ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Elway took plenty of heat for affirming the conventional wisdom across the league: Tim Tebow must improve his passing and his third-down conversions if he is to succeed in the NFL.
While his legion of supporters took to Twitter and the airwaves to assail Elway for not sticking up for Denver’s young quarterback, Tebow ever so graciously agreed with his boss, saying he most certainly has to complete more passes and find ways for his team to stay on the field.
Less than half of Tebow’s throws, 44.8 percent, are finding their targets and less than a quarter of the Broncos’ third-down plays, 23.6 percent, are working out since he took over from Kyle Orton at halftime against the Chargers on Oct. 9.
Boosting his passing prowess is a meticulous and mostly individual process, but upgrading the third-down success rate is a team effort, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said.
“I think we’ve got to, as a whole, all 11 guys, do a better job of executing it whether we’re running the ball or throwing it. … We’ve got to do a better job planning, possibly, and making some adjustments here and there as the game goes along. It’s all of us, we’ve got to all do a better job.”
Tebow’s completion rate ranks dead last among the four dozen NFL players who have attempted at least 20 throws this season, and since he took over as the starter, the Broncos have converted just 17 of 72 third downs.
That’s not going to cut it in this league, Elway said in sparking a firestorm earlier this week. Some agreed with Elway’s premise but pointed to Tebow’s 4-1 record as a starter, which has allowed the Broncos (5-5) to climb back into the playoff race in the tight AFC West, trailing division leader Oakland by one game.
On Elway’s weekly radio show on 102.3 FM The Ticket in Denver on Monday morning, host Gary Miller asked the Broncos chief of football operations if he were “any closer to feeling if you have your quarterback on this team?”
Elway paused and answered, “No.”
He pointed out that Tebow has to do better on third downs and improve as a passer.
Elway also was scrutinized after NFL Network cameras caught him shortly after Tebow’s go-ahead touchdown run that beat the New York Jets last week. At first, Elway was shown clapping and smiling, but moments later he had a serious look on his face as the Broncos prepared to kick off with 58 seconds left. That sparked another debate about whether Elway was actually happy to see Tebow winning games or saddened by moving down the draft order with each and every new triumph.
“I’m never thrilled or really happy until that clock says 0:00,” Elway explained on his show.
After taking plenty of flak, Elway went on Denver radio station KOA-AM on Wednesday and said he’s pulling for the former Florida star to become the long-term answer in Denver.
“Am I hopeful that Tim Tebow is our guy? I am very hopeful that Tim Tebow is our guy,” Elway said. “Am I absolutely positive at this point in time? No, I’m not. But I want to believe that and that’s what I want to happen.”
That seems to have calmed things down a little in this quarterback crazed town. Elway is going to be taking a lower public profile for a while as Tebow and the Broncos try to solve their third-down troubles.
“We have to put ourselves in good situations to manage and be able to pick it up,” Tebow said. “We just have to play more consistent on more first and second down plays to be in good positions to execute on third down.”
Tebow’s completion percentage on third down is an NFL-worst 41.2 percent. He’s connected on 14 of 34 passes, only six of them for first downs, again a league low at 17.6 percent.
But he also has three TD throws on third down and a 20-yard touchdown scramble with a minute left to beat the blitz and stun the Jets 17-13 last week, capping a 95-yard drive that followed eight straight punts, one of which came after Cassius Vaughn’s 67-yard kickoff return to the New York 39.
Since Tebow supplanted Orton, the Broncos have had trouble sustaining drives — until crunch time at least. After rallying the Broncos within a desperation pass into the end zone of a comeback against the Chargers on Oct. 9, he’s pulled off three fourth-quarter comebacks, rallying Denver past the Dolphins, Raiders and Jets.
Against New York, the Broncos faced 13 third downs, but on just two of those were they 1 or 2 yards shy of the first down marker, and Denver converted one of them.
“You’ve just got to put yourself in position where it’s not third-and-long all game,” wide receiver Eric Decker said Friday. “Our playbook’s a lot more open, a variety of things when you’re in short field.”
Of the 72 third downs Tebow has faced as the starter, 45 have been third-and-6 or longer, 17 have been between 3 and 5 yards and 10 have been third-and-1 or -2.
That means the Broncos need to do better regardless of the down and distance.
“Well, that always helps,” McCoy said. “If you can get in third-and-manageable, you want to stay in that 2-to-5 category if you can. And usually you’re more effective in there, the run-pass options are better. You always want to stay out of third-and-long situations because now you’re playing into their hand.”
The abundance of third-and-longs is the Broncos’ biggest bugaboo as they strive to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
“First of all, it’s a very hard down for everybody in the league, because it’s an obvious pass down and you’re a little bit one-dimensional,” coach John Fox said. “We’ve made some changes, so with change comes some lack of familiarity — whether it be the receiver position, the quarterback position, we’ve had tight ends in and out all season. We’re still a work in progress in that area and I think we’ll continue to improve.”
Just a better block here or a couple more yards there and those third-and-longs aren’t so daunting.
“You get into third-and-10-plus they can just drop back and play the sticks and try to sit underneath everything,” McCoy said. “So … it’s everybody picking up their game a little bit and being better at situational football.”
Not just Tebow.
Notes: CB Champ Bailey on heading into a big, meaningful game at San Diego on Sunday after the last two years of struggles: “It feels good. It feels like you got something to play for other than pride and that’s a great thing for this organization.”
Reach out to AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton