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Jay Cutler is missed in Chicago, but Broncos fans prefer Tim Tebow

Jay Cutler (left) Tim Tebow. | AP

Jay Cutler (left) and Tim Tebow. | AP

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In a Denver Post poll, only 13 percent of Broncos fans said the Jay Cutler trade was ‘‘a great move,’’ but they prefer Tim Tebow to Cutler (and Kyle Orton) by a 55-31 margin.

Updated: January 10, 2012 8:28AM

DENVER — After the Denver Broncos squandered a commanding AFC West lead by losing their last three games in 2008, guard Chris Kuper expected management to build on a young, talented team.

“We had a young core group of guys,” said Kuper, part of the Broncos’ 2006 draft class that included quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, tight end Tony Scheffler and defensive end Elvis Dumervil. “We were banking on this group getting better throughout the years.”

But days after the regular season ended, the Broncos fired longtime coach Mike Shanahan and, weeks later, hired New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as coach.

Even after that, Kuper assumed changes were on the horizon, except at one position: quarterback.

“That was a position where you thought, ‘That’s solid for 10 years,’ ’’ Kuper said. “When Jay got traded, it was a shock.”

In April 2009, the Bears acquired Cutler and a fifth-round pick from Denver for Kyle Orton, two first-round picks and a third-round pick.

Cutler returned to Denver during the 2009 preseason, but he was slated to make his regular-season debut in another jersey at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday as the Bears’ starting quarterback. When the schedule was announced, the idea of Cutler starting opposite Orton was one of the more intriguing games.

But Cutler will be on the sideline, Orton will be a backup for the Kansas City Chiefs at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and the starting quarterbacks at Mile High will be Caleb Hanie and Tim Tebow.

“It would’ve been fun,” Dumervil said of facing Cutler. “We came in the same year. But Hanie is the guy right now, and that’s who I got to worry about getting.”

Popular radio personality Sandy Clough of 104.3 The Fan said there might have been appeal if Orton were still the Broncos’ starting quarterback. But pitting Cutler against Tebow is much harder. Besides, Clough said, the anti-Cutler venom has dissipated.

“There was buzz when Cutler came in during the preseason in 2009. That was the equivalent of a regular-season game,” said Clough, who has been doing talk radio in the area for 32 years. “But two years removed, I think some of the embers have cooled on this a little bit.”

A poll in the Denver Post reinforced Clough’s point.

Of the 8,540 respondents as of Thursday evening, 13 percent said the Cutler trade was, and is, “a great move,” while 31 percent wish Cutler were still here. But an overwhelming 55 percent responded to, “Who cares, Tebow is better than both” Cutler and Orton.

In fact, Tebow has become the biggest story in the NFL. One of college football’s most successful players at Florida, Tebow replaced Orton during the bye after a 1-4 start, and he has posted a 6-1 record, including five wins in a row.

He isn’t omnipresent in Denver. The Broncos have carefully monitored his media availability, and Tebow has resisted a chance to sell his likeness to the highest bidders around town. He doesn’t appear in an overwhelming number of TV commercials, and his most visible billboard — a digital one in north Denver — is sponsored by the Multiline International Imports company that implored the Broncos to start Tebow in September and has hailed his play ever since.

“The Mile High spark is back,” the billboard beamed in October.

The last time there was a legitimate spark was in ’08, when Cutler had a Pro Bowl season and led the league’s No. 2-ranked offense. But Cutler clashed with McDaniels, whom he didn’t trust. McDaniels didn’t own up to his interest in trading for Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel, even though Cutler directly asked him about that rumor.

Then in a later meeting, McDaniels reiterated that any player, including Cutler, could be traded.

“I could see where he was coming from,’’ Broncos All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey said. ‘‘Young quarterback, he could kind of control where he ends up and what happens next. But [Cutler] got exactly what he wanted, going to a nice organization and a storied franchise.”

McDaniels, though, struggled in Denver, and he was ousted after a 3-9 start in 2010.

“So much happened,’’ Dumervil said. ‘‘There was a lot of he-said, she-said stuff. That’s something I can’t speak on because I don’t know the details. I don’t know who’s right or wrong, but I know they’re both not here.

“Those are blur moments. It’s in the rearview mirror.”

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