Most compelling teams: 2011 Broncos

June, 25, 2013
6/25/13
1:00
PM ET
Tim TebowAP Photo/Jack DempseyTeammate Eric Decker called Tim Tebow's ability to turn it on at the end of games "a miracle."
Editor’s note: ESPN.com revisits the NFL’s most interesting teams since Y2K with a five-part “Most Compelling Teams of the Century” series. We begin with Tebow-mania -- the 2011 Denver Broncos.

It was the day before Halloween and compelling was hardly the word of the day in the Mile High City.

Pathetic, perhaps. Compelling? Not even close.

On a breathtaking fall day, the only brilliance shining on the Rocky Mountains was coming from the skies. The Denver Broncos? They looked like a team at a crossroads.

The Tim Tebow era looked ready to be scrapped. Tebow was simply awful, failing miserably in a pro-style attack. The Broncos were completely stymied, 45-10, by the Detroit Lions.

It was one of the most lackluster, unprofessional offensive performances I’ve ever witnessed.

Team employees were quietly going crazy, watching the ineptitude of Tebow. Teammates walked by Tebow in the locker room without making eye contact after the game. I talked to a prominent Denver player who said he didn’t know how long the team’s brass could justify keeping Tebow on the field.

He just wasn’t a pro-style quarterback.

Then a crazy thing happened. The Broncos came back to work the next day and accepted that Tebow wasn’t a pro-style quarterback, but, in the short term, at least, he could still help the team. In a unprecedented move, Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy went away from everything he knew as an NFL coach. He kicked the traditional offensive scheme aside and used the college option that Tebow used to win a Heisman Trophy and become one of the most successful quarterbacks of all time. I recently talked to an NFL head coach who said what McCoy, now the head coach in San Diego, did was perhaps the most remarkable coaching job he’s ever seen in the league.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
AP Photo/Kevin Terrell"Tebowing" after his 80-yard, game-winning touchdown pass in overtime against the Steelers.
Tebow-mania overtook the NFL.

Tebow and the Broncos, who were 2-5 at the time of the scheme swap, became one of the most talked-about teams in the NFL. The Broncos were suddenly fodder for countless ESPN platforms and sports talk radio across the country.

What would Tebow do next?

It was rarely pretty and the purists were offended. But Tebow got it done even though his passes often had the accuracy of a high school sophomore under center for the first time.

But Tebow Magic just worked. His teammates bought in.

Tebow-mania got serious on a Thursday night in late November when the Broncos came back to beat the Jets.

It was a classic 2011 Tim Tebow victory.

He was awful for much of the game and the Denver offense was mostly stymied. But then the clock started to wane and Tebow took over. His passes were starting to connect. His legs were getting first downs. After a nearly full game of malaise, Tebow led a 95-yard, 12-play drive, culminating in a wild 20-yard touchdown run by Tebow that gave Denver a 17-13 win.

After the game, I sought out Denver receiver Eric Decker for some insight on how Tebow could just turn it on. He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and giggled.

“A miracle,” Decker said. “Greatness.”

OK. Whatever. I couldn’t think of a better explanation. But the occurrences were just beginning.

As Tebow-mania took over the NFL, my assignments as the AFC West blogger for ESPN.com usually took me to where Tebow and the Broncos were playing. I’d get to the point where I’d sit in the press box and just wait for Tebow to come alive.

It was happening every week. A week after the New York win, the Broncos came back and won in overtime in San Diego. Then they went to Minnesota and won with a late field goal.

Then, in perhaps the most absurd comeback of them all, the Broncos scored all 13 of their points late in regulation and in overtime against Chicago. Again, Tebow was awful until he had to be great. It was his sixth comeback win in the fourth quarter or in overtime in his first 11 NFL starts.

I’ll never forget watching then-Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo staring in stunned silence for several minutes after the game. Someone came up to console him. "The kid got hot," was all Angelo was able to say.

Tebow-mania was derailed in the final three weeks as Tebow and the Broncos cooled down and lost their three final games. Still, Denver won the division at 8-8 and TebowMania had one last comeback to complete.

There were murmurs that the Broncos would use Brady Quinn instead of Tebow against Pittsburgh in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

But that never happened. Tebow played well throughout and the Denver defense, which steadily improved as the season progressed, kept the Broncos close as the game went to overtime.

On the first offensive play of overtime, Tebow threw one of his prettiest balls in Denver history, a strike to a moving Demaryius Thomas, who then sprinted for an 80-yard touchdown to give Denver its only playoff win since 2005.

Tebow went to the ground and struck his famous "Tebowing" pose. Then, he joined his teammates in a victory lap. In his final act with Denver, Tebow and the Broncos struggled in a 45-10 loss at New England the following week.

Tebow-mania ended almost as quickly as it started. The Broncos loved the spark Tebow gave them, but vice president of operations John Elway is a Hall of Fame quarterback, and he couldn’t stand seeing his team run a non-NFL attack. Peyton Manning became available and Tebow became a memory -- but one few will ever forget.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter

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