Karl Mecklenburg piled up 79.5 sacks with the Denver Broncos, and he doesn’t hesitate to tackle the notion that his former team’s mission will fall incomplete with unconventional Tim Tebow at quarterback.
Mecklenburg was initially a 245-pound nose-guard in the NFL. He eventually played every position in the box of the defensive front seven, and it isn’t difficult for a linebacker wearing No. 77 to think outside the box.
“Two-hundred and forty-five pound nose guards don’t last very long in the NFL,” Mecklenburg said while in town Friday to speak at the Salvation Army’s annual Souper Bowl luncheon at the Holiday Inn. “I got switched out to defensive end and made the team as a pass rusher. Then my third year in the league, they finally switched me to linebacker. I played six games that year as a linebacker for the Denver Broncos, and my seventh game was in the Pro Bowl as a linebacker.”
It was the first of six Pro Bowls for Mecklenburg.
“That’s who I was; I was a linebacker,” he said. “It took a coach. It took some support. It took a team to realize … let’s put him over here, and then things took off. … It was the fact that they were willing to take a chance and allow me to try something new, to step outside of my comfort zone and switch me over to linebacker and give me the courage to say, ‘This is what’s best for the team.’
“You saw a lot of the same stuff with Tebow this year, when the coaches said, ‘You know what, you’re not where you belong. You’re in this drop-back passing system. Let me build a system around you that meets your strengths and the strengths of this team. And then you’re gonna have a chance to succeed.’”
Tebow’s relatively slow release — the amount of time it takes the ball to leave a quarterback’s hand once he decides where he’s throwing it — won’t be confused with that of Dan Marino and his throwing motion isn’t likely to ever be as aesthetically pleasing as Denver executive vice president John Elway’s was. But Mecklenburg believes Tebow’s potential is well worth pursuing when you factor in his rare leadership qualities.
“If they can’t teach him how to do the mechanical things for football, then that’s the coaches’ fault, in my mind,” Mecklenburg said. “He’s got all the characteristics that you want from a great leader. He’s enthusiastic. He cares about his teammates. He’s committed. He’s clear. He’s consistent. He’s an unbelievable leader.”
Learning to lead at a high level was the best professional preparation Tebow got during his college career at ground-oriented Florida.
“It takes time to understand what a defense is trying to do to you,” Mecklenburg said. “Today’s game is more and more about passing. More and more, the defenses are going to disguise what they’re doing. And for a young quarterback to come in and be successful, especially out of a running system, is very difficult.
“But he’s a hard-working guy, he’s a smart guy. I’ve never seen an individual handle the pressure and the press as expertly as he does, and you can’t do that unless you have some pretty good smarts.”
Mecklenburg recalled Bernie Kosar’s quirks. The Cleveland Browns quarterback didn’t fit the prototype, but the immobile side-armer would’ve reached two Super Bowls if not for Mecklenburg, Elway and company.
Denver beat the Browns in back-to-back AFC championship games in January of 1987 and ’88. The first victory, a 23-20 comeback win in which Elway threw a touchdown pass to Mark Jackson with 37 seconds left to cap with ‘The Drive,’ was in Cleveland’s Dog Pound, and fans had been hounding the Broncos since their plane landed at the airport.
“There were people waiting outside the gait barking at us and throwing Milk-Bones at us,” Mecklenburg said. “They followed us to our hotel, drove around our hotel all night long honking their horns trying to keep us awake. The dog bones were four or five inches deep on our sideline. They were throwing dog bones at us all game long.
“Actually, the equipment manager scooped up a bunch of them and I brought home two big garbage bags full of dog bones for my dogs after that game. It was as hostile a crowd as I’ve ever seen, and to go in under those circumstances and band together as a team and win that thing was pretty amazing.”
Marty Schottenheimer’s Browns included Bob Golic, Clay Matthews, Carl Hairston and confident cornerbacks Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon on defense, and Webster Slaughter and Ozzie Newsome caught plenty of passes from Kosar.
“Kosar had the craziest thing (release) ever,” Mecklenburg said. “He’d be looking at you and you’d think you could jump up in front of him and block the ball, and he’d throw that thing — it was always kind of sideways. But he’d get it there, and it was accurate.”
Denver beat the Browns 38-33 in Denver in the following year’s AFC title game thanks to another late TD pass from Elway. The Broncos had such players as linebacker Tom Jackson and safety Dennis Smith.
“It’s amazing to me that they (the Browns) never did get to a Super Bowl,” Mecklenburg said. “They just kept running into us. They were a tremendous team, especially defensively, but they had good players on both sides of the ball.”
Mecklenburg played in three Super Bowls. Denver lost big in all three — to San Francisco, Washington and — after that epic victory in Cleveland — the New York Giants. Perhaps that shed some light on which team he would’ve rather seen win this year’s Super Bowl.
“I played 12 years in the NFL and never lost to New England,” he said. “They were not very good. They’re a hard-working group. (Bill) Belichick’s a great coach, and had those guys prepared. They played their best game and couldn’t beat the Giants. …
“I thought it was a well-played Super Bowl. The (NFC and AFC) championship games … you could look at those games and say somebody lost the game. But the Super Bowl, you know, the Giants stepped up and won that thing.”