In Tebow's first start of the season, the Broncos went to Miami and somehow escaped with an 18-15 overtime victory. Tebow was awful for most of the day, but money when it really counted, leading Denver to all 18 of its points in the final three minutes of regulation and overtime.
And with that uneven performance comes this realization: Are the Broncos really any closer to knowing if Tebow is their long-term answer at quarterback based on Sunday's rollercoaster ride against the still-winless Dolphins? I don't think so. How can they be? They saw Tebow struggle mightily for most of the game, with woefully inaccurate passing, poor pocket presence and a case of happy feet that surfaced again and again.
But Denver also saw just enough of the part of Tebow's game that can be difference making. When he absolutely had to make something happen, he staved off defeat and got it done, leading the Broncos to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns drives in the final minutes, and then tying the game himself and forcing overtime with a two-point conversion on a quarterback draw. It was vintage Tebow, and he did his best work of the day when the situation looked the bleakest. He did lead his team when it needed leading, and he found a way to win a game that looked unwinnable for Denver.
But the good Tebow didn't begin to outweigh the bad Tebow on Sunday, and that's why this game probably did little to clarify his future in Denver. It clearly wasn't the homecoming to Florida that he envisioned, and you have to wonder what might have happened if he hadn't had two weeks to prepare for this first start of 2011? He showed he will always play with heart, but he didn't show enough skill at quarterback to know if he's well on his way to making a name for himself in the NFL.
"I need to get a lot better, that's for sure,'' said Tebow, when asked to assess his performance in the game's first 55 minutes or so. "It's my fault that we were in that position in the first place. I just have to play better in the first three quarters so we don't have to make that comeback in the fourth.''
In the game's first three quarters, Tebow was abysmal, completing just 3 of 8 in passing, for 24 yards, with four sacks and 48 yards on six rushes. But in the pressure cooker of the fourth quarter and overtime, Tebow was much, much better, completing 10 of his last 19 passes for 137 yards, with two touchdowns, and that two-point conversion run. He wasn't the only hero for the Broncos, but without him they simply don't beat the Dolphins and fly home with their second win of the season against four losses.
"When he gets to crunch time, he trusts what he sees, and that's what I see [from him],'' Denver veteran safety Brian Dawkins said, in trying to explain the difference between late-game Tebow and the rest-of-the-game Tebow. "He trusts things and he'll let it just fly. Early on in the game he was maybe second-guessing things. But at the end of the day, he's a guy who's going to continue to fight, continue to scrap and use his arm, his legs, or whatever it takes to get the job done.''
You can blame the Broncos' conservative gameplan somewhat for there being two such distinct parts of Tebow's game. Denver clearly tried to limit his impact on the game in the first three quarters, letting him throw just five passes in the first half (he completed three for those for 24 yards), and only eight through three quarters. If naming Tebow the starter is all about using the Broncos' final 11 games to find out if he can play quarterback in the NFL, it seemed to make little sense to not let Tebow take the training wheels off and play his style of game. When you have a quarterback who needs work on his passing, you have to let him throw the ball to improve.
But Denver instead tried to move the ball on the ground against the Dolphins, which it did quite effectively, rushing for 124 yards on 21 carries (5.9 average) in the first half, and finishing with 183 yards on 39 runs for the game. Even in overtime, after Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams recovered the ball at the Miami 36 after a strip sack of Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore, Denver chose to run the ball three straight plays before Matt Prater's game-winning 52-yard field goal.
To make that point another way, the Broncos felt better about Prater trying a 52-yard field goal, even though he had earlier missed from 49 and 43 in the first half, than putting the game in Tebow's hands. That speaks to the level of trust that Denver head coach John Fox has yet to develop in Tebow, and it led to Tebow only getting to really stretch his QB muscles Sunday when the Broncos had no other choice at their disposal.
By anyone's estimation, Fox was cautious with his postgame praise of his new starting quarterback, lauding him for his resilience, but repeatedly mentioning how much of a work in progress he remains. Fox is not about to go leading the pro-Tebow parade until he sees much more production and strong play than he did against the Dolphins.
"[He played] much like our team,'' Fox said. "We didn't start as fast as I'd like. We had chances. We didn't throw the ball as well as I'd like, particularly early. Tim's a young player who's just going to get better, and I saw him get better today. Hopefully he gets better by next week.''
Fox refused to crow about Tebow validating his decision to start him over Kyle Orton, saying only, "I think any time you win that helps validate just about everything.'' But he also made a point of reminding the media that Tebow didn't win this game alone, pointing out two critical catches turned in by receiver Demaryius Thomas (a 5-yard touchdown) and tight end Daniel Fells (a 28-yard reception that set up the game-tying touchdown) in the final minutes of regulation.
"He moved the team, and he made a lot of big plays, both with his feet and his arm,'' Fox said. "Guys helped him as far as the receptions they made. That's the NFL. Not every pitch is a strike. It takes some good plays on the ball and we got those. So, of course, that makes the quarterback look better.''
Tebow looked lost for much of the game, missing a wide-open Eric Decker on what could have been a touchdown in the third quarter, sailing at least three passes far out of bounds and repeatedly pulling the ball down and taking off after struggling to find his receivers and read the field. Tebow didn't look comfortable for much of the afternoon, and his timing and rhythm appeared to be off. Well into the fourth quarter, he had just one completion in the second half, a 16-yard strike to Decker on a crossing pattern.
But then he got hot and flashed the kind of play-making skills and flair for the dramatic that he was known for at the University of Florida. And he won, which is another intangible of his that defies easy description or categorization.
"I didn't think it was going to be like that today, but sometimes you've got to find a way and keep believing and keep fighting,'' Tebow said. "And that's what we did, so that was something special.''
Tebow said he played it "too safe and cautious'' earlier in the game, and threw the ball away to not force any passes. But as dismal as his performance looked after the game's first 55 minutes -- he was just 4 of 14 for 40 yards, with five sacks, up until the Broncos' final two drives in regulation -- he didn't let those failures define his entire day. Tebow found a way to get it done, even if you can't consider Sunday's win a major step in his development as an NFL quarterback.
"We just kept being positive on the sideline, everyone was still believing and we just kept on fighting,'' Tebow said. "We wanted it. We wanted it a lot at the end and we believed that we could come back. I'm so proud of those guys and I'm very blessed that they believed in me, for more than 60 minutes, that we could pull this one out. It means a lot.''
Even in his own locker room, the belief in Tebow is still a work in progress. His coaches and his teammates all need to see more from him. Sunday in Miami didn't win Tebow any guarantee of long-term success in Denver. But he did win the game. In the NFL, that's the bottom line, and it still counts for more than anything else.