ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Tim Tebow is not a prototypical NFL passer and may never become one. So, the Denver Broncos used an unorthodox approach with their unconventional quarterback.
The Broncos confounded the Oakland Raiders with the same system that Tebow operated so successfully at the University of Florida: the read-option run strategy.
The result was his second win in three starts despite another up-and-down passing performance and a firmer grip on the starting job that seemed headed Brady Quinn’s way.
By putting the ball in Willis McGahee’s belly and then deciding whether to hand it off or keep it and run it himself, Tebow looked like he was running the Gators’ offense once again. And the results were similar, too.
Tebow threw two TD passes and ran for 117 yards, McGahee added 163 yards rushing and two more scores in the Broncos’ 38-24 win that shook up the middling AFC West, where Denver — yes, Denver — is just one game out of first place behind a pileup of three 4-4 teams.
“I was telling the guys it’s crazy because if we were in the AFC North, none of this would be going on and we wouldn’t be having a discussion about being one game out of it,” McGahee said. “The thing about it is, we’re in the AFC West, and the tables can turn either way.”
Especially with Tebow running around like he’s back in college.
“As I’ve said all along, we’re trying to put guys in positions where they can succeed. In his particular case, it’s something he’s more comfortable with, he has a lot of background in it, he’s got a lot of confidence in it,” coach John Fox said Monday. “We’re asking a lot, not just of Tim, but our entire offense, the coaching staff, everybody involved. We’ve kind of grown it as we’ve grown with Tim.”
Denver’s 298 yards on the ground were the fourth-highest total in team history and the most since 2000. Tebow became the 16th NFL quarterback since 1950 to rush for 100 yards and McGahee had his second-highest rushing total of his career.
But is this strategy sustainable?
“I mean, it can be something that can help us going forward, but we’ve got to do some other things like getting the ball to the receivers, we’ve got to get more passes,” McGahee said. “It’s good to run the ball. I’m a running back, I shouldn’t be saying this, but there’s going to be times where we need to pass.”
After all, Tebow was hit 17 times overall Sunday and sported a split lip afterward.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the NFC South, and we competed against the Atlanta Falcons when they had Michael Vick,” Fox said. “Call it what you like, it was that quarterback having the ability to run that creates havoc on defenses because they don’t count that guy as a runner.
“Whether it’s taking off or not, they led the league in rushing for about four straight years, and Michael had a lot to do with that. He’s grown as a passer. He’s in the West Coast Offense now, but he’s made some things happen in the Philadelphia Eagle offense, and that’s just the nature of his abilities. It’s kind of been done, but maybe not to the exact level where we’re kind of at right now.”
Vick also has paid a heavy price for his running style, sustaining a broken leg early in his career and a concussion this season.
Just last week, Fox was talking about how the spread offenses so popular in college don’t translate well to the NFL, saying teams make a big investment at quarterback and are “leery of when he runs. It’s a bigger, stronger, faster league and the body types that play quarterback aren’t running back type builds and I think sometimes that’s hard to hold up for a season.”
Asked about his concern for Tebow’s health on Monday, Fox said: “Any time they cross that line, they are exposing themselves. It doesn’t matter what position. I have concern for all of them; obviously quarterback being one of them.”
Tebow has taken big hits in the pocket, too, with 15 sacks in his three starts. The Broncos figure they’ll play to his strengths as much as they can while seeing if he’s their quarterback of the future.
He had runs of 32, 28, 19, 12 and 12 yards while operating the read-option, where he would put the ball in McGahee’s belly and ride him for a step or two before deciding whether to let go for a run up the middle or pull the ball back and take the ball around the end himself.
“He’s reading the end man on the line of scrimmage whether it’s a D-end, a linebacker, a safety, whoever’s that free guy,” Raiders linebacker Aaron Curry said. “And the running back’s reading the linebackers. Whether he gets the ball or not, he knows where he’s going with it.
“I just feel like there’s some plays that just got out of our hands that we didn’t make the same read. We weren’t on the same page as Tebow was.”
McGahee acknowledged he wasn’t a fan of the run-option at first “until I figured out how to run it. .. When I realized it was working, I kind of got back in love with the read-option.”
Tebow also threw touchdown passes of 27 yards to Eric Decker and 26 yards to Eddie Royal, but he has yet to complete more than half of his passes.
In 3½ games, Tebow has completed 45 of 97 passes (46 percent) for 536 yards with six TDs and one interception.
“I think it was better,” Fox said of Tebow’s throwing. “I don’t know if it was light years better at this stage, but again, typically growth takes time. We’re in the process.”