Commentary

Tebow's true impact is overlooked

Denver's experiment exposes hidebound offenses and one-dimensional defenses

Originally Published: December 8, 2011
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

You'd think that after seven weeks of Tim Tebow mania, the conversation would shift just a little bit. At some point, the discussion would go from what he can't do or won't become to why he's 6-1 as the Denver Broncos' starting quarterback this season. Yeah, we've heard a lot about the team's brilliant defense and its dominant offensive line. But there's still much more to this story.

All most people can see is why Tebow won't last or how opponents eventually will dismantle Denver's supposedly "gimmicky" spread offense, a system built out of necessity that now leads the NFL in rushing. What those critics can't see is how vital Tebow's arrival has been to exploiting some of the biggest flaws in the game today. Sure, it's compelling to debate his ability to develop into a consistent passer. It's just as provocative to think about why Denver's offense still works with him at the helm.

The first thing people need to realize about Tebow's effectiveness -- as well as that of the entire Broncos running game -- is just how lousy tackling has become in this league. There are plenty of players who tackle poorly near the line of scrimmage and become even worse at it in open space. This becomes evident nearly every week the Broncos take the field. They wear people down with their ground attack because so few teams are equipped to deal with it in the first place.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
AP Photo/Jack DempseyTim Tebow and Denver's unorthodox offense have exposed just how much NFL run defense has slipped.
Part of this is about money. When you look at defenses, too many players get rich based on the ability to stop the pass. Top defensive ends make loads of cash for rushing quarterbacks, and cornerbacks do the same when they excel in coverage. You don't see enough players in those positions really dedicating themselves to run defense. More often, you get what Jets Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis did late in the Broncos' 17-13 win over New York, when he looked very much like a man trying to corral a minivan as Tebow charged through him on a key run in Denver's game-winning drive.

Even worse than that sight is the lack of discipline we've seen in Denver's opponents. A few plays after Revis couldn't tackle Tebow, the quarterback scooted for the game-winning 20-yard touchdown after Jets safety Eric Smith took a poor angle on an all-out blitz. Minnesota Vikings defensive backs also looked silly as Broncos receivers ran free against their secondary in the Broncos' 35-32 win last week. The Oakland Raiders were just as comical in surrendering 299 rushing yards, many of which resulted from massive holes, in Denver's 38-24 victory.

One AFC personnel director said such poor execution isn't uncommon, especially when it comes to defending the run. "There are so many guys out there who just jump into gaps when they're playing the run," the personnel director said. "They'd rather do that because it's easier to jump into an open space when they actually should be taking on blockers."

The longer Denver's offense faces defenses without the necessary discipline to hold the Broncos on every possession, the better their chances of winning. It's not solely about the newness of this approach, either. It's certainly true that it's easier to succeed when defenses are thinking more than they're reacting. But we also can't discount that Tebow's presence forced the Broncos' coaches to think outside of the box.

The funny thing about Denver's success is that some people truly underestimate how hard it is for head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to do what they've done. Instead of sticking with the notion that they had to turn Tebow into a more conventional passer once he replaced the ineffective Kyle Orton, they catered the offense to his strengths. A major problem many people have with Tebow is that he looks even less like a real franchise quarterback because of that approach. What those same people often overlook is that very few teams actually have a big-time quarterback.

Once you get past stars like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, you just have a bunch of guys simply trying to get by from week to week. The amazing thing isn't that the Broncos have found a way to win with Tebow. It's that more coaches haven't taken Denver's revamped philosophy and applied it to their own limited quarterbacks. As one AFC general manager said: "A lot of coaches out there don't know how to win. They think it's more about their systems when it really is about what their players can do. They're more concerned with stats or showing people how smart they are."

This probably explains why Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan has tried so futilely to work duds like Rex Grossman and John Beck into an offense that worked best when he had John Elway running it. It's also why Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz once seemed so hell-bent on killing his own quarterback, Jay Cutler, until he accepted that his running game could be useful as well this season. Let's not forget the San Francisco 49ers, either. Quarterback Alex Smith floundered for six seasons under two head coaches (Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary) and seven offensive coordinators until new head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to play to his quarterback's strengths.

A lot of those coaches fell into the same trap that comes in a league in which passes are thrown on 59 percent of offensive downs. The popular belief isn't just that you can't win without a quarterback. It's that you have to win with a quarterback who can do everything. Well, that philosophy works fine when you have a healthy Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. When you're the Indianapolis Colts this season -- and playing without star quarterback Peyton Manning -- you see how ugly life can become.

So here's hoping that Tebow and his teammates keep winning. It doesn't matter if the Broncos draft a quarterback next April or decide that Tebow isn't their quarterback of the future. In less than two months, he's broken down boundaries in a copycat league and helped remind us all that football is the ultimate team sport again. You can talk about quarterback ratings, throwing motions and "Tebowing" all you want. In the end, Tebow's greatest contribution to the league should be that he made it take a long overdue look in the mirror.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.