DENVER — As recently as two months ago, this Sunday was billed as Jay Cutler Homecoming Day in Denver — a cathartic chance for fans in this frustrated football town to finally boo somebody who wasn’t wearing a Broncos uniform.
One injury and one semi-unbelievable winning streak later, Denver is Tim Tebow’s town and Cutler is nothing more than another former Bronco on some other team’s bench.
When the Bears (7-5) face the Broncos (7-5), Cutler won’t be in the picture — gone for the considerable future with a broken thumb on his throwing hand — while Caleb Hanie will be making his third career start for the beat-up Bears, trying to snap a two-game losing streak and keep Chicago’s faltering playoff hopes alive.
Hanie, a graduate of Colorado State, just up the road, will surely get a smattering of applause.
Tebow, however, will hear it the loudest — the reward he gets for not only transforming Denver’s season into something unimaginable two months ago, but reshaping the debate about what it takes to be a winning quarterback in the NFL.
“I’m handling it,” Tebow said of the ever-growing amount of attention he receives, “and not worrying about it too much.”
By most accounts, he is handling it much better than Cutler ever did during his three seasons in Denver, where his standoffish behavior made him unembraceable and, when asked, he even dared suggest he might have a stronger arm than John Elway. (Which may, of course, be true, but almost certainly didn’t need to be said in this town.)
Cutler was traded away during the Josh McDaniels era, which came to an end a year ago this week, and then, after a largely unsuccessful stint with the equally unloved Kyle Orton, the Broncos arrived to their current station: On a five-game winning streak and tied for the AFC West lead with Tebow at the helm — the NFL’s best story of 2011 this side of the Green Bay Packers.
“It’s the experience that’s so invaluable, not just for a quarterback but for any position,” said Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who revamped Denver’s offense in midstream to fit Tebow’s option style. “The more experience you get, the better it is. It slows things down for you.”
While the Broncos are going through a renaissance, the Bears are watching a season that began with thoughts of a Super Bowl get sidetracked by a series of untimely injuries that threaten to keep them out of the playoffs altogether.
Running back Matt Forte hurt his knee last week and is out indefinitely, depriving the Bears of the league’s leader in yards from scrimmage (1,487) and its third-leading rusher (997).
Marion Barber and Kahlil Bell are next in line at running back. Barber is expected to be the grinder. Bell, the third-stringer, is considered more versatile. Last week, Bell broke off a 26-yard run — a small highlight in a dispiriting 10-3 home loss to Kansas City.
“He’s not Matt Forte. Not many people are,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “But he does catch the ball well. He was just happy to get an opportunity. When you’re the third tailback, you’re looking for reps and you know that you have to take advantage of them and he did.”
While Forte has made much of the news this season in Chicago by seeking a lucrative contract extension the likes of which the Bears haven’t offered, Cutler finally started getting on the good side of some Bears fans. He had an uneasy start in the Windy City, punctuated by his injury in the NFC championship game last season, after which he stood stoically on the sideline, not looking nearly as upset — or hurt — as some people thought he should.
A fitting close to his season, according to many fans in Denver, where they never really warmed up to Cutler.
“That’s too bad for that city,” Smith said. “This one has. He’s done a great job. He’s played great football, having a great year. We are really excited about having him back. Everything you want a special quarterback to do, he can.”
Despite all the wins Tebow is directing — he’s 7-3 as a starter — his ability to “do everything” is still up for debate in Denver.
He trails only Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers in fourth-quarter passer rating, yet he completes fewer than 48 percent of his throws in a league where 60 percent is the average. He is a leader with five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, yet he engineers an offense that has run the ball more than 62 percent of the time since he took the helm — a lack of balance that history has shown to be virtually unsustainable.
So, it’s no wonder that even with a playoff chase in full force, the Broncos are still trying to decide: Is Tebow the quarterback to build the franchise around, or just the guy who’s showing this town a very good time this year?
The quarterback himself — he claims to not be looking that far ahead.
“The great thing is, I don’t have to listen to what other people say,” Tebow said. “That’s something I learned a long time ago.”