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Tebow experiment leads intriguing week

FootballDenver BroncosCarson PalmerMiami DolphinsOakland RaidersUniversity of FloridaNFL

Four NFL teams, four distinctly different situations, and one identical, well-worn audible:

Old quarterback out, new quarterback in.

Rookie Christian Ponder is taking over for Donovan McNabb in Minnesota. John Beck is replacing Rex Grossman in Washington. The just-acquired Carson Palmer will step in for the injured Jason Campbell in Oakland (although the Raiders have yet to say whether Palmer will start Sunday.) And the Tim Tebow era is officially under way in Denver, where the ineffective Kyle Orton has been benched.

"Changing quarterbacks is the most dramatic thing you can do as an organization, short of firing the coach," longtime NFL coach Brian Billick said. "You don't do it haphazardly, because it changes the whole direction of what you're doing."

While each of those changes is intriguing, the most fascinating is the Tebow experiment, which comes with the 1-4 Broncos off to their worst start since 1999. They play at Miami, where the Dolphins are 1-11 in their last dozen games at Sun Life Stadium.

A lot of Dolphins fans are very conflicted about this game. First, some of them are pulling for their team to lose to stay in contention to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the overwhelming favorite to be taken first overall. But it's the return of Tebow, a Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida, that has some Dolphins fans ready to cheer when the visiting offense is on the field.

This was the field, after all, where Tebow won a state championship as a high school senior and a national title with Florida as a junior — the same 2008 BCS championship team that will be honored at halftime of the Broncos-Dolphins game.

Mike Nathanson is among the torn. He's pulling for his 0-5 Dolphins, but he's also a proud Florida graduate who can't help but root for Tebow.

"I think he's a great guy and great for the game of football," said Nathanson, former president of the Broward County Gator Club. "I don't want him to win, but if he makes some great plays, it's worth the price of admission."

Conceded Nathanson: "If someone's going to beat us, it might as well be him. We're getting kind of used to that around here."

This isn't Tebow's first start. He replaced the injured Orton in the final three games last season, and the Broncos went 1-2 in those. Tebow, who struggles with accuracy, completed 49.4 percent of his passes for 651 yards in those games, with four touchdowns and three interceptions. He also ran for 199 yards and three touchdowns.

Tebow has more than his share of doubters, people who think that even though he was an ideal fit in Florida's spread offense, he's too lumbering to be a great NFL running quarterback and can't throw well enough to live in the pocket. To them, he was a waste of a first-round pick.

Former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason called this upcoming stretch of games Tebow's "sink-or-swim moment" and predicts the Broncos will give him five or six weeks to show what he can do.

"It's really the giant elephant in the corner of the room," Esiason said. "I know that every time they got into their offensive meetings when the season started, Tim Tebow was sitting back in the corner and everybody just looked at him and said, 'Oh, boy, if we don't get off to a good start, the groundswell for this nonsense is just going to be insane.' If they were 4-2 right now as opposed to where they are, you wouldn't be hearing all of this.

"But because he's an extremely popular player — for who he is as a human being, and for what he was at Florida — you have this enormous groundswell of support for him. Because of where the Broncos are with their record, they have no choice."

The Broncos aren't alone. Each of the four teams making a quarterback change has a compelling reason. The Redskins and Raiders are both a half-game out of first place in their divisions; the Vikings, like the Broncos, are one-win basement dwellers.

The 30-year-old Beck is making his first start in four years, his first since he was with the Dolphins in 2007. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan made the move after Grossman was picked off four times in a 20-13 loss to the Eagles last Sunday. He replaced Grossman in the fourth quarter of that game and led the Redskins to their only touchdown, which he scored on a 2-yard run. The Redskins play at Carolina on Sunday.

The Vikings' Ponder showed flashes of promise and elusiveness when he replaced McNabb in last Sunday's 39-10 loss to the Bears. Still, the Vikings face quite a challenge Sunday, playing host to the Packers, the league's only undefeated team.

"In the case of Ponder, it's pretty straightforward," Billick said. "You're out of it now. They're trying to chase the Packers and they're not going to catch them. So every snap they don't have Ponder play, they're losing ground. Because they'll be glad at the opening of next year that they've got Ponder playing."

The mood is very different in Oakland, where the Raiders gave up two premium draft choices for Palmer — a first-rounder in 2012, and a second-rounder in 2013 that could become a first-rounder if the team makes it to an AFC championship game with him. Palmer is far more experienced than the other three replacements combined, yet he's far less mobile than them too.

Raiders coaches aren't saying for sure whether they plan to start Palmer on Sunday against the Chiefs, or use Kyle Boller, then take advantage of the week off before they play the Broncos. But Al Saunders, the Raiders' offensive coordinator, said earlier this week that Palmer will start "as long as he's breathing."

"If he starts, I promise you Kansas City is going to try to bring everybody," former All-Pro safety John Lynch said. "They're saying, 'We've got Carson Palmer. He's been away from football all this time. We don't have the threat of him trying to beat us with his legs. We're coming after him.'

"Even though he's the vet of the group, you kind of think he's got the toughest situation."

Really, all of the teams face difficult challenges. More often than not, quarterback changes do not achieve the desired effect.

"As a coach, you're just hoping that this makes a difference," Billick said. "But it rarely does."

sfarmer@tribune.com

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