An electronic billboard in Denver flashes some advice for Broncos Coach… (Karl Gehring / Denver Post )
Reporting from Denver — 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.
"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.