During my NFL front office career, I saw NFL teams often wrestle with the question of when any young player -- and especially a highly drafted quarterback such as Tim Tebow -- is ready to play.
In my early Vikings years, we had Fran Tarkenton, the scrambling QB who led the Vikings to three Super Bowls and helped pave the way for guys like Steve Young and, yes, Tim Tebow. The Vikings drafted Tommy Kramer in the first round in 1977, and the clock started ticking on when he would take over from Tarkenton. Despite the Vikings winning division titles in '77 and '78, fans were anxious for the young QB to play. Still, coach Bud Grant made Kramer wait in the wings until 1979. Once he took over, Kramer went on to have a very good NFL career.
We have occasionally seen the young No. 1 pick, fan-favorite QB have early success: Dan Marino in Miami, Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh or Cam Newton in Carolina this season. But more often, we see those first-round quarterbacks turn into busts, like with Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell.
Some, like Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning, struggled in disastrous rookie seasons before finding their way. Conversely, Aaron Rodgers sat on the bench behind Brett Favre for three years in Green Bay before he got his shot, and he rewarded the patient Packers with a Super Bowl win last February.
Go with the young QB or the experienced vet? The debates have raged on in front offices, owner/GM/head coach meetings, coaching staff meetings and out in the public on talk radio and internet message boards.
It's the age-old GM and coach discussion. The GM and player personnel department generally want to see the young guys who they've recently drafted get on the field and show what they can do. Coaches are more comfortable with veterans who have the savvy and experience and don't make as many mistakes. If our No. 1 picks were reasonably ready to play, I as a GM and president wanted them playing and earning their big salaries and hopefully justifying our picks.
What is of course different in the Tebow case is that the Broncos' chief personnel decision maker, John Elway, and coach, John Fox, were not the people who drafted Tebow (Josh McDaniels, the ex-Broncos head coach, gets the credit or blame, depending on how things play out). We know that the team has a significant financial investment (but not at the Matthew Stafford/Sam Bradford level that we saw before the new CBA) in Tebow, who as the 25th pick in the first round received a five-year, $11.25 million contract with $8.7 million guaranteed (and a max value of $33 million if he hits all of his incentives). But it's not just about money or Kyle Orton and his $7-million-plus base salary (and close to $9 million cap hit) would still be the starter.
Which leads us back to the fact that the Broncos are 1-4, with Orton tied for most interceptions in the NFL (7) and Tebow nearly leading a comeback victory over San Diego last Sunday after he took over in the second half.
The team was energized by Tebow's performance. Broncos players, Fox and his coaches, Elway and his front office and owner Pat Bowlen all saw it. Making Tebow the new starter was the logical and necessary move for Fox to make. Fox heard the chants for Tebow loud and clear and saw the fans' excitement at his near comeback win, but believe it when he says he made the change in an attempt to spark his team and not to appease the fans. Coaches must do what they think is best for the team.
Fox is in the first year of a four-year deal, so he has some job security. He and Elway have nothing to lose with this move.
Fox knows that Tebow's first 2011 start will be at the soon-to-be 0-5 Dolphins (assuming they lose at the Jets Monday night). Miami will be on a short week, Tebow will have a few extra bye week practices with a rested team behind him, and he'll face the 31st ranked pass defense (28th overall on defense). Oh, and the game will be on the day the Dolphins salute the 2009 national champion Florida Gators, the team Tebow led (have to move those tickets!). It's not Mile High, but it's as close as Tebow can get in terms of a perfect venue.
Fox and Elway both say the coach made the call on the change to Tebow and I'm sure that's true. Elway hired Fox to make these lineup decisions and he's been around the game too long to overrule the head coach with a Super Bowl appearance on his resume, especially since Elway was the one who selected Fox.
Fox undoubtedly told Elway his plans and they both agreed that for the next 11 games, it's time to see what Tebow can do. They factored in his performance last Sunday and his decent numbers in the three games he started last season (with a 1-2 record) -- 5 TD passes vs. 3 interceptions, 6 rushing TDs and an 82.1 rating that led all NFL rookie QBs.
For Fox and the Broncos, this was clearly the right move. If Tebow is successful, so much the better for the Broncos this year and beyond. If he is a colossal failure and the Broncos wind up with the top pick in the 2012 draft (or close enough to trade up), Elway will be doing cartwheels at the thought of Andrew Luck in Denver for the next 10-15 years while Tebow is traded or cut.
More likely, it will be somewhere in the middle -- a 5-11 season with Tebow playing better than Orton. Just enough so that the Broncos rise out of the Luck chase, but not well enough to meet Elway's expectations for the position, thus motivating he and his staff to look hard at the rest of the 2012 QB class.
It's certainly made the rest of the season a lot more interesting and exciting in Denver -- for the team, Broncos fans and the rest of us watching how Tebow time unfolds. One thing we know for sure: The quarterback draw will be back in the Denver game plan.