They did not chant his name, or give him a standing ovation, or stay out in the heat for an extra two hours just to say they saw him rumble into the end zone against a defense loaded with hangers-on and roster fodder. They did all those things for the man who followed him. Matt Barkley jogged onto Lincoln Financial Field in relative silence, his entrance into the Eagles' 36-10 preseason victory over the Colts just the opening act for Tim Tebow's return to the NFL, as if Barkley were an acoustic singer-songwriter warming up the crowd for the E Street Band.
"Doesn't bother me," Barkley said after the game, and he did well not to grit his teeth as he spoke. He went 12 for 20 for 192 yards and an interception in just less than two quarters of action, and it happened to him Sunday just like it happened to Kyle Orton in Denver and Mark Sanchez in New York: the questions about Tebow, the ripples of his popularity fanning out until they reach the other quarterbacks on the team, until you start noticing them roll their eyes during those postgame media scrums. Orton eventually surrendered his starting job to him, and in 2012, exhausted by all the inquiries about Tebow's role, Sanchez captured the Jets' misbegotten decision to trade for Tebow in three words: "Selling seats, man." The ripples never stop.
"He's a fan favorite and he's a good teammate," Barkley said. "He played well today for not playing in a year or two, whatever it's been. He did a good job. It's pretty funny to see their reaction. He's loved everywhere he goes, as he should be. He's a great person. Love him as a teammate."
Notice the qualifiers in that Barkley quote, the omissions. Tebow played well - six completions in 12 attempts, 69 passing yards, a 7-yard rushing touchdown - for someone who hadn't seen NFL action of any kind since 2013. He's a great person, not a great quarterback. You have to love him as a teammate, but as a guy who might end up as the Eagles' No. 3 quarterback? No, Matt Barkley does not have to love that.
It would be damn difficult for him to have another reaction. Put yourself in his place. If this competition were coming down to the conventional methods that coaches use to evaluate a quarterback, it wouldn't be much of a contest. Barkley would win. He has more experience in Chip Kelly's offense. He made quicker decisions Sunday. He's a better, more accurate passer than Tebow, demonstrating as much on his first two completions: a 26-yard crossing route to Jordan Matthews and a 39-yard sideline fade to Miles Austin. He began the game as if he wanted to prove something to Kelly, or to Tebow, or even to any other team looking for quarterback depth and willing to trade for it.
"I just wanted to play good football," he said. "If that did make a statement, then so be it."
None of this makes Barkley a starting-caliber NFL quarterback. It just makes him more polished and capable than Tebow, who is still trying to prove that he has refined his footwork and throwing motion enough to survive in the league. But with Kelly, a coach happy to have and use a quarterback who can run like a rhino, the customary definitions of "polished" and "capable" don't necessarily apply.
Tebow went on and on about his love for Kelly's system, about its pace and tempo and innovation. "It's a blessing to play in it," he said, and he's closer to the truth than he might appreciate, because Kelly places a higher value on mobility and versatility - the strengths that Tebow does possess - than other coaches do. To Kelly, that's Tebow's allure. Barkley is the safer choice, but Tebow offers some tantalizing possibilities and options, if Kelly can just tweak some things.
Though Kelly absolved Barkley of blame for the interception - a tipped pass by a linebacker who should have been blocked - he was even more forgiving of Tebow. Barkley was out there with some backups, but Tebow had nothing but third- and fourth-stringers alongside him, and if Tebow held the ball in the pocket too long just like he used to, if he took some unnecessary sacks just like the ones he used to take, Kelly sure sounded like he was grading the performance on a healthy curve.
"They've got to be able to do it all, but you also have to look at who's in with who," Kelly said. "There was a different set of receivers for Matt than what Timmy had, really a different line at times. There are a couple of times where Timmy held the ball, and it looks like, 'Why is he doing that?' Well, the receiver ran the wrong route. . . . We had a couple of busts out there."
There's little doubt that Kelly is dying for this experiment to work. So doesn't Barkley have to be wondering what else is out there, who else might be interested in him? "That's my agent's job," he said in the locker room after the cameras had let him alone. "We'll probably talk after this game, but I'm not checking message boards or headlines or anything like that." He might want to start. It gets awfully quiet back there, in Tim Tebow's wake.