The Broncos’ coaching staff, which had made him the starter just two weeks ago, had so little confidence in him that through three quarters, he attempted just eight passes.
But with five minutes left and the Miami Dolphins playing prevent defense, Tebow turned into the player who inspires fans to erect billboards and opposing teams to honor him when he visits, rallying the Broncos to two touchdowns.
And when Denver lined up for the 2-point attempt that would send the game to overtime, it seemed that only the Dolphins had never seen highlights from Tebow’s Heisman Trophy-winning career. They had their defense spread across the field, leaving gaping holes between each player. Tebow took the snap and ran off right tackle, untouched, for the conversion.
From there, the result seemed a fait accompli. The , on Matt Prater’s 52-yard field goal, giving them their second victory of the season and sinking the Dolphins to 0-6.
After the game, to the delight of a few hundred University of Florida fans left on the field, Tebow came out of the locker room to greet some of his former college teammates. He had led them to a national championship on the same field, when his legend took flight. The Broncos got no greater clarity Sunday about who their quarterback of the future is.
But they do understand now the ineffable quality Tebow seems to summon when things appear bleakest, and why so many people clamor for Tebow to have a chance.
“There’s competitive greatness,” Denver Coach John Fox said. “Not everybody that plays in this league has it. It’s a great quality to have. We have a guy — No. 7 that I work with every day — he had it. He definitely had it.”
Comparing Tebow to the , who is Denver’s executive vice president for football operations, should delight the Broncos fans who had implored Fox to start Tebow after faltered in the first month of the season.
But even the way the Broncos played in overtime summed up the difficult and delicate decision that Fox and the Broncos face with Tebow. They have made him the starter now because they must find out if he can be their quarterback of the future.
The concerns that led them to make Orton the starter for opening day, however, seem to be lingering. In overtime, Tebow did not throw a pass, as the Broncos essentially reapplied the training wheels they had left on him for most of the game.
After the game, Fox said bluntly that if Tebow had completed more than three of his first eight passes, maybe Denver would have had him throw more, because the situation became dire.
On the game’s final drive, which started at the Dolphins’ 36 after Denver recovered a fumble, the Broncos had Tebow hand off three times, signaling that they would rather take their chances with a long field-goal attempt from a kicker who had missed two shorter tries earlier in the game.
Other than the victory, the game might have been the worst-case situation for the Broncos. They fear that the Tebow on display for most of the game is the real one, a better runner than passer, and that he may never be the accurate pocket passer they crave. Broncos coaches were clearly spooked when, on the Broncos’ first drive of the game, they used something resembling the spread option that Tebow ran to such great success in college.
But on his first pass, under pressure, he was nearly intercepted. After that, the Broncos (2-4) seemed to travel back to the 1970s, calling for handoff after handoff.
In the first three quarters, Tebow completed 3 of 8 passes for 24 yards and was sacked four times. He looked so bad that it was reasonable to wonder if the Broncos would give him another start.
“As a football player, as an athlete, you can’t lose confidence in yourself — or you’ve lost already,” Tebow said.
In the fourth quarter, he was 10 of 19 for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns, and there is no way coaches can ignore his ability to steer a team to victory even if the road there is sometimes ugly. So the Tebow experiment will live on, charming fans, confusing coaches and making everyone else wonder if there might be a place for a very different kind of N.F.L. quarterback.
“I’ve just got to play better in the first three quarters,” Tebow said, “so we don’t have to make that comeback.”
The Broncos would love for it to be that easy.