Ex-Gator stars to face off
By Dave Campbell
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- Percy Harvin was Tim Tebow's flashy sidekick at Florida, where they ran coach Urban Meyer's potent spread system together and made many a Saturday afternoon miserable for opposing defenses.
"Man, they were a load. They were the offense. It was a tough combination," said Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford, who played against them at Mississippi.
They're still a challenge to tackle in the pros, as unconventional as the skill sets of each of these former Gators might be for their respective positions. This weekend, Tebow's and Harvin's teams will face each other for the first time when the Denver Broncos (6-5) travel to Minnesota (2-9).
Tebow's atypical style has become the story of the season, with the Broncos 5-1 since he took over as the starter in mid-October despite an average of 10 completed passes per game in that stretch.
He became famous from a Heisman Trophy award and two national championships in college, plus an unabashed profession of Christian faith that has either inspired or offended everyone who has watched him play or heard him speak, judging by the cultural polarization surrounding his profile. But the football part of all this Tebow talk is whether a run-first quarterback with a so-far inaccurate throwing arm can sustain such success for more than a few months.
There are several reasons why the option is a scheme that's been used effectively by college teams but not in the NFL.
"I'm not sure," Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson said, asked why the Broncos are thriving with an offense that's not supposed to work. "I was one of those guys that said the same thing, just because of the amount of time your quarterback is going to get hit. But maybe they're successful because of the durability of Tebow, him being a bigger guy and having a running back size compared to a normal quarterback."
At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, Tebow packs a punch, and he's faster than a fullback. He ran the ball 22 times last week in a win over San Diego, the most in a game by an NFL quarterback since 1950. Sanford said he thought he was done defending the option when he left college.
"He's strong, really one of strongest guys I've ever come across, especially at quarterback," Sanford said. "He's really like a tailback. When you come to tackle him, you better pack your lunch."
Willis McGahee has been running the ball well, Eric Decker is a sure-handed, big-play wide receiver and without sound blocking by the offensive line Tebow wouldn't be able to find so much room. He has rushed for 455 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per attempt.
Then there's Denver's rapidly improving defense, which has kept the games close enough for the young quarterback to come through in the end. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil have formed one of the fiercest pass-rushing duos in the league.
As a passer, Tebow has misfired often, particularly over the first three quarters of games. Compared to rocket-armed peers like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, his delivery is ugly.
But Tebow's ardent detractors can't deny his grit, his confidence and his ability to make a big play when it counts. His fourth quarter passer rating is 107.8, fourth in the NFL behind Eli Manning, Rodgers and Brady. That statistic doesn't even take running into account.
"We don't want to be the first team to flinch. We want to keep swinging, and eventually something good is going to happen," Tebow said.
Broncos coach John Fox, naturally, hasn't bothered to consider the traditional mold of a modern-day starting NFL quarterback. He and his coaching staff tailored the option-fueled offense around Tebow's strength, and the results have certainly not prompted any regret.
Tebow has thrown only one interception and lost one fumble over 143 passing attempts and 78 rushing attempts.
"I just know he moves our team and he finds ways to win late. I don't know what style we have to have, but that style works for me," Fox said.
Harvin is a hybrid himself, though he hasn't found the scrutiny or criticism his former college teammate has.
The 5-foot-11, 184-pound wide receiver does a lot more than just receive for the Vikings, as he did for the Gators. He has already broken the franchise record for yards rushing by a wide receiver, with 466 in just 40 NFL games. More than half of those have come this year, whether by lining up in the backfield to give Adrian Peterson a break or taking a pitch on an end-around play.
"He has no regard for his body whenever he plays. He's a dynamic athlete. Small in stature, but big in heart. He plays hard. Never stops his feet. Takes hits. Delivers hits, even if he's blocking as a receiver and cracking down on a guy he delivers hits all game long. He's just a great player and everybody appreciates his effort," teammate Toby Gerhart said.
Harvin is pound for pound one of the team's best blockers, a skill he developed by necessity at Florida with a running quarterback. He's a kickoff returner with touchdown potential, too, with one score and a 104-yard return on his resume this year.
"He can even line at quarterback, probably," Tebow said. "I know he would probably say so at least, too. He can do everything. I know he always has a great attitude about helping the team."
The Vikings put two more defensive backs on injured reserve this week. Could he play safety?
"Nah, I'll stick to the offensive side," Harvin said, smiling. "People have just got to step up, and we've got to go play."