The circus is coming to town Sunday.
An inordinate number of national media types will have their eyes and ears trained on the Metrodome Sunday – a game viewed so meaningless by the NFL a couple of weeks ago that it moved the start time from a 3:15 local time start, which could have made it available to a much larger segment of the free-TV public, to a regional game seen exclusively in markets that have received measurable snow in the last month at noon local time.
As a result, the traveling curiosity show that are the Denver Broncos plural and Tim Tebow singular invade the Metrodome Sunday. The numbers have been well played out, which is what makes Tebow such a curiosity. The Vikings defense is preparing for the Broncos as if they were a college team preparing to play Nebraska in the late 1980s. Back then, you were going to see Jarvis Redwine and I.M. Hipp (a favorite football name). Now you're going to see Tebow, Willis McGahee and a not-ready-for-prime-time supporting cast.
The national media continues to deride Tebow. The worst of if is that he has yet to get a full vote of confidence from either his coach, John Fox, or his general manager, John Elway. Yet, Tebow succeeds. For a Vikings team that has won just two games, it would seem Tebow has stolen the slogan of the Raiders for so many years – Just Win, Baby (Jesus).
In the Vikings locker room there is a definite appreciation of what Tebow has accomplished. About the time kids compete in athletics and they start keeping score, winning is the only goal. It's not how you get there; it's that you get there. And nobody has embodied that fundamental aspect of playing football as much as Tebow has.
Coming off their bye week, the Broncos made a switch at quarterback. The team had two weeks to re-tool itself to become a mountain version of the University of Florida offense, where Tebow was as much a threat with his legs as he was completing short timing passes.
Like it or not, it's been effective. A team that was going nowhere is on a four-game winning streak and the Broncos are 5-1 with Tebow as their quarterback. Only the Packers have a better record over that span.
While technically a version of the Wildcat offense being run by a quarterback and not Ronnie Brown, the Broncos offense has been unorthodox, yet effective. Defensive tackle Fred Evans said that the interior Vikings linemen can expect to be in for a long day because, from what they're seeing on film, they expect the Broncos to run again and again and again.
"The biggest thing they bring to the table, from the defensive aspect, is that they're very disciplined in what they do," Evans said. "They keep fighting. They don't waver from their plan. They're going to run the ball. If they don't gain yardage, they're still going to run the ball at any point – third-and-8, first-and-20, it doesn't matter to them. They're going to run the ball. The thing that seems to work for them is that they believe in it. Whenever you have a team that believes in its scheme that seriously, you have to take it as seriously as they do."
The Tebow mystique followed him to Denver after a standout career at the University of Florida, where there is already a statue of his likeness erected outside the Gators' stadium. Safety Mistral Raymond played at South Florida when Tebow Fever was at a triple-digit pitch. He said he transcended sports popularity and became like a one-man version of the Beatles with the mania that surrounded him.
"They love him down there," Raymond said. "It's no secret. If he steps off a plane down there and somebody says, "Tebow!" you would probably have 20 people pass out at the airport. He has a healthy fan base, he's a good guy and he's doing some special things for that franchise."
While technical difficulties have been experienced, when slapped in the helmet in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, Tebow has maintained his winning ways – even if he looked like a confused high school quarterback for three quarters. Cornerback Marcus Sherels said the atmosphere the Vikings defense is taking on harkens back to the college game, where power running teams make their mark.
"You see a lot of passion," Sherels said of Tebow's playing demeanor. "He never gives up – on any play during any game. He's giving 100 percent. The big thing with him is to be assignment sound. He takes a snap and drops back, but isn't always looking to pass."
While the jury is out on whether Tebow can be a long-term success, if nothing else, he has other coaches looking at what the Broncos are doing successfully, because, like the Wildcat five years ago, Denver is showing the NFL something it hasn't seen in years.
"It's very rare in this league that you find something that changes how the game is played," Evans said. "I don't want to say it's revolutionizing the NFL, but it's one situation. But they seem to make it work for them. They've managed to change (their offense) to match his strengths, but we pride ourselves a lot on stopping the run game – that's always a priority with us. As we see it, he's a runner and he's a bigger target to hit. As much as they run, this is going to be a lot a fun for us, because they not only run their running backs, they run their quarterback and the fullback – you've got triple-options to deal with. From my perspective, this should be fun."
Tebow has been marginally successful as a passer, but, when you run as often as the Broncos do, passing becomes almost an afterthought. Typically, when a quarterback drops back after taking the snap, a pass is coming. In that case, defensive tackles like Remi Ayodele have to make the decision whether to continue their pass rush or try to block a passing lane. With Denver, you keep coming because you don't expect a pass even when all indications look like there has to be.
"You have to play run first and react to the pass," Ayodele said "That's what we're working on, because (Tebow) is a very good runner in his own right and they have a great running back (Willis McGahee) behind him that is going to get his shots. They're a run-first team and our job is to stop them, force them to pass and let our D-ends do what they do."
While far from a textbook example of what a quarterback should be, Ryan Longwell, no stranger to watching an unorthodox quarterback succeed when reality says he shouldn't, said Tebow has an "It Factor" that trumps his deficiencies from a technical standpoint.
"Some people just have ‘it,'" Longwell said. "You can't quantify ‘it,' you can't explain ‘it,' but you know ‘it' when you see it. People are saying it's because of their defense – and their defense is playing well, no doubt – but there is something to be said about what he does when the game is on the line at the end. He's an amazing story."
But perhaps Ayodele has it all figured out. When posed the question as to whether it's difficult to figure out why the Broncos succeed, the questioner said you can't put your finger on what it is. Ayodele was quick to disagree.
"I can put my finger on it," Ayodele said. "He's a winner. He wants to win, so he's going to do whatever it takes to win. If they have an opportunity to win it at the end of the game, he's going to take it into his hands and make sure his team comes out successful. What we have to try to do is get a lead on them to where they have to play catch-up. Then we can get Jared (Allen) and B-Rob (Brian Robison) rushing the passer. That's how you stop him."
To date, six teams have taken a similar approach. Five of them, including each of the last four, have lost using that approach. Will the Vikings be the exception to that short-lived rule? Tune in Sunday to must-see Tebow TV.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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