As 2011 fades into a distant memory, so, hopefully, will the sporting world's obsession with the watered-down and oversimplified debate over Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.
As is usually the case in polarizing sports debates, the extremists on both sides are wrong. The Broncos aren't automatically a great team with Tebow at quarterback, but saying he has no future as an NFL quarterback is equally ignorant as saying he's a great player. The regular season taught valuable lessons about the Broncos' quarterback position.
The first and most obvious lesson: the Broncos aren't very good. They've got nice pieces such as linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, but they aren't a good team yet. They won the AFC West primarily because divisions aren't allowed to send "Option E: none of the above" to the playoffs.
The next-most apparent lesson from the season is the "You can't run the option in the NFL" platitude's failure to apply in Denver. First of all, the Broncos don't usually run the typical play known as "the option," where the quarterback and running back run to the outside in the same direction and the quarterback pitches it to the running back. The Tennessee Titans put on a textbook display of how to run the option pitch successfully in the NFL against the Houston Texans in 2009. Tebow and Broncos running back Willis McGahee are nowhere near as fast of a duo as former Titans quarterback Vince Young and Titans running back Chris Johnson were, but the two of them have enough speed to occasionally attack the perimeter with the option pitch.
The option plays the Broncos use tend to be veers and zone reads though, with Tebow reading a defensive player -- usually a defensive end or linebacker -- to determine whether to keep the ball or hand it off to a running back. Veer plays and zone read plays are even more suited to Tebow's skill set because they give him the option to run the ball up the middle.
Option pitches don't threaten the middle of the field, and they don't freeze the defense because as soon as the play starts, the defense can usually tell the direction in which the play is headed. By making the handoff from the backfield, the play allows the running back to run counter plays from the backfield and further confuse the defense. If Tebow is heading in the opposite direction that the running back is headed, the direction in which the play goes depends on who keeps the ball, so the defense is frozen until it sees whether Tebow or the running back has the ball.
Defenses have to commit to the running threat of both Tebow and his running back, meaning fewer players can go after either potential rusher and more running lanes are open for each player. The result is the type of play that made the Florida Gators' offense so fearsome with Tebow as the triggerman.
Most option quarterbacks don't succeed in the NFL because they don't have the size, strength or speed to run that scheme against NFL defenses. Even the harshest Tebow critic cannot deny he has the speed and strength to run the ball multiple times per game as a veer-option quarterback in the NFL.
The Broncos' record with Orton compared to their record with Tebow this year illustrates another crucial point about Denver's football team. Orton is a better passer than Tebow by far, but from a personnel standpoint Denver is much better suited to the veer-option attack than it is to a traditional offense. As a result, a large part of the reason they struggled late in the season is because they ran more traditional plays and stopped running as many option plays.
The coaching staff tried to do too much, too soon with Tebow in the passing game and it cost them their final three games. He made significant improvements in his mechanics and throws throughout the season, but he still struggles with anticipation on deep throws, meaning he'll often underthrow or overthrow the ball instead of hitting the receiver in stride. He's still at his best when running the Broncos' option packages.
In terms of pocket presence, he's like Ben Roethlisberger was in his first couple of seasons -- his tendency to hold onto the ball for too long to try to buy time can lead to big plays for his offense, but it can also lead to big plays for the opponent's defense. The difference is, the Steelers had a good enough team to win the Super Bowl in Roethlisberger's second year despite their quarterback's tendency to hold the ball too long. The Broncos are nowhere near good enough to compensate for Tebow's tendency to do so.
Although the Broncos played poorly in their final three games, it doesn't mean defenses suddenly "figured out" how to stop Tebow. Anyone who says that's the case has applied absolutely zero thought to the subject. It's not like this is the first time anyone's seen a quarterback who can run the football before. A perfect example of the "defenses have figured Tebow out" school of thought comes from the Denver Post's Dave Krieger:
This is not to say that Tebow can't get there. It is just to say that right now, based on the last few weeks, defenses seem to have figured out a way to beat him: Bump his receivers, knock them off their routes and stay close enough that he's not willing to risk throwing into the narrow windows that are there.
