Can Tim Tebow Become the NFL’s First Successful Run-First Quarterback in Decades by Lloyd Vance

Can Tim Tebow lead the Denver Broncos to an AFC West divisional crown by doing it the, “Steve Grogan” way, i.e.  running the football

In tonight’s NFL Network Thursday Night Football Game between the New York Jets (5-4) and the host Denver Broncos (4-5), a national television audience will be exposed to a new breed of quarterback.  At a time where National Football League quarterbacks are feasting on some unprepared defenses for 400-yard passing performances – mostly due to the lack of overall practice time during the offseason’s lockout – the Broncos have decided to go in an entirely different direction.

With a package called, “The T-Bone”, Denver has decided to buck the NFL’s long-held trend that an offense based on a “running” quarterback will not be effective enough to win consistently, by instituting a playbook that will utilize 2nd-year signal-caller Tim Tebow’s best asset, his legs.  For years, since my fandom of Randall Cunningham and covering mercurial quarterback Michael Vick, I have been a proponent of adding some form of an option attack in the NFL, if a team has a mobile quarterback.  In 2006 when former Falcons and current Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was scrambling his way towards an NFL-qb record 1,039 rushing yards, I even wrote a piece called, “Bring Back the Option: NFL Offenses Should Change to Utilize Running QB’s Like Vick ”. 

And one NFL coach also seems to think a running quarterback could still have some success in today’s “Air It Out” league.  “We decided if Tim [Tebow] is going to be our guy, we can’t do that other crap”, Broncos’ head coach John Fox recently told NFL.com’s Jeff Darlington about perishing any thought of having a pass-happy offensive mindset.  The charasmatic leader added, “We had to tweak it.”  And to be honest with you, who could blame Fox and Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy for trying to find a way to spark a team that was once “lifeless” earlier this season by working to his quarterback’s strengths plus most importantly getting wins by any means necessary.

Before Tebow, a controversial figure amongst fans and media for a variety of reasons, was inserted into Denver’s starting line-up for their Week 7 match-up with the Miami Dolphins, Fox’s squad had a record of 1-4 and were reeling under former starter and pocket passer, Kyle Orton – much to the chagrine of the Timmy-crazed vocal team fanbase…”We Want Tim” was a familiar refrain in the Mile High City since training camp.   However in a game that was far from being a masterpiece, Tebow showed that “Yes”, just maybe, his style of play could put-up some W’s in the NFL.  Of course his naysayers will say that the former Heisman Trophy winner was God-awful through the first 55 minutes of the game.  Where Denver trailed 15-0 and Timmy Terrific had only produced passing numbers of 4 for 14 for 40 yards.

But Tebow, displaying the moxy that made him a cult college football hero, rallied the Broncos for two touchdowns and scored a 2-point conversion in the final 2:44 minutes of regulation to force overtime.  Then in OT, he led his team into field goal range for Broncos’ kicker Matt Prater’s 52-yard game-winning field goal that gave Denver an improbable 18-15 victory. Around the league, everyone winced as they read Tebow’s passing boxscore line of 13-27, 161 yds, and 2 TDs.  But he didn’t throw any interceptions and most importantly the Broncos got a much-needed victory. 

The win also gave both sides of the “Tebow Divide” ammunition.  One side said that you could clearly see how putrid, for most of the game, that Tebow played before getting “lucky” as the terrible Dolphins allowed Denver to improbably win – gave-up several big plays down the stretch including botching an onside kickoff recovery.  While No. 15’s fans pointed to a “big” win for a player who “Got It Done” when it mattered most, despite not fitting into the NFL’s Aaron Rodgers / Tom Brady box.

In the ensuing weeks, Tebow mania has been much like the stock market in recent years, very frenetic including high-high’s and extremely low-lows.  The low for Tebow Nation had to be the way their Superman played in Week 8 against the Detroit Lions. In the humiliating 45-10 loss, Tebow finished with the following pedestrian numbers 18 for 39 passing, 46% comp, 172 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 lost fumble and a horrible 56.8 quarterback rating.  There were not enough negative superlatives in the world for some national analysts / Tebow bashers, like ESPN’s Merril Hoge, to describe his terrible play.  But in all fairness to his naysayers, they were partly right as the young passer was tentative in the pocket, got sacked 7 times (mostly due to holding the football), and had both a fumble and an interception (100 yards)  returned for  a touchdown.  To say the least, the nightmare game gave the many hordes of Tebow non-believers more than enough “I Told Ya So” ammo.

Plus the quotes after the Detroit loss ran the gambit.  “We did some good things and improved on some things,” Tebow said positively after being scorched. He further added more positive spin by saying, “It wasn’t all bad, it just didn’t necessarily look that way. But that’s the thing about it, it’s never as bad as it seems, it’s never as good as it seems.”  On the other side of the coin was Lions CB Chris Houston, who had earlier returned Tebow’s interception 100 yards for a touchdown.  Houston very bluntly told reporters after the game,“We just wanted to make him be a quarterback today”.  The cover corner added ” (Tebow’s) an athlete, he’s no Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or nothing like that. Or Michael Vick or nothing like that. He’s got a long ways to go as far as being a quarterback, but he’s a hard worker.”

