- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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Kyle Orton is the new Chris Leak.
In 2006, Leak, the most prolific passer in University of Florida history, was booed by Gators fans desperate to see young freshman star Tim Tebow enter the game and give Florida's offense a boost against Kentucky.
Leak's play wasn't memorable in that game; Tebow was brilliant, bruising Kentucky's defense with gritty, inspiring runs. And although the Gators easily won, 26-7, and not every Florida fan booed Leak, it was an early example of how easy it is for Tebow to overwhelm people.
No one cared that Leak set the school record for career completions against Kentucky. It was all about Tebow, who to this day receives more credit for leading the Gators to the 2007 national championship than Leak does -- even though Leak had a fine season and picked apart Ohio State as Florida captured its first national title since 1996. If you read what was written about Tebow that season, you would have no clue that he was actually Leak's backup.
I'm sure this all sounds familiar to Orton.
I don't mean to make Tebow sound sinister or manipulative. What's happening in Denver isn't Tebow's doing. He didn't create the tension with Leak, just as he didn't create any in Denver with Orton, who appears to be solidifying his hold on the starting quarterback job even though the majority of Broncos fans apparently want Tebow.
I've said many times -- and will reiterate once more -- that I've been around a lot of athletes who publicly profess to be God-fearin', Good Book-readin' citizens but spend more time in strip clubs than at Bible study. Tebow is among a select group of athletes who, I believe, lives as he preaches -- with faith, humility, honesty and integrity.
But none of that means he should be Denver's starting quarterback.
After watching game film of Tebow from last season, Hoge tweeted last week: "Orton or Tebow? It's embarrassing to think the broncos could win with tebow!!" Elsewhere, Hoge described Tebow's accuracy as "awful."
That didn't sit well with Tebow.
"Others who say I won't make it are wrong," he told reporters. "They don't know what I'm capable of and what's inside me. My family and my friends have been bothered by what's gone on, and I tell them to pay no attention to it. I'm relying, as always, on my faith."
I certainly didn't expect Tebow to be pleased by Hoge's comments. No competitor would or should be. But surely Tebow understands he's not the only one striving to be an NFL starting quarterback. And maybe he's underestimating what Orton is capable of and has inside of him, too.
I feel sorry for Orton. He's become collateral damage, and it's just because he isn't Tebow. Once Tebow was drafted, Orton's 41 touchdowns and 7,455 yards over the past two seasons ceased to exist in the minds of Denver fans. Orton was even booed when he didn't punch it in from the 9-yard line in a training camp scrimmage this past weekend.
Chris Leak, the sequel.
If Tebow weren't one of the most popular players in the NFL, would Orton have ever even been on the trading block? (The Broncos tried to peddle him to Miami.) If Tebow weren't already lionized as a Christian role model, would new Broncos' head coach John Fox have parsed his words the way he did when he identified Orton as the team's top QB?
"Right now, Kyle Orton is our starter," Fox told reporters. "I don't think we'll really figure it out until we start competing. It's a group of three that are very capable. We have a young guy, high draft pick, in Tim Tebow who got his feet wet last year toward the end of the season. And then, shoot, Brady Quinn I'm looking forward to seeing."
Key words: Right now.
If that's Fox's way of making sure Orton doesn't get complacent, fine. But my theory is that Fox is being careful because he isn't comfortable telling his team's fans that the quarterback of the future can't beat out someone they've never completely embraced. And if Tebow isn't ready now, the bigger question becomes this: What was Denver thinking when it drafted him 25th overall in the first place?
None of this is Fox's fault, of course. He didn't draft Tebow; Josh McDaniels did. But Fox is stuck with the impossible task of managing him and placating Tebow's massive throng of supporters, some of whom are in the media.
It might seem as though I'm being too harsh on Tebow, but I actually believe he'll be a regular starter in the NFL one day. I'm just not convinced that his time is now, or that it will come in Denver.
Tebow needs to be in a special situation and under a head coach who understands that his style will never be conventional. He won't win a slew of MVPs and probably won't ever put up outlandish passing numbers. But Tebow can win games if he is freed from traditional expectations.
That's what Denver fans need to be concerned with: winning games. If Orton gives Denver the best chance to do that, he should start. They'll just have to accept it.
Besides, doesn't Tebow's faith teach him that everything happens for a reason?
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.
5dDavid M. Hale