- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Eighteen games into his NFL career, Tim Tebow remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside … a football helmet. His Denver Broncos team keeps winning — five times in his six starts this season — but Tebow also keeps putting up numbers that, for a quarterback, are straight out of the leather-helmet era. In fact, his completion rate this year (45.5 percent) is lower than the league rate in 1947 (47.0).

There’s no question the Broncos‘ stout defense has a lot to do with their being just a game out of first in the AFC West. There’s also no question Tebow, as fine an athlete as he is, often looks stiffer than Tank McNamara when he tries throws the ball.

He’s rugged (6-foot-2, 236 pounds), though, has decent speed and racks up a fair number of rushing yards in Denver’s daring spread/option offense — 118 one week. He also has a knack for winning games with last-minute drives, four of them in his brief time as a pro.

And so the battle lines have been drawn. On one side you have the doubters, who think Tebow is an overhyped mirage - and, on top of that, maybe aren’t too fond of his overt religiosity. (Separation of church and football, don’t you know.) On the other side you have the true believers, who think the former Heisman Trophy winner has victory, not blood, coursing through his veins. To them, he’s that once-in-a-dog’s-age talent who’s greater than the sum of his anatomical parts, whose contributions can’t be measured by mere statistics.

But perhaps we’re looking at this from the wrong angle. I mean, we’ll find out soon enough whether Tebow has the right stuff or not. He can’t fool people — if that’s what he’s doing - forever.

In the meantime, why don’t we just sit back and enjoy this rare moment in NFL history when a club is actually experimenting with something radically different? I’m not talking about adding a fifth receiver to the four you already have or running an occasional single-wing play from the wildcat formation. Those are small potatoes by comparison. I’m talking about taking a unique player, putting him at the most important position on the field and seeing if you can change the game, find a way to win that’s entirely new (in the pros, at least). That’s as exciting as anything Tebow does with a football.

Here’s something else to celebrate: a coach who’s open-minded enough to take a dive off the deep end like this, to scrap his West Coast offense and install a college-type attack. John Fox could have played it safe and just kept starting Kyle Orton at quarterback — or tried to turn Tebow into a conventional pocket passer, thereby negating much of his specialness. But Fox risked public ridicule (never mind guffaws within his own profession) and went rogue.

So three cheers for Fox, too. Let’s face it, too many coaches are too wedded to their systems. Heck, we’ve seen it in Washington with the Redskins’ Mike Shanahan and Maryland’s Randy Edsall. When Shanahan had Donovan McNabb last year, he didn’t spend very much time tailoring the offense to McNabb’s abilities. (And Donovan, a square peg in a round hole, found himself on the bench by Week 15.) It was the same with Edsall and Danny O’Brien this season.

Fox, on the other hand, wasn’t too proud — or stubborn — to change. To him, it was all about winning. How could he get the most out of this particular team, which went 4-12 last season (causing coach Josh McDaniels to be fired) and dropped four of its first five this year with Orton under center? Well, he could drive the rest of the league to distraction by building an attack around a QB who was almost as likely to run as to pass. Differentness can be a powerful weapon in NFL; your opponents, after all, have only seven days to prepare for you.

Skeptics look at Tebow’s completion percentage and scoff, “That’s Heath Shuler/Ryan Leaf/Akili Smith territory. What kind of careers did they have?” Even Broncos icon John Elway, who runs the club’s football operations, doesn’t know quite what to make of the guy. Asked 10 days ago if Denver was getting closer to finding its quarterback of the future, he said, with admirable succinctness, “No.”

It wasn’t just an honest answer, it was the right one. The jury is still very much out on Tim Tebow. Can a QB who isn’t a pure passer develop that skill over time, or is he destined for the rest of his days to be hit-or-miss? And what about the longevity of a running quarterback? There are plenty of rules to protect a passer in the pocket, but once he ventures outside it — as Tebow frequently does — he’s fair game. Can somebody who plays with Tebow’s abandon stay healthy, week in and week out, in a league populated by fire-breathing linebackers and smoke-snorting safeties?

At this point, though — just two months into this flight of fancy — it’s not what Tebow and the Denver offense are, it’s what they might become. And really, isn’t the suspense killing you?

Let me leave you with one last thought (which you can read more about on my blog, Daly OT):

Tebow ran 22 times — for 67 yards — Sunday against San Diego. According to my research, it’s the most rushes in a game by a quarterback since at least 1960. In those 52 seasons, a quarterback has had 15 or more carries in a game 10 times.

The quarterbacks’ record in those games: 10-0.