However the only opinion that mattered after the tough loss was not the opposing team, fans, or the media, it was Fox’s.  The man, who along with GM Ted Sundquist and Team Executive John Elway, are stuck with Tebow for at least 2011 — after the last regime gift-wrapped the potential 4th round QB as a 1st rounder in the 2010 NFL Draft – decided the heck with conventional league wisdom by deciding to stick with his young quarterback and finding inventive ways to put him in better postion, namely running the ball.  “I think at the end of the day, we’ve got to see if he can improve and get better in the passing game” Fox said after the Lions’ defeat. 

You definitely have to take your hat-off to Fox as through all the gloom and doom surrounding the Broncos’ passing game in the ugly loss, he did discover one thing about Tebow and his offense.  Denver could “run the ball” with the best of the NFL.  Against a pretty stout Lions’ defense, the Broncos put up 195 rushing yards on 30 carries (6.5 ypc) — outrushed Detroit 195 to 113 – including Tebow putting up 63 rushing yards on 10 carries.

Something must have re-clicked in the former Carolina Panthers head coach — once had young quarterback Chris Weinke only throw the ball 7 times as his team ran for 183 yards on 52 rushes in a December 2006 win over the Falcons — decided that in order for his team to win that Tebow had to become the modern-day ‘Steve Grogan’ circa 1978.  Grogan, much like other historical notorius running quarterbacks, Bobby Douglass and Tobin Rote, early in his career was not known for passing proficiency.  So New England went with a run-first scheme that produced an NFL single season team rushing record of 3,156 yards — only season an NFL team had 4 players rush for over 500 yards apiece including Grogan’s 539 yards — that still stands some 33 years later….. BTW did I mention that the 1978 Patriots finished 11-5 and won the AFC East division title.

The “Do whatever the hell it takes” Fox recently said, “I mean, what the hell? You don’t get points for style in this league. Let me tell you something: My man is really good in this offense. You know what I mean?”  While I have not been the “biggest” Tebow fan in the past – one scout said to be me during his Senior Bowl week that the former National Championship quarterback should be moved to fullback and quickly I agreed.  But after the much-maligned passer has produced a 3-1 record this season as a starter, it is hard to argue with Fox’s unortodox approach.  To extenuate the effectiveness of the NFL’s 2nd-ranked rushing attack –282 atts (4th in NFL) for 1424 yards and a healthly 5.0 yards per carry average – in the games that Tebow has started here are the Broncos’ run/pass ratios and the game’s result:  Miami 40:27 (w), Detroit 30:39 (L), Oakland 39:21 (w), and Kansas City 55:8 (w).

That’s right…. that last run/pass ratio of 55:8 from the Broncos’ Week 10 win over the Chiefs is both correct and absolutely astounding.  In that crazy road win, Tebow became the first quarterback since the Buffalo Bills’ Joe Ferguson in 1974 — ratio of 61:2 in a September 16-12 win over the New York Jets — to have more rushes than passes in a win.  Did I mention that Ferguson produced his numbers on a very windy and blustery day in Buffalo that included 19-mile per hour winds.  In the end, Fox and Tebow probably wouldn’t trade their “ugly” win for a 400-yard passing day loss, but his final numbers sure were horrid.  Tebow completed just two of eight passes for 69 yards and 1 TD (56).  But the “T-Bone” offense produced 55 rushes for 244 yards and one Tebow touchdown in a win that now has the Broncos only 1-game behind the AFC West-leading Oakland Raiders.

We will see where the Broncos and Tebow go from here with their “Ground it out” scheme — – currently has rushing numbers 48 atts, 320 yds, 2 TDs, and  6.7 ypc. The interesting part is that rushing quarterbacks for the most part have had regular season success in the NFL.  The 23 times that a quarterback has rushed for 500 yards in an NFL season, their respective teams had a combined record of 190-139-5.  Though none of the teams were able to win a Super Bowl title with a “running” quarterback, the 2004 Atlanta Falcons came pretty close.  Their spectacular signalcaller, Michael Vick, ran for 902 rushing yards (4th highest QB total in NFL history) on the way to an NFC Championship game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

The hope would be that Tebow could one day grow into the performance of Pro Football Hall Famer and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback great, Roger Staubach, circa 1971.  In that magical season, Stabauch produced some of the greatest run/pass numbers in league history – 126-211, 59.7%, 1882 passing yards, 15 TDs,  4 INTs, and a 104.8 QBR plus 41 rushes for 343 yards, 2 TDs, and  8.4 ypc — into a Super Bowl victory over the Baltimore Colts and a 10-0 record as a starter. But so far it is working for Fox, who recently said of his new offense, “If we were trying to run a regular offense, he’d be screwed.” 

This week should be Tebow’s toughest test as Denver faces-off against the New York Jets led by their defensive mastermind, head coach Rex Ryan – ranked 15th overall against the run.  Of the challenge of facing Tebow, Jets’ defensive back Jim Leonhard recently said, “He’d rather run you over than run around you. He’s more like a fullback than a true tailback when he runs the football.”  It will be interesting on Thursday to see how Fox and McCoy choose to attack the Jets’ defense as leading rushers Willis McGahee (hamstring) and Knowshon Moreno (knee) probably will not be playing so Tebow and unproven back Lance Ball will be asked to carry the load.

However Fox and Tebow are going about the business of getting ready for the J-E-T-S.  “Hey, as long as you’re moving the ball, possessing the ball, giving our defense some rest, it’s all good”, Fox recently said of the”Tebow Experiment”.

 

 

Lloyd Vance is the Editor  for Taking It to the House , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA).  Lloyd can be reached on Twitter @lloydvance_nfl

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