Other than a deep and abiding passion for football, Tim Tebow and Rex Ryan have little in common. Tebow doubles as a pious virgin and an underwear model, whereas rotund Rex is always up for a "Goddamn snack!" or a good old fetish video. Though Tebow plays and Rex coaches, each man stands alone as the face of his respective franchise. These franchises will rumble on national television Thursday night, and the showdown in Denver has surprisingly become one of the most pivotal games in the AFC playoff race to date.
Rife with intriguing storylines, the Jets represent the Broncos' most imposing test since installing a new yet completely outdated offense two weeks ago. The Broncos (4-5 and trending upward) not only stand a chance against the Jets lackluster run defense, but this underdog could also Seahawk its way into this year's playoffs by conquering a weak AFC West down the stretch. Meanwhile, the Jets (5-4 and trending downward) stand one loss away from postseason obscurity after losing an embarrassing game to the Patriots at home on Sunday. Rex, was it Sophocles who said that hubris is a stone cold bitch?
Though a majority of rational Broncos fans remain unsure about the Mile High quarterback situation, it is reassuring and exciting that the entire Broncos fan base currently registers an emotion besides despair. It has been an arduous two years in Broncos Country since the firing of Mike Shanahan, but the emotional numbness that followed McDaniels reign as resident football dictator has evaporated over the past two weeks. In the words of Aldous Snow, "It's good to feel something."
Prognosticators are rarely held accountable for the bold predictions they make. With that in mind, I am going to make a bold prediction: the Broncos make the playoffs and the run starts in earnest Thursday night against the Jets. (Note: I acknowledge that what follows from here on out is a somewhat outlandish prediction. Nonetheless, outlandish behavior and logic are central parts of sports fanhood. Plus, people quickly forget when sportswriters are wrong, and even more quickly acknowledge whenever we turn out to be right. So, here it goes...)
After spending five days at Dove Valley during training camp, I texted my friend Stench (his name is Jon and the story as to why we call him Stench is not a good one) to register my pre-season predictions, in which I explained that the Broncos' defense was shaping up to be a top-ten unit, the offense would be able to run the ball, Eric Decker would score ten touchdowns, and the team would finish 10-6 and win the AFC West. This text exchange really did occur, but the strange thing is that I made these predictions assuming that consummate half-speed hero Kyle Orton would lead an effective offense. My confidence in the quarterback situation served as the rationale behind my admittedly bold predictions.
Heading into the Week 6 bye, Eric Decker was my single redeeming prognostication -- let's face it, the Broncos version of Tweeder can ball hard. At the time, the Broncos' defense was porous against the run, and the aging secondary seemed all too slow to react to the pass. A one-man pass rush named Von Miller was all that existed in Denver. On the other side of the ball, Mike McCoy's offense was completely stagnant, ineffective, and existed as nothing more than a disease that constantly ate away at the team's defense and soul.
Kyle Orton had made everyone from the linebackers to his offensive linemen look a step slow. After one win, four losses, and far too few first downs, it was impossible not to think about whether I'd prefer Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, or Landry Jones next season.
And then the Broncos traveled to Miami, the home of Oliver Stone's fictitious AFFA Miami Sharks. The Broncos beat the Dolphins (not the Sharks) in dramatic fashion that Sunday, but the final five minutes of that game brought life to the phrase "on any given Sunday, anything can happen" and the film Any Given Sunday.
Hope springs eternal for the Broncos because there is a Willie Beamen situation brewing in Denver.
Tim Tebow does not have Beamen's fictional accuracy; Tebow cannot throw a crisp10-yard out route "to the Buick." Beamen (Jamie Foxx) was a seventh-round nobody, whereas Tebow possibly should have been a seventh round somebody. Beamen would smoke Tebow in a forty-yard dash, and he had Terrell Owens in his prime to throw to. Tebow diesels through linebackers at a 4.8 pace, and he lofts a few tepid jump balls per game to an unassuming third-round pick named Eric Decker.
