ENGLEWOOD, Colo. >> Nobody knows what will come of the Tim Tebow experiment, not even those scrambling ramblers who came before him.
Yet it seems like everybody wants to talk about it.
Retired QBs who made a living with their legs, and who also turned the NFL on its ear in their day, have strong opinions about what’s happening in Denver, where Tebow has led the once lowly Broncos to six wins in his seven starts.
Randall Cunningham loves it.
Steve Young hates it.
Bobby Douglass admires it.
While they debate whether Tebow can morph into a prototypical pocket passer, they’re all pulling hard for the Broncos’ quirky quarterback who defies his messy mechanics and flawed footwork with grit and last-minute magic.
"I think what we all ought to do is enjoy the circus while it’s in town," suggests another former NFL quarterback, Joe Theismann.
Tebow has brought the option back to the NFL and while he usually struggles for much of the day to move his team downfield, he keeps coming up big in crunch time, guiding the Broncos to second-half comeback wins against the Dolphins, Jets, Raiders, Chargers and Vikings since taking over as the starter two months ago.
On Sunday, he won a shootout in Minnesota, propelling the Broncos (7-5) into a first-place tie with Oakland atop the AFC West.
"You’ve got Aaron Rodgers, you’ve got Drew Brees, you’ve got Tom Brady that set a standard of excellence in football that we haven’t seen," said Theismann, now an NFL Network analyst. "What makes 2011 so unique is we have seen quarterback play in this league at such a high extreme and in Tim’s case, the bottom rung when it comes to completions."
And yet the Broncos are also in the playoff hunt in this pass-happy league because of an old-fashioned formula based on stout defense and a strong ground game.
"That defense is as good as any in football right now," Theismann said. "The offense doesn’t turn the ball over. There’s been one interception in seven games. I say this tongue-in-cheek: The way Tim throws the ball sometimes, nobody has a shot at getting it, his guy, the defenders. It’s either bounce it in the ground or throw it in the third row."
Tebow is completing just 48 percent of his passes.
"And what’s his winning percentage?" retorts Cunningham.
It’s 85.7 percent, second only to Rodgers, whose Packers are perfect at 12-0.
Still, Broncos boss John Elway won’t publicly commit to Tebow for 2012 and beyond. Coach John Fox, who told NFL.com last month that Tebow would be "screwed" if they were running a conventional offense, is living in the moment, not focused on the future.
"The guys wins.How can you not be a fan of that?" Fox said. "He does it with his feet, with his arm, just with his competitive greatness, really. That’s what you’re looking for in a quarterback."
The Broncos have decided not to try to fix Tebow’s throwing troubles now but try to accentuate what he already does well, which is running a ball-control, low-risk, no-frills offense heavy on the option while sprinkling in some downfield passes.
"He’s in a sweet spot right now," said Young, "but I don’t know if it’s developing him to go do it long-term in the NFL."
Tebow is coming off his best passing performance as a pro — 10 of 15 for 202 yards and two TDs — but Young would like to see him sling it 20-25 times every Sunday.
"I learned the hard way what the job in the NFL was," said Young, who came into the league as a scrambler and left as a pocket passer with a championship and a ticket to the Hall of Fame. "I didn’t know what that job was and it wasn’t natural to me and I like to just run around and make plays.
"But it’s not championship football. It can be winning football, but it’s not championship football," Young said. "And so I had to learn the job, and the job is a Ph.D. in studying defenses and the ability — and some of it’s natural — to deliver the football."
There’s the rub. Does Tebow really need to be a great passer?
"My first year, I was no more accurate than he was," said Cunningham, who was a 42 percent passer as a rookie but finished his career at 56.6 percent and was one of the most exciting players of his day.
Young worries that the option offense is stunting Tebow’s growth.
"We really haven’t learned anything," Young said. "We knew he was good at that."
Young said he fears the Broncos will head into the offseason still clueless as to whether Tebow can really throw the ball and thus they’ll decide to draft another quarterback, "and then I’m going to say, ‘Well, why didn’t we spend that time last year seeing if he could really do this job?’"
