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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – On a winter day in 2010, Tim Tebow sat alone in a hotel meeting room with Ken Herock, a former NFL general manager who tutors players on how to approach important team meetings at the NFL scouting combine. The topic was a perception among NFL teams that Tebow was successful in college only because of the University of Florida's offensive system, a notion upheld by the failure of Alex Smith to thrive in the NFL after having played for Tebow's coach, Urban Meyer, when Meyer was at Utah.
"A lot of people are comparing you to Alex Smith because you run the same offense … " Herock started when Tebow suddenly cut him off.
"Now hold on there, Mr. Herock," Tebow said. "That's where the comparisons end. I won the Heisman Trophy. I won a national championship two times."
He said it not with arrogance, although the words could have been parsed that way, but rather with an assuredness Tebow rarely reveals in his public interviews. It is the kind of thing the Denver Broncos see all the time, the reason many of the team's assistant coaches have come to love his determination and players faithfully follow him into games they now believe they can win. It's perhaps why the Broncos are 7-1 since Tebow became the starting quarterback.
"He has a passion about himself, he's very confident," Broncos general manager Brian Xanders said.
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The temptation is to look at Tebow's serene smiles in news conferences, watch him shrug shyly at questions about his abilities, listen to him talk about Jesus and think he is a man who plays football simply to spread the word of the Bible. The image is of a marginally skilled player who believes the Lord will slice holes in the defense or find a way to get a receiver open downfield.
And yet inside the Broncos' complex, conversations about Tebow go on for half an hour without a mention of God or religion or their most famous player's spirituality. The talk is instead about a man who is driven, who arrives early in the morning and leaves long after most of his teammates have departed. In college Tebow was famous for declarations of hard work but that seemed more about lifting weights and running sprints. Now that he is in the NFL, his diligence is in improving his throwing and studying opponents. The phrase most often attributed to him is not about God but rather, "Tell me how I can get better."
Want a reason the Broncos are in first place in the AFC West with what amounts to a two-game lead over the Oakland Raiders? It is Tebow's obsessive preparation.
The hour doesn't matter. It could be 9 p.m., maybe 10, but at some point every night the phone of Broncos quarterbacks coach Adam Gase will ring and Tim Tebow will be on the line.
"I've been watching film," Tebow will say. Then a string of questions: What happens if a defensive player moves a certain way? How should he go? And what about the receivers? Are there other options?
Quietly, Tebow has dazzled the Broncos coaches with his deep understanding of complex offenses. When he showed up to the team's suite for his interview with the staff at last year's combine, he immediately rattled off the principles of his offense at Florida. But then he launched into Norv Turner's digit system as well as the Patriots' offense, which the Broncos were also using. The coaches were stunned. How had he learned all this?
He watched lots of video at Florida, he told them. While other players went out at night, he loaded films of various offenses in his computer and studied and studied and studied until they were locked in his memory.
"That part of it was very unique to me," said Gase, who has been with two other NFL teams as an assistant. "I never heard of a college guy who would know so much about offenses outside of college."
Yes, Herock said, when told about this. He knew.
"I'll tell you what probably happened," Herock said. "His agent, Jimmy Sexton, probably told him which teams would want to talk to him at the combine. And he probably said, 'What kind of questions are they going to ask me?' Then he went and studied all of their offenses so he knew them really well."
For instance, when Tebow first appeared at the Senior Bowl amid much criticism over his throwing motion, he shocked the Miami Dolphins coaching staff that had been assigned to coach his team that week by regurgitating their entire offense for them.
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"I guarantee you that offense they are running there in Denver now, he put a lot of it in," Herock said. "I bet he has a lot of input on what they are running up there."
Because head coach John Fox retained most of the offensive coaches from Josh McDaniels' staff last year, the Broncos kept the same offense. Inserted in that was the "Tebow Package," which mostly consisted of option and Wildcat plays best suited to take advantage of Tebow's running ability. When Fox made Tebow the starting quarterback in October, the offensive coaches took the Tebow Package and made it central to their attack, adding new wrinkles every week. The ease with which they made such an extreme transition from a passing to running team, they said, was because Tebow worked so hard to learn new plays, asking endless questions and suggesting what to add.
