John Elway gave Kyle Orton(notes) his freedom on Tuesday, allowing the Broncos' former franchise quarterback another shot at starting – and, it turns out, paving the way for a return trip to Denver on the final Sunday of the regular season.
Think about that: Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president, released a player who, in theory, could lead the Chiefs past the Broncos in a game with potential AFC West title implications. I know it's not likely, but it could happen, and I can't think of another NFL powerbroker who would have taken the chance.
The Chiefs claimed Orton off waivers Wednesday, beating out two other teams, the Cowboys and Bears, for the right to secure his services for the remainder of the season. Orton's reported destination of choice was Chicago, where he spent the first four seasons of his career before being shipped to Denver in the Jay Cutler(notes) trade.
The Bears (7-3), who just lost Cutler for a reported six to eight weeks to a broken thumb on his passing hand, are fighting for an NFC wild-card berth. The Broncos (5-5), who've won four of five games since Tim Tebow replaced Orton, are just a game behind the AFC West-leading Raiders, who they defeated earlier this month, and a game ahead of the 4-6 Chargers and Chiefs. Given that Denver hosts Chicago at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Dec. 11, exposing Orton to a potential return to the Bears also carried a degree of risk.
Some of you are undoubtedly wondering: What the heck was Elway thinking?
After all, this was not a move Bill Belichick, Bill Polian or most other NFL powerbrokers would make. The aforementioned Bill B. and Bill P. would have viewed the situation only from their respective teams' perspectives. Were either in charge of the Broncos, he'd have reasoned that the remote possibility of Tebow and backup Brady Quinn both getting injured necessitated the retention of Orton, so long as the team had playoff life. Certainly, the possibility that a team theoretically competing with the Broncos for a division title, and/or one that comes to Denver later in the season, could benefit from Orton's services would serve as further disincentive.
Elway didn't care, sending Orton on his way and sending a message in the process. That message has been interpreted by some as a demonstration of the franchise's commitment to Tebow as its long-term quarterback. I have my doubts – more on those in a moment.
Personally, I believe Elway was saying something entirely different. To sum it up in two words: Sorry, bro.
Orton, as Elway knows, has been a casualty of the Tebowmania that has swept through the Rocky Mountains during this strange season, complete with a billboard calling for a quarterback switch in September.
Granted, Orton's poor play led to his benching, and Tebow's uncanny success despite unsightly passing performances solidified the rationale behind the transition. Orton, whose contract expires after this season, was clearly done in Denver; had Tebow, a 2010 first-round draft pick, been less successful, the plan was to evaluate Quinn for the team's remaining games.
By all accounts Orton handled his demotion admirably – Elway called him "an absolute pro" in a statement Tuesday – and did his best to support Tebow, as awkward as the situation may have been. Orton's camp, in the wake of Cutler's injury last Sunday, expressed the quarterback's desire to secure his freedom. Elway, I believe, decided to do him a solid, partly because he felt it was the right thing to do, and partly because of his unique perspective.
As a former quarterback, not to mention one of the best ever to play the position, Elway surely understands the pressures and psyche inherent to the job description. He also knows that people who truly comprehend football – himself included – are unnerved by the notion that someone so obviously deficient at an essential element of his job (delivering passes with accuracy and consistency) is being given an opportunity that requires a complete departure from established offensive philosophies to have a prayer of working.
On some level, I think Elway feels badly that Orton has been swept out by this sea change, even though there was a valid impetus for its occurrence: Because the prior regime (led by ex-coach Josh McDaniels) traded up to get Tebow in the first round, there's a substantial investment in finding out whether he can be a legitimate NFL starter over the long haul.
In most cases, the semi-encouraging early results – along with the extreme popularity of the quarterback in question – would create enough momentum that the move toward Tebow as long-term starter had already begun. I don't think that's the case here, and I'm skeptical that it will ever happen, even if the Broncos win the division.
I feel this way because Elway is running the show, and he possesses both the standing to tune out fan-generated hysteria and the unsurpassed knowledge of what a true franchise quarterback looks like.
To the former point: Elway is a living legend who guided the Broncos to five of their six Super Bowl appearances, and their only two championships. In addition to being an unrivaled talent, he was a hard-working coach's son revered for his toughness and lack of pretense in the locker room. He stood tall against critics who said he couldn't win the Big One and in the pocket against Reggie White, Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott and other Hall of Fame defenders hell-bent on blasting him into submission. The Tebowites may be vocal, and they may be feisty, but they won't intimidate him.
