The Broncos' coaches are breaking down their No. 1 pick and starting from scratch as they try to turn the Florida star into an NFL passer. It's weeks into Year One of what will be a long—and pivotal—drama for the franchise
This is an article from the June 14, 2010 issue
It's 8:50 a.m on a day in late May, and quarterback class is in session. In fact, this is already the second quarterbacks meeting of the morning at the Broncos' training facility in Englewood. Coaches and passers huddled at 8, followed by a full-team get-together at 8:30. The offense would meet afterward, at 9:15, followed by a third quarterbacks session at 9:55, a walkthrough at 10:30, then practice, lunch, film review and meetings in the afternoon. Dizzying.
Josh McDaniels, the Broncos' 34-year-old coach, stands at the whiteboard. Seated at an L-shaped table in the cramped meeting room are quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels, Josh's 30-year-old brother, and the four signal-callers on the spring roster: Kyle Orton, the 2009 starter; challenger Brady Quinn, who was acquired in March from the Browns; Tom Brandstater, a second-year project out of Fresno State; and the No. 25 pick in the April draft, a Florida lefthander and the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Tebow.
The four students had their white binders open to follow the installation of some red zone concepts. They took notes in thin, loose-leaf notebooks. "You're going to have 50 passes in the game plan every week where you'll have one player open," McDaniels tells them. "I guarantee it. And you gotta find that one player. Quickly. You got to see it right away."
These quarterbacks have to know what McDaniels knows and to see what he sees. Too often last year, when Denver was 20th in scoring and finished 8--8, one or two players would be out of place or run the wrong route. So even if a smart quarterback like Orton knew exactly where he was supposed to throw the pass, he couldn't complete it because of his teammates' mistakes. But McDaniels is feeling free to add to his encyclopedic playbook because he has more confidence in his troops; nine prospective starters on offense are in their second year, as is the coach.
"All right, we've loaded the gun this year—we've given you Hoffa, Smoke, Smack, and now we've got Sleet," McDaniels says, rattling play calls. Tebow, the new kid, stares at the board, then back at McDaniels. His look says, Another one? Can I please get a grip on the first 539 concepts before you give me the 540th?
McDaniels doesn't pause. He draws up Sleet in black marker, with two receivers on the left and lines to indicate how one of them would, in essence, set a pick for the other to create an open man 10 yards downfield.
"Quarterbacks, you better be ready," he says. "We've got a blitz period today, and this blitz period is gonna test everything you know. Got it?"
"Yessir," the 22-year-old Tebow responds as the others nod. The quarterbacks put their notebooks away and head out to the next meeting. Asked later what was going through his mind when McDaniels drew up Sleet, Tebow says, "I'm very young. Right now, in this offense, I'm in elementary school. I'm understanding the concepts, but now I have to get comfortable with every one. I know I'll get them down. I know it."
In the NFL, teams install their offenses and defenses twice: once during organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps in May and June, and again as a review during training camp in July and August. At the time of the late-May OTAs, Tebow was in his fifth week in McDaniels's system. During the offense's morning meeting veteran guard Russ Hochstein, who was with the Patriots for seven seasons when McDaniels was a New England assistant and an offensive coordinator, suggested that the coach set up blocking assignments in a more advanced manner, rather than relying on the quarterback to identify where the middle linebacker was and shift blockers accordingly. McDaniels said, in essence: Let's get the basics down first, then move on to a more sophisticated scheme. Hochstein persisted. "Look," McDaniels said, his blood pressure appearing to rise, "that's Calculus 5, what you're talking about. We're in pre-algebra right now. Just do what the quarterback tells you to do. Block your man."
The vibe in the quarterbacks room was also intense. "A year ago," said Orton afterward, "[2009 backup] Chris Simms and I were swimming the same way Tim is right now. This offense is tough. I feel great to be in the second year, knowing what I'm doing."
At Florida, Tebow was accustomed to the center identifying the middle linebacker and calling out the blocking assignments. In Denver he'll have to spell out both the play and the protection in the huddle, then make adjustments at the line. For instance, he might see a safety coming down to act as the middle 'backer. In Broncos practice, even though Brian Dawkins, number 20, isn't a middle linebacker (the Mike, in football parlance), quarterbacks might go to the line, identify Dawkins as the pivot for the defense and call out, "20's the Mike!"
The terminology, too, can be vexing. For Quinn, a certain three-man combination route in Cleveland under 2008 offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was called Ram. In 2009 Chudzinksi's successor, Brian Daboll, called the same combination Thresher. In 2010 McDaniels calls it Rifle. Said Quinn, "You better learn how to wipe the slate clean when you change offenses."
Orton knew the offense the best of the four QBs during OTAs. At one point in the second quarterbacks meeting of the day, McDaniels was reviewing a red zone pass play called Charlotte with five receivers. (A big NBA fan, he's named base pass plays after every team in the league.) The two on the left were supposed to cut outside in a part of the route called Read. Orton piped up, "How would you feel if I changed Read to Iowa here?"