The answer to that question: Because he’s winning. So says Douglass, the Bears’ scrambling quarterback from 1969-75 who was a career 43 percent passer.
"You have to make a decision: Can we put in some of the stuff that he’s real comfortable with plus create all these problems for the defense?" said Douglass. "And then, are we better off sacrificing some of the things that he could be learning if we didn’t do that? Obviously, they have made that decision."
Although they’ve slowed his growth as a passer, they haven’t stunted it, Douglass suggested.
Cunningham, who spent 16 seasons in the NFL, said the results speak for themselves.
"The bottom line is the man wins games. I’m probably his biggest fan," Cunningham said. "When I look at him, I see a large Michael Vick. People tell Tim what he can’t do; he defies the odds. He doesn’t do it in a way that everybody else does it. He doesn’t do it like Tom Brady or my man Drew Brees. But let me tell you something: At the end of the game, it’s always exciting and he comes out ahead."
Eventually, all scramblers are forced to rely more on their arm. Age and injuries catch up.
Tebow ran the ball 22 times two weeks ago, more than any NFL quarterback since 1950, prompting Vikings coach Leslie Frazier to crack that he’d like to get his star tailback Adrian Peterson that many touches.
The Broncos dispute the notion they’re putting Tebow in harm’s way with so many designed quarterback runs, insisting he’s susceptible to bigger hits in the pocket.
Young’s not worried about Tebow’s health.
"No, he’s a bull," Young said. "Physically, he’s as ready to go take that beating as anyone in the league, running backs, anybody. Now, can you transition from running somebody over to then dropping back and reading the zone blitz and drop off the ball to the hot read? I mean, that’s the transition he has to get used to, but I’m not worried about him. The guy’s built for it."
Theismann agrees that "your vulnerability to big shots in the pocket are greater than outside the pocket. But when you start to tuck and run, somebody’s going to come in and just say, ‘Hey, this is my shot at Tim Tebow and I’m going to take it.’
"And my bet is he’ll get up. But after how many can you get up?"
Young said he thinks Tebow’s biggest problem in the passing game is that his head’s swimming.
"So, I just got a feeling that yeah, maybe he’s not a 70 percent passer but he’s not 45. And so I just feel like as he plays more and gets more opportunity, he’ll throw the ball better as he relaxes more and gets more reps," Young said. "But that’s what I’m worried about with him. I feel like it’s a disservice if he’s not getting the reps throwing the ball."
"You have to use his talents," he said. "I believe you have to use his physicality, his ability as a runner and the physicality is the size which means he can take some punishment, maybe run through a guy once in a while."
Like they do with everything else, opponents will eventually decipher the option, critics say.
"They kind of have. It’s not flourishing. Let’s be honest," Young said. "But you let Tim hang around, he’ll beat you. He will beat you. There’s nobody I can say that more emphatically about than Tim Tebow. If he’s around at the end, you’re dead."
While Tebow is diplomatic, saying he’ll do whatever is asked of him, Young thinks in his heart of hearts, Tebow wants to be groomed into a passer and not run the same offense he did in college.
"I believe he would rather take the chance of failing, even miserably, and dropping back and really throwing the ball and playing NFL quarterback," Young said. "And I think the Broncos don’t believe he can do it. John Fox, what did he say, he’d be screwed if he does that? That’s a pretty strong statement, right?
"The Broncos are saying he can’t play quarterback traditionally so we’ll just fiddle faddle around here for a little while but long term we’re not committed to this. It’s almost like they’ve made it a little bit of a sideshow."
In that case, Theismann said, grab the popcorn, sit back and enjoy the show.
"He certainly is. Why can’t we?" Theismann said. "I call it Cirque de Soleil. It’s in town."
A three-ring circus is more like it, Young said.
"These wins, really it’s kind of fun to watch because the Broncos, they’re going to play themselves into a dilemma at the end of the season: Who are we going to be?" Young said. "And I guarantee you, if Tim wins two or three more games, they’ll storm the castle if they try to do something other than Tim Tebow next year."