They vied for the starting quarterback position for the Denver Broncos earlier in the season, and they both became scapegoats for broader concerns.
Since football is a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all, will only one scapegoat be saved this Sunday?
This matchup pits Orton’s Kansas City Chiefs, who are already eliminated from the playoffs, against the Denver Broncos, whose increasingly tenuous playoff hopes depend on the outcome.
Football is a team game and of course there is much more to the contest than a personal quarterback duel. However, the Chiefs vs. Broncos story does not transcend Sunday’s game the way that the Tebow vs. Orton drama does.
My first meeting with Tebow was not very dramatic.
When I walked by him on campus, he was multitasking: cell phone to his ear and thumb to the air. The thumbs-up was a response to my star-struck friend, who had given that supportive signal as soon as she saw him walking our way.
I assumed they knew each other because Tebow beamed when he smiled at her. Having now watched him over the years, I realize in hindsight that he was just being his instantly affable self with a fan he did not know.
At the time, he was just a freshman. I didn’t know who he was and I didn’t really care.
This weekend when Tebow takes on Orton, I’m not sure I will be able to watch because I now care too much.
Tim Tebow was not supposed to be a starter this year. By all audible accounts, Orton decisively outplayed him in post-lockout practices.
Nevertheless, the Broncos' dispiriting start at 1-4 left a legion of Broncos fans looking for a lift, so they called out for Tebow in droves, deafening enough doubts about the former Gator's quarterback skills to convince coach John Fox to give him a try.
Fox let Tebow loose to hurl some heroics against the Chargers in a game in which Orton’s start had created a significant halftime deficit. By the end of the game, Tebow had nearly closed the gap.
By starting Tebow in that fifth game, Fox set off a chain of improbable events that have pushed the Broncos into a playoff scenario as unlikely as Tebow’s own saga on the field.
If the Broncos haven’t had time to look back since the Tebow train caught full steam, on Sunday they won’t be able to avert their eyes from that recent past: It will be staring them squarely in the face.
When the Broncos released Kyle Orton on waivers, they were able to both save some money for the franchise and provide a modicum of hope to a veteran quarterback in an otherwise luckless season.
Orton and his wife had a child before the season began, but that did not earn him much compassion in Denver. There were no fan baby showers for Orton, just showers of support for the quarterback sitting behind him in the lineup.
And now Orton gets to have some revenge. Or is it redemption?
Tebow has had a monopoly on the latter term, morphing from symbol of conservative Christianity to a metonym for prayer.
Tebowmania has traveled through the thin mile-high air like a soaring field goal, caught in currents of deep-seated religious and anti-religious conflict.
Tebow’s outspoken faith has raised the eyebrows of even the faithful. Earlier in the season, retired quarterback and evangelical Christian Kurt Warner suggested that Tebow might do well to tone down his religious rhetoric.
Saturday Night Live made the same point in a satire that at least bordered on sacrilege.
Then comedian and provocateur Bill Maher deliberately stepped over that line, with a tweet so coarse he knew it would raise Christian ire. Why would Maher so aggressively take on such a charitable and devout young man?
I’m not sure.
I also have trouble answering for those anonymous Tebow supporters I saw online at the beginning of the year whose support was so single-minded that they suggested they were secretly hoping for an Orton injury.
Those, of course, are extreme poles in these debates, but make no mistake about it, the real Tim Tebow and the actual Kyle Orton have been lost at times in all this virtual vitriol.
I’ve never met Orton, and my encounter with Tebow was underwhelming. At various moments this year, though, that image of a smiling kid eager to give his attention to fans, even when he was otherwise engaged, has humanized the contentious football controversy for me—on both sides of the Orton and Tebow discussion.
Orton and Tebow are scapegoats in different ways, but both situations are lamentable.
Tebow is a stand-in for some people who find conservative Christianity repellent, and who find it no less insidious when propagated with a smile.
For people like Maher, Tebow represents that unthinking religious zeal that ignores obvious evidence in favor of blind faith. According to that logic, Tebow's religious supporters are a mass of delighted, benighted folk whose unwavering commitment to Tebow bespeaks their football ignorance.
Fear of that frenzy grew, at least in part, out of what Orton went through.
Disgruntled Broncos fans were frustrated with losing spells they couldn’t control, so they conjured up their own antidote, Tebow. Anything countering that solution struck them as intransigence at best and incompetence at worst.
Fans want a voice, but they are usually impotent to alter team direction on the field; so in the Tebow and Orton case they screamed—both in the stadium and in cyberspace.
John Fox was a steady target of criticism, but Orton took the brunt of the tirades, especially online.
I wish people did not so often live life as if it were a football game, a zero-sum contest between opposing sides.
Of course, there are a lot of rational people who are indifferent to all the extra hoopla surrounding an Orton-Tebow matchup. They are able to keep their sober football analysis confined to the field. They could care less about which way the cultural winds are blowing for this game.
But regardless of the outcome, there will no doubt be plenty of Internet venom, virtual nooses around the neck-beard or rhetorical floggings of the Mile High Messiah.
Here, then, is a call for peaceful solidarity between Tebow fans, Bronco fans, Orton fans, Chiefs fans and football fans: Let’s unite in a pregame decision for postgame action.
Make it tangible, go online and let your pithy positive comment shine in the midst of all that dirty gloating and hate. You can do it here, or any other comment board you find.
Let’s turn a battle of scapegoats into a celebration of underdogs; two quarterbacks who have fought incessant criticism get to show the naysayers what they are made of.
One will fall short.
Whoever he is, he will have my respect.