Column: Irresistible force Tebow pushes NFL around
Tim Tebow is doing what decades of conventional NFL wisdom said couldn't be done. He's winning game after game playing the most important position on the field less like a quarterback than an irresistible force of nature.
Seven times in their last eight games with Tebow in charge, the Broncos have somehow won when they shouldn't have — six times coming back in the second half, five times in the fourth quarter and three of those in overtime.
Along the way, he's befuddled critics, delighted his growing flock of fans and flummoxed opposing coaches, not to mention his own on occasion. He's dazzled analysts and left it to teammates to explain the chain-reaction of events — freak turnovers by opponents, sparkling catches by young receivers, Tebow's own pinball runs through defenders — that have made the closing minutes of Denver games must-see TV. The latest one might have been the most improbable.
Trailing the Chicago Bears 10-0 with 4:34 left Sunday, the Broncos faced the possibility of their first home shutout in team history. In short order, Tebow cobbled together a 63-yard touchdown drive, Denver failed to recover the ensuing onside kick attempt, but got the ball back after a punt with more time left than anyone expected. That's because Chicago's Marion Barber inexplicably ran out of bounds on a carry — stopping the clock — instead of simply falling to the ground.
"That's usually something that never happens with a veteran running back," Denver linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "It's just like things go our way."
But as Woodyard and the rest of the Broncos have come to believe, things weren't done going their way.
From his 20-yard line, Tebow again marched the Broncos back to the Bears 41, where Matt Prater coolly connected on a 59-yard field goal to tie the game at 10. In the extra period, Chicago was methodically grinding up a wearying Broncos defense when Barber bashed through a hole for another first down — only to have the ball stripped at the last second by Woodyard and recovered by teammate Elvis Dumervil at the Broncos 34.
From there, Tebow put together one more helter-skelter drive to reach the Bears 33, where Prater converted a slightly less eye-popping 51-yard field goal for the win.
That's three straight Broncos' scoring drives — after they failed in a dozen straight series in regulation — and two uncharacteristic Chicago miscues in less than five minutes.
"If you believe," he said after the Chicago win, "then unbelievable things can sometimes be possible."
Mixing his football and his faith drew attention to Tebow long before he arrived in the NFL.
The son of missionaries, he was born in the Philippines and has returned there numerous times on missions of his own. Like his four siblings, Tebow was home-schooled in Jacksonville, Fla. But because of a state law requiring home-schooled students to play high school football in the district where they lived, he found himself at the center of a controversy when he moved into an apartment in nearby St. Johns County with his mother so he could play prep football at powerhouse Nease High.
Recruited by Florida, he won two national titles and the Heisman Trophy, but was also scorned for frequently praising or thanking God in postgame interviews. He often chalked biblical verses, such as John 3:16, on the eye-black strips players apply to their cheekbones to cut glare, prompting the NCAA to ban such messages the season after he finished his college career.
"His great strength," said Chap Clark, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., "is that even people who don't agree with his faith at all play their best around him."
Almost as controversial was Tebow's unorthodox approach to playing quarterback. Despite a limited ability to read defenses, questionable footwork and an erratic throwing arm, he thrived in then-Gators coach Urban Meyer's version of a spread offense at Florida, but failed to impress many NFL scouts. Most projected Tebow as a third- or fourth-round pick at best, and many suspected his only shot at the NFL would be to change positions. His penchant to tuck the ball under his arm and take off down the field, they said, would expose him to faster, harder-hitting defenders who would punish him.
Instead of being a dual threat, Tebow was no threat at all last season and for the first few games of this one.
But with the Broncos skidding at 1-4 with front-line quarterback Kyle Orton, first-year Denver coach John Fox grudgingly called on Tebow in the second half of an October game against the Chargers. Since then, it's been an almost-unhindered ride up the elevator to the top of the AFC West and an even more unlikely playoff spot.
How Tebow does what he does is still something of a mystery, still so tough to quantify that his fiercest supporters call it divine intervention and everyone else, his coach included, still struggles to explain.
Right after the win over Chicago, Fox called it simply, "competitive greatness. He wants the ball in clutch time."
A day later, Fox talked about how defenses often go into "prevent" mode late in games — "you know, they're daring us to pass." That's what conventional wisdom suggests teams do against a quarterback who consistently ranks near the bottom of the league by most passing measures. And that's what makes "Tebow Time" even more confounding.
In the 8 1/2 games he's played as a starter, Tebow has taken the Broncos on scoring drives on just 12 of 76 offensive possessions through the first three quarters. On the opening drives of fourth quarters, the number is just 1 of 9. But for the remainder of the fourth quarter and into overtime, he's choreographed the Broncos to touchdowns or field goals an incredible 16 of 28 times. Over that span, the defense has managed 10 takeaways, but half, notably, came in the final period or in overtime.
Around the league, opposing coaches scan scoreboards for late Broncos scores and their players rush back through the tunnel to catch the final few moments. A week ago, in case anyone missed the final score, 49ers lineman Mike Iupati walked through the San Francisco locker room hollering, "Tim Tebow, 6-1, baby!" And now he's 7-1 in the pass-happy NFL, the best story the league has going.
When he got his first real shot at the job, watching Tebow play was something you did while peeking through the spaces between the fingers covering your eyes. It's still the best way to watch the first three quarters. But after that, well, don't dare take your eyes off him.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke..