Lukewarm starting debut for Tebow

One game, and the hearts in Tim Tebow(notes) Nation went from a steady pitter-patter … straight to the full bore pounding of a Led Zeppelin drum solo. Yes, his first NFL start was encouraging, but the tidal wave of Twitter posts about Tebow "doing his thing," well, they're a little premature.

Tebow Nation doesn't want to hear that since it owns the most fanatical form of zealotry I have ever seen with any player, to the point that even constructively criticizing Tebow in even the slightest way sets off a low-level earthquake. But at the risk of causing a natural disaster, this should be said:

If the Denver Broncos rookie quarterback's game is built on playing the way he did against the Raiders, he won't last.

While CBS announcer Gus Johnson was euphoric about Tebow's dirty uniform – likening it to something you'd see on a left tackle – all I saw was a quarterback who took a lot of hits in his first start. His 40-yard touchdown run was electrifying. But Tebow also doesn't appear to know how to slide, and that's not a good thing. Even a quarterback as big as he is at 245 pounds can't take an eight-carry beating every game, and still hold up for an entire season as a dual-role passer.

If you doubt that, look at the punishment that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) has received for his mobility as of late. Ask a Green Bay Packers fan about Aaron Rodgers'(notes) scrambling. Go listen to Eagles coach Andy Reid incessantly harp about the hits Michael Vick(notes) has been taking this season – largely because of his penchant for making plays with his feet. In 2010, pocket mobility is a plus, but out-of-pocket mobility – the kind Tebow showcased against the Raiders – is a disaster waiting to happen.

And that's why Tebow's first start was both a win and a loss for the Broncos. A win because Tebow displayed leadership and playmaking that can make him great. But a loss because it came with a style that is suited to winning games (and staying healthy) at the collegiate level.

He showed some opportunistic passing (including a deceiving touchdown that was thrown into heavy coverage), built around designed scrambling. In a one-game scenario, it's a gamble. But if this is a sign of where Tebow is going – a glorified running back who throws 20 passes a game – he won't make it on the NFL level.

It's really no different from what we heard about Tebow going through workouts prior to the NFL draft. Talent evaluators said repeatedly that if he was going to make it as an NFL quarterback, the part of the game that had to be de-programmed was his style as a run-pass commodity. He had to be able to live with only a few runs a game, balanced against a legitimate passing repertoire. And while Tebow's passing performance was solid, he still looked like he was running the offense at the University of Florida. Much like when Michael Vick came into the league from Virginia Tech, Tebow still looked like his game was fashioned around what he did best in college.

Looking at Vick today, does anyone think it's a coincidence that he is at the pinnacle of his game now that he's a more developed passer? And while he still runs, his game is by no means built around that ability. He's a pass-first, pass-second, run-third quarterback. And the Eagles rarely use him in designed run situations. Why? Because that's not how they want Vick to see himself. They want him to use that ability only when everything else breaks down. It's not just an option; it's often the last option.

And make no mistake, what we saw from Tebow over the length of his performance against Oakland was quite the opposite. I suspect this is part of the reason why former head coach Josh McDaniels was hesitant to start Tebow right up to the point he was fired. For all his improvement, Tebow still has a long way to go before the bulk of his damage will come from inside the pocket.

So while the superlatives will flow, and the pulse of Tebow Nation has been quickened once again, I'd suggest some caution. Tim Tebow is making progress. But it will be some time before we know if it's the kind of progress that will make him last as an NFL quarterback.

On to this week's other winners and losers …


Jackson left the stunned Giants in his rear view.
(Jim O'Connor/US Presswire)

DeSean Jackson(notes)
Yes, he clearly wants top end wide receiver money. And no, he's not a beast in the weight room, so it's a risk with his ultra-thin frame. But what can you do? From a big-play standpoint, he's the most explosive player in the NFL. His punt return touchdown not only won the game over the Giants, but it may have locked up a playoff berth. And he's a big reason why Michael Vick is thriving. The Philadelphia Eagles don't historically pay huge money to skill position guys, but like Chris Johnson in Tennessee, this is simply something that has to get handled.

