Denver Broncos vice president John Elway chose his words carefully when he endorsed Tim Tebow as the starter heading into next season's training camp. Elway said Tebow "earned the right to be the starting quarterback going into training camp," not that they were excited and fully committed to building around his young quarterback.
Even though Elway had more success than anyone could have expected in his first year as an NFL executive, he'll be tested this offseason. He has plenty of reasons to be cautious about his team as it's currently constructed. Although the Broncos seem to be way ahead of schedule in their rebuilding process, Elway faces serious challenges as they try to become a more balanced team offensively.
Here's a look at some the big issues Denver faces in what could end up being a very tricky offseason:
• Defenses adjust to new offensive wrinkles: Give the Broncos credit for cobbling together their read-option system when Tebow took over in Week 6. Their sudden adjustment, based on their glaring shortcomings, evokes the Dolphins' Wildcat offense in 2008. The offense made Tony Sparano a Coach of the Year candidate and three years later he lost his job.
The Broncos' offense was similar at times to Miami's Wildcat attack. They often turned Tebow into a running back and gained an extra blocker. But with less fear of the passing attack, defenses honed in on the Wildcat and shut it down. The Patriots' coaching staff had enough time to prepare for the Broncos' offense and were able to contain the running game.
After the loss, Fox didn't commit to keeping the read-option in place. He said "every year has its own personality," and wisely seems willing to rework the offense once again. Will he try to transform it into a more traditional NFL scheme or go the opposite direction and differentiate the Tebow attack even further from other offenses? It's fun to think about some of the plays they could run if they're willing to make Tebow the NFL's only true option quarterback. But it was once fascinating to think about how the Wildcat was going to change the game.
• The Broncos have to bring in another quarterback: Elway pointed out that the Broncos have only two quarterbacks under contract, so they will pursue another signal-caller via the draft or free agency. Their choice will go a long way in determining Tebow's job security next season. Will they sign a veteran to compete with Tebow or an older Mark Brunell-type to mentor him? Or perhaps they'll draft a quarterback to develop alongside Tebow.
Elway has to consider the impact on Tebow's psyche, the potential of a quarterback controversy and the fit with their system. Tebow's skills turned out to match Fox's zone-blocking scheme. If Tebow had landed in a place like Dallas with bigger, slower linemen, he wouldn't have been able to do nearly as much. If the Broncos commit to Tebow and continue to develop their offensive line along those lines, they may want to find a backup with a similar style. They could certainly find an undersized mobile quarterback like Wisconsin's Russell Wilson in the later rounds of the draft.
But if they chose to draft a quarterback, you have to think Elway would be tempted to bring in a more traditional pocket passer -- a quarterback that looks like Elway himself. And that could set them down a completely different path when it comes to personnel.
• Tebow desperately needs a safety valve: The Broncos' top tight end, Daniel Fells, had just 19 catches for 256 yards and their leading pass-catcher at running back, Lance Ball, had 16 catches for 142 yards. The model for an elite offense seems to be the Saints with tight end Jimmy Graham and pass-catching back Darren Sproles. Now they face the not-to-simple matter of finding those guys. Every team is going to be looking for former basketball players with soft hands in the draft and free agency. The Broncos also face challenges in developing the screen game, since most of the defense hovers around the line because of Tebow in the first place, leaving a running back nowhere to go after the catch.
• Tebow's durability: Most mobile quarterbacks change their style to stay healthy as their careers evolve. Tebow seems to have a knack for avoiding big hits. But that will only last so long as defensive players focus on making Tebow pay, like they did with Michael Vick in Philly last season. Tebow's style also adds weight to their decision about a backup who can run the same system.
• Tebow needs to improve his delivery: Elway and Fox both pointed out that they didn't have a true offseason to work with Tebow as a starter yet. Tebow completed 46.5 percent of his passes in 2011. Even in the game Elway cited as a high point for Tebow, the playoff victory against Pittsburgh, Tebow was 10-for-21. They didn't make any progress shortening Tebow's delivery and he wasn't a decisive decision-maker. Elway said he would offer plenty of advice to Tebow this offseason. But it's not clear if any amount of coaching will turn Tebow into an accurate passer. No matter what they teach him, will it stick under game conditions when the pass rush is bearing down?
• Denver's defense not quite as good as advertised: Tebow and the Broncos' slow-paced offense took the spotlight off a defense that was promising but inconsistent. The team can't afford to solely focus on improving the offense. The defense let up over 40 points four times during the regular season and completely imploded in New England on Saturday.
On the positive side, they ranked 10th in the NFL in sacks and rookie Von Miller sets the tone for an aggressive front seven. But Fox said he hopes to improve their pass rush even more this offseason, and they clearly need help at defensive tackle. They also have to be concerned about their secondary. Cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman are both 33 and they probably need to find two starting-caliber safeties.
Elway kept things mostly positive after the Broncos lost 45-10 to the Patriots. But watching him walking around the locker room shaking hands, you could sense this was not an acceptable season for the Hall of Famer. He ended his career after winning a Super Bowl and won't be satisfied with an occasional playoff run.
Unfortunately for Elway, the Broncos are more likely to take a step backward next season. Thanks to winning the AFC West, the Broncos face the 11th-toughest schedule in 2012 (based on '11 records), and have games against New England, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore. You also have to wonder if Tebow-mania provides a little extra motivation for opponents. After hearing how great Tebow was for a week, the Patriots seemed as focused as ever on Saturday night. No one wants to end up on the wrong end of a Tebow highlight.
Ultimately, Elway is smart not to go all-in on Tebow. At least not the Tebow we saw this season. The Broncos could easily fall to 6-10 or worse next season. Teams caught up with the Broncos schematically at the end of the season and they lost four out of their last five games. Elway and Fox talked about the advantages of having a full offseason. Their opponets have that same luxury, and defensive coordinators are going to work hard on Tebow-proofing their gameplans.
If the Broncos have a losing record in 2012, Elway won't be nearly as gracious in next year's postseason press conference.