In between not looking anything like a playoff team during an Oct. 30 home loss to Detroit and a season-ending thumping at the hands of the much better New England Patriots, the Broncos reinvented themselves and became a team with hope for the future.
“It may be hard to see it now after an embarrassing loss,” Denver tight end Daniel Fells said in a quiet Denver locker room Saturday night, “but there is something there. ... We did something this year that was unexpected, and there is something good to look forward to in the future.”
That future very likely will include Tim Tebow.
In a season in which Tebow became a household name in non-sports-centric households and in which he became a sport's lightning rod like we’ve rarely seen before, the Broncos’ season ended with Tebow not being the story.
While Tebow, who was just 9-of-26 passing for 136 yards, didn’t do much to help his team, Saturday night’s game was not a Tebow type of game. The Denver Broncos became an unlikely playoff team this season because they played smart, hard football in all three phases of the game in their victories. It became evident early Saturday that the allure of Tebow would be quickly overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of Patriots QB Tom Brady and the stunning dominance of second-year New England tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Tebowing became a national craze and a phrase used daily. On Saturday, though, the Broncos were sent packing because they were Bradyed and Gronked.
Brady tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes, and his 363 passing yards were a team playoff record. Gronkowski had 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. TebowMania might be cute, and it might be legitimate in the fourth quarter (and overtime) of close games. But it wasn’t that type of party Saturday night.
Brady and company were bent on letting the rest of the NFL playoff field know they are tired of being considered a postseason antique. They’re hunting for their first Super Bowl victory in seven years, TebowMania be damned.
While Denver’s season ended in a fashion that usually would sting an organization, there wasn’t a sense of despair in the locker room. It seemed the players knew this was a season of progress and it was a success, everything considered.
When Denver introduced John Fox as its coach a year ago Friday, there was no way anyone could have imagined the Broncos would advance to the final eight and beat the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs. This was a team that had the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft. The rebuilding project seemed like it would take years.
That assessment didn’t change when Denver started the season 1-4 before inserting Tebow at quarterback.
“People wanted to close the book on the Broncos,” receiver Matthew Willis said. “But we kept fighting.”
It all changed after the home loss to Detroit when Fox adjusted his offense to Tebow’s skill set and used the option offense. The Broncos’ offense transformed through the season and adjusted on the fly.
Now, the ride is over and the Broncos must look toward the future.
Tebow said Saturday night that he must become more accurate and consistent, and he plans to soon start working on what will be his first full offseason as an NFL player. Legendary Denver quarterback John Elway, who is now the Broncos’ football leader, has said he plans to personally work with Tebow in the offseason, focusing on improving the youngster’s footwork.
Elway was in Denver’s locker room after the game and appeared satisfied with the season. He wasn’t ready to chat about the future and has yet to confirm the Broncos will ride with Tebow as their quarterback in 2012. Don’t be surprised, however, if the Broncos commit to Tebow soon.
That’s the direction the players want the team to take. Several Denver players said Saturday night that they believe Tebow will continue to make strides and he is the answer at quarterback.
“He’s our guy,” Denver rookie safety Rahim Moore said. “Our team jells around him. He is only going to get better.”
That could be said of the entire Denver roster. This is a work in progress. Brady and New England’s offense showed there is still much work to be done in Denver defensively. The Patriots compiled 509 yards of offense and took their foot off the gas in the second half after leading 35-7 at halftime.
Denver needs help on both sides of the ball. But there is no denying this is a well-coached team that tasted unexpected success in a season that might just be scratching the surface of TebowMania, if that’s even possible.