Atlanta Falcons
The playoffs have been locked up, and the NFC South is all but sealed. On top of that, Atlanta is dispatching mediocre teams exactly as it should. But the regular season work is hardly done. The Falcons still have to clinch the NFC's top seed, and next week's tilt with New Orleans is an early chance to set the tone against a top end playoff team. I suspect there are still a few people who think New Orleans is better than Atlanta when it matters most. Well, we'll find out, because next week matters a great deal for the Saints, who are looking to get a wild-card game against the NFC West winner.

Indianapolis Colts' playoff hopes
They bounced back from the slide and won the game they absolutely had to have, jumping on the Jaguars early and taking control of the AFC South. The latest concussion suffered by Austin Collie(notes) is disappointing, particularly considering how much he means to this offense. But nothing is coming easy to Indianapolis this season, anyway – at least not until now, when they find themselves looking at two winnable games (at Oakland and home against Tennessee) to get into the postseason. This still isn't a Super Bowl team, but keeping the postseason streak alive is meaningful, too.

Jamaal Charles(notes)
The Kansas City Chiefs running back had 14 touches for 153 total yards and a touchdown, and helped ease the load for the returning Matt Cassel(notes). His 80-yard run late in the fourth quarter – on the Chiefs' first snap after the Rams pulled within 20-13 – locked the game up. Here's a wicked stat: Charles has 1,961 rushing yards in his last 17 games. And he did that on only 297 carries. That's a staggering average of 6.6 yards per carry.

New York Jets' psyche
Head coach Rex Ryan alluded to it this week: Sunday's game at the Steelers was about as important as it could get. No "elite" team needed a win more, after all the drama surrounding "The Wall" fiasco and sudden struggles of Mark Sanchez(notes). And the result was something reminiscent of last season, with Sanchez being workmanlike but unspectacular against the Steelers, and the defense, running game and special teams carrying the load. In order to win in the postseason, the Jets still need to get the running game back to early season form and take more chances with Sanchez. But this was a baby step at rebuilding that confidence.

Buffalo Bills
How about the Bills? They're 4-2 since starting 0-8, and aside from the debacle against the Minnesota Vikings, they've been playing good, tough games since returning from their bye week. I was never high on the Chan Gailey hire, but the Bills don't lack for effort or competitiveness, and that's a silver lining in a 4-10 record. We'll see exactly how optimistic fans should be, with the next two weeks coming against the Patriots and Jets.

Cedric Benson(notes)
It's pretty interesting that Terrell Owens(notes) goes down with a season-ending knee injury, and suddenly the Cincinnati Bengals show their biggest commitment all season long to the running game. Word around the campfire is that Benson has been frustrated with the Bengals' catering of the offense to Owens and the passing game. No doubt Benson was thrilled to get fed the ball 31 times for a season high 150 yards in the win over the Browns. With Owens done, now we'll see what this team would have looked like with an offense orbiting around Benson.

Baltimore Ravens
Now the offense is starting to look as balanced as we thought it could. No surprise it comes to life with Ray Rice's(notes) most devastating game of the season (36 touches, 233 total yards and a touchdown catch in a win over the Saints). Rice can't do this every week, but with Anquan Boldin(notes) being erased from the offense four of the last five weeks, it's imperative that his role expand in the final two games. If Rice gets into a groove, the Ravens may be the only team that scares the Patriots.

Oakland Raiders
I don't buy that the quarterback situation is sorted out, and I think there's another round of Jason Campbell(notes) disappointment on tap for 2011. But with seven wins, and finding two legitimate stars in Darren McFadden(notes) and Jacoby Ford(notes), this season has to be considered a success. Sunday's 502 yards of offense, including 264 rushing yards, were as good as it can get for this team with Campbell at the helm. And while everyone will talk about Tim Tebow's first career start, the reality is Denver produced eight first downs and was manhandled from start to finish.

Jonathan Stewart(notes)
Since returning from injury in Week 12, the Carolina Panthers running back has 460 rushing yards in his last four games, including 137 in the win over the Cardinals. If he can stay healthy, he's got to be the Panthers' starting running back in 2011. I think starting Stewart and accentuating him with DeAngelo Williams(notes) allows Carolina to have its own Thomas Jones(notes)/Jamaal Charles or Brandon Jacobs(notes)/Ahmad Bradshaw combination. Williams should be the X-factor type off the bench.

