A 1--4 football team decided last week to bench its ineffective starting quarterback and see if the backup could do any better, which is the sort of thing 1--4 football teams have been doing, with minimal fuss, since the invention of the forward pass. But the Broncos' switch from Kyle Orton to Tim Tebow has been the subject of more debate than national health care.
From The Wall Street Journal's detailed examination of Tebow's performance against the Chargers two weeks ago to ESPN's army of analysts weighing in daily on NFL roundtables, everyone seems to have a take on Tebow. His fans say the deeply religious Tebow works in mysterious ways; it's not every second-year QB who could inspire fans to put up billboards imploring the team to give him playing time. But not even the Broncos' faithful are in agreement. Two customers at a Denver sandwich shop were discussing it last week when one of them said he couldn't believe it had taken the Broncos so long to give Tebow a chance. His buddy held up one hand like a stop sign. "I don't want to get into this again," he said. "We're just going to end up fighting."
Tebow tends to have that effect on people because he forces us to choose between logical probability and magical possibility. Logic says it's highly unlikely that a quarterback with a funky throwing motion and shaky footwork who often improvises on the run as if he's playing touch football at the company picnic can be a consistent NFL quarterback. And yet there's something that changes when Tebow enters a game, the way it did when he led a second-half rally that came within one play of beating San Diego. The things he can do—including run like a fullback and inspire his teammates like a preacher—seem to compensate for the things he can't.
There is no staying neutral on Tebow. You have to pick a side. Most NFL talent evaluators fall on the side of logic. Even Denver coach John Fox seems less than convinced of his new starter's long-term chances. "Whether this works out or not, time will tell," he says. (Try to contain your enthusiasm there, Coach.) When the 6'3", 236-pound Tebow takes the field on Sunday, he will be facing more than just the 11 Dolphins across from him. He will be going against every scout, general manager and TV talking head who believes he can't be a successful NFL quarterback because he doesn't play the way successful NFL quarterbacks are supposed to play. There will be just as many people, most of them fans, hoping that he'll blow up that conventional wisdom. One of them will be a man who just might understand Tebow's situation better than anyone.
"You bet I'm rooting for him," Doug Flutie says. "I get so frustrated at all the skeptics who want to bury the kid before he's even had a fair chance. The NFL wants to fit everybody into this cookie-cutter mold. You have to be a certain height, a certain weight, you have to play a certain way. If you don't fit into that, they assume you can't win games." He pauses. "I'm sorry," he says. "I get a little worked up about this."
Flutie, now a college football analyst for NBC and Versus, looks at Tebow and sees himself, albeit a supersized version. A generation ago he was the charismatic, Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback who wasn't cut out for the NFL. Judged too small at 5'10" and 180 pounds, Flutie wasn't drafted out of Boston College until the 11th round by the Rams, who later traded his rights to the Bears. He went to the USFL for a season, then spent eight years in the Canadian Football League before getting his first extended NFL shot with the Bills in 1998. He replaced injured starter Rob Johnson in the fourth game, Buffalo went 7--3 the rest of the way, made the playoffs, and Flutie was selected for the Pro Bowl. Yet Johnson was given back the No. 1 job the following postseason. "I was considered good enough to play in the Pro Bowl but not good enough to be the starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills," he says. Flutie went on to play 12 years in the NFL, where his teams were 38--28 in games that he started, but he'll never know how much more he could have accomplished if he hadn't had to fight so much resistance.
Will Tebow, the 2007 Heisman winner, someday wonder the same thing? He's not willing to entertain such concerns. "I haven't thought about anything beyond the Miami game," he says. "No bigger issues than that." But it may be even harder for Tebow to break the mold than it was for Flutie. In this age of advanced statistics and detailed scouting, in which every aspect of performance is quantified, we know more about what it takes to be a winning quarterback than we ever have—or at least we think we do. How fast is his release? What's his Wonderlic score? Does his arm drop too low when he throws? Fail to measure up and it's easy for personnel people to dismiss you as an unlikely pro. Never mind that Tebow found a way to be 34--5 as a starter at Florida and MVP of the 2009 BCS title game.
All this is why Flutie thinks this first start of the season is crucial for Tebow. "He's really playing for his future on Sunday," Flutie says. "Guys who don't fit the profile usually don't get a long time to develop." Who knows if Tebow has the magic to overcome his limitations? But you don't have to be a Broncos fan to hope that he makes his skeptics look foolish, if only to remind them that allowing for the possibility of magic is the logical thing to do.
LOGIC SAYS IT'S UNLIKELY THAT A QUARTERBACK WITH A FUNKY MOTION AND SHAKY FOOTWORK CAN BE A SUCCESS. AND YET, SOMETHING CHANGES WHEN TEBOW ENTERS A GAME.