Tim Tebow ranks closer to Norris Weese and Pete Liske than to John Elway in the pantheon of quarterbacks, but now is not a good time to be facing that much discussed and improbably successful left-hander, as the Bears must do on Sunday.
A playoff berth that was there for the taking three weeks ago is now an iffy proposition for the embattled Chicago Eleven, thanks to two straight losses to supposedly inferior A.F.C. West opponents and season-threatening injuries to their two best offensive players. A quarterback with 10 N.F.L. starts and a 48.3 career completion percentage would normally present an appealing get-well opportunity, but “Tebow” and “normal” do not travel in the same circles.
In fact, everything about Tebow, a 24-year-old Floridian, seems polarizing, from his unabashed religious proselytizing to his unorthodox approach to playing quarterback. If you crossed a tight end with a fullback and raised him in the God-fearing home of a pious linebacker — a Mike Singletary type — you’d have Tim Tebow.
He won two national championships and one Heisman Trophy while barreling through college, but N.F.L. evaluators were nearly unanimous in their insistence that his reckless, why-pass-when-I-can-run style had no place in the sophisticated pro game. One dissenter, Josh McDaniels, is now known as former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, partly because he used a first-round draft choice to certify his belief in Tebow’s magic.
McDaniels’s successor is the veteran N.F.L. campaigner John Fox, who decided to have a look for himself after the Broncos stumbled to a 1-4 start with the unremarkable Kyle Orton at quarterback. They’re 6-1 since, with five of the victories achieved via Tebow-crafted comebacks that seemed borrowed from the Chip Hilton youth-fiction series.
Denver is beside itself — the football-crazy city hasn’t had this much fun since Elway delivered a second straight title after the 1998 season. The fans might be a little hyped on Sunday as the Tebows go for a sixth consecutive victory in what began as a lost season, don’t you think?
Have at it, Caleb Hanie.
There is this: The Bears are 4-0 in Mike Vick’s four career starts against them, and it’s Vick, the slippery Falcon-turned-Eagle, who evokes the most frequent Tebow comparisons as a quarterback who’s more dangerous with his feet than his arm. He’s left-handed, too.
Steve Young, also left-handed, also a tough, competitive football player who happened to play quarterback, is a better reference point.
Though he set a boatload of passing records at Brigham Young University, Young had been dismissed as a running back in a quarterback’s body when he joined the 49ers in 1987. Life-threatening stints behind sieve-like offensive lines before he came to San Francisco had caused Young’s instincts for self-preservation to kick in. He threw a nice ball, more accurate and more catchable than Tebow’s, but he was inclined to take off and run at the first sign of trouble.
The 49ers couldn’t have that. Their intricate, timing-based offense required patience and total faith in the premise that someone eventually would get open. With Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and Brent Jones on the field, someone invariably did. Once Young realized it was safer and more productive to use those weapons than to run the ball himself, he became a passing wizard. And his legs remained a reliable asset.
Young, oddly, has been critical of the Tebow phenomenon — not the player himself, but the Broncos’ use of him. The college-style, spread-option offense they are running is “unsustainable” in the N.F.L., Young maintains, and by resorting to it, the Broncos are depriving Tebow of a chance to develop into a legitimate pro quarterback.
A Steve Young, say. He was no Joe Montana, but he was a terrific player, and after succeeding Montana, he gave the 49ers another decade of Hall of Fame-caliber performance at the game’s most important position.
Ask the Bears how important. Without Jay Cutler, they’re a mess.
Unlike Young, Cutler, when he arrived from Denver before the 2009 season, wasn’t faced with following a Canton-bound predecessor — “Bears” and “Hall of Fame quarterback” do not travel in the same circles. But he was under pressure to justify the hefty price the Bears paid for him, and he had begun to do just that during a five-game winning streak that had Bears fans thinking that last year’s trip to the N.F.C. championship game maybe wasn’t so fluky.
Then Cutler broke his thumb trying to make a tackle, setting off a sequence of events reminiscent of a chain-reaction pile-up on the Dan Ryan. Hanie looked lost in an offense that Mike Martz refused to modify in order to exploit Hanie’s mobility and the other things he does well. All-purpose running back Matt Forte went out with an injured knee; against the backdrop of a long-running contract dispute, he must weigh the merits of a quick return.
Talk that Martz is headed elsewhere after the season prompted less-than-vehement denials until Martz spoke out on Wednesday. But if the mad-scientist offensive coordinator really has other options, let him go now. His stubborn reliance on trickery has been an aberration on a tough-guy team that has always preferred muscle to guile on both sides of the ball.
Then install some stuff for Hanie, even if it’s made-up stuff. What’s the harm? Denver is improvising everything with Tebow, and laughing all the way to the playoffs.