In the end he’ll always have Pittsburgh.
For yes, the zenith of Tim Tebow’s ride in Denver, really his ride in the NFL to this point, came Jan. 8, 2012, when a player who didn’t complete 50 percent of his passes in an offense that unveiled the NFL’s first full-time read-option look during a wild, made-for-TV season had what was -- and what now might forever be -- the game of his professional football life.
Tebow went 10-of-21 passing against the Steelers' No. 1 defense that day for a staggering 316 yards -- 31.6 yards per completion -- and two touchdowns, the second of which came on an 80-yard catch-and-run by Demaryius Thomas to finish off the 29-23 Broncos win just 11 seconds into overtime. That’s the play, the game, that Tebow’s most zealous supporters will always point to as a measure of his NFL worthiness.
About what he can do if given a chance; if nurtured, coached and simply let be to do what he does.
Six days later, however, Tebow was tied in football knots by largely the same Patriots coaching staff that released him Saturday. Tebow went 9-of-26 passing for 136 yards in that AFC divisional-round game, was sacked five times, suffered a rib injury and looked lost, out of place in such a marquee affair. It also started the clock in earnest for the end of Tebow Time in Denver.
A couple days after the loss to the Patriots, the Broncos’ chief football decision-maker, John Elway, said this about Tebow’s future:
“At the same age, I had a long way to go, too. But I probably, at times, moved too much, relied too much on moving around. Hopefully I can relay that [to Tebow], because my progression as a quarterback was that I finally realized later in my career that I wished I'd learned [earlier] the fact that you do have to win from the pocket."
And there it is, the bottom line. It’s why the Broncos chased Peyton Manning, why they traded Tebow, why they moved on when they had the chance. They simply decided a running quarterback is fine, but he has to throw better, be more accurate to win trophies in the Sunday league.
There are many inside the Broncos’ Dove Valley complex who have said all through the preseason that it would be telling about Tebow’s future, and his current spot on the developmental curve, if the Patriots released him. Because whenever criticisms of Tebow came, many folks in the public domain would say something on the order of "Well, if Bill Belichick had him ... "
And the Patriots also have Josh McDaniels as their offensive coordinator. And McDaniels is, in many ways, the first to believe in Tebow as an NFL quarterback. As in believe it enough to, as the Broncos' head coach, the guy with the final say on personnel did in 2010, select Tebow with the 25th pick of that April’s draft. McDaniels, by all accounts, was simply floored by Tebow’s interview with the team at that year’s scouting combine, intrigued by the highest of personal character in an imposing football body. McDaniels wanted Tebow enough to have traded three picks to the Ravens to take him in that 25th spot.
But even McDaniels -- after getting a day-to-day look at Tebow in practice in the weeks and months that followed, even as Spygate unfolded in that 2010 season and the losses mounted -- didn’t play Tebow as a rookie. No, it's often forgotten now in all of the water that's passed under the bridge that Tebow didn’t see the field in the Mile High City until after McDaniels had been fired and the franchise, for the first time in its history, faced the very real prospect of sections of empty seats and an apathetic fan base.
They benched Kyle Orton in 2011 after a training camp and September worthy of any three-ring circus. They put Tebow in the lineup, eventually chucking their playbook and making a new one simply to play in the short term. And, looking back, many with the Broncos privately say all of the seemingly endless talk about Tebow’s throwing motion, footwork and throwing mechanics overshadows the fact that he really needs to learn defenses, understand where the ball needs to go in the situations that present themselves in the passing game.
That his confidence on the field, which he always says is unshakable, seems to be waning; that a 1-of-7 for minus-1 yard and an interception is not the passing line any fourth-year quarterback can have in any game preseason or not. That even in a league with some of youngest, brightest starters being of the mobile quarterback variety, throwing the ball on time with accuracy will always be the top priority for those behind center.
And that a player, even one who was for his time in Denver a global cultural phenomenon, who didn’t audible much, if ever, as a quarterback may simply have to rethink how he plays the game.