|Mile High Swamp? Similar colors, same number and matching results for Tim Tebow. (Getty Images/AP)|
The ol' college try doesn't work in the National Football League. Maybe it did in the old days, back in the 1950s and '60s when coaches dressed in their Sunday finest and players earned as much as the milkman. But those days are gone.
And that was the shame of Tim Tebow's professional prospects. He was from another era, and not just because he ran like Cookie Gilchrist and threw like Earl Morrall. Tebow was from another era because he played like they did in the old days, when players won because they liked each other, believed in each other, cared for each other.
Corny stuff like that.
It wasn't going to work for Tebow, because the game had changed. That's where lots of us stood when Tebow turned pro in 2010.
That's where lots of us went wrong.
Because the ol' college try? It's working in Denver.
|More on Denver Broncos|
|NFL coverage on the go|
And that's not an insult to Tebow, or even a backhanded compliment. It's an acknowledgement of what's happening with the Broncos, an attempt at explaining the inexplicable. A franchise few imagined would reach the 2011 postseason, led by a quarterback almost nobody believed could succeed in the NFL, is one of eight teams still playing as the schedule moves into the second week of the playoffs.
This can't be happening, but it is. The way Tebow leads can't work, but it has. The Broncos can't be this corny -- but they are.
"As a group of guys, they get along, do the right things, work hard together," coach John Fox said Sunday night, after the Broncos beat the Steelers 29-23. The game ended on the first play of overtime, with Tebow hitting Demaryius Thomas for a 20-yard gain over the middle, and with Thomas breaking to the sideline and outrunning the secondary for the final 60 yards, and with Tebow and Fox trying their best to catch up.
A few minutes later, no longer out of breath but characteristically out of voice, Fox wheezed out the following quote, straight from the book of Mike Krzyzewski:
"This is why you do it," Fox said. "It's not about money. It's not about whatever. It's moments like tonight."
It doesn't matter if that sounds naive. What matters is that the Broncos actually believe it. And as a franchise, they've recognized that their strength is in such a corny, collegiate belief. Their strength, the Broncos recognized in midseason, would be the will of Tebow.
Nobody will say it, but I'm convinced that's the reason Kyle Orton wasn't just replaced, but released, when the Broncos elevated Tebow from backup to starter after the team's 1-4 start. And it wasn't a coincidence that the Broncos traded away their best receiver -- and Orton's best friend -- Brandon Lloyd before Tebow's first start.
The Broncos were clearing the decks, getting rid of anyone who might stand in the way of their new leader. Orton is a smart, cynical guy. Not a bad guy, but not a rah-rah guy. Not the kind of backup quarterback who would buy into "the whole Tebow thing," as Lloyd infamously referred to it in the preseason. So Orton was released, and his buddy Lloyd was traded, and the Broncos were all in. For better worse, the 2011 team was Tebow's.
And it worked. The Broncos won seven of the next eight. And they won those games in startling fashion, the defense holding opposing offenses in check, keeping games close enough for Tebow to pull them out in the fourth quarter. That happens once or twice, it can be written off in the locker room as a fluke. When it happens damn near every week?
They believe in Tebow in Denver, believe in a way that wasn't supposed to happen. His intangibles, the enthusiasm and charisma that made him so successful at Florida, weren't supposed to matter in a league where money talks and rah-rah stuff walks. But it matters in Denver. For how long, nobody knows. Maybe this is a once-in-a-lifetime season, the Broncos swept up in the emotion of so many unlikely comebacks. Maybe the cold cynicism of professional football returns next season.
Tebow isn't going to change. Hours before Sunday's game, with temperatures in the upper 20s, he was on the field, playing catch with members of the country band Rascal Flatts. The only teammates out so early were the kicker and punter, and everyone else was wearing hooded jackets over their uniforms. Tebow was in a tank top. It was silly but sincere, just like the way Tebow refers to his sport in shorthand. "Playing ball," he calls his million-dollar job.
Tebow's enthusiasm for football is childlike, and his teammates have bought into it.
"Tim has a presence about him that I've never been around before," cornerback Andre' Goodman said earlier this season. "I've played with some Hall of Fame players before that weren't close to the aura that this guy has."
This wasn't supposed to happen, but it did. It's happening still. The Broncos play the corporate New England Patriots on Saturday, and they can't win that game. But then, they weren't supposed to beat Pittsburgh. Even playing at home, against a depleted Steelers team whose quarterback was limping on a sprained ankle, the Broncos were nearly 10-point underdogs. How did they pull off the upset? There are football reasons, I'm sure. Break down the tape. See for yourself.
But there's also this, a quote from Tebow, straight out of 1957:
"It's because of how close this team is," Tebow said Sunday night. "How much chemistry we've got. How much we care for each other."