reporter who ambled around the busy locker room with a cane to aid his painful-looking gait. And, of course, there was the prayer that Tebow led on the sideline with his teammates prior to overtime.

But for all of Tebow's achievements, there is one significant thing he didn't accomplish: He failed to help Denver determine whether it has a franchise quarterback. And that's the only thing that matters the rest of this season.

Is Tebow the great player who completed nine of 13 passes for 121 yards, two touchdowns and then ran for a two-point conversion in his final two drives before overtime? Or is he the borderline horrible quarterback who completed 4-of-14 throws for 40 yards and was sacked five times?

"That's what he's all about, a lot of heart," Elway said as he stood outside the visitors' locker room after the game. "He's getting better and he's a young guy who's going to keep getting better and better."

[ Gallery: Tim Tebow vs. the Dolphins ]

Elway, of course, had plenty of days early in his Hall-of-Fame career when nobody was sure what he was other than ungodly gifted. He eventually figured it out and now his job is to help figure out if Tebow is the answer or whether the next Broncos quarterback is in the college ranks (Elway spent last weekend at his alma mater, Stanford, looking at Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck).

Elway doesn't need the answer now. The 2-4 Broncos still have 10 games left and you can figure that Tebow will get most, if not all, of them. More data helps to come up with a better answer. But Tebow's offering on Sunday was a study in contrast, as the numbers show.

When Tebow was bad, he looked worse than the stats. When he was good, he was better. There were times when Tebow looked confused, coming off his first read before it had a chance to develop, changing his eye level so that he couldn't see downfield and then twisting and spinning as if he were a beheaded fowl.

Then, in the most tense moments, he calmly looked over the defense, hit his check downs, executed a perfect misdirection pass play, found open receivers and then threaded two passes as if he were channeling Aaron Rodgers(notes). His five-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas(notes), who dove to snare it, and his 28-yard throw on the final possession to tight end Daniel Fells(notes) were as pretty as it gets.

While some people, including Denver coach John Fox, will talk about "competitive spirit" and how Tebow has the "it" factor you need to be great, here's something to consider: Denver rallied in this game after finally taking the shackles off Tebow. He was put in the four-receiver, shotgun offense he was so good in at Florida and was allowed to play without thinking.

"You're reacting more than thinking," Elway said.

Or as Denver safety Brian Dawkins(notes) said: "When it gets to crunch time, he trusts what he sees, and that's what I see [from him]. He trust things and he'll let it just fly. Early on in the game, he was maybe second-guessing things. 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."

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Yahoo! Sports Radio: WR Demaryius Thomas on Broncos' emotional win]

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Tim Tebow rushed for 65 yards against the Dolphins.
(Getty Images)

When Tebow struggled, the Broncos were playing as if they were afraid to let him play. The Broncos ran on their first 12 first-down plays and on 15 of 18 through the first three quarters. That's hardly a way to get a passing game going.

Regardless of the play-calling or the blocking or anything else, Tebow shouldn't have looked this bad if he had two weeks to prepare. He faced a now 0-6 Miami squad in front of a friendly crowd (the Dolphins ran a promotion to honor the 2008 University of Florida national championship team, which Tebow led). Fans at Sun Life Stadium got on Tebow when he struggled – chants of "Tebow sucks!" gained some traction – but it later sounded like an exhibition game played in Denver; not too loud but supportive enough of the Broncos quarterback.

Here's the bottom line: Tebow looked good in the frenzied, chaotic style that befits his running ability and high-wire makeup. The lingering issue is whether that style can become consistent.

Tebow, who's about as good a kid as you'll find but whose devout faith becomes a silly side issue for so many people on either side of that endless loop of an argument, sees the big picture.

"I need to get a lot better, that's for sure," Tebow said when asked about the first 55 minutes. "It really wasn't anything big. It was … just little things and that's what was so frustrating."

Will he overcome that frustration? Based on Sunday, it's impossible to say.

But it was sure fun to watch him try.

Here are the winners and losers for Week 7:

WINNERS

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Panthers QB Cam Newton avoids a tackle by London Fletcher.
(Getty Images)

A tip of the cap to Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton(notes), who scored his seventh rushing touchdown of the season to tie the NFL record for rookies since the merger in 1970. Vince Young(notes) had seven rushing scores during his abbreviated 2006 rookie season. Now, Newton can set his sights on the overall season record of 12 by Steve Grogan in 1976. Among the others Newton can pass along the way are Kordell Stewart (1997), Tobin Rote (1956) and Johnny Lujack (1950) with 11 each and Daunte Culpepper(notes) (2002) and Billy Kilmer (1961) with 10. Also, here's this bit of trivia about Newton from the NFL: Newton became only the second rookie to have two games with more than 250 yards passing, at least 50 yards rushing, a TD pass and a rushing TD. Rodney Peete was the first to do that in 1989.

