ENGLEWOOD, Colo. ? Kyle Orton has gone from Jay Cutler's replacement to Tim Tebow's backup to the unemployment line.
The Broncos released the 29-year-old veteran quarterback Tuesday, six weeks after benching him following a 1-4 start.
"I spoke with Kyle earlier today and thanked him for everything he did for the Broncos. He was a true professional throughout this season. I've got a great deal of respect for him as both a player and as a person," coach John Fox said in a statement.
"This was the right decision for our football team. We feel good about our quarterback group, and this gives Kyle an opportunity to help another team and showcase his talents."
Orton shouldn't stay unemployed for long.
Although he's a vested veteran with seven NFL seasons under his belt, Orton is subject to the waiver rules because he was released after the trade deadline. If another team claims him, it will be responsible for about $3 million in salary, which is what remains of his roughly $9 million contract for 2011. If nobody claims him, he'll be free to sign with anybody.
Two intriguing possibilities are the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans. Both are in the thick of the playoff race at 7-3 but have problems under center, and another potential destination is AFC West rival Kansas City.
Cutler broke the thumb on his right throwing hand last weekend and might miss the rest of the regular season. His backup is Caleb Hanie. The Bears visit the Broncos on Dec. 11.
Matt Schaub of the Texans is out for weeks with a right foot injury and he's been replaced by previously underachieving Matt Leinart.
Matt Cassel hurt his throwing hand in the Chiefs' 17-10 loss to Denver on Nov. 13 and had season-ending surgery the next day. His replacement, Tyler Palko, threw three interceptions in his first start, a 34-3 loss at New England on Monday night.
John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations, called Orton an "absolute pro," and said he decided against keeping him on the roster through the remainder of the season.
"We thought it was best for the Broncos at this time as well as for Kyle to catch on with a different team," Elway said. "Kyle is going to have more options in the NFL. He'll get an opportunity to play somewhere else, and we wish him the best of luck."
The Broncos didn't announce a corresponding roster move, but one possibility was the promotion of rookie quarterback Adam Weber from the practice squad.
Orton was acquired in 2009 in the Cutler trade with the Bears and he won his first six starts in Denver before going 6-21. He passed for 3,000-plus yards in each of his first two seasons in Denver after spending his first four seasons in Chicago.
The Broncos tried to trade Orton after the NFL lockout ended in July but talks with Miami broke down and Fox threw open the quarterback competition, something for which Tebow proved ill-prepared.
Orton decisively outplayed Tebow in training camp for a second straight season but he turned ordinary when the games started to count, turning the ball over nine times and losing a string of winnable games and the organization's confidence.
Orton's slide hit bottom Oct. 9 when he went 6 for 13 for 34 yards in the first half against the Chargers and threw his seventh interception, tied for most in the league at the time.
Fox sent in Tebow to start the second half and after a slow start, the former Florida star sparked a listless offense to within a last-gasp pass of coming back against San Diego.
"I'm disappointed with everything," Orton said at the time. "I wish I could have played better, I wish we had a better record, I wish a lot of things, but the reality is what it is."
The next day, Fox pulled Orton aside before team meetings and informed him he had decided to go all-in on Tebow.
Orton pledged to be a good teammate and stay ready in case his number was called again, but Tebow has gone 4-1 with the Broncos tailoring their offense to his unique skill set and reintroducing the option to the NFL.
When the Broncos were walloped by the Lions in Tebow's second start, Brady Quinn leapfrogged Orton as the primary backup and appeared close to getting his shot under center. But Fox stuck with Tebow, albeit with the caveat that it was a week-to-week proposition.
Since then, Tebow has won all three of his starts and engineered fourth-quarter comebacks against the Raiders and Jets to go with his miracle in Miami, when he led the Broncos back from a 15-point deficit in the closing minutes for a win in overtime.
On Monday, Elway said on his weekly radio show, however, that he wasn't sold on Tebow as the long-term answer at quarterback, saying the second-year pro has to become a better passer and improve on third downs.
Tebow is completing just 44.8 percent of his passes and Denver was 1 for 11 on third downs last week before its game-winning, 95-yard touchdown drive that stunned the Jets 17-13.
Several teammates said Orton was anything but a cancer in the locker room in recent weeks, even though it had become obvious he was biding his time until his first foray into unfettered free agency as a healthy QB in his prime and with a .500 record as a starter.
Yet, his demotion did create some awkward moments. He kept his captainship after losing his starting job and would help lead the team during warm-ups before watching the less accurate but more mobile Tebow take the bulk of the snaps during the week.
Orton was still held in high esteem in the Broncos locker room, especially by veterans such as Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman, who said at the time of Orton's benching that they felt he was being unfairly singled out as the reason for the team's bad start.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed. Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton