Judgment day coming for Tebow

BY Alex Marvez • December 30, 2011

Kyle Orton was the past. Tim Tebow is the present.

As for the future of quarterbacking in Denver? That picture could become clearer after Sunday’s game between the Broncos and visiting Kansas City Chiefs.

Barring unlikely tie scenarios, Denver (8-7) will either clinch the AFC West with a victory or drop out of the running with a loss, should Oakland (8-7) win at home against San Diego (7-8). If the Raiders and Broncos both lose, Denver would get the title because of a better division record.

Tebow would benefit from getting to continue his quarterbacking growth in the postseason. But should the Broncos fall short with a third consecutive loss, all the questions that Tebow had started to answer about his viability as a long-term NFL starter will resurface regardless of whether they are justified or what the organization is publicly spinning. Tebow’s 48.2 completion percentage and mediocre 77.9 quarterback rating justify such scrutiny.

Denver’s 40-14 loss to Buffalo last Sunday was particularly disheartening. While his receivers didn’t help matters with multiple drops, Tebow did an uncharacteristically poor job taking care of the football with a career-high three interceptions and a lost fumble, which led directly to two Bills defensive touchdowns. Tebow was actually at his worst in the fourth quarter, which is when he had previously worked the comeback magic that helped him post a 7-3 starting record.

Tebow should benefit from an offseason working with Broncos coaches as well as executive vice president John Elway. The Hall of Fame quarterback and Broncos icon told FOXSports.com last month he planned to do some hands-on Tebow tutoring.

But the Elway-led Broncos brain trust still must quickly judge how much upside they believe Tebow possesses, which is an assessment that would be damaged by a late-season nosedive. The final evaluation will determine an offseason plan of action for how to address the other top quarterback on the roster. Current backup Brady Quinn is an unrestricted free agent who would be wise to pursue his NFL career in an offense that better fits his quarterbacking skills. Re-signing Quinn would be a strong indication that Tebow will enter next season as the unquestioned starter.

Denver’s other top options:

A) Commit to Tebow and sign a more experienced veteran backup to serve primarily as a tutor, as the New York Jets have done with Mark Sanchez and graybeard Mark Brunell.

B) Acquire a veteran who can immediately push Tebow for the first-string spot.

C) Draft a quarterback in the second or third round who has potential for grooming as a future starter in case Tebow flops.

Suffice to say, an Orton return isn’t a viable option. Orton was granted his released by Denver in November after losing his starting spot to Tebow. Claimed off waivers by the Chiefs, Orton would make the Broncos pay for their gracious gesture by leading Kansas City to a win Sunday.

Orton would also bolster his case to remain the starter in Kansas City next season rather than the injured Matt Cassel. Orton did lead Kansas City to a victory over the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers and is one of the more attractive upcoming options available in a weak free-agent quarterback class. But the Chiefs also must determine whether trying to sign Orton to a long-term contract is better than sticking with Cassel, who has experienced an up-and-down run in three seasons as Kansas City’s starter.

With 12 of 16 games this weekend having some form of playoff implications, there are plenty of others besides Orton and Tebow who are involved in matchups that could greatly affect their NFL futures. Here is a look at 10 of them:

1. Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris: His comments during a news conference earlier this week were reflective of a head coach who knows the end is near. To save his job, the Bucs (4-11) must at least show a pulse Sunday at Atlanta. Tampa Bay has lost nine consecutive games, including the past four by a 158-64 margin.

2. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: The last time Detroit played the Packers, Suh cemented his reputation as a dirty player by being ejected for stomping the exposed arm of Green Bay guard Evan Dietrich-Smith. Since serving a subsequent two-game NFL suspension, Suh has apologized and proclaimed he is trying to leave the incident in the past. Suh would help his cause by staying out of trouble in Sunday’s rematch against the Packers at Lambeau Field.

3. New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin: I expect Coughlin to return regardless of whether New York wins Sunday night against Dallas. A loss, though, could cause Giants ownership to take a long look at this franchise’s direction after it missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons. It also would trigger a new round of Bill-Cowher-to-the-Giants rumors that will continue until he finally returns to coaching or the Giants appoint someone to replace Coughlin upon his eventual departure.

4. Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo: Should the St. Louis Rams fire Steve Spagnuolo as their head coach, Spagnuolo's return to Philadelphia as defensive coordinator would make sense. Castillo, though, can make the argument that he should be allowed to return for a second season. After the former Eagles offensive line coach struggled mightily in his new job for the first 75 percent of the season, Philadelphia’s defense has come on strong during a three-game winning streak. A strong finish in Sunday’s season finale against Washington would further bolster Castillo’s case that he has finally gotten the hang of his new job.

5. Kansas City head coach Romeo Crennel: Win or lose against Denver, the Chiefs have responded well enough to Crennel since replacing fired Todd Haley to lift the “interim” tag in front of his head-coaching title. Crennel, though, would be an easier sell to Kansas City’s disgruntled fan base if he ended this season on a high note.

6-7. Cincinnati Bengals coordinators Mike Zimmer (defense) and Jay Gruden (offense): Both coaches are likely to receive head-coaching consideration, especially with the large number of vacancies expected after “Black Monday.” The stock of each would rise even higher if Cincinnati (9-6) completes its unexpected playoff push by defeating Baltimore (11-4) and securing a wild-card berth. Zimmer has given Cincinnati’s defense teeth and draws inspired play out of his unit; Gruden worked wonders with rookie charges Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.

8. Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn: Since the Packers (14-1) already claimed the NFC’s top playoff seed, Aaron Rodgers isn’t expected to play all four quarters Sunday against Detroit. That would give Flynn a welcome chance to showcase his skills with unrestricted free agency looming in the offseason. Flynn has impressed in limited action the past two seasons, especially last year against New England, but more game film would help interested suitors with the evaluation process.

9. Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson: With five career Pro Bowl appearances, Johnson’s NFL reputation already is well established. But after missing nine of the past 11 games with hamstring injuries, Johnson needs to shake the rust and build his rapport with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates heading into the playoffs. The duo will have that opportunity Sunday against Tennessee.

10. Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert: If he wants to quiet chatter that Jacksonville should choose a quarterback in the first round for a second straight draft, Gabbert must excel in Sunday’s season finale against lowly Indianapolis (2-13). In his defense, Gabbert was thrust into the starting lineup prematurely while surrounded with inconsistent blocking and shoddy wide receivers. But there were far too many times when Gabbert didn’t look like a player who should have been chosen with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft class.