Iowa meant the receivers would cut inside, rather than out. Orton's first read on the play is to look at his three wideouts to the right, and he wanted to make it so that for his second read he wouldn't have to wheel all the way around to the far left. Instead he'd just shift his field of vision to the middle. Split seconds count—that's what Orton was thinking.
McDaniels considered for a moment. "Yeah, I think so," he said. "You're more comfortable with that, Kyle? Then let's do it."
"I want to have all five guys viable," said Orton, "and if I had to spin around all the way to my left, by the time I saw everything I need to, I might be out of time."
Quinn, in contrast, said he wouldn't want to change the patterns on the left because he thought there might be too much traffic in the middle to find an open man.
"That's fine," McDaniels said later. "If Brady feels better about it, we'll call it that way for him and the other way for Kyle. You're not going to change every play depending on what each quarterback wants, but this is minor, and you want each quarterback to feel great about the play when he calls it."
McDaniels thinks there are times when a coach has to be firm, and times when he needs to bend. "Bill [Belichick] taught me that ideas should be innocent until proven guilty," McDaniels said of his former boss in New England. "Some people think ideas are guilty until proven innocent. You might suggest a play or an idea to a coach, and it gets shot down right away—like, Your idea is no good because I didn't think of it. But if you do that too often, people stop coming up with ideas. And then you might be shutting off the flow of pretty good thoughts, and you're stunting everyone's development. I don't want to be dictating. I want to be having conversations."
In every game, a defense will run coverages or rush from places the offense didn't anticipate, and the quarterback is going to have to make a play in a split second. Last season McDaniels installed a misdirection screen that Matt Cassel had completed 29 out of 30 times with the Patriots in '08. The play drove McDaniels crazy in Denver. The back would run the wrong way, or the tackle would take a bad angle to the screen point and be late. Not until Week 13, against the Chiefs, did the Broncos run it perfectly; the result was a seven-yard touchdown from Orton to receiver Brandon Marshall.
There are 20 weeks between the NFL draft and the opening of the season. There is no question that the player with the toughest transition over that time will be Tebow. Most scouts saw him as a 6'3", 236-pound option quarterback with poor throwing mechanics whose skills wouldn't translate to the NFL. McDaniels, on a scouting trip to Gainesville four days before the draft, saw a gifted athlete with good size who after three hours was already repeating plays back to him in Denver terminology. In OTAs Quinn often was by Tebow's side, clarifying points. "I feel like Tim and I have a lot in common," says Quinn, a first-round pick in 2007 who never got a firm grip on the starting job in Cleveland. "My attitude is, I'm here to win the job—we all feel that way—but I'm also here to help him. I've been in his shoes. You don't get a lot of reps when you're not the starter, but you've got to be out there taking mental reps, going through the play like you're running it."
Tebow has to adapt from Urban Meyer's spread offense at Florida, in which he operated almost as a Wildcat fullback-quarterback. He has to learn a new playbook and a more traditional pro-style offense. Even more taxing: He has to completely overhaul the way he throws the ball.
"Look at this," McDaniels said in his office, cuing up digital video from a rookie minicamp less than four weeks earlier. A close-up camera had recorded throw after throw by Tebow on his first day as a Bronco, and on each one his torso rotated more than 90 degrees as he released the ball. "Spinning like a top," McDaniels said. "Imagine you're throwing darts and your body is spinning like this. You can't have the control you want. How's your release point going to stay the same?" McDaniels stopped the tape, then put on video from the previous day. Here was Tebow, a hand towel stuffed in his right armpit to force his right arm to stay tight to his rib cage as he threw. The motion was more compact, faster, and he appeared to have lost no velocity from the first day's throws. "Now that looks like a quarterback," McDaniels said.
By the last weekend in May, Tebow had had 12 sessions of 100 or more throws, working on mechanics with either Josh or Ben McDaniels, trying to erase what had become second nature to him. Even what he learned from pro tutors in the two months before the draft, refining his motion to account for the wasted movement, doesn't apply much now. The McDaniels boys have him doing it differently—again. The goal, of course, is for this new motion to become natural, so that when Tebow takes the snap he's thinking only about making the play. "Can we get this to be consistent by August?" Josh McDaniels says. "I don't know."
Tebow wasn't there by the end of May. One day he lasered a pass to Eddie Royal in the back of the end zone during seven-on-seven work. In the film review session McDaniels praised him—"Good throw, Timmy! Boom!"—then noticed that Tebow's right arm hadn't remained tight to his body; his muscle memory hadn't kicked in. The throw was pinpoint. The mechanics were shoddy.
"I know I can make good throws and still not be fundamentally correct," Tebow said. "I think when I'm consistent, my accuracy will increase. That's the point I've got to get to."
Aaahhh," said Tebow, fresh from an afternoon weightlifting session. "Blue towel today. Nice." He wedged the towel under his right armpit and got down to business.