Detroit Lions
Finally, with a win over the Buccaneers, the 26-game road losing streak is history. It ended the last lingering piece of "streak" futility for the Lions. Now they can go into an offseason without anything hanging over their heads. Amazing how good things happen when you figure out the ball should be going to Calvin Johnson(notes) (10 catches, 152 yards) roughly every other pass.

Dallas Cowboys
No doubt, they are playing better under interim head coach Jason Garrett, but there is a lot of work to do. The Cowboys let their foot off the gas after taking the 27-7 lead over the Redskins early in the third quarter. The defense began making mistakes, the pressure on Rex Grossman(notes) wasn't nearly as intense, and the Redskins barged right back into the game. I don't know if it's a lack of leadership or what, but Dallas' defense rarely sustains momentum. That's a major problem.

• Chris Johnson
The CJ2.5K campaign never really got off the ground, but Johnson remains one of the league's best running backs. His 130 rushing yards carried the day against a bad Texans defense. It says something about a guy when he has a "disappointing" season after 1,267 rushing yards through fourteen games. There's a lesson in here about building up expectations the way Johnson did in the offseason. And the inconsistencies at quarterback hurt him this season. There was never a consistent passing game to remedy the defenses that were stacking up against him.


Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) had his streak of sixth straight games with 100 rushing yards snapped.
(Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

Jacksonville Jaguars
Sunday is a perfect illustration of why Jacksonville and quarterback David Garrard(notes) are always fighting for respect. Because when they need to come through at the pivotal moment, they just can't break through. They fall behind Indianapolis in a game that is as must win as it gets, then fight back and watch Colts linebacker Tyjuan Hagler(notes) return an onside kick for a game-clinching 41-yard touchdown. Not only does this loss cost Jacksonville a division and playoff-clinching win, it will likely be the game that knocks them out of the postseason. Good teams don't constantly fail to finish.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' playoff hopes
The postseason hasn't slipped away just yet, but the three losses in the last four have been an utter disaster. Sunday's home loss to Detroit is particularly devastating, because it may have represented the one game in the final three that Tampa should have won. But the defensive injuries have taken away the turnover bite that this team carried into November. If the Buccaneers lose again, they'll be the team that gets robbed of a postseason berth at the expense of a mediocre NFC West winner.

Washington Redskins
From the experience of watching Rex Grossman operate for years in Chicago, the worst thing that could have happened for Washington is Grossman having a good game. I've seen the Bears get on this rollercoaster too many times. I can only say this: If Sunday's 322-yard, four-touchdown performance from Grossman further opens the door for him to be this team's starting quarterback, the 2011 season is being doomed before our very eyes. Remember I said that. The guy is absolutely an NFL siren. Or better yet, ask anyone who lived through Grossman's tenure with the Bears.

Houston Texans defense
No doubt, this is one of the most disappointing units of the season. But only the Texans would take a bad season and make it downright laughable. That's what happened in the second quarter against Tennessee, when Texans defenders Brian Cushing(notes) and Antonio Smith got into a fight … with each other. Cushing's helmet got ripped off in the fracas, and the Texans got a 15-yard penalty. Stupidity. Sheer stupidity.

Sam Bradford(notes)
The St. Louis Rams quarterback has taken his lumps the last few games, and hasn't thrown a touchdown since Nov. 28. But all is not lost, with Seattle bumbling just as badly down the stretch. Bradford also became only the fifth NFL rookie quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards, joining Peyton Manning(notes), Matt Ryan(notes), Jim Kelly and Warren Moon. You could argue he's only the third, since Kelly and Moon had already played in the USFL and Canadian Football League by the time they accomplished the feat.

Seattle Seahawks
Not only did the Seahawks get crushed by Atlanta, they pulled starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) for Charlie Whitehurst(notes) late in the third quarter. And this … might … be … a … playoff … team. Yeah, that's almost as ugly as it sounds. About the only thing the Seahawks have going for them is the "cream" of the rest of their division is equally mediocre. At least Mike Williams is back.

