Can the Broncos win with almost no passing game? Is the option a viable NFL offense? Were we wrong to bury Tebow after his embarrassing effort against the Lions? Has Tebow's running ability changed the way pro football will be played?
The answers are no, no, absolutely not, and get serious.
My editors won't pay me for a 65-word article, so it is time to flesh things out, even though the world needs another Tebow article like it needs another sexy vampire saga with a complex mythology. This Tebow article will be different than nearly all the others you have read in the past month because it will contain facts. We are going to talk about what the Broncos offense is actually doing, not toughness, leadership or personality.
What their offense is doing, with the exception of the Raiders game, is scoring 17-18 points against awful opponents and getting blown out by good ones.
Lots of options
A narrative emerged after the 48-10 Lions loss that John Fox, the Grinch that Stole Tebow, refused to let his quarterback line up in shotgun and use his running ability. Fox relented in the Raiders game by adding option plays, and suddenly the Broncos offense began clicking, scoring 38 points. Fox added even more option-type wrinkles against the Chiefs, doing away with all of those pesky pass plays that were causing so much trouble, and designed an offense that was effective enough to control the clock and outmuscle the Chiefs.
Let's lay out some facts. First, the term "option" is a misnomer. The play that got all the attention in the Raiders game was a zone read play, a very basic variation on an option play: The quarterback appears to hand off from the shotgun, "rides" the running back forward, then either finishes the handoff or pulls the ball away and runs to the outside.
The Broncos are using many zone read plays, but they are also running basic quarterback keepers, and they have added what appears to be a triple option, though so far all we have seen is Tebow handing the ball to a fullback and running to the outside as a decoy. This is not a fully integrated option system; we have seen very few counter plays off of these basic concepts, and Tebow has executed exactly one option pitch (tossing to a player on his wing before getting tackled) in three games.
Instead of option plays, we should call all of the following "Tebow Plays:" strategies designed to exploit his running ability, even if only as a decoy:
- Zone read plays
- Handoffs to the fullback where Tebow then runs to the sideline as in an old-fashioned triple option.
- Any end-around or hand off to a wide receiver that is built around the threat of Tebow running.
- Passing plays from the shotgun that are designed to look like option runs, with zone read fakes and other window dressing.
- Designed quarterback keepers, with or without a fake handoff.
So the Broncos only made slight adjustments against the Raiders, not a full-scale paradigm shift. And those adjustments worked, though it helped that the Broncos went from facing the fourth-ranked defense in the league (according to Football Outsiders) to the 26th. If the Broncos built upon their Raiders success against the Chiefs, then this would be a sanguine article about how the Tebow Experiment has a bright future.
The problem is that the Broncos offense went backward, not forward, against the Chiefs.
This list was widely disseminated, but with little context. The four teams listed above were a combined 24-36 in the seasons in question. The only team with a winning record was Grogan's Patriots, who went 5-4 in a strike-shortened season and won their 3-0 game on a windy, icy day in New England. The best quarterback on the list, Ken Stabler, was coming off a two-interception, 33-17 loss the previous week, so Oilers coach Ed Biles decided to give Earl Campbell 37 carries and gut out a win over the Bengals. After one more Campbell-assisted win, the Oilers went on a six-game losing streak.
The quarterback who most resembles Tebow on this list is Akili Smith: a second-year player with questions about his passing, a scrambler, and a guy who benefitted from 407 rushing yards in his 31-21 victory over the Broncos. Smith was 7-of-20 the following week against the Browns, but the Bengals racked up 192 more rushing yards in a 12-0 win. You don't have to squint too hard to equate Smith's Broncos and Browns games with Tebow's Raiders and Chiefs games.
But this is different, right? The Broncos have embraced Tebow Plays - 24 of them last week! And those plays worked against the Chiefs!
No, they didn't. The Broncos generated just 312 yards of total offense against the 22nd-ranked defense in the NFL. What's worse, they flew the flag of surrender on third and long. The Broncos ran the football 10 times, eight of them Tebow Plays of one kind or another, on third down with more than four yards to go. They converted just one of those third downs. This was a plan built to score 17 points against an opponent that allows 31 points to the Dolphins.
Observers took the wrong lesson from the Raiders game. Those long zone read runs by Tebow and touchdowns by Willis McGahee were great, and 18 Tebow Plays - a little more than a quarter of the offense - is a fair mix for a team trying to highlight a running quarterback. The Broncos passing game has to develop from that point, not the running/option game, and the Broncos need to scale back on the Tebow Plays, not increase them, because they are losing effectiveness. Every defender in the league has been watching read choice, and far more sophisticated option plays, since high school. The Chiefs had most of them snuffed out. The Jets will snuff more of them out. And with Willis McGahee banged up and Knowshon Moreno out for the season, the Broncos are stuck with Lance Ball and converted linebacker Spencer Larsen in the backfield.
Larsen carried five times against the Chiefs: An ex-defender and full-time blocker carried just three fewer times than the quarterback threw. Does that sound like an offense heading in the right direction to you?
If you are a long-time football fan, then you have seen the Baby Buggy gameplan before. The rookie backup or third stringer is forced into the lineup, so the offensive coordinator childproofs the offense: They run the ball a lot, design some easy passes, throw in some end-arounds, and hope the kid makes enough plays to keep the game close. That is what Tebow is running right now: a baby buggy gameplan.
The Vikings ran the baby buggy with converted wide receiver Joe Webb last season. Webb even won a game. The Buccaneers ran the baby buggy with scrambler Josh Johnson in 2009, with a little success.
And here's the worst part: The buggy is going backward. Even Webb, a practice squad wide receiver, got to throw more passes than Tebow. The more the Broncos rely on their crude option-lite Tebow Plays, the easier they get to defend.
So forget Fox's "what the hell" approach to his new offense. Forget Rex Ryan's kind words about Tebow's competitiveness. We know platitudes when we hear them.
Tim Tebow is truly a one-of-a-kind quarterback. He's Benjamin Button. He is going in the wrong direction, not blazing a new path.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.