As I observe the John Elway-Tim Tebow dynamic this season, I think back to the 1960s in Minnesota, when I cut my teeth on NFL football.
The expansion-era Vikings featured a fiery coach in Norm Van Brocklin, a Hall of Fame quarterback in his playing days and a prototypical pocket passer with a rocket arm (sounds like a certain former Broncos Super Bowl QB, especially in his later years when he rarely ran). Van Brocklin struggled mightily to accept his young quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, and Tarkenton's scrambling, unconventional play. The result was a six-year battle of wills that resulted in Tarkenton being traded to the Giants and Van Brocklin resigning from the Vikings. Tarkenton went on to a Hall of Fame career that included three NFC Championships with the Vikings when he returned under Bud Grant in the '70s.
Grant was much more open when it came to his quarterback's style. He just wanted wins. And he got them from a variety of quarterbacks during his career.
He went to three Super Bowls with Tarkenton, the daring scrambler who did stay in the pocket more as he aged. He also went to Super Bowl IV with quarterback Joe Kapp, who was slow afoot and threw wobbly balls as more of a drop-back passer. But Kapp was a leader and a fighter who ran over linebackers.
Elway may not be the Broncos' coach, as in Van Brocklin's case with Tarkenton. But his feelings about Tebow have been similarly dissected.
Elway will lead the charge in deciding Tebow's future in Denver, making the final call as Broncos fans, Tebow loyalists nationwide and the rest of the NFL watches it all play out. Will the Broncos' future QB be the miracle worker Tebow, who is as unconventional as they come in the Broncos' NFL-unique option offense? The Tebow, that is, who has a 7-1 record as a starter so far this season (including six come-from-behind wins, three in overtime).
Elway, like Bud Grant, should know that successful quarterbacks come in all shapes, sizes and arm strengths. I learned early on from Grant that production -- not style points -- matter. Our 1999 Super Bowl team in Tennessee had Steve McNair as the mobile starter and Neil O'Donnell as the pocket-passing backup. Both contributed greatly to that Titans team.
Elway has seen his team rise from the dead to become AFC West leaders at 8-5 with three weeks left in the regular season. He and John Fox heard the Mile High faithful screaming for Tebow early this season and figured,
Amazingly, life in Broncoland has gotten incredibly better. Credit goes to Fox and his coaches for changing the offense to play to Tebow's strengths -- running, minimizing mistakes and late-game heroics. The Broncos now play close to the vest for three quarters to stay in games and give the team a chance to win in the fourth. Credit also goes to receivers making plays at crunch time and a strong running game that is No. 1 in the NFL with Tebow (a "great running back" according to Brian Urlacher), a rejuvenated Willis McGahee and a good offensive line. Add to that a much-improved defense (led by rookie Von Miller's 11.5 sacks) and a clutch kicker in Matt Prater.
And then there's divine intervention -- such as Marion Barber running out of bounds to stop the clock in the final two minutes of regulation, then fumbling in field goal range in OT, during the Broncos' most recent win over the Bears.
But above all, the turnaround has come from Tebow -- with his positive nature, tremendous leadership and competitive spirit -- inspiring his team. If the MVP vote were taken today, there is little doubt that Tebow would rank in the top five and perhaps second only to the phenomenal Aaron Rodgers. Tebow is second only to Rodgers in winning percentage among this year's starting quarterbacks.
Tebow should be praised for his on field performance and mental toughness. He was well aware of the offseason rumblings in Denver that Elway was not enamored with his quarterback skills and reportedly ripped him privately. With the lockout in effect, Tebow couldn't work with the Broncos' new coaching staff or do anything to change Elway's or Fox's minds about his abilities.
In training camp, he was relegated to battling Brady Quinn for the No. 2 quarterback role and was listed third on the depth chart at times. Being the competitor he is, that had to sting and frustrate him. Then he stood by and watched starter Kyle Orton struggle through the early regular season.
