From the vantage point of mid-October, it's not hard to imagine a Tebow starting stint that might wind up looking a lot like a typical Tebow play itself -- unpredictable and somewhat improvised, with no one exactly sure where it's headed or how it'll turn out. But for better or worse, Denver's experiment at the game's most pivotal position has begun, and like almost everything that involves the Broncos' second-year lightning rod of a quarterback, it promises to be entertaining.
"I do believe he'll be successful, and he'll play well, for a small window of time,'' said former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, slipping in the kind of caveat that always seems to come into play with any discussion of Tebow's NFL prospects. "These next three to five weeks, he'll have some success. Because they'll simplify, and they'll do what he can do. They'll embrace that, and he'll make some plays.
"It's always hard for the league to adjust quickly to a totally different type of player at quarterback. Look at how much success the Wildcat had for a short window of time. So he'll make a splash here over the course of a few games, and then we'll have chaos in the NFL analyst world for the next five weeks as we all try to figure out what it means.''
Dilfer was laughing at that last thought, but that sounds about right, doesn't it? Tebow's play will almost certainly inspire a week-by-week temperature reading and some breathless forecasts of his long-term starting viability. And everyone has an opinion by now on Tebow, even though it'll be just the fourth NFL start of his career when he takes over for the benched Kyle Orton in Week 7 at Miami. In talking to league observers and even one former Broncos receiver and teammate of Tebow's this week, I still get the sense that Tebow remains the Rorschach test of NFL quarterbacks: We all see a little something different when we look at him.
"I don't know how they'll do as far as wins, but I can tell you they won't be disappointed in him,'' said Jabar Gaffney, the Redskins veteran receiver who played with and caught passes from Tebow last year in Denver, where he went 1-2 as the Broncos starter in the last three games of the season. "You won't find a guy who's going to work harder out there and compete any harder than Tim. Last year I got to play with him as a rookie, and I got to work out with him a couple times over this past offseason.
"I could just see in our workouts that he was a bit more poised over the offseason. He changed up his throwing a little bit, and he was getting rid of the ball a lot quicker and making some great throws. I'm excited myself to see how he does out there actually. Because from playing with him last year, and working out with him this year, it was like night and day. You could see that confidence inside of him, like he's ready to play now.''
But is he ready to play now? That's the $10 million question with Tebow, whose throwing mechanics and suitability to an NFL-style passing game have been analyzed more than the Zapruder film over the course of the past 20-plus months, sparking a national debate. The Broncos, sitting 1-4 and in last place in the AFC West, are poised to give him an 11-game trial to make his case. Otherwise, Denver is likely to cut its losses and move on to other starting options in what appears to be a quarterback-rich 2012 draft.
"Denver has got to find out if this is going to be a guy worth investing in going forward,'' said Brian Billick, the former Baltimore head coach who is now an NFL analyst on both FOX and the NFL Network. "Can he develop and mature as an NFL quarterback in the conventional way that we believe it takes to win a championship? Because so far, including Michael Vick, no [quarterback] of that type has ever won a championship. You've got to find out if he can do the things it takes to win a championship in this league, like an Aaron Rodgers, a Tom Brady, a Peyton Manning. You can tap into what Tebow does well, but you still have to develop him along the lines of an NFL quarterback who can win a championship.
"I don't believe, and I haven't seen anything in him yet to recognize that he can develop to that level. He can do some unique things. But to go back to the original supposition, can you win a championship with his skill set? I'm old, and I'm an old man, but until someone does it, I'm saying no.''
As he showed us again last Sunday in coming off the bench in the second half to nearly rally Denver to a win at home against San Diego, Tebow has a knack for creating offense and extending plays with his feet as a runner, and he can make certain throws with decent accuracy. Dilfer considers himself to be neither in the pro-Tebow camp or anti-Tebow camp, and laments the fact that Tebow's first-round draft slot in 2010 burdened him with an expectation level he was not prepared to meet.
"The Broncos have themselves a highly competitive football player who's still early on in his developmental stage as a passer,'' Dilfer said. "But he can make some great school-yard football plays right now. I've always been a middle guy on Tebow, and I've said he's like quarterbacks No. 45-80 in this league. They have enough talent to be in this league, but they have a long way to go before they can be consistent, productive passers. They just haven't done it enough.
"His biggest issue will be, every good passing offense in this league, without exception, is based on rhythm, timing and location. There's a rhythm to a pass play, there's a timing to a pass play, and there's a location the ball and the receiver needs to be on a pass play. And those are the three things he really struggles with.''
With Tebow at quarterback, the Broncos will be limited in terms of the multiplicity of their offensive schemes, Dilfer said, because Tebow's recognition and passing skills are not ready for that level of sophistication. Denver will thus lose the ability to attack every quadrant of the field with Tebow running the offense. Playing to his comfort level, the Broncos are expected to have Tebow in the shotgun formation the vast majority of the time, avoiding the issues he has had with cleanly receiving the center exchange.
"What you're taking away is the entire drop-back passing game,'' Dilfer said. "Whether it's the slant game, the in-cut game, the crossing-route game, the double-layer throw game. All the different elements of the drop-back passing game, you're basically subtracting that from your offense. And it's not just a Tebow thing, because that's the reason a lot of guys aren't playing. They get a chance in the league because they have a certain element to them, but then you quickly realize, well, if it's not a play-action pass, they can't play. They can't play on third-and-8. That's really what it comes down to, can you play on third-and-8, and can you play in the red zone as a thrower?''
Denver would do well to emphasize the kind of shotgun running game that sets up the play-action pass, because that would be as close to replicating the kind of offense Tebow excelled in for coach Urban Meyer at the University of Florida, Dilfer said.
