When Kyle Orton took the field on Monday night, the dominant storyline of the post-lockout preseason was at long last put to rest. Tim Tebow supporters had to accept that their hero is most likely destined for clipboard duty this season. Even though Orton emerged the victor, questions about the quarterback controversy still linger. Not concerning the outcome (even though Orton's performance on Monday was far from stellar), but why the controversy was a controversy at all?
Why did Orton -- a physically gifted, statistically superior, incumbent quarterback -- have to worry about his job security? It wasn't by anyone's assessment about his ability to perform on the field.
Orton's 2010 season was as solid statistically as any of his predecessors. He passed for 3,653 yards, 20 TDs, and 9 INTs. His passer rating was 87.5. Decent numbers especially when you consider that he missed the last three games of the season.
To put his numbers in perspective, he had fewer INTs in 2010 than Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. He passed for more yards than Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, and Mark Sanchez. The glaring difference between Orton and the aforementioned quarterbacks was his inability to lead his team to the postseason.
His numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to John Elway's. Elway -- the gold standard by which any Bronco QB is judged -- passed for more yards in a single season only three times (1985, 1993, 1995) in his 16-year career and threw for fewer than 10 INTS only in his rookie season. Elway's career passer rating was 79.9.
So why was finding a Kyle Orton jersey in the sea of orange at Mile High (excuse me ... Sports Authority Field at Mile High) on Monday night like trying to find Waldo? Allow me to submit a theory. It isn't about Orton's inadequacies, but has more to do with his competition's non-football related strengths.
Kyle Orton is the Anti-Tebow. He is the polar opposite of the preseason sentimental favorite for the Bronco QB job in almost every way. The controversy wasn't about skill -- it was about his image.
Consider the following three factors (feel free to submit your own in the comments section):
1. The Pretty Factor
Orton, after hard day's work, looks a little something like a sweaty sheepdog turned upright. He isn't hideous, but I think even he realizes that his arm -- not his face -- is his future.
Tebow, on the other hand, is a square-jawed, underwear model adored by single women the country over and not just Christian girls waiting on the right guy.
But this is football and looks don't matter right? Think again. Mark Sanchez and Tom Brady have both done magazine shoots for GQ. Brett Favre's rugged good looks caught the eye of Wrangler jeans execs. Even Peyton Manning ... well ... the argument isn't bullet proof, but you get the idea. The bottom line is that the United States is a beauty-obsessed culture and looks always matter, even in the most macho of all sports.
2. The Political Factor
Orton's political pedigree reads something more like a Boulder liberal than a Colorado Springs conservative. (Both are broad generalizations, but you get the idea.)
He's a politically savvy, environmentally friendly, private school graduate. That's not a bad thing, but bad if you are playing week in, week out in front of a primarily conservative, Republican audience.
You can disagree with my assessment of the NFL fan base, but statistics don't. A 2010 poll conducted jointly by Nielsen and Arbitron indicated that Republicans are more likely to watch the NFL and college football among other sports while Democrats are more likely to watch Major League Soccer, Tennis, and the NBA.
Liberal and football are oil and water. The response Orton is receiving on the field is akin to the reception that Nancy Pelosi might receive if she drove the pace car at Talladega.
Conversely, Tebow is a Southerner by birth, the son of a Christian evangelist, and an outspoken conservative. His Superbowl ad on behalf of Focus on the Family in 2010 against abortion drew the ire of many a liberal pundit, but confirmed that he wasn't going to leave his conservative values in Florida. That plays well with a football audience.
3. The Role Model Factor
Orton's career as serial bar hopper is probably better documented than his on-the-field exploits. So much so, that he was admitted into the inaugural class of the Deadspin Hall of Fame in 2006 alongside the infamous Viking's Sex Boat. In case you are lost, that isn't good thing. To his credit, he has matured since then, but unfortunately Google NEVER forgets.
Now, he is an unassuming, model citizen, but fans don't need a prodigal when they have a charismatic, squeaky-clean leader waiting in the wings. His past moral shortcomings don't make him the Anti-Christ. He just has the misfortune of being compared to Tebow, who is arguably the most virtuous professional athlete in the modern era.
In totality, my assertion is that football attracts a primarily wholesome, conservative crowd and is always going to favor players like Tebow. His story and his lifestyle fit the audience and storyline better. That being the case, the Bronco quarterback controversy wasn't an Orton problem. It was a Tebow problem. He's so likeable and so perfect that Bronco and football fans as whole can't appreciate how serviceable Kyle Orton is.
He isn't going to win any popularity contests, nor is he going to keep butts in the seats if the Broncos continues to lose games because he is the Anti-Tebow. That contrast will always keep him from being first in fan's hearts, but as long as he is healthy he will rightly be first on the depth chart.