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:
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.
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.
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.