FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – After 20 minutes of an in-depth and fascinating discussion about the Xs and Os of the Denver Broncos' offense and Tim Tebow, ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer comes to the conclusion that so many people in the media are having a hard time embracing.
"As analysts, we should all be ripped for how we talk about this guy," said Dilfer, who spent this week working on an intriguing segment on Tebow with fellow analyst/quarterback Steve Young for the network's "NFL Countdown" show. "One week he's great, the next week he's terrible. The next week he's great again, then he's awful. There's no consistency with how we look at him because it's so hard to explain, and it goes against everything we're trained to understand about football."
Of course, much of that is reflective of how Tebow has actually played. From his first game starting this season at Miami, there are times when Tebow looks awful. Then, he wipes the slate clean with five minutes of brilliance. Last Sunday, Tebow played a brilliant game against Pittsburgh on the heels of atrocious outings against Buffalo and Kansas City.
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The result is that if you listen to enough analysts (and writers such as yours truly), it's sometimes hard to get a feel for where the discussion is going. Can Tebow play long-term? Is he good enough to win now? As Denver gets ready to play Saturday night at New England in the second round of the AFC playoffs, the answers to questions like that are all over the place – and often wrong.
Such as this comment from ESPN analyst and former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson before Denver's playoff win over Pittsburgh last Sunday: "[The Broncos] have to run the football. They cannot get away from that. That has gotten him to be the starting quarterback in Denver. … When he's thrown the ball more than 20 times, they've lost. Less than 20, they win. The key is running the ball down their throats."
Never mind the fact that the Broncos were 4-4 in regular-season games when Tebow threw at least 20 times. As most people know by now, Tebow threw 21 times for 316 yards as the Broncos won on his ability to throw downfield after failing to run in the first quarter.
Or there were the remarks of NFL Network analyst and Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, who said after Tebow's first start in Miami on Oct. 23: "That's what Tim Tebow does. It looked bad – and that's an understatement. Some of his passes looked like they wouldn't even qualify for punt, pass and kick [contests]. But Tim Tebow, he wins. I don't know what it is about this kid. He gets it done, especially when the game is on the line."
Just a week later, Sanders was more to the point (and far less optimistic) after Tebow struggled against Detroit: "Today, Tim Tebow looked like he wasn't ready for the NFL."
There have been grudging admissions that Tebow can be effective from the likes of ESPN's Merril Hoge or NFL Network's Warren Sapp. ESPN's Cris Carter has repeatedly criticized Tebow's throwing mechanics and accuracy on intermediate throws. Moreover, there have been enough bad times that Tebow's harshest critics have plenty of ammunition.
Said Hoge: "That's called gimmick football. What do you believe? Do you believe you can win a Super Bowl? Is it about winning games? There is no conversation. They've already won games. Can you win a Super Bowl? That is the whole thing. Do I believe he's a good guy? Do I believe he can run the football? I never said he couldn't. I do believe in that. Can you throw it from the pocket on a consistent basis? He still throws it in the dirt 50 percent of the time. He's still undecided to how he throws the football on his second year. His elongated motion is still there. You're going to get exposed eventually by a very good team. … I don't see it. I haven't seen improvement. His gimmicks are working right now. But when you have to play real football, he won't be able to do it."
Few analysts have taken the time to study and explain what is actually happening. In short, there are moments when Tebow looks brilliant and there are moments when he looks terrible, simply because of the situation. For instance, when the Broncos pass on favorable downs (such as first-and-10 or second-and-6 or less), the chance for game-breaking plays becomes very high. But in situations where more contemporary passing skills are needed, Denver has been very bad. The team finished 30th in the NFL in third-down efficiency for the season.
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"Really, what you're talking about is situational football because the option plays the Broncos run force the defense to hesitate again and again," Dilfer said. "Instead of really explaining how the offense works and what is the point of what they're doing, we're caught up in what it looks like … Look, when this offense is bad, it's really, really ugly. When it's good, it can be extremely explosive and dangerous."
No game was better proof of that than when Denver hosted New England on Dec. 18. The Broncos rolled up 167 yards in the first quarter on the way to a 16-7 lead. However, after three turnovers allowed New England to take control of the game in the second quarter, the situations became tougher for Tebow and the Broncos. In the end, New England cruised to a 41-23 win.
While many analysts now look at that game as a touchstone for what could happen Saturday night, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been stressing to his defense (and particularly his secondary) not to get too far ahead of itself.
"The secondary's primary responsibility is always pass," Belichick said. "But in addition to that, they have a lot of run-force responsibilities in this game and option and those kind of things. It definitely puts pressure on from that standpoint, that you have a lot more things to think about for a defensive back. Instead of going into the game where you're expecting that every play is going to be a pass. You have to be ready for that on every play, but the reality is that every play is not a pass."
To Dilfer's credit, he anticipated the direction of the media dialogue on Tebow. In an Oct. 20 column for the network's web site, Dilfer talked about the inexact ways that Tebow would be analyzed.
"I said at the time that I thought he was going to be chaos for analysts because he was going to have some success, but it wasn't always going to look good," Dilfer said. "That's exactly what has happened."
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