Fox has Broncos in the hunt

QB Tim Tebow is getting all the attention, but the real key to the turnaround of the 2011 Denver Broncos is head coach John Fox. Ron Chenoy/US Presswire

The first time Tim Tebow met John Fox was at a dinner in Gainesville, Fla., before the 2010 draft. Halfway through, Tebow excused himself from the table, snuck his credit card to the waiter and whispered, "Make sure I get the check."

Fox grins just thinking about it.

"I've taken hundreds and hundreds of players out to dinner over the years," Fox says, "and that's the one and only time a player has picked up the check. Unbelievable."

This year, Fox repaid the favor.

With Fox's Denver Broncos stinking up the AFC West at 2-5, he used his bye week to junk the old offense and install an Edsel that had been rarely seen in the NFL in 40 years: the read-option running game, an offense carved in Tebow's image.

Listen to that again: Fox traded Sundays for Saturdays, just for Tebow. It's the equivalent of Shaun White changing from a Triple Back McTwist to a Quadruple Spin 720 in midair. It's not just changing horses midstream. It's shooting the horse dead and jumping on the back of a crocodile.

It had to be the gustiest, craziest, riskiest football move since ABC hired Dennis Miller for "Monday Night Football." It could've cost Fox his 10-month-old job, not to mention those of his staff.

But here's the craziest thing of all: It worked. Since Fox put in the "Te-Bone," Denver is 5-0, 6-1 with Tebow overall, and Tebow is the most controversial 'bow since botox.

"Well, ball is ball," Fox was saying this week as he indulged his weakness -- a dip of chew. "I coached against the option so many times in college and, lemme tell you, it can make you look bad. Try to stop Air Force sometime."

In fact, Fox has been secretly looking -- on and off -- for somebody to run it for him since circa 1996.

"I had to try to defend it [as the Carolina Panthers' head coach] versus Michael Vick," he said. "They ran a form of it in Atlanta and, damn, it took us two years to figure it out. And here we were, with this guy with the size, strength and durability to pull it off. I mean, this kid is bigger than all our halfbacks!"

That would be Mr. Timothy Richard Tebow -- 24 years old, 6-foot-3 in height, 236 in weight, Christian in faith, immaculate in manners, bench presser "in the mid-300s" according to teammates, with spring-loaded feet, a buckshot arm and the best stiff-arm since Walter Payton.

"I've always been a big fan of his," Fox says. "That's why I wanted to go to dinner with him that night. This is a guy who was getting it done at a level of college football [the SEC] that, really, for a lot of players, is only a short stop from the NFL."

And yes, the Broncos have caught amazingly lucky schedule breaks -- the six teams Tebow has beaten so far were 19-30 coming in and three of them had either lost their starting QB or did during the game. But somehow, Tebow keeps getting better -- over the grinding of experts' teeth.

But none of it would've happened without the genius of Fox.

People complain that Broncos president John Elway seems to smile about as much as an Easter Island statue while watching Tebow, but you should see him smile when you ask him if he's happy with his hire of Fox, a guy who must've thought his phone was dead after a dismal 2-14 season in Charlotte last season.

"Very," Elway says. "I think John just thought why not take advantage of what Timmy does best?"

What "Timmy" seems to do best is flatten cornerbacks, fool safeties with a set of Slinky hips, and read holes on the run option as though clairvoyant. Tebow may be the first NFL QB in history who can see more running options than passing ones.

And yes, Tebow doesn't hit a high percentage of his teammates with his lefty spirals, but he doesn't hit many opponents, either. He has only one interception this season. Of course, skydivers don't drown much, but still -- 75 passes and only one interception? That's tidy.

"The other thing he's done is not take too many big hits," says Elway, "at least not in bounds." (San Diego, take that as an insult).

But when you realize that six starting quarterbacks have lost their jobs with injuries this season, it occurs to you Tebow must know what bartenders know: Dispensing shots hurts a lot less in the morning than absorbing them.

"This whole thing has been so fun," says Fox's wife, Robin, an in-demand jewelry designer in her own right. "The snow in Colorado, the holidays coming up, everybody wanting to talk about Tebow. We're loving this."

What they should be talking about is how her husband took a team that was steaming wreckage when Josh McDaniels was fired exactly a year ago this week and has them in the playoff hunt. They should be talking about a coach who wins with Tebow running it 22 times in one game (versus the Chargers) and only four in another (Vikings). They should be talking about a coach who's made it fun to be a Bronco -- and a Broncos fan -- again.

To wit:

Fox got permission to take his team in to most road games two days early, where players bond and howl and dream together, with no distractions. "Cost us a fortune, but John thought it was important," says one Broncos insider. "You get to know a teammate better, you play harder for him."

Fox picks one player to address the team before each game, a way of getting player buy-in. This is where Tebow made his famous "As iron sharpens iron, men sharpen men" pregame speech. (After which, Denver went out and fell behind 10-0).

Fox is real, blue collar and funny.

"The other day, before the Minnesota game, we were in the tunnel, about to come out," says Broncos punter Britton Colquitt. "And somebody farted. It was bad. And Coach Fox goes, 'Man, I guess somebody's nervous!' It just broke us all up, got us loose. That's what he's like. … I just met him this year and I feel like I've known him 20 years."

So when you hear "I believe" lately in Denver, not everybody is talking about Tebow.

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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter," and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.

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