ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The young quarterback dropped back smoothly in the pocket, looked off the safety and dropped a gorgeous touch pass over the coverage and into the corner of the end zone. His surprised target came out of his break to see the ball arcing downward, and reached up to snatch it just beyond a cornerback's flailing arms.
Wooooooooooo! numerous Denver Broncos players exclaimed in unison, marveling at the inexperienced passer's chutzpah and skill.
"He threw that ball before the receiver made his cut, and it came down in the dude's hands like, ‘Merry Christmas,' " Pro Bowl wideout Brandon Lloyd(notes) recalled Monday. "He's thrown four or five passes like that in camp where it's been like … whoa. Weber's got personality, and he's got some swag about him, too."
If you're wondering about the plight of that other inexperienced passer on the Broncos' roster – how far and fast he has fallen in the eyes of his bosses – consider that at least some people in the organization believe that Tim Tebow(notes) is the fourth-best quarterback on the roster.
As one highly knowledgeable member of the organization told me Monday: "If everything was totally equal, and this were a competition based only on performance at this camp, Tebow would probably be the fourth-string guy. Kyle [Orton] is far and away the best, and Tebow's way behind [Brady] Quinn too. And I'm telling you, Adam Weber is flat-out better right now."
Translation: Tebow, you're not in Florida anymore.
[Related: Is Brady Quinn usurping Tim Tebow's role?]
Granted, some caveats are in order. Because things are not even close to equal, Tebow, for whom the Broncos traded up to select in the first round of the 2010 draft, would seem to be in very little danger of being beaten out by Weber, a four-year starter for the Golden Gophers who signed just after the lockout ended late last month and has "practice squad" written all over him.
Technically, even after Broncos coach John Fox's announcement Monday that Orton has retained the starting job for a third consecutive season, Tebow remains in a battle with Quinn for the No. 2 spot. Realistically, given the regime change that began last December with the firing of coach Josh McDaniels and continued in January with the hiring of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway as executive vice president of football operations, Tebow will likely spend his second season in Denver as a third-stringer with a highly uncertain future.
Less than a month after the Broncos nearly traded Orton to the Miami Dolphins with the idea of handing over the offense to the former University of Florida star, the bottom line is that Tebow, one of the most accomplished and beloved players in college football history, remains popular in the Mile High City only in the eyes of his legions of adoring fans. He has lost his guardian angel (McDaniels), and harps no longer play when he enters the huddle.
"Obviously, there is an investment, and there will always be an investment in first-round picks," Elway said Monday. "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."
That means Orton, who threw for 3,653 yards and 20 touchdowns in 13 games last season – and served up only nine interceptions in 498 attempts – is in no danger of getting supplanted by the kid drafted to dispossess him of his job.
This is a remarkable turn of events from last season, when Tebow started the last three games and engineered an impressive comeback triumph over the Houston Texans. Trailing 17-0 at the half, Tebow went on a passing rampage, throwing for 308 yards, and scored on a 6-yard run with three minutes remaining to give Denver a 24-23 triumph, the Broncos' fourth and final victory of a miserable season.
With the lockout depriving Elway, Fox and general manager Brian Xanders of the chance to evaluate their returning quarterbacks in minicamps and OTAs, the notion of trading Orton seemed like a viable one in late July, and talks commenced between the Broncos and Dolphins.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations, Miami offered a fourth-round pick in the 2012 draft for Orton, while Denver insisted on a third-round selection, and a stare down commenced. Orton, due to make $8.9 million in 2011, wanted his contract renegotiated to ensure that the Dolphins viewed him as their clear-cut starter, and Miami held firm on that front, too.
Meanwhile, both teams began training camp, and it soon became clear that Orton was a mile high above Tebow in his coaches' estimation. While Dolphins fans reacted to incumbent quarterback Chad Henne's(notes) camp struggles by chanting, "We Want Orton," Broncos coaches were privately whispering, "We got lucky."
As one high-ranking member of the Broncos' organization said Monday: "Sometimes the best things that happen to you in life are the things that don't happen."
Sources say the Broncos view Tebow as a major project who was negatively impacted by the lack of an offseason. Having operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun in college, he still lacks smoothness when taking snaps directly from center: Whereas the Broncos' other three quarterbacks anticipate the snap and are already into their drop upon receiving it, Tebow typically is locked in place, meaning he's already behind in his timing upon the beginning of a play.
