Tebow playing for more than his playoff life

Topics in this article:

The story begins with a billboard, a conspicuous symbol of the public clamor for a quarterback whose current skill set defies everything we thought we knew about modern professional football.

“Broncos Fans to John Fox: Play Tebow!!” it read, as if the fervent supporters whose sentiments the digital message represented could somehow will a backup’s ascent to the starting lineup.

Tim Tebow has a QB rating of 43.1 in his last three games which have been Denver defeats.
(Getty Images)

Then, in surreal and stunning fashion, Tim Tebow got his shot, salvaged a seemingly lost season and – through the sheer force of his faith and determination – willed himself and his team to a division title, even as he crashed and burned against the man he supplanted.

And here we are, three months into this compelling saga, still unsure what the moral of the story is … or how it’s going to end.

When Tebow leads the Denver Broncos into Sunday’s first-round AFC playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he’ll be playing for a city, a region, a legion of devotees and, quite possibly, his future. He could dramatically defeat Ben Roethlisberger or he could get yanked for Brady Quinn, and neither of those outcomes would be shocking.

If Tebow plays well, or summons the late-game magic he displayed during a 7-1 stretch after replacing Kyle Orton as the team’s starter in October, it will add to his mystique and reinforce the notion that he is the franchise’s unquestioned quarterback of the future.

However, if he bombs – and keep in mind that this is a man coming off two of the worst games played by a quarterback in the NFL this season, or any season – no amount of Tebow mania will ward off the doubts which fill the heads of the men who’ll decide his immediate professional fate.

As of right now, Broncos executive vice president John Elway and head coach John Fox regard Tebow as their presumed starter for 2012 and plan to proceed accordingly. Yet in the wake of last Sunday’s 7-3 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs, they’re starting to get a little squeamish. And you can be sure that if Sunday’s season-defining performance against the NFL’s top-ranked defense is an unmitigated disaster, their first order of the offseason will be formulating a viable backup plan – whether it’s drafting a promising passer, acquiring a proven veteran or both.

If it sounds like I’m being melodramatic, well, these are tense times in the Mile High City. Besides, what about this story hasn’t triggered extreme responses? The whole Tebow trip has been a continuous episode of Overreaction Theater, from the cynics to the sycophants, from the bashers to the believers.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, that’s me entering a guilty plea, having reported on Tebow’s training camp struggles and pre-Halloween horror show against the Lions with a tone that, in retrospect, may have been unduly conclusive.

A flat performance in Sunday's playoff game against the Steelers could deflate the fan support Tim Tebow has enjoyed much of this season.
(Getty Images)

The reality is that Tebow is a work in progress, a second-year player with some obviously redeeming qualities which have helped him overcome an alarming lack of NFL-level skill to accomplish some feats which few football insiders thought possible.

He is neither washout nor savior – at least, not yet. As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. Yet, for a variety of reasons, Tebow provokes over-the-top reactions. Part of this, let’s face it, is his conspicuous and passionate devotion to Christianity. As with all religious extremism (and, for that matter, extreme atheism), there is a faction of worshippers prone to oversimplification and heavily resistant to dissent – and many of Tebow’s biggest fans fit that description.

Tebow as a player is also a polarizing figure. After one of the greatest careers in college football history, the Broncos traded up to grab him in the first round, thereby placing a much higher value on him than the decision-makers of most other NFL franchises. The regime change that occurred with the firing of head coach Josh McDaniels and the hiring of Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, made his path to the starting job less likely. As the story has played out, several other NFL general managers have privately given thanks that they are not in Elway’s shoes.

Yet Tebow, through it all, had the will of the people on his side. And in this case, that was not an insignificant factor.

[Related: A certain Broncos QB made the list of the NFL’s best-selling jerseys, but who is No. 1?]

The aforementioned billboard may have been silly, but it was not treated as a triviality in the Broncos’ locker room. As NFL.com’s Jeff Darlington reported last week, Tebow was fined by fellow quarterbacks Quinn, Kyle Orton and Adam Weber for six consecutive days that the billboard was up – the rationale being that he hadn’t publicly disavowed its existence.

