Linebacker Kevin Burnett walked into the Dolphins' locker room last Friday, stripped off his sweat-soaked practice gear and put on his scout's hat. The subject was Tim Tebow, the second-year Broncos quarterback who would be making his first start of the season two days later in Sun Life Stadium. Legitimate threat or overhyped?
Burnett began talking about color codes that some teams use to grade players. "There's blue, red, purple and black," he said. "If you're below a purple, that means it's borderline whether you should be in the NFL. A blue basically is an All-Pro. When it comes to leadership, competitiveness, the intangibles that you look for in a player—Tebow is a blue. He gives his team a chance to win by his mere presence because he has guys excited to play the game. But is he a blue quarterback? No. Let's be honest about it. He's a football player who just happens to play quarterback."
On Sunday the 2007 Heisman winner played well enough to pen another memorable chapter in the Legend of Tim Tebow. After completing only 4 of 14 passes for 40 yards, being sacked five times and compiling an anemic 39.6 rating through the first 54:37—all with a game plan supported by training wheels—Tebow went from purple to blue, turning a 15--0 deficit into a stunning 18--15 overtime win.
On Denver's final two possessions of regulation, Tebow completed 9 of 13 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, then ran in the two-point conversion with 17 seconds remaining to force overtime. Even more surreal, the performance came in the same stadium in which the Jacksonville native won a high school state title in 2005 and the BCS championship three years later with a Florida team that was honored at halftime of Sunday's game. By the end of the day Sun Life Stadium was rocking to chants of "Tee-BOW! Tee-BOW!"
"Mind-blowing," Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby said of the final five minutes. "They let him run around like a chicken with his head cut off, and we couldn't make a play. We knew he was going to run on the two-pointer—the whole state knew he was going to run it—but we just didn't make a play."
Tebow was one of six quarterbacks making their first start of the season on Sunday, either because of injury or ineffectiveness. The other five all lost. For much of the day it appeared that Tebow would too, but the last five minutes showed that he is at his best when games appear to be lost and the pace becomes frenetic.
In the Broncos' previous outing, a 29--24 loss to the Chargers, Tebow came off the bench to replace Kyle Orton and reduced a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to two by running for a touchdown and passing for another. And last season against Houston he turned a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit into a 24--23 victory with a rushing and a passing TD. That means Tebow has now led double-digit fourth-quarter rallies in three of the five games in which he's seen substantial action.
"That's what he's all about—a lot of heart," says John Elway, the first-year executive vice president of football operations for the Broncos—and a man who knows a thing or two about comebacks. "As long as we're in a football game, he's going to give us a chance to win. Those are the type of things you can't coach."
Tebow's problems are more tangible: He has a long delivery, lacks accuracy (he has completed more than 50% of his passes in only one of his four career starts) and is more comfortable as a runner than a passer. "He's a running back playing quarterback with a high football IQ," says Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell.
There has been talk that Elway and first-year coach John Fox are not sold on Tebow—who was drafted before the pair arrived in Denver, during the brief coaching reign of Josh McDaniels—and, therefore, lack a personal stake in whether he succeeds or fails. When Fox named Tebow the starter on Oct. 11, during the Broncos' bye week, there were rumblings that it was an attempt to show Tebow's rabid fan base (what else to call his supporters, who were largely responsible for more than 10,000 tickets being sold in Miami after it was announced he would start?) that he lacks the skill set to be a starting NFL quarterback. Then, if Tebow fell on his face, there would be less backlash if he were traded or cut after the season.
"That's ridiculous," Elway says. "We're trying to win football games. We were 1--4, and we needed someone who could make a play when things break down, who could get us going and give us a spark. He's a competitor who has those intangibles, and he's only going to continue to get better."
If Elway is right, defenses all over the league are going to find themselves feeling a different kind of blue.
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Photograph by BILL FRAKES
CONSERVATIVE PARTY Restricted by a buttoned-down game plan, Tebow didn't put up big numbers—but at the end of the day he was celebrating a win.