ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- New coach John Fox hasn't even gotten through his first full week of practice with the Broncos and already he's facing a credibility moment in his locker room.
Not surprisingly, it revolves around the quarterback position, which is as drama-filled and laced with controversy as a Real Housewives episode. From the moment he arrived in town to replace the fired Josh McDaniels, Fox has said that there would be an open competition and the best player would start. On the eve of training camp, however, news surfaced that the Broncos were considering trading incumbent Kyle Orton to Miami, presumably to create an opening for 2010 first-round pick Tim Tebow.
First problem: Orton proceeded to kill it in practice, while Tebow struggled. Observers saw it, coaches saw it and, equally important, players saw it.
Second problem: How could the front office -- and Fox, by extension -- even consider moving Orton when the gap between him, Tebow and Brady Quinn has been as wide as the initial debt-reduction plans of Democrats and Republicans?
"Our comment from the very get-go was to let them come out and compete," says executive VP John Elway. "Obviously, if we get trade offers for anyone on the team, we're going to listen to them. It's not just tied to Kyle. Before I got here, we heard different things about the situation down in the locker room, and obviously we don't want that to be a problem. But where we are right here is, Kyle's here and the best guy is going to play. There's no question that the locker room means a lot to me and a lot to John Fox. Players know players, and they want the best opportunity to win. I know when I was sitting down in that room as a player I wanted the best opportunity to win. That's our job, to give them the best opportunity to win and to do what's best for the organization, all encompassed together."
If it were strictly a football decision, it would be a no-brainer at this point. Orton threw for 41 touchdowns and had the second-lowest interception percentage among regular starters the past two seasons. He is entering his seventh season and has won 32 of 61 career starts.
Tebow has just three career starts, completing only 49.4 percent of his passes in them with four touchdowns and three interceptions. He is still adjusting to throwing from the pocket after playing in a spread system at Florida that capitalized on his scrambling abilities. None of this is to say he can't be an effective starter; just that he clearly has some catching up to do if the objective is to win now.
Viewed strictly through an on-field prism, the Broncos' best chance to compete for their first winning season since 2006 is with Orton, based on his experience and production. Yet around town he is treated as if he has leprosy. Callers to sports talk radio want him out of town sooner than later, a reaction that causes many Broncos veterans to shake their heads -- just as they shake their heads at the idea of trading him.
"It's the Tebow Thing," says leading receiver Brandon Lloyd. "They'll put Kyle on the trading block because they don't want to deal with the Tebow Thing. But it's not going to end until (Tebow) plays. The faster they get this Tebow Thing over with, one way or the other ..."
Lloyd paused. He acknowledged he would be "pissed" if Orton were traded, because the two of them developed a formidable bond last season when Lloyd led the league with 1,448 yards on 77 catches and tied for fourth with 11 TD receptions.
But he also understands that football is a business and Orton is in the final year of his contract. Elway and Fox did not sign Orton, just as they did not draft Tebow. But if the organization feels the wildly popular youngster has more upside -- and can be the face of the franchise and put fans in the seats-- is there really a need to keep Orton long-term? Better yet, why would Orton want to stay beyond this year?
"I spent the entire offseason preparing myself for Tim being the quarterback, because the organization put Kyle on the trading block at the end of the year," Lloyd says. "I spent the offseason asking myself, 'What pass plays are we going to be running? Are we going to be running sprint plays? Throwing from outside the pocket?'
"Running routes is easy, especially with a pure drop-back passer like Orton. But with Tim the ball is going to be coming from different spots and different angles. That takes getting used to."
The relationship between Orton and Tebow is neither icy nor chummy. The two are teammates, but they do not hang out together. There is no noticeable small talk between them on the field.
Orton says matter of factly he is the starter; Fox agrees ... for the moment. However, Tebow is open about his desire to be the guy. He says he has things to work on -- play-action drops, checking to the flat, understanding concepts and not relying on athleticism -- and will work to improve them. But he is careful to say that he is not wishing for Orton to fail.
"What kind of character does it show to wish failure on someone? I want him to do well and I want to do well. I just want to get better," he says.
The Broncos acknowledge that Orton has been more polished in practice, but they say preseason games will play a major role in determining the outcome. Tebow likes to say he's a "gamer," which was reflected in his three starts last season, when he was better than most anticipated he would be. If he shows well in exhibition games this month, it's not inconceivable that the Broncos will seek to trade Orton.
One thing is certain, though. If the team deals Orton without Tebow or Quinn closing the performance gap, it will raise a lot of eyebrows among a very important group of people: Broncos players.