Tebow or Orton? Getting the Right Answer Depends on Asking the Right Question

For the first time in recent memory, an NFL season approaches without even a smattering of quarterback controversy around the league. Maybe it’s an after-effect of the protracted lockout, maybe it’s just a fluke. But here we are, training camps just underway, and you can already comfortably predict 31 of 32 starting QBs for Week 1.

Then there’s Denver.

The Broncos quarterback situation went from local hot topic to national media overdose on Tuesday, when ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said, among other things, “It’s embarrassing to think the Broncos could win with [Tim] Tebow.”

Those remarks were followed by a rebuttal from LeBron James, of all people — because god forbid we take our eyes off LeBron for a single day — striking back at Hoge on behalf of Tebow. Which, predictably, was followed immediately by blanket coverage of the entire ordeal via just about every medium: tv, radio, internet. In some rural areas, carrier pigeons ferried messages back and forth between strangely passionate supporters of incumbent Kyle Orton, and those who back former first-round pick Tebow.

In Denver, the debate rages on, and it isn’t going to stop until one man is clearly handed the job (or until Orton is shipped off in a trade).

Most people fall into one of two camps, whose arguments sound a lot like this:

  1. Tebow is the messiah. He’s a winner. He outworks everybody. Nobody’s ever believed in him, yet he always proves doubters wrong. Orton is boring, uninspired and overrated. The Broncos need a dynamic playmaker on offense.
  2. Kyle Orton is the better quarterback, plain and simple. Tebow is still too raw, he may never develop, his throwing mechanics are garbage, and Orton gives this team the best chance to win now.

To which we say, with all due respect: Isn’t everyone missing the point?

You see, it’s not about how many hours Tim Tebow puts into his workouts or which guy gives you the best chance to win now. In fact, for those who continue to bang the drum on that latter point, let’s pose a simple question: Win what now?

The Broncos haven’t had a winning season since 2006. Last year was an unmitigated disaster that included the firing of head coach Josh McDaniels before he could get through his second full season, and which culminated in a 4-12 record (their worst since the strike-shortened team of 1992 went 2-7). By all accounts McDaniels left the cupboard dry of talent for new showrunners John Elway and John Fox.

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Meanwhile, San Diego led the league in both total offense and total defense last year — and yes, okay, they somehow managed to miss the playoffs. But there’s little doubt what a powerhouse the Chargers franchise has become. They’ve won at least nine games for seven years running, and we haven’t seen much to indicate that trend is going to end in 2011.

The Kansas City Chiefs also emerged last year as a legitimate contender for the AFC title. Former Patriots point man Scott Pioli has put together an impressive roster of young players, including homerun hitters like Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe, and head coach Todd Haley sure looks like he’s firmly in control of his team, despite his perceived dick-ishness. Remember: it was the Chiefs, not the Chargers, who won the AFC West last year. And don’t forget that even the Raidersthe Raiders — look like something resembling a team on the way up. They won 8 games behind a stout defense, and put a bow on the season by outscoring the Broncos 98-37 en route to going 6-0 within the division.

So once again, we pose the question to those who believe the Broncos should choose their quarterback based on his ability to ‘win now’: Win what now? As it’s currently constructed, this team would be lucky to win seven games with Elway himself at quarterback. A wild card berth is a distant longshot. A division championship an impossibility. A conference championship: several years away, at best.

The funny thing is, Kyle Orton actually is a pretty good quarterback. He’s consistent, he’s trustworthy, he makes good decisions and he’ll rarely be the guy to cost you a game with dumb turnovers. On balance, the people who argue that he’s undervalued are absolutely correct. Teams with shutdown defenses have won Super Bowls with lesser players under center.

But like it or not, the Broncos bought themselves a lottery ticket in Tim Tebow. Surely Elway and Fox wish they could rewrite history and wash away the day that McDaniels spent a first round pick (traded up even!) to draft such a high-profile developmental project, but that’s not reality.

Reality is that Tebow is a multi-million dollar lottery ticket, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not he’ll cash in. The cost was steep, but he’s a unique talent, and his potential payout remains enormous. (In fact, short of Cam Newton, this year’s top pick by Fox’s former team, the Carolina Panthers, there’s probably no greater risk/reward proposition in the league today.)

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Hoge was overly decisive in his proclamations regarding a second-year player that started just three games as a rookie, but it’s certainly possible that all his observations will be proved right. Maybe Tebow’s throwing motion is irreparable, maybe his play on the field would be an embarrassment to the Denver organization. If the Broncos were a veteran team coming off a strong season, they’d be crazy to insert a raw, unproven talent into the most important position on the field.

But these Broncos are in a different situation altogether. And while fans are sure to bristle at the word ‘rebuilding’, and the new blood in command is sure to resist that assertion, this is the front end of a rebuilding process. For a franchise in their position, how can the upcoming season be viewed as anything else?

Given this set of circumstances, why not try and cash the lottery ticket? It’s not the safest bet on the board, but for a team looking up from the bottom of a barrel, it’s the one with the greatest potential return. Orton is a known quantity. Sure, he’s a good player and a veteran presence. But he’s not exactly a difference-maker, and he’s not irreplaceable.

And one other thing: it’s not as if Tebow’s play last year was as horrendous as you’ve been led to believe. In limited action, he accounted for 11 total touchdowns against four turnovers. He averaged more than 280 total yards per game during his 3-start stint to finish the year. And he captained a much closer contest against the hated Chargers — a 33-28 loss in the final game of the season — than Orton had in a 35-14 loss in Week 11. He’s not a finished product by any means, but he’s hardly Akili Smith, either.

For the Denver Broncos in 2011, there simply isn’t anything to ‘win now’. But all is not lost. Fortunes can change pretty quickly in the NFL, and uncovering a true impact player at quarterback isn’t an opportunity that presents itself often. Might as well see what the kid can do. The other options aren’t lofty enough to outweigh the risk.

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Merril Hoge Goes After Tim Tebow on Twitter [Denver Post]