So it took defenses three months to figure out that the best way to beat a quarterback is to make sure his receivers don't get open? If that's the case, every defensive coordinator whose team lost to the Broncos should be fired. The way to stop Aaron Rodgers and Tim Tebow is the same way to stop any quarterback who can hurt you with his legs -- you force them to stay in the pocket, pressure them from their throwing-hand side when they try to run, and cover their receivers tightly.
The difference is that Rodgers still has the accuracy, pocket awareness, offensive line protection, and receivers to still beat any team in the league even when he's forced to stay in the pocket. Tebow has none of those things, which leads to the final point the Tebow experiment has shown.
The Broncos need DeSean Jackson. If the Eagles franchise-tag him, the Broncos need to trade for him and give him a new deal. If he's a free agent, they need to sign him and let him know he's going to be an important part of their offense.
Tebow was at his best in Florida when Percy Harvin was there. The Gators went undefeated until the SEC Championship in Tebow's senior season after Harvin went to the NFL, but their offense was nowhere near as explosive. Harvin was the type of dynamic player the Gators were able to move all over the field to create a ton of matchup issues for the opposing defense. He could take option pitches, take zone-read handoffs from the backfield or go deep on a pass route.
When Harvin went into motion or was anywhere near the backfield, the opposing defense had to worry about him as a threat to run the ball or catch it deep. When Harvin was no longer at Florida, Alabama was able to do to the Gators what teams have been doing to the Broncos -- containing the offense horizontally and not having to worry about being attacked vertically.
Demayrius Thomas is simply not a consistent enough receiver to be the type of deep threat to make defensive coordinators think twice before putting a safety in the box. If the Broncos put Jackson and Thomas out there, though, they'll see defenses playing both safeties high, which will create more room for the running game. When Jackson goes into motion, the defense has to worry about him taking a jet sweep or going deep. Because he is such a dangerous threat to do either of the two, teams will have to play their safeties deep, opening more running lanes for Tebow and the Broncos' running backs.
Harvin is the Vikings' most explosive offensive player besides running back Adrian Peterson, so with Peterson's status for the start of the season in question, the Vikings are extremely unlikely to trade Harvin.
Chris Johnson has the speed and hands to play the role Jackson would play, but after the poor season he had this year, he's even more risky to trade for than Jackson, especially with the size of the contract the Titans gave him. Oregon running back LaMichael James would be a perfect fit if he enters the draft, but if the Broncos can't land James in the draft, Jackson could already be on a new team.
As much of a headache as he has been with his diva antics this year, Jackson is the only player with the prerequisite skill set who will be available. Part of being a coach is figuring out how to get the most out of players. If the Broncos can bring in Jackson, Broncos coach John Fox must find a way to convince him to emotionally buy into his role as the primary offensive threat in Denver's offensive attack or adding him to the team will have been pointless.
Having Tebow spend time working personally with John Elway on mechanics should be at the top of Fox's offseason to-do list, but doing whatever it takes to obtain Jackson and motivate him to be a featured part of the offense should be the next item on the list. The Broncos' coaching staff should also study every nuance and intricacy of what made Urban Meyer's offense successful at Florida with Tebow and Harvin, and figure out how to implement those wrinkles into the Broncos' game plans next year. In the draft and free agency, Denver can then focus on strengthening its defense.
If the Broncos can improve their defense and add Jackson to their offense, they will be a force to be reckoned with and can run the veer-option successfully at the NFL level for as long as it takes to turn Tebow into an effective pocket passer. The next stage in Tebow's development as a passer could come sooner, later, or never. Your guess is as good as mine.
If the Broncos can get Jackson, though, they'll have a successful Meyer-esque offense in which Tebow doesn't need to be an efficient passer for the Broncos to win.