Sometimes, when I'm bouncing around ideas on what would make a good topic to discuss, I find myself starting as many as four or five different articles. Sometimes, in the middle of this process, a sudden idea will strike, as if my wife or one of my kids had just thrown a brick at the back of my head.
Today, that brick connected once again when this thought hit me: John Fox is one of the wiliest head coaches I've ever seen. It was right there in front of me this whole time, but I did not see it until I'd read the avalanche of comments debating which player should be our starting quarterback and abruptly recalled two comments attributed to Coach Fox.
Take a jump with me and see where this goes.
Add into that group of memory moments all of the complaints about Orton in the red zone, Orton on third down, Tebow not playing with the first team, Quinn expressing his belief that he's finally getting an honest shot at competing for the starting position and it is not much of a stretch to believe that Coach Fox did what he did in the first exhibition game by deliberate design.
Is it that much of a stretch to believe that a veteran head coach like John Fox would not have heard all of the accusations about how Kyle Orton was not able to consistently convert third downs and how he was not able to consistently score touchdowns in the red zone? I don't think so.
Fox's solution regarding third downs? During Denver's first drive (and Orton's only drive), the Broncos faced two third downs. Both times, the Broncos called for a pass. The first was third and six at the Denver 24-yard line. The Broncos call a pass out of a shotgun formation. The result? A 29-yard pass and run to Eric Decker which converted a first down. The second: third and six at the Dallas 6-yard line. The Broncos called a pass on a designed roll out from the shotgun formation. The result, an incomplete pass thrown out of bounds to avoid a sack and/or a possible interception. The Broncos had to settle for a field goal. So Fox sees Orton convert one out of two third downs. Not particularly impressive, but not totally horrible either.
The solution for the red zone issue? During the Broncos' first drive, they ran the ball six straight times and moved it from the Dallas 39-yard line to the Dallas 3-yard line. They got to the 1-yard line on a defensive penalty. Then Fox has them call three straight passes. Yes, I know that the Broncos came out with a two tight end, two running back package after the incomplete pass on first down (the one that drew the twelve men in the huddle penalty), but I have a sneaking suspicion that Fox and McCoy would have gone ahead and called a pass out of that formation. I have this strange thought that Fox was willing to run the ball into the red zone, but then he wanted to see what Orton could do as a passer once he was there. Remember, Fox said he wanted to see the quarterbacks play in the exhibition games before he rendered judgement on them. The result is that he sees three straight incompletions -- whether you want to blame Orton for those or credit a strong defensive stand by the Cowboys (either case could be legitimately made) -- and Fox gets his first glimpse of Orton the passer in the red zone.
Before anyone gets bent out of shape over my calling Tebow an improvisor, please remember, John Fox said it first. It is also important to remember that Josh McDaniels, John Elway and John Fox have all said at one time or another they wanted to see if they can develop Tim Tebow into a pocket passer. I'm guessing that Fox was also interested to see what Tebow would do when things start to break down around him. Would he stand his ground and shift just enough to deliver a strike, or would he take off at the first opportunity and try to use his legs? What better way to assess whether he was going to use the pocket or take off by not giving him the best, most polished players on the team?
The first drive for Tebow was inconclusive. He was asked to pass twice -- one completion, one sack -- and had one designed run called. The Broncos punted after that drive. The second drive, he was in the shotgun formation -- usually a passing formation -- four times. He completed passes of 43, 12 and 7 yards and took off on a scramble up the middle for five yards when the pass protection broke down. That second drive netted a field goal for the Broncos.
Tim's third drive saw Tebow given passing plays three times. He threw a 10-yard completion on the first, an incompletion on the second, and took off around the left end for 13 yards on the third. The third drive also resulted in a punt.
Tebow had the chance for a fourth drive after Perrish Cox intercepted a Dallas pass and returned it to the Dallas 7 yard line. On the first play with one minute left, the Broncos lined up in a shotgun formation, apparently looking to pass. Tebow looked off the defenders then took off around the left end for seven yards. The touchdown was nullified by an offensive holding call. Tebow's second play was an incomplete pass. After a run, the Broncos again lined up in a shotgun formation at the Dallas 17 with 48 seconds left in the half. Tebow searched for an open receiver, then again sprinted out to the left side of the field, he eluded some would-be tacklers, reversed direction and eventually threw a 6 yard strike to Davis. Unfortunately, several things happened on that play as well. One lineman, apparently thinking Tebow was going to run (given that Tim had crossed the line of scrimmage) took off down the field to block and became an ineligible receiver down field when Tebow threw the ball. A second player, trying to protect his quarterback ended up throwing an illegal block above the waist. Finally, Tebow himself committed a penalty by crossing back behind the line of scrimmage to throw the ball to Davis and drawing a flag for an illegal forward pass. Dallas chose to decline all three penalties and force the Broncos to fourth down. The Broncos had to settle for a field goal.
Coach Fox most likely saw what he expected to see. Out of what may have been as many as eleven pass plays called, Tebow took off running with the ball on four occasions. Two of them saw him gain five and thirteen yards respectively. The other two resulted in a touchdown that was called back by a penalty and three offensive penalties called on one play, but all declined by Dallas to force fourth down. So Coach Fox undoubtedly saw mixed results: two scores, two punts, some strong gains, and some penalties. Overall all, pretty good but with some unfortunate miscues.
Brady Quinn went public with expressing the sentiment that he did not feel he got a fair shot under McDaniels to compete for the starting position. It would not surprise me in the least to discover that there was a strong element of the truth to that claim. Coach Fox most likely had heard that Quinn believed that he was starter quality and that he did not believe he had been given a chance to showcase what he could do. So what does Coach Fox do? He plays Orton for a series. He plays Tebow for four minutes in the first quarter and all of the second. Then he has Quinn play the entire second half.
Like Tebow, Quinn had the opportunity for four drives. Like Tebow, two of Quinn's drives ended in punts. Unlike the first half drives, Quinn was able to lead the Broncos on two drives that each netted a touchdown. The first gave the Broncos a 16-10 lead in the fourth quarter. The second gave them a 24-16 lead with just over 5:30 left in the game.
Now you can make as big (or little) an issue as you'd like about how Quinn was only playing against the Cowboys' scrubs. Of course, you would also have to admit that he was playing with the Broncos' scrubs as well . . . . But to focus on that is to miss the point. Coach Fox has lots of game film on Kyle Orton as a Broncos starter. He has three games' worth on Tim Tebow. He had zip on Brady Quinn as a starter for Denver. So, he gives Quinn the lions' share of the game time -- two full quarters compared to one quarter plus four minutes and compared to one drive -- in order to see what Quinn can do.
I think it is easy to see that Coach Fox, that wascally wabbit, set out to give the eye test to the the most talked about issues with each of his quarterbacks: Orton on third down and in the red zone, Tebow's alleged proclivity for improvisation and Quinn's lack of playing time to prove that he can be an effective starter. It will be interesting to see if Coach Fox follows a similar pattern when Buffalo comes to Denver on the 20th. It will also be interesting to see how any adjustments that are made this week in practice serve to improve the play of any or all three of Denver's quarterbacks.