Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, left, is congratulated by coach… (Joe Amon / Associated Press )
From Denver — The division-leading Denver Broncos passed a significant milestone this week, although it probably escaped the notice of most everyone at team headquarters. It was a year ago Tuesday that the Broncos fired Josh McDaniels as coach, setting the stage for the hiring of John Elway and John Fox.
So far, that move has worked out well, as the Broncos and Oakland are atop the AFC West with four games left in the regular season, and Denver has the tiebreaker against the Raiders.
"If you look at where we were a year ago, that's probably the lowest point since Pat Bowlen owned the team," said Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback who now runs the front office. "Having lived in this community before I got the job, because I was out there and saw it, everybody kind of lost interest in what the Broncos were all about. That had never happened here before, because there's such a great following with this team, not only in Denver but in the whole Rocky Mountain region."
That's hard to imagine now, considering how the interest level in the team locally and nationally has once again reached dizzying heights.
A lot of that interest is driven by quarterback Tim Tebow, of course, and his string of spectacular finishes. But Denver's refashioned defense deserves as much of the credit, with No. 2 pick Von Miller making a compelling case for defensive rookie of the year.
The Broncos (7-5), who play host to Chicago on Sunday, could become the seventh team in NFL history to make the postseason despite a 1-4 start. This was a franchise that had utterly collapsed after winning its first six games under McDaniels, going 6-22 in the 1 1/2 seasons that followed.
Now, the team has five consecutive road victories, something the Broncos hadn't done since 1998, when Elway was quarterback.
"There were some growing pains," said Fox, who transformed the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3. "Then, we started to click. When you know what you're doing, you play a lot faster."
Elway pinpoints Week 7, that dramatic victory at Miami when Tebow made his first start of the season, as the day the defense began playing as a cohesive unit. It might have come together sooner, he reasons, but the lockout and compressed off-season had everyone running behind.
"It was such an odd off-season because John didn't even get a chance to meet the players until they got to camp," said Elway, sitting in his second-story office at team headquarters. "That's one of his great traits. He has the ability to get the most out of each guy because he has a personal relationship with each one of them."
One of the amazing things about the up-from-the-ashes rise of the Broncos is that they defied the widely held belief that teams with an established coach and quarterback would have a huge advantage this season. In some cases — such as Green Bay and New Orleans — that's true. But the New York Jets couldn't argue that, nor could Philadelphia or San Diego.
Then consider San Francisco, Oakland and Denver, teams with new coaches and uncertainty or change at quarterback. The 49ers have already won the NFC West. The Raiders have a new coach and quarterback, in Hue Jackson and Carson Palmer, as do the Broncos, who began the season with Tebow as the third-stringer.
This season's coach-of-the-year award probably will go to newcomer Jim Harbaugh, who resurrected the 49ers with essentially the same cast of players, directing them back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002; or to Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, who has not only dodged the Super Bowl hangover but is four wins away from the second 16-0 regular season in NFL history.
Fox is among the coaches who should be in that discussion too, even if what he has accomplished so far falls short of what's happening in San Francisco and Green Bay. He has done an outstanding job of making the Broncos relevant again, and he and his staff have adapted the offense to best suit an unconventional quarterback.
The Broncos aren't the first franchise to do a U-turn under Fox. Carolina was 1-15 the season before he got there, 7-9 in his first year, and in the Super Bowl at the end of his second. His nine-season career in Carolina ended with a fizzle, though, with the Panthers going 2-14 in 2010.
Said Elway: "He had something to prove when he came here."
So far, with the season heading into the stretch run, he's proving it.