If that seems petty, you may be underestimating the ethos of NFL locker rooms. The backup’s role is to support the starting quarterback – in this case, Orton – on an unconditional basis. Anything he might do to encourage the public clamor for the starter’s benching is an affront to the notion of team. In this case, Tebow’s apparent indifference was viewed internally as a passive-aggressive acceptance of the groundswell pushing for him to play.

To Tebow’s credit, he overcame this by being a valiant, tough and clutch leader on the field, and he further won over his teammates by working hard and staying consistently positive during the week. Clearly, they responded to his presence. After the Lions debacle, the Broncos’ defense became fierce, stingy and resolute, and the special teams – and, specifically, kicker Matt Prater – elevated their games as well.

The Broncos also benefited from plenty of good fortune during their post-Lions six-game winning streak, which some depicted as divine intervention. Again, there wasn’t a whole lot of nuance. That all he does is win mantra may sound catchy, but it’s kind of like Charlie Sheen and winning – the logic behind the statement is a slight bit shaky.

Sure enough, that catch-all cover phrase began to break down during the Broncos’ season-closing, three-game losing streak, which began with a defeat to Tom Brady and the Patriots in which Tebow played reasonably well. Then, things got ugly. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in a blowout defeat at Buffalo before Orton and his new team came to town for the regular-season finale.

Another disastrous performance from Tim Tebow could force the Broncos to look in another direction at QB.
(Getty Images)

The Broncos needed to win that game, or so they thought. The defense did its job, holding Orton and the Chiefs to seven points. Tebow was atrocious for much of the game, but that had happened before. Everyone waited for Tebow Time – when he’d shake off his earlier struggles and do something heroic to secure the victory – to arrive.

Twice he had the ball in the final minutes. Twice he failed. The Broncos’ last gasp ended when Tebow threw an interception, his second turnover of the game. His final stat line in the 7-3 defeat read like that of a prep quarterback playing with a separated shoulder in a driving snowstorm: 6-for-22, 60 yards. Only by the grace of the Raiders’ collapse did he get away with it, but this was not an insignificant failure on Tebow’s end.

Earlier this week, Baltimore Ravens All-Pro pass rusher Terrell Suggs took some shots at Tebow on ESPN’s “First Take.” T-Sizzle expounded upon those thoughts during a phone conversation on Wednesday, saying he had nothing against the quarterback personally but felt that “he’s held to a different standard than the other 31 quarterbacks” in the NFL.

“I’m a Christian,” Suggs continued. “I have no problem with him being a Christian. But it’s like, you know, God forbid anybody say anything against Tim Tebow. Oh, we’re just giving him a hard time because he’s a Christian? No, that’s not it! We’re giving him a hard time because he went 6-and-22 for 60 yards!

“That’s terrible quarterbacking. Are you kidding me? Donovan McNabb had a game like that [early in the season] and got the hatchet. The hatchet! And we never heard from him again. And then Tim Tebow plays in a game where they need to win the AFC West, and he had a game like that, and we’re still talking about the Tim Tebow phenomenon?”

[Related: Ravens star Terrell Suggs goes out of his way to bash Tim Tebow]

Suggs may be more skeptical than some of his peers, but he’s certainly not alone in league circles. That said, those opinions aren’t the ones which matter; nor, ultimately, will the opinions of Tebow’s throng of admirers, especially if he doesn’t demonstrate perceptible and pronounced improvement.

If this Sunday is anything like last Sunday, I suspect that plenty of Broncos fans will re-evaluate their conviction on this issue and start imploring the team to explore other alternatives.

And Elway and his fellow decision-makers – the people whose opinions do matter – will certainly oblige.

For all Tebow has accomplished this season, the only guarantee it has earned him is that he’ll get another chance to shine on Sunday. It’s showtime, and the magnitude of the stakes should not be underestimated. For should this story take a dark turn, nothing that anyone puts on a billboard will keep his bosses from seeing him in a different light.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

The Texans’ underappreciated defense and potent running game will take center stage in a convincing playoff victory over the Bengals on Saturday afternoon. … That controversial Julio Jones trade will all start to make sense as the Falcons upset the Giants in a high-scoring affair at the Meadowlands on Sunday. … A big, sturdy, mobile quarterback with a penchant for late-game heroics will walk off a winner at Sports Authority Field on Sunday evening, and it won’t be the guy with ethereal connections.

