Since joining the Broncos' brain trust in January, the only franchise quarterback John Elway has glimpsed in Denver is the one staring back at him in the mirror every morning. And that guy is 51 years old.
As for the QB who's won four of five starts for his suddenly resurgent team, including a week ago against the New York Jets, Elway's verdict was, "No. No."
A moment later he added: "Tim Tebow did exactly what we thought he could do on Thursday night — that when we get in tough situations, he was the guy that was going to be able to make those plays. He's got the will and the competitiveness to do the things that, you know, you can't coach. ... We know we have that, but we've got to get better in the passing game."
Tebow responded the way he always does, like an unfailingly polite honor student. He called Elway "one of the best ever," adding that it was an honor "to play for him and try to win games for him, Coach Fox and Mr. Bowlen and everybody involved in this great organization."
Yet when the next question was whether Elway's criticism seemed unfair, Tebow said, "I honestly don't pay much attention and I don't try to focus on anything that doesn't affect me personally. I go out there every single day and I'm going to try and continue to work hard and focus on what I can control and that's it."
Picking a fight with a fan favorite when he's on a roll isn't just bad timing. Foolish as it sounded, that was Elway's way of letting Tebow know he's never going to be Denver's franchise quarterback, no matter how well the rest of the season goes. Especially since soon after the dueling radio interviews, the Broncos put Kyle Orton, the quarterback Tebow deposed as the starter five games ago, on waivers.
Instead of a vote of confidence, the move was designed to find another club — the Texans, Bears and Chiefs are the most likely buyers — willing to pick up the $3 million or so remaining on Orton's contract. That was the organization's way of signaling that the rebuilding effort can't begin soon enough, even though Tebow has pulled the Broncos back to within a game of the Raiders for the top spot in the AFC West.
The only people who don't seem to have gotten the message are Tebow, his teammates and his fans. Even they likely know that he isn't going to be Denver's future, not with the show Elway & Co. have made of their scouting missions to see this season's top college quarterbacks. But Tebow is definitely the present, and the more games he wins, the further the Broncos' chances of drafting an NFL-ready quarterback like Stanford's Andrew Luck or Southern California's Matt Barkley recede. If nothing else, it's going to be a fascinating experiment while it lasts.
Elway is almost certainly right about the long term. Tebow's success flies in the face of NFL convention. Since Tebow became a starter, the Broncos' 25 percent conversion rate on third down is the lowest in the NFL, and their 154 yards passing per game ranks next to last. They've offset that lack of production with a stingy defense that's kept games close enough — Denver scored less than 20 points in three of those wins — to let Tebow pinball his way through opponents at the end.
But the read-option offense the Broncos run won't be a novelty to defensive coordinators for much longer, and while all those brave collisions make Tebow an easy guy to rally around, eventually they're going to take their toll. The only question that matters is when, since Tebow won't go down easily.
"I've had a blast living out my dream for the last five weeks," he said.
Elway doesn't have to like it, but he has to learn to keep quiet. Or better still, say a few nice things about his QB and the surprising run his team is on, and even less about the college quarterbacks he's still scouting. On top of that, Tebow's rookie deal still has three years to run, and even if Denver settles on another starter, his skill set might still come in handy on more than a few occasions.
Besides, if Elway's standard for a franchise QB continues to be measured less by success than the beauty of the throwing motion, he's never going to get very far from that mirror.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.