Elway grudgingly sticks with Tebow in 2012

The trick in Denver is to parse the words of John Elway when the subject turns to Tim Tebow. Where does Elway stand? Does he like Tebow? Does he not? Does the man in charge of football decisions for the Denver Broncos believe? Or is he holding his breath, waiting for the first moment to cast Tebow away?

There came an answer Monday and it did not sound convincing. Yes, Elway said, at a news conference, Tebow will be the Broncos starting quarterback going into training camp. This was as tepid a placement of a golden star on Tebow’s helmet as Elway could give. Who else is going to be the Broncos quarterback in July following a division championship season? Brady Quinn, who hasn’t thrown a pass in two years?

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Elway has always seemed to want a quarterback who is more like him: someone tall, someone robust, someone who throws rocket spirals deep downfield and can drive his teams to instant touchdowns. Tebow is, of course, not like Elway. He's too quick to drop his head and plow forward like a running back. His throws often wobble. His touchdown drives often take several minutes – glacial in this NFL of booming offense.

And so here begins the great debate around the Broncos' headquarters: Do the Broncos believe in Tebow? Or are they already searching for his replacement?

One thing that seems clear about Elway is that he has a hard time cloaking the truth in a veil of lies or disinformation. He saw glimmers of improvement in Tebow, he said, but it was clear that he is not sure those glimmers are enough. He talked about the Broncos' first-round playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers and how Tebow showed with his game-winning touchdown pass that he could make the perfect, pressure pass that all great quarterbacks have to make.

But, Elway quickly added: "the great quarterbacks do it consistently."

Then Elway brought up Tom Brady, the New England Patriots' quarterback who led the trampling of Denver last Saturday with six touchdown passes. "We saw that from the other side and No. 12," Elway said.

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The problem is Elway wonders if Tebow’s style can get him to the level of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger or any quarterback who has won a Super Bowl. And as long as that doubt exists, Tebow won’t be the long-term future in Denver.

Elway is troubled by Tebow’s footwork. His belief is that quarterbacks must have the right balance before they can make good throws and he realizes that Tebow didn’t spend a lot of time on footwork in college and must do it now. Expecting him to properly read defenses, spot open receivers, then reach back and fling the ball downfield while concentrating on footwork is a hard thing to ask. Still, the Broncos have worked endlessly with Tebow to make dropping back properly something so natural that his mind is on the play forming before him and not on where his feet are going. Tebow and quarterbacks coach Adam Gase spend 30 minutes on these drills before practice and another 30 afterward and then on the side during practice when the rest of the offense is resting.

"He has made strides both mentally and physically," Gase said Monday from his office at the Broncos' complex.

So many things appear on tape that give the Broncos coaches hope, little things that no one would see by watching in the stands or even on television. More and more, Tebow is making the right decision. A pass thrown into the stands might actually be a pass that was supposed to be thrown into the stands because the two primary targets were covered and a pass rush was spilling in. And each week, as the tape was analyzed, it was clear to Gase that Tebow was learning and the growth was coming fast.

Even in the regular-season finale defeat to Kansas City, when Tebow threw for just 60 yards and had a 20.6 quarterback rating, Gase saw improvement, things that had gotten better from the game before.

However, despite whatever opinion anyone has about Tebow, more pressing matters face the Broncos. They need to add depth to defense and they need to find another running back to go with Wilis McGahee as well as probably one more wide receiver. The Broncos shouldn’t go after a quarterback in the first round of April’s draft, not after everything Tebow has done to get the team to the second round of the playoffs. Not after the flashes he has shown them to give hope that he is the future in Denver.

Still, Tebow doesn’t look like Elway. He doesn’t throw like Elway. And he isn’t No. 12 either. On Monday, Elway's news conference was filled with words like "hope." The Carolina Panthers aren’t saying they "hope" Cam Newton is their quarterback for the next several years.

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Monday he said Tebow "earned the right" to be the starter at training camp. And this was as obvious a way of saying Tebow had better look a lot more like Elway by then or he won’t stay the starter very long.

The season is over and already the clock is ticking on what might be the most important offseason of Tim Tebow’s life.

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