Congrats to New York Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress(notes), who backed up his talk last week that the team's offense was about to play well. Burress did his part with three touchdown catches, all of them of four yards or less. Critics will point out that Burress had only 25 yards receiving on four catches. That's fine. Burress is supposed to be a red-zone specialist, a big target who can create big windows for quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) in the tight confines inside the 20-yard line.

[ Related: Good effort from Mark Sanchez ]

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte(notes), who finished with 145 yards on 25 carries in the win over the Buccaneers, continues to play like a guy who needs to get paid. Forte topped the 100-yard mark against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers early in the third quarter and is on pace to surpass his career high of 1,238 yards. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Forte this season is that he has averaged more than 5.3 yards per carry, nearly a yard better than his previous best and nearly 1.5 yards higher than his career average coming into the season.

Seeing Carson Palmer(notes) hit his first throw for 18 yards and, more important, get up after taking a low hit from Kansas City's Tamba Hali(notes), who was flagged for a personal foul. The throw showed that Palmer has plenty of life in his arm and he hung tough after taking a shot near the legs, something that has been a problem after suffering a knee injury in a 2006 playoff game.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) has gotten himself on a great roll over the past three games after struggling in the first four contests of the season. In three games against Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona, Roethlisberger has thrown nine touchdown passes and only one interception. This is after throwing three TDs and five interceptions in the first four games of 2011, when the Steelers went 2-2.

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Yahoo! Sports Radio: TE Heath Miller on Steelers' win]

The Kansas City Chiefs' secondary came up big with six interceptions, including two for Brandon Flowers(notes) – the latter leading to the second of two INT returns for TDs to cap the scoring in the romp over Oakland. Three of those picks came against Oakland starter Kyle Boller(notes), who got the hook in the second half for Carson Palmer. For all those Raiders fans expecting huge things, be patient. It's going to take awhile. In the process, Kansas City ended Oakland's eight-game winning streak in the AFC West.


LOSERS

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Chargers coach Norv Turner was bested by the Jets coach Rex Ryan.
(AP)

Things aren't going to be happy at Norv Turner's house in San Diego this week. Turner wanted nothing more than to shove Jets coach Rex Ryan's remarks in Ryan's face. Turner has taken a lot of criticism for failing to win a title in San Diego since taking over in 2007. A lot of that is deserved and when Ryan said last week that he would have won a "couple of rings" by now if he had been hired by the Chargers instead of Turner, that wound was opened in a big way. Ryan apologized, but that remark was cutting and Turner took it very personally. It's the type of quip that can undercut support in the office.

[ Related: Philip Rivers unravels against Jets ]

As the Dolphins wade through the ugliness of an 0-6 start, there's lots of blame to go around. Let's start with the source of the problem: Bill Parcells, the team's former executive vice president of football operations. It was Parcells who sold former owner Wayne Huizenga a bill of goods on how to run the team back in 2007. It was Parcells who pushed for left tackle Jake Long(notes) to be taken instead of quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) in the 2008 draft. It was also Parcells who pushed for the drafting of players like Phillip Merling(notes) and the re-signing of Vernon Carey(notes). Long has been terrific, but this is a quarterback-driven league. In addition, Parcells never got the proper pieces together for the kind of offensive line that coach Tony Sparano wanted. Throw in all the drama that Parcells caused between warring with defensive end Jason Taylor(notes) and the whole retirement game, and you have a guy who was more of a distraction than a help.

Whenever you watch the Dolphins, you've got to ask yourself this: Why doesn't running back Reggie Bush(notes) line up at wide receiver more often? For instance, the Dolphins had a first down at the Denver 15-yard line early in the second quarter. On three consecutive plays, the Dolphins lined up in three- or four-receiver sets. Bush wasn't on the field on any of those plays. Bush may not be the player everyone expected and rookie Daniel Thomas(notes) looks good, but you can't tell me there are five offensive skill players on the Dolphins better than him. Dolphins offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is quickly working his way down to position coach in his next stop.

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Chris Johnson has rushed for 268 yards and one TD the last six games.
(Getty Images)

Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson officially fell below the Mendoza line for running backs when he gained only 18 yards on 10 carries against Houston. Houston? The Texans are better this season, but they're not the second coming of the 1985 Chicago Bears. Rather, Johnson is looking like the second coming of Reggie Bush as a runner. Johnson now has 268 yards on 93 carries this season for an average of 2.9 yards per carry. This is the same Johnson who, before his holdout during training camp, was averaging 5.0 yards per carry through his first three seasons. Johnson got paid and now is playing like it.

