FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Midnight came, the Denver Broncos had left their locker room and only one player was left in the corridors of Gillette Stadium. Tim Tebow wore an untucked pink dress shirt and a matching tie hanging loosely around the neck. He looked more like a teenager outside a high school dance than a national sensation. A frigid wind blew between the concrete walls, everybody huddled in coats except for the man himself, who smiled despite a lack of outerwear.
He never changed, that's what the Broncos players came to notice about their quarterback who'd become a story like none of them ever lived through before. Even as the wind howled and people in coats shivered, Tebow smiled and chatted with a young man named Zach McLeod who'd suffered a traumatic brain injury while playing football. Tebow embraced McLeod's family and friends. He posed for pictures. He blinked as each camera flashed. Even on his worst night, time stood still.
The New England Patriots had trampled him, flummoxing his team 45-10 in an AFC divisional matchup with changing defenses. They'd swarmed through his line and knocked him to the ground. Late in the game, as the Patriots' fans sang "Teeeeeee-boowwwww. Teeeeeee-booowwwww," he had been sacked as often (five times) as he had completed passes. And given that New England quarterback Tom Brady threw six touchdown passes, it was a damning statistic.
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And now he was about to leave the stadium with as many unanswered questions as when he'd arrived. The best sign the Broncos have that this is the quarterback they can move forward with came in this hallway, where he stood in the frigid air, behaving as if it wasn't the worst day of his life.
"Oh yeah, he's a resilient guy," linebacker Von Miller said as he dressed in the warmth of the locker room. "He's a very consistent guy."
There is no shame in being crushed by the Patriots in the playoffs. The list of quarterbacks who have suffered similar fates in this building in important games is illustrious. More will walk away broken, but their tests always were measured in how they came back.
This is how it will be with Tebow as well.
He smiled as he talked about the future. He told of getting to the offseason and working hard in weight and workout programs. He talked of stability and consistency and about meeting the biggest challenges and surviving. He said that toward the end of the game, quarterback coach Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy told him to look around the stadium, at the emptying seats, the joyous Patriots players, the scoreboard glowing with a bitter defeat.
They said he should "take it all in." Absorb this defeat. See what it looks like. How it feels. Understand the moment and be better prepared to handle it next time.
Tebow's answers afterward offered no great insight into his thinking. Then again, what could he say? The Patriots had given him nothing. The holes on this Broncos team – inexperience and a lack of playmakers – were exposed, and unlike last week when he found ways to take advantage of Pittsburgh's aggressive defense, Tebow generated nothing against New England. It was sack after sack. Incompletion after incompletion. And a whole lot of handing the ball off.
"Absolutely, throughout the season, throughout games, you definitely would love to be more consistent," Tebow said. "You look at great teams and usually they are. They have few lows, they have few highs, but for the most part they stay pretty consistent. So that's something we have to be working on."
Yes, now comes the real work. The Broncos' coaches have taken him from a raw prospect whose emergence as the starting quarterback was an experiment to a point where he was able to lead the team to a division title and an improbable first-round victory. But if he is going to be the long-term solution, there will have to be many more layers of development, more growing, sharper passes and a better awareness of what teams are bringing. Other young quarterbacks struggle, it only makes sense Tebow would, too.
When Denver coach John Fox was asked about Tebow, he shrugged.
"Kind of like our football team," he said. "I was really proud where he started and where he brought his team. We are a work in progress. We have got a lot of work to do and that hasn't changed. And from the two matchups we had against the New England Patriots [this year], I think it is evident that we have work to do."
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So what to say about the future? Probably nothing. The Broncos would be silly not to draft a quarterback this spring, but Tebow has taken them farther than anyone could have expected. Losing a one-sided playoff game to Tom Brady and the Patriots is nothing to dump him over. Not a week after beating the Steelers.
As the group in the hallway finally broke up and his parents gave him hugs, Tebow pulled his bag over his shoulder. The wind continued to blow and it seemed even colder than moments before. He smiled quickly then turned and disappeared behind a fence, toward the team bus and a future almost as uncertain as when he arrived.
Maybe he's Denver's answer. Maybe not.
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