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QB magic has a way of wearing off

Tim Tebow is coming to town. He'll be making his reads and checking them twice, on those rare occasions when he doesn't lock onto a receiver or take off running. Tebow is, of course, the biggest sports story in the nation, the greatest thing to hit the NFL since the forward pass -- an invention our God-fearing hero has set back decades.

Most Bills fans won't be able to witness today's Bills-Broncos clash because of the NFL's silly, antiquated blackout rule. Evidently, a lot of fans decided there were better ways to spend Christmas Eve day than watching two quarterbacks fire passes behind receivers. I thought people might show up just to see if Tebow had a halo instead of a helmet.

Oh, I'm drawn to the spectacle, in the same way that I'd be intrigued by a bridge demolition. It might not be especially picturesque, but you can't wait for the big moment to arrive. Who wouldn't want to see Tebow skip passes to his wideouts for three quarters, then lead a heroic charge to victory after the Denver defense kept him in the game?

Look, Tebow is a great Christian and a great story. Imagine what the crowd would look like today if, say, the Chiefs or Jaguars were in town. But from a pure football standpoint, I was a lot more excited to see Tom Brady early this year. Brady threw four interceptions (did that really happen?), but you knew you were in the presence of a truly great passer.

I've never thought of Tebow as a passer. He's a great leader, a winning, wonderful football player. But his arm strikes me as mainly an impediment. Tebow has completed 48.6 percent of his throws, the worst figure in the league. Those are pre-merger, Joe Kapp-like numbers. Last week, Tebow went 11 for 22 against the Patriots, who are ranked dead last in the league in pass defense, and critics were glowing about his progress.

Over one recent three-week stretch, Tebow was a combined 20-of-46 passing for 316 yards. Drew Brees has completed more than 20 passes in every game this season. Brees has passed for more than 316 yards in 11 of his 14 games. I know. Denver won all three games. The guy wins, like Doug Flutie in his glory days in Buffalo. Except Flutie was much better as a passer.

I agree with Boomer Esiason. Tebow isn't the long-term solution as the Broncos' quarterback. He's a charming curiosity, a guy you can root for. It's refreshing to see an athlete defy the narrow conventions of NFL coaching. Maybe more teams will develop running quarterbacks and mix in some option. But more than ever, it's a pocket passing league.

Tebow is a phenomenon in Denver, where he has re-energized the fan base. He's an immensely popular, winning quarterback. But management isn't sold, which puts the franchise in a difficult position. How much of a commitment can they make to a passer with such profound fundamental shortcomings? The pressure is enormous, but nine games isn't much of a sampling.

The notion is particularly resonant with Bills fans, many of whom are skeptical about Ryan Fitzpatrick's long-term prospects in Buffalo just two months after he got a six-year, $59 million contract. As it turns out, the Bills could pay Fitz $5 million in March and walk away from the rest of the deal.

Fitz put together a stunning seven-game stretch to open the season, completing 68 percent of his passes for 1,739 yards and 14 TDs as the Bills started 5-2. It was the performance of a franchise quarterback, and the Bills gave that kind of money. But Fitz has regressed badly during a seven-game losing streak, leading skeptics to believe the team panicked.

The Bills were smart to give themselves an out. The fact is, almost all NFL contracts have loopholes that allow teams to sever the relationship. If Fitz played through the 2013 season and was released, he would collect about $26 million. The Bills gave him a $10 million bonus when he signed the new deal. They would pay another $5 million if they cut him in March.

I can't see that happening. Fitzpatrick has been terrible lately, yes. He has struggled to make throws down the field. He's missing easy throws underneath. You wonder if he's pressing. He hasn't been the same guy since signing the new contract before the Washington game.

But he's still the best they have, their best chance to win games in the short term. Fitz put together a terrific 16-game stretch spanning the 2010-11 seasons, throwing 32 TD passes. He developed a strong bond with Chan Gailey and his offensive teammates. It would be foolish to throw that away without a better alternative. Fitz isn't the elite passer he appeared to be in September, but he's better than he showed over the last seven games.

Has Tebow been that much better? If you switched Fitz and Tebow, would their teams' record be any different over the past seven games? There's no way Tebow is pulling out any 13-10 and 16-13 games if he's playing with this sorry Bills defense. And if Fitz had the Denver running game and defense, he wouldn't have been trying to do too much and forcing bad throws.

If this sounds like a rationalization of Fitzpatrick's slump, so be it. The point is, things can be relative with NFL quarterbacks. Their play can be a product of circumstances. Tebow has a rare ability to lift the players around him. But he hasn't been asked to carry the offense with his arm. Fitz has, and he's simply not that sort of player.

The Bills need to draft a franchise quarterback at some point soon. They told Fitz that before last year's draft. If there's a guy they love sitting there in the first round, they should take him. But they probably won't draft high enough to take Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. Things got even tougher when Matt Barkley decided to stay at USC.

Fitz probably isn't going anywhere. In an interview with the Associated Press, owner Ralph Wilson gave him a vote of confidence, saying injuries and a lack of support have been largely responsible for his QB's slump. That doesn't account for Fitz's wayward throws, but he's been throwing to a lot of receivers who are marginal NFL wideouts at best.

Wilson said he's "not giving money away" and believes Fitz will rebound when the offense is healthy again. It sounds as if the owner is determined to get his money's worth. But the Bills can save a pile of money if Fitz continues to play like a backup. Sometimes, a magical nine-week stretch isn't quite what it seems.

The Broncos, I imagine, have taken notice.

jsullivan@buffnews.com