"He prepares extremely hard as far as his film study and the time he spends with [offensive coordinator] Mike McCoy," Gase said. "He's working every angle that he can. Asking everything. 'What about my footwork? What about when I am under center? What do I do here?' "
Nothing is more important than footwork. This is where the Broncos coaches believe Tebow will thrive next. Last year they left a six-hour, pre-draft visit with the quarterback in Gainesville, Fla., amazed at how he had blown away all other quarterbacks' scores on a list of qualities they deemed essential. These included: loving the game, competitiveness, leadership, arm strength, understanding offenses, an ability to avoid pass rushes, resilience and composure. They were convinced if they could work on his accuracy and footwork he would come to be seen as a great draft pick.
And so this year it is Gase, who coached receivers last season, spending hours with Tebow on the practice field working on how he steps back from center – something he rarely did at Florida – and throws the ball. For 30 minutes before every practice and 30 minutes afterward, they work on gliding back and stepping forward.
"Everything has to do with his feet," Gase said. "Before, his body was going in one direction and his arm was going in another direction. As we get him more balanced, his throws become smoother and more accurate."
What they couldn't have understood before they drafted him was how much he would practice this. "He's taken thousands of [extra] reps," Gase said. When practice turns to defensive drills and the other offensive players rest, Tebow grabs a ball and begins working on his backpedaling, repeating each new technique until it starts to feel natural.
"He's improved a lot the last few weeks," Gase said, pointing to throws Tebow made in the Broncos' last two wins he probably couldn't have made only a few weeks earlier when the Broncos were merely running an option attack with few passes.
"He's becoming a much better NFL quarterback," Fox said. "I think that little variance was to get us to this point. You can't be one-dimensional in this league. Everybody catches up with that. People are doing different things to stop our running game but they are opening up things in our passing."
When you talk to Tebow alone, in a back hallway of the Broncos' practice facility, away from the stampede of cameras that often surround him, you find him to be goofy. It's not an awkward goofiness, but more of a silliness. He laughs a lot, even when discussing serious things. Third-string quarterback Adam Weber, the man who has a locker next to Tebow's both at the practice facility and at the stadium, said Tebow is effusive before games, bouncing around the locker room, calling encouragement to teammates in a buildup of energy that seems almost ready to explode onto the field.
"Then he flips a switch," Gase said.
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And Tebow is suddenly calm. Around the Broncos they find this unique, even in a sport where players are required to channel different intensity on and off the field. This, they say, is how he manages to pull the offense together, making some of his best runs and throws late in games.
On Sunday, when the Broncos emerged from their deepest abyss yet in pulling out an overtime victory over the Chicago Bears, Case walked up to Tebow on the sideline and said with a coach's anxiety, "Why do we have to do it this way every time?"
Tebow smiled tranquilly and said, "We have time."
"That's the beauty of him," Gase said. "There's a calmness and a composure when the game is tight. He's smart with the football."
"I definitely think you have to have an edge," Tebow said this week as he stood outside the Broncos' locker room. One of his favorite things to read is a book of quotations put together by a strength and conditioning coach he worked with that contains the words "The Edge" in the title. The coach loaned it to Tebow years ago and the quarterback refuses to return it despite pleas that he does.
"Technically, I stole it," Tebow said.
It is in this pilfered manuscript where Tebow finds some of his inspiration.
"I think the way that you train should have an edge," Tebow said. "And the way you work out should have an edge."
He was asked about the perception that because he speaks so much about his faith and seems so serene on the field that he might not have to prepare diligently. He laughed.
"It's unfortunate, but a lot of people do think Christians have to be soft," he said. "But the man we are following is the toughest of all time in Jesus Christ. You have to go through obstacles and adversity. That's what provides endurance for the future." Then Tebow paused for a moment.
"God has everything in his hands but he also says, 'Do unto the Lord with all your heart,' " he continued. "Just because you are a Christian, God doesn't want you … not be the hardest worker. It's just the opposite. He wants you to work harder."
And so he does. And so he arrives early in the morning and goes home in the evening with tapes of not just the Broncos' offense and their opponent's defense but of players he would like to emulate ("I've seen thousands of cuts of Tom Brady," he said this week). All of it in a diligent preparation to become the quarterback he believes he is. All of it to justify those words spoken on that winter day when asked what he thought of the player who ran the same college offense but had until then been considered a major risk …
"Now hold on there … that's where the comparisons end … "
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