Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s perfect 15-yard touchdown strike to Steve Smith on Sunday? Newton is proof that quarterbacks who played the spread option in college can smoothly transition to the N.F.L., as long as they possess powerhouse arms and decent accuracy. Vince Young starting for the Philadelphia Eagles? Evidence that a dual-threat quarterback with a better arm can still miss throws just as wildly as Tebow.
It has come to this for the N.F.L.: Tebow’s play continues to confound almost everyone who watches him. But after the ’ stunning victory over on Thursday night, the conventional wisdom seems to be shifting to grudging acceptance of him and praise for Coach John Fox to turn his offense upside down to suit what he does well.
The Broncos are in the playoff race because they have thrown up their hands and embraced the unsightly but exciting brand of football Tebow plays. On Sunday, the former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin said on the NFL Network that Tebow could take the Broncos to the . Irvin, of course, can afford to be charitable. He has not been an intended receiver watching one of Tebow’s passes sail 5 yards away from him. But with six games to go and the Broncos one game behind the Raiders in the American Football Conference West, the question is how much longer Tebow’s style, which is unpredictable, unstable and unfailingly riveting, can sustain itself.
The Broncos, according to people who tracked the game closely, played the option 40 percent of the time against the Jets, about double the number of snaps they played in the option against Miami and Detroit earlier in the season, but about the same amount they played in a victory over the Raiders two weeks ago, when the Broncos turned fully to the option. Until the final drive, when the Jets were worn down and seemed unable or unwilling to tackle, they defended the Broncos well. The Broncos had just 229 yards of offense, but 95 yards came on the final drive.
When Tebow was made the starter, the former quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer predicted that there would be a four- to seven-game window when Broncos opponents would struggle to adapt to a very unorthodox offense, much as teams struggled against the Wildcat when the Miami Dolphins unleashed it. Tebow has now made five starts, winning four.
“Against a good defense it doesn’t work,” said the former Redskins and Texans general manager Charley Casserly, who compared the use of the option now to when Marv Levy used the Delaware Wing T while with Kansas City in the 1970s. “Once you eliminate the element of surprise — the Raiders fell victim to that — and you’re able to get more game tape and study what they can’t do, the clock is winding down on the option offense.”
Why can’t Tebow continue this much longer, the way Michael Vick did in Atlanta, or Vince Young or Randall Cunningham did in earlier incarnations? Because they had more dynamic and accurate arms, forcing defenses to account for the passing game. That is what Tebow does not have. Since he has been starting, his accuracy has improved slightly, and Dilfer believes Tebow has been more decisive in recent weeks as he has grown more comfortable. But the Jets gave Tebow plenty of opportunities to throw and he missed his intended targets. Casserly said there has been no pattern to Tebow’s misses — sometimes he has poor footwork and sometimes he just misses — but he calls the inaccuracy mindboggling. And while Tebow has thrown some eye-opening passes — one against Kansas City was notable and so was the 28-yarder on the first snap of the game against the Jets — his lack of consistency allows opponents to relax against the pass and load up to stop the run, a critical difference from other dual-threat quarterbacks.
“They could launch it 45 yards or fit it into a window down the sideline,” Dilfer said. “They would make enough explosive plays with their arm that you could not only defend the run. You’d always be wondering at what point is he going to knife us.”
Dilfer points to evidence that the Jets never feared that with Tebow: they had linebacker Bart Scott, who has been coming off the field rather than lining up against athletic tight ends, covering Daniel Fells, a very athletic tight end. Denver could not capitalize on the apparent mismatch: Fells was targeted just once and did not have a catch last Thursday.