And remember, you can see all of my picks for this weekend and receive the analysis behind them by registering for the Silver Insider at ridewithsilver.com.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Denver, where I believe the awesome, stunning and surreal story that is Tim Tebow’s 2011 season will end Sunday night – and I am ready, willing and possibly destined to be proven wrong.

LIES, LIES, LIES

Andy Reid
(Getty Images)

1) After learning that injured rookie quarterback Greg McElroy had labeled them “extremely selfish individuals,” his 53 Jets teammates replied, in unison, “Who’s Greg McElroy?”

2) By the time Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie finished his suspense-filled, news-conference buildup as to the future of his current head coach, Andy Reid had already completed the 2012 season, resigned to go into broadcasting and returned to coach the 2014 Cowboys.

3) Told that they had been compared to disappointing Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Rudy Giuliani, respectively, Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell filed a joint defamation suit against CNN political commentator James Carville.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson, who cost his team a chance to close out a Fiesta Bowl victory by shanking a 35-yard field goal and ended up in tears after the Cardinal’s overtime defeat to Oklahoma State. As a Cal alum who has never been subtle about his dislike for all things Furd, the thought of our rivals being crushed by the outcome of a sporting event is not a disturbing one. Yet while I often wish The Tree (and plenty of Cardinal fans I’ve encountered) plenty of postgame misery, it brought me no pleasure to see a 19-year-old kid fail on a grand stage, and I send Williamson my sincere support and good will in that regard. (Also, Andrew Luck is going to be a beast in the NFL for the next 15 years or so, and I should probably start trying to get on his good side. Just saying … )

THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

After a lost weekend in Los Angeles, Cal women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb and her Golden Bears kicked off their conference home schedule with a bang, rolling to a 73-56 victory over Oregon State at Haas Pavilion Thursday night. It was Gottlieb’s first Pac-12 victory, and it would be wonderful if her second were to occur Saturday against the Oregon Ducks. Meanwhile, the Cal men (12-4, 2-1 in the Pac-12) suffered a 92-85 defeat at Oregon State despite 26 points from Jorge Gutierrez. The Bears are back in action on Sunday at Oregon.

Also, congratulations to Cal freshman midfielder Seth Casiple, who was invited to U.S. men’s under-20 national team training camp in Ft. Lauderdale, and to sophomore forward Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick, who’s down in Chula Vista, Calif., at U.S. women’s under-20 national team camp. If either one turns out to be half as cool as this Golden Bear-turned-U.S.A. star, life will be very, very good.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

ucla proposal gone wrong

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

A year ago, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross took a clumsy run at Jim Harbaugh – while his head coach, Tony Sparano, was still employed – and came away looking like an amateur. Now, with the existence of an actual opening, he really wants Jeff Fisher to fill it. After taking Fisher for a helicopter ride and impressing him with his commitment to building a winner, Ross appears prepared to do whatever it takes to land his man. So, while Fisher makes the rounds in St. Louis, and possibly elsewhere, Ross waits. Here’s how I picture the owner coping with his anxiety – by picking up a microphone, of course, and expressing his feelings for the coach he craves. To the tune of Finger Eleven’s “Paralyzer”:

Photo Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, pictured with team minority owners Serena and Venus Williams, is big on star power.
(US Presswire)

I hold on so nervously
To my BlackBerry
I wish you were texting me
But so far, I’ve heard nothing
It’s been lousy
And I feel awkward, so I sing
My club has got to be
The most mismanaged team
Since I bought it from Wayne
Well I am imagining
A brand new face
Who’ll put me in my place

Well I’m the richest guy
But, I seem to be struck by you
I want to make this move
Because we’re standing still
If your mustache matches
What your brain can do
You’ll probably make Don Shula
Name a steak for you

I hold out for one more day
Before I say
I’m acting too desperately
But so far has not been fun
If I hire Dave Toub
I’m punching Jeff Ireland
King Carl will hopefully
Be Prez in three weeks
That would be cool with me
Well I’m still imagining
A brand new face
And a sideline embrace

Well I’m the richest guy
But, I seem to be struck by you
I want to make this move
Because we’re standing still
If your mustache matches
What your brain can do
You’ll probably make Don Shula
Name a steak for you …

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
Passing numbers could take a hit in the NFL playoffs
Tech giant Apple prepares bid for EPL TV rights
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has an unlikely mentor

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jan 6, 2012