Tim Tebow The Making Of A Quarterback
The Broncos' coaches are breaking down their No. 1 pick and starting from scratch as they try to turn the Florida star into an NFL passer. It's weeks into Year One of what will be a long—and pivotal—drama for the franchise
PRINT EMAIL MOST POPULAR SHARE
It's 8:50 a.m on a day in late May, and quarterback class is in session. In fact, this is already the second quarterbacks meeting of the morning at the Broncos' training facility in Englewood. Coaches and passers huddled at 8, followed by a full-team get-together at 8:30. The offense would meet afterward, at 9:15, followed by a third quarterbacks session at 9:55, a walkthrough at 10:30, then practice, lunch, film review and meetings in the afternoon. Dizzying.
Josh McDaniels, the Broncos' 34-year-old coach, stands at the whiteboard. Seated at an L-shaped table in the cramped meeting room are quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels, Josh's 30-year-old brother, and the four signal-callers on the spring roster: Kyle Orton, the 2009 starter; challenger Brady Quinn, who was acquired in March from the Browns; Tom Brandstater, a second-year project out of Fresno State; and the No. 25 pick in the April draft, a Florida lefthander and the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Tebow.
The four students had their white binders open to follow the installation of some red zone concepts. They took notes in thin, loose-leaf notebooks. "You're going to have 50 passes in the game plan every week where you'll have one player open," McDaniels tells them. "I guarantee it. And you gotta find that one player. Quickly. You got to see it right away."
These quarterbacks have to know what McDaniels knows and to see what he sees. Too often last year, when Denver was 20th in scoring and finished 8--8, one or two players would be out of place or run the wrong route. So even if a smart quarterback like Orton knew exactly where he was supposed to throw the pass, he couldn't complete it because of his teammates' mistakes. But McDaniels is feeling free to add to his encyclopedic playbook because he has more confidence in his troops; nine prospective starters on offense are in their second year, as is the coach.
"All right, we've loaded the gun this year—we've given you Hoffa, Smoke, Smack, and now we've got Sleet," McDaniels says, rattling play calls. Tebow, the new kid, stares at the board, then back at McDaniels. His look says, Another one? Can I please get a grip on the first 539 concepts before you give me the 540th?
McDaniels doesn't pause. He draws up Sleet in black marker, with two receivers on the left and lines to indicate how one of them would, in essence, set a pick for the other to create an open man 10 yards downfield.
"Quarterbacks, you better be ready," he says. "We've got a blitz period today, and this blitz period is gonna test everything you know. Got it?"
"Yessir," the 22-year-old Tebow responds as the others nod. The quarterbacks put their notebooks away and head out to the next meeting. Asked later what was going through his mind when McDaniels drew up Sleet, Tebow says, "I'm very young. Right now, in this offense, I'm in elementary school. I'm understanding the concepts, but now I have to get comfortable with every one. I know I'll get them down. I know it."
In the NFL, teams install their offenses and defenses twice: once during organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps in May and June, and again as a review during training camp in July and August. At the time of the late-May OTAs, Tebow was in his fifth week in McDaniels's system. During the offense's morning meeting veteran guard Russ Hochstein, who was with the Patriots for seven seasons when McDaniels was a New England assistant and an offensive coordinator, suggested that the coach set up blocking assignments in a more advanced manner, rather than relying on the quarterback to identify where the middle linebacker was and shift blockers accordingly. McDaniels said, in essence: Let's get the basics down first, then move on to a more sophisticated scheme. Hochstein persisted. "Look," McDaniels said, his blood pressure appearing to rise, "that's Calculus 5, what you're talking about. We're in pre-algebra right now. Just do what the quarterback tells you to do. Block your man."
The vibe in the quarterbacks room was also intense. "A year ago," said Orton afterward, "[2009 backup] Chris Simms and I were swimming the same way Tim is right now. This offense is tough. I feel great to be in the second year, knowing what I'm doing."
At Florida, Tebow was accustomed to the center identifying the middle linebacker and calling out the blocking assignments. In Denver he'll have to spell out both the play and the protection in the huddle, then make adjustments at the line. For instance, he might see a safety coming down to act as the middle 'backer. In Broncos practice, even though Brian Dawkins, number 20, isn't a middle linebacker (the Mike, in football parlance), quarterbacks might go to the line, identify Dawkins as the pivot for the defense and call out, "20's the Mike!"
The terminology, too, can be vexing. For Quinn, a certain three-man combination route in Cleveland under 2008 offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was called Ram. In 2009 Chudzinksi's successor, Brian Daboll, called the same combination Thresher. In 2010 McDaniels calls it Rifle. Said Quinn, "You better learn how to wipe the slate clean when you change offenses."
Orton knew the offense the best of the four QBs during OTAs. At one point in the second quarterbacks meeting of the day, McDaniels was reviewing a red zone pass play called Charlotte with five receivers. (A big NBA fan, he's named base pass plays after every team in the league.) The two on the left were supposed to cut outside in a part of the route called Read. Orton piped up, "How would you feel if I changed Read to Iowa here?"
Iowa meant the receivers would cut inside, rather than out. Orton's first read on the play is to look at his three wideouts to the right, and he wanted to make it so that for his second read he wouldn't have to wheel all the way around to the far left. Instead he'd just shift his field of vision to the middle. Split seconds count—that's what Orton was thinking.
McDaniels considered for a moment. "Yeah, I think so," he said. "You're more comfortable with that, Kyle? Then let's do it."
"I want to have all five guys viable," said Orton, "and if I had to spin around all the way to my left, by the time I saw everything I need to, I might be out of time."
Quinn, in contrast, said he wouldn't want to change the patterns on the left because he thought there might be too much traffic in the middle to find an open man.
"That's fine," McDaniels said later. "If Brady feels better about it, we'll call it that way for him and the other way for Kyle. You're not going to change every play depending on what each quarterback wants, but this is minor, and you want each quarterback to feel great about the play when he calls it."
McDaniels thinks there are times when a coach has to be firm, and times when he needs to bend. "Bill [Belichick] taught me that ideas should be innocent until proven guilty," McDaniels said of his former boss in New England. "Some people think ideas are guilty until proven innocent. You might suggest a play or an idea to a coach, and it gets shot down right away—like, Your idea is no good because I didn't think of it. But if you do that too often, people stop coming up with ideas. And then you might be shutting off the flow of pretty good thoughts, and you're stunting everyone's development. I don't want to be dictating. I want to be having conversations."
In every game, a defense will run coverages or rush from places the offense didn't anticipate, and the quarterback is going to have to make a play in a split second. Last season McDaniels installed a misdirection screen that Matt Cassel had completed 29 out of 30 times with the Patriots in '08. The play drove McDaniels crazy in Denver. The back would run the wrong way, or the tackle would take a bad angle to the screen point and be late. Not until Week 13, against the Chiefs, did the Broncos run it perfectly; the result was a seven-yard touchdown from Orton to receiver Brandon Marshall.