Yet, like the Miami Sharks with Beamen, the Denver Broncos are winning because of Tim Tebow, not despite him. Tebow's unique skill set makes his entire team better. Orton played with the same teammates, and he went 4-18 in his last twenty-two starts. Tebow is 4-3 in seven starts dating back to last season. Furthermore, Tebow's effect on the Broncos' fortunes in recent weeks reminds us that football, like life, is a game of inches. (Note: I admit that the Broncos being in playoff contention at 4-5 also further demonstrates just how atrocious the AFC West is. Why does Norv Turner have a job?)
Before an opening round Pantheon Cup playoff game in Dallas, a decrepit and desperate Coach D'Amato (Al Pacino) addresses his Miami Sharks. Anticipation builds as he explains, "Either we heal as a team or we crumble. Inch by inch, play by play 'til we're finished. We're in hell, gentlemen. Believe me...(But) we can climb out of hell, one inch at a time." He continues, "The margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early, and you don't quite make it...one half second too slow or too fast, too fast, you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us."
Anyone who watched the Broncos before Tebow took over could not help but think that the Broncos were simmering in hell. They were always at least two steps too late, a full second too slow, and wasted time chasing big plays instead of punching away for every single inch. Although Fox wanted to grind out inches, his players did not embrace this philosophy, nor could they, because their starting quarterback was not a fighter. If the Broncos did not heal as a team, they would "continue to die as individuals."
Exit "Cap Rooney" Kyle. Enter "Steamin" Tim Tebow.
Tebow understands that the inches the Broncos need are "everywhere around him." Moreover, he is an athletic specimen who thrives off of capturing the inches in "every break and second of the game." Tebow exists to "fight for that inch." He "tears himself and everyone else around him to pieces for that inch." He "claws with his fingernails for that inch." The Broncos are 3-1 in four games because Tebow gets "the six inches in front of his face" at will even though other facets of the quarterback position, such as drop-back passing, do not come so naturally to him.
Tebow's inherent ability to consistently steal these inches from opponents coupled with his voracious mentality to do so has opened up holes for a league-leading power running game, which eats up the clock for a rejuvenated and (finally) healthy defense. Most importantly and miraculously, Tebow's spirit and performance has inspired his teammates to join him in his live or die quest for every single inch. Tebow now looks around his locker room and sees guys who will go that extra inch for him because he continues to sacrifice himself for them.
There is no reason to delve into passing statistics right now because last Sunday's win against the Chiefs rendered them temporarily erroneous. Rex Ryan reinvigorated the Jets in one season through a similar method. He created a new identity for the entire franchise. Do not pretend that Mark Sanchez, an unworthy top-five pick, saved the New York Jets. The Broncos have played with a new attitude and identity with Tebow calling signals, especially during the past two weeks.
In 2009, Rex Ryan demanded that every man on his roster "Play Like a Jet," and the franchise reached the AFC Championship. The Broncos will win the AFC West this year because Tim Tebow literally plays like a wild Bronco. His reckless abandon forces opposing defenses to think twice before reacting during every play. Not to mention, his effort and intensity motivates his teammates through the ups and downs of each game. The Broncos' new commitment to fight for every inch was on display last Sunday when the coaching staff refused to deviate from a historically strict, physical gameplan. Yes, the Broncos won on an impeccably executed play action pass, but the team's new inch-for-inch, hard-nosed approach set up this game-winning play.
Even if Tebow's style and this specific offense are not sustainable beyond this year, Tebow is an undeniably exciting player, and anyone who has ever committed to doing whatever it takes for something in his or her own life cannot help but root for him.
Kudos to John Fox and Mike McCoy for finally remembering that "when you add up all those inches, that's going to make the fuckin' difference between winning and losing, between living and dying." As an old-school, thirty-plus year veteran coach, Fox knows that "in any fight it's the guy who is willing to die that's going to win that inch."
Tim Tebow is that guy.
If Oliver Stone wants to atone for Wall Street 2, on Thursday night he'll pull out a pen, uncork his flask, and start taking notes for his sequel to Any Given Sunday. On Thursday night, the Denver Broncos will "Play Like Broncos" and beat Rex Ryan's "Goddamn!" New York Jets.