Pittsburgh Steelers offense
Ben Roethlisberger has only two touchdown passes in his last four games, and Pittsburgh is struggling a bit to engineer big scoring plays through the air. At least part of that is the lack of production from Hines Ward(notes), who had 107 receiving yards in Week 12 against Buffalo, but only 100 total yards in his other five games since Week 8. Certainly there is no reason to panic after losing to a good (albeit struggling) Jets team, but Ward has to become a bigger part of this offense in the remaining weeks, particularly with Baltimore and New England showing the ability to score in bunches.

Arizona Cardinals coaching staff
Someone tell the staff the season is over. It's time to start figuring out where some of the younger pieces fit into the picture. In other words, try giving Beanie Wells(notes) more than eight touches in a meaningless loss to Carolina. Wells is averaging just an eyelash over six touches a game over the last four games. That doesn't make a lot of sense for a 22-year old rookie who is supposed to be a key building block going forward.

New York Giants
Coach Tom Coughlin wasted no time getting all over rookie punter Matt Dodge(notes) on national television after DeSean Jackson's sick game-winning touchdown return. Never mind that the Giants missed four tackles on that return, or that the defense gave up 21 points in roughly seven minutes in the fourth quarter. This team imploded long before Dodge made a mistake on his kick. There is plenty of blame to go around.

Dan Carpenter(notes)
It was a rough day for kickers/punters and, Dodge aside, none had a worse day than Miami's Carpenter. He missed four field goals in a loss to Buffalo and sent the Dolphins to a surreal 1-6 home record this season, and ended their playoff chances. To be fair to Carpenter, not one of the field goals was simple – two were from 48 yards out, while the others came at distances of 53 and 61. That said, converting only two of those kicks is the difference between a win and loss.



Benson gets to the outside en route to his seventh rushing score.
(Ed Reinke/AP Photo)

Loved: Cedric Benson's 18-yard run off a stop-and-go around the left end against Cleveland. The best part of the run: when Benson got to the 7-yard line and saw he'd score, he raised his hands as if to say "Where has this been all season?" We're with you on that one, Cedric.

Loathed: The first-quarter false start penalty on Dallas guard Kyle Kosier(notes) that moved the Cowboys from third-and-goal at the 1-yard line to 6. A Jon Kitna(notes) scramble on the next play ended at the 1 and resulted in a field goal. Few mistakes will drive a coach more insane than that one.

Loved: Peyton Manning's 7-yard touchdown pass to Austin Collie. Manning was 5-for-5 on his opening drive. Watch Collie's route-running on the touchdown. From a technical standpoint, he's a huge upgrade over Blair White(notes).

Loathed: Rex Grossman's first-quarter interception off play-action and then a fake reverse. The interception was bad enough, but why on earth are you running a play with multiple elements that serve to only slow down Grossman's decision making? Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan appears to have more faith in Grossman than anyone else in the NFL.

Loved: The remarkable 18-yard touchdown catch on third-and-goal by Bills wideout David Nelson(notes). He bailed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) out of a ball that never should have been thrown, snatching the pass away between a clump of three Dolphins.

Loathed: Eli Manning's(notes) late first-quarter interception, giving him 25 turnovers on the season (20 interceptions and five fumbles lost), and marking the second time in the last four years he has had at least 25 turnovers in a season. That's too many mistakes for a supposedly elite quarterback not named Brett Favre(notes).

Graham finds his way into the end zone after the amazing grab.
(Nick Wass/AP Photo)

Loved: Watching Jimmy Graham(notes) pull in a superb 18-yard touchdown catch against Baltimore in the first quarter. Not only did Graham make an excellent inside fake on the route, he twisted backward on the catch, then had the composure and body control to get himself into the end zone.

Loathed: Seeing Houston spot Tennessee 21 points in the first quarter, days after owner Bob McNair suggested the team and coaching staff was on the right track. Apparently, annual mediocrity is considered progress. The season-ticket holders will be ecstatic.

Loved: Colt McCoy's(notes) 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Robert Royal(notes) – pump-faking and dropping the ball over two defenders. He wasted no time getting back into the groove after missing two games. Hard to believe this guy was on the bubble at the end of training camp.

Loathed: LeGarrette Blount's(notes) penchant for running with the ball like it's a loaf of bread. He's got a ton of talent and can pound with the best of them, but watch his 39-yard touchdown run against Detroit and count the number of times he sticks the ball out away from his body. The coaching staff must have gulped a half-dozen times on that run.