Elway was a highly successful businessman before Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, with whom he is close, convinced him to come run the football side of the organization last January. I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that he's not overly scared of getting fired. If that happens – guess what? He's still John Elway.
I've known Elway for a long time, and one of the things I appreciate most about him is his honesty. So I wasn't surprised when, on Monday morning, Elway said on his weekly radio show on Denver's 102.3 FM that even after watching Tebow win three consecutive games, he wasn't any closer to determining whether he's found a quarterback for the long haul.
Not insignificantly, Elway then pointed to the Broncos' 3-of-13 third-down conversion rate in last Thursday's 17-13 victory over the Jets as an obvious problem area, saying, "When you look at our third down numbers, those have to improve. I mean, that's the bottom line. We can't go 3-for-13 and win a world championship."
That may seem like nitpicking to outsiders, but to players, coaches and talent evaluators, the distinction makes perfect sense. Quarterbacking is a craft, and attempting to master it requires meticulous attention to detail over a prolonged period. Even the quarterbacks playing at the highest level right now – hell, especially Aaron Rodgers(notes), Tom Brady(notes) and Drew Brees(notes) – try to improve their mechanics, cognition and timing on a constant basis.
Elway was once one of those guys, and he knows what greatness requires. And while Tebow is certainly an admirable case study with some obvious redeeming qualities that allow him to transcend his physical skill set, he's still not someone you trust to get the ball to the right place on third-and-8, and that's a problem. Eventually, he won't be able to rely on running for those yards, or to count on his defense preventing opponents from rolling out to big leads. And that, unless Tebow diligently and dramatically improves his passing and grasp of offensive strategy, will become a severe liability.
The bottom line: Tebow is proving that you can tear it up in the weight room and on the treadmill, run through arm tackles and block out negativity, and parlay faith and will and leadership and preternatural calm into some unlikely triumphs on the highest level. That, however, does not make you a great quarterback, or even a viable one at the NFL level – especially when the person charged with making that assessment had all of those same qualities and spent an athletic lifetime sharpening his skills.
[Related: Jake Plummer's advice for Tim Tebow]
So yes, Elway is dubious, and it's quite possible he'll try to trade Tebow after the season and go after one of the many enticing quarterbacks who'll be available in the draft. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, though you can bet that with Tebow still on the roster, any agent representing a top quarterbacking prospect would do everything in his power to talk Elway out of drafting his client, in order to spare the kid life as a villain in a WWF-style melodrama.
Getting rid of Tebow would be highly unpopular, but it wouldn't be overly surprising. Consider what Elway told me in August: "Obviously, there is an investment, and there will always be an investment in first-round picks. But the bottom line is, our responsibility is to do the best we can to win football games, and we've got to figure out the best thing to do to accomplish that. And I think ultimately that's what fans want."
On Tuesday, Elway had the conviction to give Orton what he wanted, even though there were organizational arguments against making such a move. The Chiefs got a potential alternative to Tyler Palko in the wake of Matt Cassel's season-ending injury. The Broncos received a reported $2.58 million rebate on Orton's $9.89 million salary, but little more.
If the Tebowites want to view this as a sign of Elway's devotion to the current starter, that's their prerogative – but that assessment would be as inaccurate as most of their hero's medium-range passes.
Now allow me to throw two-dozen-plus-eight queries at your waiting eyes and take you on a top-to-bottom trip through the league you love:
[ Related: Bears to use Tebow offense with Caleb Hanie? ]
14. Cincinnati Bengals: If Jermaine Gresham(notes) had done a complete somersault after grabbing that fourth-quarter pass in the end zone, then placed the ball gently on the ground upon landing, would it still have been ruled an incomplete pass?
15. Philadelphia Eagles: What's more surprising – that Vince Young led the Eagles on an 18-play drive for the winning points against the Giants or that half of those plays called by Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg were runs?
21. Seattle Seahawks: Given that Sidney Rice(notes) had 20 more passing yards than receiving yards against the Rams, is it fair to conclude that the explosive (and expensive) wideout could be targeted more?
25. Carolina Panthers: Given that the uniform numbers of Cam Newton(notes), Jimmy Clausen(notes) and Derek Anderson(notes) mirror their positions on the depth chart, is there any chance the Panthers will try to sign Brett Favre as their fourth-string quarterback?
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- John Elway
- Tim Tebow