"That's the first thing I'd install during this bye week in Denver,'' Dilfer said. "I'd wear that out. Because at Florida, his best plays came off the shotgun play-action, where the defense has to react to him being a ballcarrier, or the backs being a ballcarrier. That's when he was able to pop up off the fake and either move out of the pocket, or stay in the pocket and throw some isolation routes. And that's a route where his guy is going to be open, because the defense is going to react a certain way to that look. That's what he's best at. The play-action game.''
Billick is skeptical about Tebow's long-term chances to succeed in the NFL until he sees more throwing ability from the former Gator. And he's also tired of people making the easy comparison between Tebow and Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton, another former Heisman winner who is currently astounding everyone with his quick transition to the NFL and its passing schemes. Like Tebow, Newton is big and athletic and seems to have a playmaking ability all his own.
"The analogy everyone's making is, and everyone's getting all hot and bothered about it, 'Well, look what Cam Newton's doing. Just give Tebow a chance and he'll do that too,' '' Billick said. "[Baloney]. I've seen Cam Newton. Cam Newton can throw. Now, can he evolve into that championship-type quarterback? We'll find out. But at the heart of it, this guy can throw. We don't know if Tim Tebow can throw.''
Gaffney believes he knows. He's been at the other end of a Tebow spiral, and that's something no TV analyst can match at the moment.
"Man, that dude can make every throw out there,'' said Gaffney, who, like Tebow, starred at the University of Florida. " It may not always be pretty, but he can make every throw out there and he can throw just as far as any quarterback in the league. So there's definitely no question about his arm strength.
"As a receiver, it gives you a little bit of extra confidence in knowing he will keep a play alive with his feet. You can never stop on a route, because he gets out of some stuff and he'll throw it to you. Whereas in most cases, you'll look back and you'll be like, 'Oh, man, the quarterback's sacked.' Not with Tebow. He'll come out of it somehow, because he keeps plays alive. As a receiver, you've just always got to stay ready for him.''
I asked Dilfer, besides what Tebow can do with his feet and his athleticism, what are the strengths of his throwing game at this point? What will the Broncos likely try to take advantage of in terms of his passing? Don't be surprised if the deep ball is a big part of Denver's offense.
"He's a pretty good deep ball thrower,'' said Dilfer, who studied Tebow's Florida game tapes extensively. "He can push the ball down the field. Listen, in 1984, Tim Tebow could have been a starting quarterback in this league, and been highly productive. I have zero doubt of that. Because it was all about run, play-action and a vertical passing game. Everything truly came off the run game, except for the 49ers, they were a pass-first team that ran the ball very effectively.
"And Tim Tebow can run and play-action. If you look at the quarterbacks in the '80s and even early '90s, you didn't have to have a quick release. The ball didn't have to come out quick. It was about big, extended drops, big hits in the pocket and push the ball down the field. But today the modern passing game is different. I'm not anti-Tebow. It's just that Tebow's in the wrong generation playing quarterback. Because if you look at guys like Rodgers, [Drew] Brees, Brady, Manning, [Philip] Rivers and [Matthew] Stafford, the best of the best, they all have a quick release.
"That's the common denominator. The ball comes out quick, and it's a quick passing game. It's based on accuracy, timing, anticipation, with small windows. It's lightning fast, and we've got five guys in the league right now who, outside of Dan Marino, have the quickest releases we've ever seen. They throw people open, and they beat people with their release because there's no reaction time. That's the modern passing game.''
Denver's challenge will be to let Tebow be Tebow, doing what he does best to impact games and make plays, while still trying to develop him as a consistent and more well-rounded passer. He may spark the Broncos offense, and win some games, and still not close the deal as the team's QB of the future in the minds of Denver decisions makers John Fox, John Elway and Brian Xanders. Unless he develops at least some legitimacy as a pocket passer.
"I think you're going to see him play to his strengths,'' Billick said of Tebow. "He's going to run around and make some really fun plays to watch, and he's likely going to get hurt. Maybe not a singular injury, but there's going to be an accumulation of injuries that knock him out of the lineup, just because of the way he plays. Like Michael Vick. He's a big, strong guy, but I think we're apt to see that.
"What I don't know that we'll see between now and early January is the evolution of his ability to throw the ball in a way that we know you have to in order to win in this league. We may see increased productivity, but the more you try to put him in a situation to see if he can make those three- and five- and seven-step throws, I can't imagine he's going to have a great deal of success. And then he's going to revert to the other things he does better than pocket passing.''
The Broncos in the next 11 games have to see enough from Tebow to decide whether he's a new-wave starting quarterback in this league, or a novelty act that will have to find another, more niche-like role to play in the NFL. Will they find Tebow's play-making skills so unique and special that they structure their entire offensive philosophy and personnel around him, or will they pass judgment quickly after this extended stint of playing time, and move on to next year's incoming draft-eligible quarterbacks? Most NFL observers think we're about to find out.
"The biggest reason I now agree with the timing of this move is that I believe the quarterback of the future of the Denver Broncos is playing in college right now,'' said Dilfer, citing the "six or seven'' first-round prospects who could be in the 2012 draft. "The Broncos will be picking most likely in the top 10, and their quarterback of the future is playing on Saturdays right now. They needed to play Tebow because not only do they need to find that out, they needed everyone else to find that out. Eleven games is a big sample. We're going to know a lot, and you're going to see the whole ebb and flow of this thing.
"That's where [Elway and Fox] were smart enough to realize if Tebow is indeed good, he'll be good 11 weeks from now. But if he struggles, by the end of that stint, people will kind of figure it out and they won't have to fight that battle any more. And then Denver can move on.''