The Broncos had a 1-4 record last season when they headed into their bye week looking for a spark. John Fox decided to sit Kyle Orton in favor of fan favorite Tim Tebow and Tebow, producing far beyond his talent level, proceeded to lead the Broncos to a 7-4 finish down the stretch that got them into the playoffs. The ride continued with a wild-card victory over the Steelers and a divisional-playoff appearance before Bill Belichick and the Patriots shut down the circus attraction.
With the Jets’ offense sputtering in the red zone against Miami, respected voices such as Tony Dungy have gone on record as saying it’s time to make a change and reconstruct the offense during the Jets’ bye week to fit Tebow’s running talent — just as the Broncos did very well last season.
The problem with the Jets against Miami in Week Eight, however, had much more to do with a typically well-coached special-teams unit that terribly underperformed, including the sensational Tebow. As personal protector on the punt team backed up deep in his own territory early in the contest, he stepped up to block S Jonathan Amaya and allowed Dolphins S Jimmy Wilson to loop cleanly by him and swing momentum of the game with a special-teams score from Olivier Vernon, who recovered Wilson's blocked punt in the endzone.
For as hardworking and determined as Tebow is and as befuddled as Cam Newton has appeared reading defenses at times this season, Newton has received higher marks for his intelligence from those who worked with both of them at Florida. By living in the building and completely dedicating himself to the team, Tebow has continually found ways to overcome his own limitations, including understanding an NFL-style offense that he never played in college.
When Tebow first entered college, he popularized the quarterback jump pass as a situational, backup red-zone weapon behind Chris Leak. Where Tebow can spark the Jets most, as he did for the Gators as a freshman in 2006, is in the red zone, where the Jets could benefit from installing more play-action, rollout, bootleg option packages that allow the Jets to punch it in when the pressure turns up most.
On paper, the Jets beat the Dolphins in most categories and did not underperform anywhere near the lopsided 30-9 score. Serious special-teams miscues and a Sanchez tendency to birddog Stephen Hill in the red zone ultimately sealed the Jets’ fate. Sanchez has shown he can effectively dink and dunk the ball down the field with confidence-building play-calling that sets up the big strike. Where the Jets would benefit most is by finding a way to get Tebow more involved as a red-zone reliever, not at the expense of Sanchez, but rather as a well-timed complement, as Oklahoma effectively has done with the power-running Blake Bell spelling the easily rattled, pressure-panicked Landry Jones near the goal line. The element of surprise remains the Jets' greatest weapon with Tebow and introducing a special package of new plays to spark the offense at critical times will go further than a wholesale offensive revamping.
•While much can be read into Andy Reid losing for the first time in 14 years following a bye week, it is important to remember that the Falcons were also coming off an extra week of preparation and hold intimate knowledge of the enigmatic Michael Vick from his days in Atlanta. Also, the fact that the Eagles were still dealing with the transition to a new defensive coordinator was another key factor in the Eagles' loss. With an extra day to prepare for next week's contest against New Orleans on "Monday Night Football," the familiarity of playing against former Eagles defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and Reid looking to make a statement, expect the Saints to be even more overmatched against Vick next week than they were against Peyton Manning on Sunday night. Vick played one of the best games ever by any quarterback against Washington on a Monday night around this time two years ago (a 59-28 Eagles victory) and tends to be motivated by big stages. If he doesn't get it done next week, Nick Foles will get the chance to show that he is the first-round talent he was graded as by some NFL evaluators when he excelled as a junior in a vertical offense before he hurt his knee.
• The all-out way that Colts rookie RB Vick Ballard sacrificed his body as he pirouetted in air upside down while parallel to the ground to score the game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Titans is a testament to how Chuck-strong the young Indianapolis team has been playing. For a very young, rebuilding team to win 3-of-4 games against some quality competition without its head coach is a remarkable feat.
• The Dolphins' offensive line noticeably controlled the line of scrimmage against the Jets, who are one of the most stout defensive lines in football, as Dolphins second-year C Mike Pouncey did a very good job matching up one-on-one with Jets NT Sione Pouha. Outside of rookie ORT Jonathan Martin, who was the target of the overload blitz that knocked fellow rookie QB Ryan Tannehill out of the game, the Dolphins’ line has been one of the finest in the league, a key reason for their current three-game winning streak along with the well-devised pressure packages of underrated first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.
• The Lions, Bears and Cowboys have a similar look this season, with the type of explosive offenses needed to stack points on the board in a hurry and play from behind, a task teams without legitimately talented quarterbacks cannot do. For as slow-starting as they have tended to be on offense, they have shown they have the big-play weapons needed to close the gap in a hurry, as Tony Romo did in overcoming a 23-0 second-quarter deficit that they would have erased had Dez Bryant not braced for his fall while descending with the ball in the endzone in the final seconds. The Lions, with the game’s most explosive big-play weapon (Calvin Johnson) and one of the strongest-armed gunslingers (Matthew Stafford), have come to be defined by signature second-half comebacks during the Jim Schwartz era. Of the three, only the Bears have been able to parlay the formula into a winning record, thanks to the game’s most explosive scoring defense. As poorly as Jay Cutler played and the offensive line protected against Carolina — generating a mere 210 yards of offense as the edges collapsed while Cutler held onto the ball excessively — the Bears were able to rally from a 19-7 fourth-quarter deficit because of the strength of their defense.
• It has been rumored for years that Bill Cowher, who settled down in North Carolina, would be the successor to John Fox in Carolina. With Marty Hurney already in place and Cowher’s desire to oversee his own front-office regime a la Bill Belichick, Jeff Fisher and the more established coaches in the league, it never materialized. One requisite for the job for Cowher, after the Steelers won a Super Bowl upon Ben Roethlisberger’s arrival, was that a quarterback be in place, a need the Panthers did not have filled when Ron Rivera (now 7-16 as the team's head coach) was hired. Cam Newton is more physically gifted than Roethlisberger, who was able to succeed in Pittsburgh initially with a very simplified playbook and a strong running game. Although reports have emerged of the use of a consulting firm to replace Hurney, one might not be needed with Cowher already working outside the league, where many top candidates appear to be coming from.
Former Eagles and Bears personnel man Bobby DePaul, the man most responsible for bringing Rivera to Chicago, also remains available, after taking a position as a coach/personnel boss in the UFL, which coincidentally suspended operations days before Hurney was released. Former Raiders personnel man Mike Lombardi, who is expected to land back in a personnel role this offseason, and Jon Gruden, who shared a short stint in Philadelphia with DePaul and Lombardi, also remains available and is believed in personnel circles to be the front-runner for the Cowboys' head-coaching job if Jerry Jones decides to part ways with a struggling Jason Garrett. Gruden was one of the few coaches who have had success working for Al Davis, the owner most similarly hands-on and meddlesome as Jones, and Gruden has been overly effusive in his praise of Jones and the Cowboys in his coverage of the team on ESPN’s "Monday Night Football" broadcasts.
Don’t be surprised if many of the NFL’s rock-star list of out-of-league candidates find a way back into the league this offseason, with many interested in controlling personnel and as many as five GMs (Cleveland, Kansas City, Jacksonville, San Diego and the New York Jets) with sub-.500 records all facing closer scrutiny than ever in an age of increasing accountability.