For all the talk about Tebow's need to improve his mechanics, Broncos sources say his lack of familiarity with running a pro-style offense is an even more egregious issue. As one executive says, "Forget about how he delivers the ball, or how accurate it is. First he has to know where to go with it."
Tebow's bosses still believe his work ethic and character may allow him to overcome these deficiencies and develop into a starting-caliber quarterback down the road. In the meantime, they are handing the keys of Fox's ball-control offense to Orton, a move that seems to have been well-received in the locker room.
"Now we can pick up where we left off," says Lloyd, who led the NFL with 1,448 receiving yards in 2010. "The offense can get real detailed and creative with the calls, because Kyle is so cerebral. I'm not gonna lie: When I heard about [the possible trade], I was happy for Kyle, that he'd get out of this situation where he was being doubted and unwanted and go where someone wants him. I thought, ‘Good for him.' But when it didn't happen, it was a sigh of relief."
Orton, a seventh-year player who was acquired by the Broncos in the infamous Jay Cutler(notes) trade with the Chicago Bears before the '09 season, is grateful for Fox's no-nonsense approach to coaching. As a rookie in 2005, Orton was thrust into the lineup because of an injury to Rex Grossman(notes), another former Florida quarterback, and helped guide the Bears to eight consecutive victories and an NFC North title. The next season, Grossman was named the team's unquestioned starter and held onto the job in 2007 despite a blatant lack of consistency.
Of getting a chance to win the starting job, Orton said, "That's all you can ask for as a player. I've been in a situation in Chicago when you didn't have a chance to compete. That's the worst thing there is. The way [Fox] motivates guys with positive reinforcement is great. He doesn't shoot you a bunch of crap."
Quinn, too, appreciates the apparent lack of politics in Fox's decision-making. Given that his entire career has been marked by drama and unmet expectations – from his draft-day plunge in 2007 that rivaled Aaron Rodgers'(notes) experience of two years earlier for the most uncomfortable stint in green-room history, to his aborted stint as the Browns' starter midway through 2008 (he was pulled after 2½ games), to his afterthought status in Denver last season after McDaniels acquired him in a March trade for running back Peyton Hills, who went on to rush for 1,177 yards in 2010 – he's a resilient quarterback in search of a fair shot.
"The opportunity to compete definitely wasn't there for me last year," Quinn says. "It seemed like there would be one [in the spring], but once we got to camp, there really wasn't an opportunity. I really wasn't sure why. I never got an explanation. The rug's kind of swept out from underneath you. It's tough sometimes.
"I've been through a few different circuses – quarterback competitions, controversies, trade talks. My rookie year, we traded our starter [Charlie Frye(notes)] after the first week. And really, going into that next week in practice, had Derek [Anderson] not played well at any point he was probably coming out. That was pretty crazy."
Fox, who coached the Carolina Panthers from 2002 through last season, watched Quinn's struggles from afar and wondered whether he was inheriting a broken spirit. The coach says he has been pleasantly surprised.
"I've been impressed with him," Fox says. "I think he had a very rough go in Cleveland. A lot of times, that gives you scars. Mentally, it's tough to get over that. Last year [in Denver] I'm not sure he got much of a look. I assured him he'd get a look this year."
Quinn isn't the only Broncos player – or member of the organization – who's treating Fox's arrival as a sort of Prague Spring. After the repressive, paranoid, standoffish McDaniels spent two seasons doing his best impression of his mentor, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick – other than actually producing a winning team – the guileless, personable Fox has breathed warmth and optimism into team headquarters.
"He's what the doctor ordered here," Elway says. "We needed a little football rehab. Fox is the perfect guy to change the attitude and get these guys looking forward to playing football again. I don't think he's a players' coach – that term has a lot of different meanings to a lot of people – but I think he's a guy that players like to play for."
Right now, the odds of a certain young quarterback playing a meaningful game for Fox in Denver anytime soon look fairly long. And for those of you who don't know Tim from Adam, yes, we're talking about the Broncos' probable third-string quarterback and the unfortunate fourth-stringer, an undrafted rookie who some believe is a better player.
How upside down are things in the Mile High City right now? If Tebow can hold off Adam Weber, that's about the best outcome he can expect, at least in the short term.