On a short indoor practice field, another member of the McDaniels brain trust pitched in to work with the young quarterback during a 4 p.m. session. Thom McDaniels, a 61-year-old northeast Ohio high school coaching fixture who was in Denver to visit his sons, snapped the ball to Tebow as Ben McDaniels quietly tutored the QB. Josh and Ben both quarterbacked for their dad at McKinley High in Canton but were beaten out for starting jobs in college. The two are putting to use their father's time-tested techniques, the product of years spent studying mechanics and attending clinics and practices with top QB coaches. Thom has avoided backseat driving, and on this day he said nothing to Ben or to Tebow. He simply snapped the ball to the rookie, who threw to assistant equipment manager Mike (Harry) Harrington. Over and over.
Laying down another folded blue towel to indicate where Tebow's feet should go, Ben had his student take precise three-step drops, plant and then throw to Harrington at the sideline. "The shorter your stride, the more closed it is," Ben said. "And the faster you get. Always end on balance."
"Yessir," said Tebow. With him, it's always yessir or nosir, years of repetition having blended each phrase into one word.
Tebow took some center snaps, then some from the shotgun, preceding each by shouting, "OmahaGO!" He threw bullets, confidently. As instructed, the towel remained tucked under his right arm as he completed his motion, his body didn't swivel, and his front shoulder stayed lower than his back—"like the letters are falling off your [jersey]," Ben instructed.
Tebow treated every pass as if he were in a game. Cadence, snap, drop, step, fastball. After 40 or so throws Harrington held up his right receivers glove to show that it was split across the palm. "Take it easy, man," he called out kiddingly. Ben tutored Tebow on his footwork, making sure every drop was right—"I don't want you taking six different kinds of drops"—until, 35 minutes in, rivulets of sweat poured from Tebow's face.
Then they worked on touch throws, followed by back-of-the-end-zone passes. "Throw 'em high, remember," Ben McDaniels said.
"Pretend you're 6'4", Harry," Tebow called out to the 5'8" Harrington. One throw was good, the next high, the next couple good, the next couple high. And so it went.
After three quarters of an hour Tebow had thrown about 150 passes. He was spent. The other quarterbacks were long gone, but he had a few miles to go before he slept.
"What are you? Tired?" Ben said.
"Nosir," Tebow said, even though he clearly was.
Josh laughed about that exchange when it was related to him later. "That little conversation defines the two of them," he said. "Ben's not a b.s.'er. Part of his job is to challenge Tim because Tim's going to have it tough. And Tim plays a little better when he's pissed off."
For 53 minutes Tebow threw. About 175 passes—after a regular OTA practice. With all the work he has been doing since the end of his college season, it's a wonder Tebow's left arm is still attached to his shoulder, let alone has the zip it does. But he's in a race to remake his delivery and to master an offense, and he's not going to work bankers' hours. "I like when they push me," he said. "When they stop coaching me, that's when I'll be worried."
There are many ways to coach a quarterback, and many ways for a quarterback to learn. Tebow could have landed in organizations with men who tutored Super Bowl champs—Mike Holmgren in Cleveland, Mike Shanahan in Washington, both of whom liked Tebow—or with a three-time Super Bowl winner in Belichick, who developed Tom Brady. But here he is, with two young coaches who learned how to play and teach the position from their dad.
"I spent a lot of time with [Josh McDaniels] early on, before the draft," said Tebow. "I got to know his philosophy and really believe in it. What he was teaching made sense. The buying-in process wasn't hard. I see how what they're teaching me is going to make me better. The mechanics—I'm going to be thinking about them for a long time. I've got to make the uncomfortable comfortable, and I've got to hurry."
Maybe Tebow plays this year, maybe he doesn't. Most likely he'll become fluent in a package of goal line, short-yardage and red zone plays and run it a few snaps a game. Orton and Quinn are significantly further along in the offense (Brandstater was cut last Friday), and McDaniels has too much on the line to experiment with Tebow as a starter. After a promising 6--0 start last year the Broncos lost eight of 10, and in the off-season they unloaded the talented but troublesome Marshall.
Still, Tebow is brimming with a quiet confidence about his NFL prospects, even though he knows he's far from the player Denver thinks he can be. McDaniels is befuddled at those around the game who think Tebow's an NFL disaster waiting to happen. Way too high at 25th. Mechanics will never be right. Can't remake a quarterback in one off-season. McDaniels got suckered by the kid's Eagle Scout demeanor.
"Actually, I love that," said Tebow after his throwing session, leaning against the wall across from the team meeting room. His left arm, from the forearm to the nape of his neck, was mummified in ice, wrapped in a dozen ace bandages. "I think we both love it. It's a little bit of us against the world. It will be wonderful when I prove him right."
Growing up in Jacksonville, Tebow had a poster on the wall in his bedroom that read HARD WORK BEATS TALENT WHEN TALENT DOESN'T WORK HARD. For the short term, he and his teammates are following that motto as they prepare for the 2010 season. For the long term the Broncos' success—and McDaniels's fate—will be tied to whether hard work can turn Tebow into an elite quarterback. The NFL is skeptical. The Broncos are not.