DENVER — When John Elway returned to the Denver Broncos as chief of football operations last winter, he proclaimed that Tim Tebow had to become a pocket passer to succeed in the NFL. John Fox said the same thing when he was hired as coach.
A 45-10 drubbing at the hands of the Detroit Lions last month changed that line of thinking.
Tebow had played awful for 7½ quarters, getting sacked 13 times and throwing everywhere it seemed but to his receivers. So, the Broncos decided to quit trying to turn Tebow into a prototypical pro passer and instead modified their offense to fit Tebow’s unique skill set.
They all but dusted off the Dead Sea Scrolls in bringing back the option to the NFL, a style that made Tebow the best combination quarterback in NCAA history while at Florida.
In back-to-back wins at Oakland and Kansas City — something even Elway never accomplished — Tebow operated an offense that ran the ball 93 times and threw it 30. The Broncos gained 543 yards on the ground and 182 through the air.
Tebow completed just two passes against the Chiefs, but one was a 56-yard strike to Eric Decker for the winning score as the Broncos (4-5) climbed within a game of the Raiders in the AFC West.
Fox told NFL.com this week that if Tebow were running a conventional offense “he’d be screwed.”
Asked about that comment Wednesday, Fox backtracked: “I think at the time we were watching the second half of the Detroit game and the point was that him or any other quarterback in that situation, down 24-3, is not enviable and is not a good spot to be in. There’s a lot of different ways to put it.
“Or any game that you’re one-dimensional and you have to throw the ball 30 times in a half and the other team knows it, it’s not good.”
On the other hand, running the ball 30 times in a half would suit Fox just fine.
“This week is going to be about stopping the run,” said Rex Ryan, whose New York Jets (5-4) visit Denver for a Thursday night game just four days after an emotional loss to New England. “Obviously going against Denver, their priority is to run the football. You have to stop it or you don’t have to worry about playing pass defense or rushing the passer because they won’t throw it.”
Ryan’s extensive college coaching resume early in his career gives him lots of experience in defending the option, as does his time with Brad Smith operating the wildcat for the Jets. So he tapped into that know-how during the short work week.
Since Tebow supplanted Kyle Orton as the starting quarterback, the Broncos have rushed for an NFL-high 915 yards and moved up from 23rd in the league in rushing to second. Tebow has gained 283 of those yards.
The Broncos ran the ball 87 percent of the time at Kansas City last weekend even though their top two tailbacks, Willis McGahee (left hamstring) and Knowshon Moreno (right knee), got hurt in the first quarter.
“This past game was really interesting,” Ryan said. “They only put the ball up in the air eight times, but that’s all they needed to do. They were able to move the ball really effectively on the ground. The 55 rushing attempts, I think any true football fan appreciates that kind of style of play.
“But the big thing about Tebow is you can have a guy in position but you’ve got to try to get him down, which isn’t easy. I like the way McGahee’s running. I hope he needs to rest this week and decides not to play this week.”
McGahee won’t know if he’ll play until he runs full speed in pregame warm-ups.
“I think it’s going to be good,” he said. “I’m not worried about it, so I don’t think you should worry about it.”
The Broncos promoted running back Jeremiah Johnson from the practice squad to replace Moreno.
The Jets will be without running back and longtime Broncos nemesis LaDainian Tomlinson because of a sprained left knee he hurt Sunday night. He’ll be replaced in the backfield with rookie Bilal Powell, who has been inactive all season. Shonn Greene is the full-time starter, and Joe McKnight is the main backup.
The question surrounding Tebow is no longer whether he can improve his 44 percent throwing accuracy to become a long-term answer at quarterback, but whether he can survive playing this style in the NFL, where defenders are bigger, faster and stronger than in the SEC.
Ryan, for one, is a fan.
“I guess it might not be as pretty as some of these other guys standing back there, but he gives you so much more,” Ryan said. “He’s a guy that can run, he’s a guy that improvises and you know you have to stay in your coverage similar to Roethlisberger, but he’ll even take off with it more.
“As far as a pure passer and all that, he may not make the great throw right now on a consistent basis, but he still makes great throws and when you look, he only completed two balls, one was right on the money for a touchdown and a difference in that game,” Ryan said. “So, I guess the traditional quarterback, maybe he’s not. But he gives you other things.”
The Jets go from facing the pass-heavy Patriots to the run-heavy Broncos.
“It’s completely different,” safety Jim Leonhard said. “You just have to take a different mentality into the game.”
Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie said the antidote for Tebow might be to jump out to an early lead and force the Broncos to abandon their ground game. With the Broncos’ emphasis on the ground, though, cornerback Darrelle Revis might get bored guarding Decker.
“We’re going to stick to our game plan and do the best we can,” Decker said. “When opportunities come, hopefully he won’t be too bored at that time.”
AP Sports Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. contributed to this story. AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton can be reached at astapleton(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/arniestapleton