The war between the Cleveland Browns management and running back Peyton Hillis(notes) is getting silly. It's clear that the Browns don't think Hillis is worth a long-term contract and they're not going to pay him what he wants. Hillis, who missed Sunday's win over the Seattle Seahawks with a pulled hamstring, needs to understand that power guys like him aren't functional for teams that want to play a more wide-open style. It's clear that Hillis has to get more realistic about his contract demands or realize he's going elsewhere next season.

Mark down Oct. 23, 2011 as the day that the fans in Seattle discovered that the emperor has no clothes. In this case, coach Pete Carroll should be ripped for his inability to spark any kind of offense after bringing in quarterbacks Tarvaris Jackson(notes) and Charlie Whitehurst(notes) the past two years. The Seahawks were so bad on Sunday in Cleveland that they managed only 50 offensive plays (Cleveland ran 84) and had the ball for just a little more than 17 minutes. The Seahawks' defense was good, but they dominated the Browns – not the Packers. Even with Whitehurst playing, the Seahawks should have been more competitive Sunday.

THE SUNDAY 10

(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)

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Carson Palmer passed for 116 yards and three interceptions.
(AP)

Loved: Seeing Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber(notes) finish off that safety of Forte in the first half against Chicago. Barber played like the pro he is on that play, finishing the tackle after four other Bucs had a chance to get Forte, but let him slip away. It's a small thing, that's why Barber has been so good for so long.

Loathed: The national media attention given to a game featuring two teams that entered the contest 1-9 combined (Denver at Miami). Yes, that includes me. The Tebow phenomenon is silly at this point. Heck, even the fans in South Florida weren't that interested. At best, Sun Life Stadium was 80 percent full for this game.

Loved: Seeing Houston, led by the all-around play of running back Arian Foster(notes), finally play like a closer in the second half against Tennessee. This is how Houston, which has been without Andre Johnson(notes) for three games, needs to play. For the first time this season, Houston outscored an opponent in the second half.

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Yahoo! Sports Radio: Texans RB Arian Foster on his 78-yard TD run]

Loathed: The mediocre play of Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall(notes) through much of the first half against the Broncos. Marshall opened the game with a drop on a third-down pass and ran routes as if he was playing at practice tempo. For a guy making big money, Marshall has to be more productive than six catches for 61 yards.

Loved: Seeing Pittsburgh Steelers get wide receiver Antonio Brown(notes) more involved in the offense early in the game. Brown has had problems running routes and setting up defenders, which has kept him from having a bigger impact sooner. However, Brown is close to breaking out. By the end of this season, he could easily supplant Hines Ward(notes) as Pittsburgh's second-best threat in the passing game behind Mike Wallace(notes).

Loathed That the Dolphins insulted their fellow tenant, the University of Miami, by honoring the University of Florida national championship team. I understand the need to sell tickets, but this was stupid. Perhaps Miami should start honoring NFL teams, such as New England and Buffalo, that have won Super Bowl and conference titles with prominent UM grads like Vince Wilfork(notes) and Jim Kelly.

Loved: There wasn't much to like about Cleveland's 6-3 win over Seattle. However, there's something funny about the fact that the Browns won on the strength of kicker Phil Dawson's(notes) 52- and 53-yard field goals, yet Dawson had a 24-yarder blocked late in the fourth quarter.

Loathed: Seeing San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) complain so much during the game against the Jets. Rivers is a great guy, but he gets too out of sorts when things go wrong. In a lot of ways, Rivers is an outward version of Chargers coach Norv Turner, a guy who does his complaining more subtly.

Loved: Watching Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner(notes) grind away for 122 yards on 27 carries in the Falcons' 23-16 victory over the Lions. Those numbers aren't electric, but it's nice to see a team show that it can grind the clock with the power game. In these days of wide-open sets and pretty pass patterns, a little reminder of the old days is nice once in awhile. The Falcons held the ball for nearly 35 minutes.

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Yahoo! Sports Radio: WR Harry Douglas on Falcons' physical win]

Loathed: Seeing Washington quarterback John Beck(notes) put up some reasonable numbers in the second half against Carolina. I have nothing against Beck, but this is a perfect example of how numbers fool people. Over the first three quarters, Beck was mediocre to awful, so Washington fans better not be duped by the promise of some half-decent numbers at the end of the game.

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