DENVER – The improbable champions wore no hats. They didn't dance. They didn't dump Gatorade. They didn't scream into the frosty mountain night the way winners do when the impossible has happened. The Denver Broncos might be unlikely conquerors of the AFC West – a once 1-4 team now hosting the Super Bowl runner-up Pittsburgh Steelers – but the party was somewhere else on Sunday night.
Whatever magic lived for two blessed months in the frantic autumn of 2011 was gone on the first day of 2012, replaced with the awkward uncertainty of a team led by a quarterback who has become something less than ordinary. Percentages have evened out. The outlandish can't happen every week and, robbed of his powers to make miracles, Tim Tebow's Broncos have become what the scoreboard said: 7-3 losers to the Kansas City Chiefs. And this isn't the way you want to be marching into the postseason.
No player in the NFL is as confounding as the man who came to save the Broncos for seven of eight weeks. He can be at times a contortionist, pulling Denver from sure defeats, and also overmatched, looking like a man who shouldn't play another game in the NFL.
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"The problem is still his throwing motion," said one NFL quarterbacks coach when reached Sunday night.
Tebow pulls his arm back so far, the coach said, that it becomes obvious when he is going to throw, and since Tebow also tends to lock his eyes on his receivers, defensive backs realize where the ball is going. They rush to those receivers, forcing Tebow to either attempt precise throws he still cannot make or tuck the ball and run. On Sunday the holes in the defense weren't there the way they had been in October and November. He had 16 yards rushing and those came hard and painful.
His final line on Sunday read like a failed experiment from the exhibition season: 6-for-22 for 60 yards and a passer rating of 20.6.
It's as if a blueprint has been made of how to stop Tebow and now everyone is following it.
Or as another NFL quarterbacks coach said recently: "He's not a quarterback. He can't throw."
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Yes, this is a problem indeed because Tebow remains the Broncos' best hope, the player around whom an offense has been built, a player whose ability to hold onto the ball allowed Denver coach John Fox to emphasize a run-first attack that made the Broncos' defense more effective. It is no accident the Broncos won seven of the first eight games they played after dumping Kyle Orton and making Tebow the starter. And yet there is also a real sense that next weekend's game might also be for his future here.
Seven wins – including five amazing, resourceful, last-second victories – don't add up to much when paired with four straight losses if Denver loses next Sunday to the Steelers. They look even worse with passer ratings of 37.9 and 20.6 which is what he's had these last two weeks.
It is not a secret in NFL circles that team vice president John Elway is uncomfortable with Tebow mania. On Sunday evening he stood in the news conference room adjacent to the Broncos locker room and watched as Tebow answered questions with his usual optimistic, non-revealing manner. Elway placed his foot on a chair and faced away from the podium where Tebow stood. He smiled when Tebow politically answered a loaded question about officiating with a passive-aggressive, "I think the refs do a good job and I think they did a great job in the game."
But there was also a stern look on Elway's face, one that seemed to say he has much more on his mind than just a 7-3 loss and a home game looming with the Steelers. Trying to read Elway on Tebow became one of Denver's parlor games last year. There was always a sense he was painted into a corner, stuck with the previous regime's brilliant idea and desperate to get onto a quarterback who more resembled him. Through the winning, Elway gave more grudging endorsements of Tebow. But the three losses have changed the atmosphere. As quickly as Tebow rose, the sense around the team is that he is tumbling just as fast.
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Three weeks ago, after the last of the miracles, the Broncos coaches sounded more enthusiastic about Tebow. He was throwing better they said. They told a narrative of a quarterback who spent half an hour before and after practice doing nothing but work on his footwork, with their belief that his balance would improve his throwing. And the fact is his throwing did get better. His passes were crisper, more accurate. Of all the criticisms of his game, no one challenges the hours he puts into watching film and working on his skills.
After the game someone asked Tebow if the "Tebow Mystique" – whatever that means – was gone. The quarterback smiled shyly.
"I don't know about any mystique, but I am very grateful that we have another opportunity," he said. "It's very exciting to win the [AFC] West."
If only everyone else around the Broncos seemed as thrilled. Mostly it seemed the miracle man was walking through the room with a stocking hat pulled down on his head and no miracles left.
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