We never heard Tebow complain publicly. Many Broncos observers wonder if the team's poor play through their 1-4 start was a reflection of the players questioning Elway's and Fox's treatment of Tebow and the decision to play Orton. Clearly, the Broncos were a listless team until the change was made. When Tebow did take over, the team got a spark, seeming to genuinely like Tebow and, more importantly, believe in him and his will to win.
Clearing the hurdles Elway has put in front of him will serve Tebow well in the future. He is more determined than ever to prove Elway and his other critics wrong. Perhaps that was Elway's goal all along, but I doubt it. Tebow can look at the quarterback he will face Sunday -- Tom Brady -- and see another guy who has played with a huge chip on his shoulder (in his case over being a sixth round pick) and know how far Brady has come with his three Super Bowl triumphs.
Publicly at least, Elway is changing his tune on Tebow. He is backtracking on earlier statements in which he was begrudging in any praise directed Tebow's way. Elway knew he created a firestorm in Denver when he was asked in late November if he was "closer to feeling if you have your quarterback on this team" and flatly answered, "No." Elway followed that up by noting Tebow's week-to-week progress, but the Tebowmaniacs only heard "No."
Contrast that with Elway's comments after the Bears win: "Nobody is more supportive than me of Tim Tebow," and, "If you look at his impact on just this season, his presence has been just huge. The transformation and the importance that he's had, I think he's rallied everyone around him."
Elway now says that he wants to work with Tebow in the offseason to "give him what I know."
There are skeptics who question Elway's sincerity and say he is being dragged, kicking and screaming, onto the Tebow bandwagon. TV cameras are constantly on Elway during games as he sits in his management box and ventures onto the sidelines. Every grimace or smile from Elway is interpreted as a condemnation or endorsement of Tebow. Every quote is overanalyzed for hidden meaning.
Some NFL conspiracy theorists believe that Elway would love to trade Tebow to Miami or Jacksonville -- two Florida teams in need of the boost to ticket sales the Gator legend could provide -- and then select a more prototypical quarterback in the QB-rich 2012 draft (or get Blaine Gabbert from the Jags in that trade).
Well, that's not happening, unless Elway wants to move out of Denver. The populace would revolt. As long as Tebow and the Broncos don't completely fall apart down the stretch, it's clear that he will be the Broncos 2012 starter.
Believe Elway when he says he's happy with Tebow
The good news for Elway is that if he still has private doubts about Tebow's long-term prospects, he'll have all of 2012 to judge. The Broncos' recent winning has virtually assured Denver of not having a shot at the top quarterbacks in the upcoming draft. He may dream of Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley, but that's not realistic anymore.
Before last year's draft, I spoke with Marc Trestman, current head coach of the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and a long-time, successful NFL offensive coordinator who coached Bernie Kosar, Steve Young and Rich Gannon. Trestman worked with Tebow on the field and in the classroom to help prepare him pre-draft in 2010. He told me then that Tebow was going to be a lot better than most people thought, and could well become an elite quarterback. He saw the potential of another Steve Young as a great runner/passer, and he reminds us that it took the future Hall of Famer Young until he was 29 to become a top quarterback. Tebow is 24.
Trestman said that Tebow is very coachable and has extremely high football intelligence, physical skills (including more than adequate arm strength) and intangibles. Through working to improve the quarterback's footwork, he said Tebow's motion and delivery will speed up, and he will improve greatly the more he plays. Elway also has mentioned Tebow's footwork as a key to improving his accuracy. But does Elway agree with the rest of Trestman's analysis?
For Elway, there are two key questions. If Tebow is doing this well now, how much better can he be next year with an offseason of work not disrupted by a lockout? And how good will he be in three more years and thereafter?
Ultimately, can Elway live without the Broncos having the prototypical quarterback that he himself was? If the Broncos keep winning in 2011, follow it up in 2012 and become Super Bowl contenders once again, with an ever-improving Tebow leading the way, he'll happily say yes to Tebow Time for the long haul. But still perhaps with a bit of well-hidden mixed emotions.