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Denver Broncos’ Tim Tebow: yea and nay

Denver Broncos Coach John Fox wasn’t looking for a message from above nudging him to start quarterback Tim Tebow. But he got one, anyway.

There, towering over an industrial park about 20 miles north of team headquarters, was an electronic billboard with the words “BRONCOS FANS TO JOHN FOX: PLAY TEBOW!!”

The billboard is owned by Multiline International Imports, which posted the message in late September, when the Broncos were in the midst of losing four of their first five games with quarterback Kyle Orton at the helm. When Tebow was named the starter two weeks ago, the sign was changed accordingly to “NATIONAL TIM TEBOW DAY,” beside a picture of him.

“This could be the guy to save the team,” said Mohammad Suleiman of Multiline. “Why wouldn’t you try him out?”

Others have a very different perspective. Denver, they say, is a city torn asunder by the strangest of quarterback controversies. A large segment of Broncos fans don’t want Tebow at quarterback … but they also aren’t clamoring for either Orton or Brady Quinn to take over the job.

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“This is the most divided fan base in professional sports right now, and certainly more divided than the Bronco fan base has ever been in my experience,” said Sandy Clough, a sports radio host for Denver’s 104.3 the Fan. “There have been other controversies, but this is a level above.”

Explained Broncos fan Eric Williams of Boulder: “There’s the Tebow base and the Broncos base. It’s one side saying, ‘We want the Broncos to win,’ and the other side saying, ‘We want Tebow to win.’ ”

Two games after Tebow’s promotion to starter, his legions of supporters are sounding less strident by the day. They are still there, the so-called Tebow Nation, but a couple of shaky games — a mostly sloppy come-from-behind victory at Miami and a 35-point home loss to Detroit — have given voice to masses of Broncos fans who want him back on the bench. The Broncos play at Oakland on Sunday.

“Even for people who were a little bit giddy about Tebow, the Lions game was kind of a cold slap in the face,” Clough said. “The temperature changed. It went from 80 degrees to 20 below zero.”

Bundling against the cold spell is Fox, in his first year in Denver after eight seasons as coach of the Carolina Panthers. He wasn’t the one who traded back into the first round in 2010 to pick Tebow — that was since-fired Josh McDaniels — but Fox bristles at the suggestion he hasn’t pulled out the stops to try to ensure Tebow is successful.

“As a coach or decision-maker in an NFL building, you don’t care what round they’re drafted in, you don’t care who drafted them,” Fox said. “You don’t care if they’re short, fat, whatever. You just care: Can they play? So all that other stuff is poppycock.

“The problem is, there’s so much misinformation. For people that study it, you’d see that we’ve probably had more shotgun or spread offense than anybody in the league over the last two weeks. We’re up 30% of what we were in the first four games.

“The goofy thing is, it’s almost like if he doesn’t have success it will be anybody’s fault but his. It’s almost that kind of polarizing thing. They’ll say it could be his supporting cast, or the type of plays. At the end of the day, we are what we are. We’re doing everything we can to win, and we’re finding out about a young quarterback, good, bad or indifferent.”

John Elway, president of the Broncos, has stuck to the script on Tebow. Elway thinks Tebow has potential to be a good quarterback, but it will take time.

“Tim Tebow is a darn good football player,” Elway said. “What we have to make him is a darn good quarterback.”

When it comes to Tebow, there are precious few fans and observers sitting on the fence. Just about everyone has an opinion — and that’s not simply limited to those who typically keep an eye on the Broncos.

“I haven’t seen anything quite like this,” said NBC’s Tony Dungy, a “Football Night in America” analyst. “It’s not just Broncos fans, which you can kind of understand. But I’ve never seen people from all over the country care so much about who’s going to be the quarterback for a team that they might not even be interested in.”

Tebow’s straight-arrow personality, undeniable charisma, and very public devotion to Christianity — coupled with his astounding success at the University of Florida — have won him fans from coast to coast. He won one Heisman Trophy and was a finalist for two more. From shortly after he was selected in the first round of the 2010 draft until the start of training camp this summer, his was the NFL’s top-selling jersey. His autobiography, “Through My Eyes,” was published in late May. His 2010 documentary “Tim Tebow: Everything in Between” will be released Tuesday. Local viewership for Broncos games is more than 15% higher with Tebow starting than it was at the end of last season.

“He’s a rock star, plain and simple,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “He takes it so humbly. You can’t even tell he’s achieved some of the success that he’s had.”

The quarterback’s habit of dropping to a knee while teammates celebrate around him has even sparked the Internet-driven fad of “Tebowing,” with fans submitting photos of themselves genuflecting in all sorts of random situations. There was an organized Tebowing before the last home game, with about 30 fans kneeling for a picture near an entrance to Invesco Field.

Tebowing took on a different tone during the game, when Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch celebrated a sack by mockingly dropping to a knee and lowering his head.

“I blame [Tebow’s] supporters as much as anybody,” CBS analyst and former Super Bowl quarterback Phil Simms said. “Because their support was so outspoken, it made people mad.

“It’s so out there that it infuriates the players. Guys want a piece of him. It motivates players to play harder, to hit him. I noticed it in preseason games when he got in. I noticed it against the Arizona Cardinals; they were giving him the business.”

Tebow, in his poised and measured way, didn’t flinch this week when asked about Tulloch’s celebration.

“You don’t know someone’s intentions, so you don’t want to judge,” he said. “I won’t judge what he did. He was probably just having fun and was excited he made a good play and had a sack. And good for him.”

Many people, Simms among them, believe that analysts and former players have been too harsh in their pointed criticism of Tebow, that he’s held to a higher standard than other young quarterbacks.

“Why did we all predict, with such clearness, the yes or no on Tim Tebow?” Simms said. “I don’t remember doing that with any other quarterback. I don’t remember people coming to me and saying, ‘Sam Bradford: Is he going to succeed or fail? Give me an answer now.’

“All of a sudden Tim comes out and now you have to declare basically: ‘Are you with him or against him? We want to know.’ ”

Experts routinely pick apart his footwork, his drawn-out throwing motion, his decision-making that seems a hiccup slow. He has been sacked 13 times in his two starts. In a report this week, Yahoo sports columnist Michael Silver quoted unnamed Detroit players sharply criticizing Tebow in the wake of the Lions’ 45-10 victory.

“Can you believe 15?” a player told Silver in the story, referring to Tebow’s jersey number. “Come on — that’s embarrassing. I mean, it’s a joke. We knew all week that if we brought any kind of defensive pressure, he couldn’t do anything. In the second half, it got boring out there. We were like, ‘Come on — that’s your quarterback? Seriously?’ ”

Asked about those comments and others in the story like them, the unflappable Tebow said: “You can’t listen to what other people say. Because you’re going to have people that praise you and people that criticize you, and everything in between.

“If I listened to everything that you all say, then my world would be so up and down. But I’m grounded by my faith, my family, and that’s what grounds me. Football’s what I do for a living and what I do for fun. If I rode the roller coaster of what everybody says about me, then my life would be a lot more hectic than it really is.”

As a lifelong Broncos fan who as a high school senior had a job dancing in a horse suit as the team mascot “Huddles,” even Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has an opinion on the Tebow experiment.

“My thought was, as a fan, let’s see what we have,” he said. “Let’s by the end of this year determine if he’s the player of the future for this team or not. If not, we move on. If he is, then we make the investment and put a team around him to hopefully get us in the playoffs in a couple years.”

Hancock added with a laugh that there’s one thing about Tebow that relieves him.

“I’m grateful,” the mayor said, “that he’s not running for office.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer


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