John Elway said that if he could pick someone to marry his daughter it'd be Tim Tebow. Peyton Manning claimed, "I'm a fan of his." Both the Denver Broncos' executive vice president and his prized free-agent signing declared Tuesday, repeatedly, that Tebow is a great player.
Then the two Hall of Famers (one current, one future) – the two chosen ones of the NFL – kept laughing and smiling about their future in Denver, a future without Tebow.
What if Manning gets hurt, Elway was asked. What's Plan B?
"Plan B?" Elway said, incredulous. "We don't have a Plan B. We're going with Plan A."
So, it's all but official: Manning in and Tebow out in Denver. Two and a half months ago Tebow delivered an overtime touchdown pass to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, the pinnacle of a season where he rescued the Broncos.
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Now he's all but gone. Elway told him he might be traded and that means he will be traded.
It also means Tebow's NFL career, brief as it has been, is at a crossroads. And the reason isn't merely that he isn't as good of a quarterback as Manning.
"He said, 'we're talking about Peyton Manning and I understand exactly what you're doing,' " Elway said of his conversation with Tebow on Monday, when the news of Manning's acquisition was explained.
Actually, we're not really talking about Peyton Manning. Oh, Manning provided the perfect cover here, the perfect solution to the Tebow dilemma. This may have been the most polite and uplifting public firing ever – Tebow could've signed a lifetime contract and gotten less praise then he did Tuesday.
It doesn't mean the message wasn't clear. It was the ultimate "it's-not-you, it's-us" breakup, except it was really "it's-not-you, it's-your-fans."
Tebowmania is overwhelming Tebow.
Let's be clear here, Denver made the best possible decision in signing Manning. It is apparent that Manning is recovering well from his neck ailments that cost him the 2011 season and his 14-year run in Indianapolis. He both worked out for and subjected himself to medical evaluations from three separate teams. All liked what they saw.
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"That kind of liberated me a bit," Manning said.
If he's back, then Denver just got one of the top three or four quarterbacks in the game. So this is a move to compete for a Super Bowl, which Elway noted was the only real goal of the franchise.
Yet, Denver thinks it can do that better without Tebow as a reserve even though he is a 24-year-old former first-round draft pick who came off the bench last year and saved the season. It believes this even though the franchise raved about his work ethic, professionalism and the way he carries himself as a person. It is convinced even though he couldn't have accepted the news of his demotion any better.
"He is a great kid," Elway said. "If there is one guy I want to marry my daughter it's him."
And yet he isn't a suitable backup?
Denver knows Tebow isn't good enough in a traditional offense and, to use the term in a way it perhaps never has before, his "baggage" (i.e. popularity) is too great to have sitting on the bench. Even behind a four-time MVP.
"It would be our goal to get him in the best situation for him to have success also," Elway said.
Well, there are two options here. One is a franchise that will restructure its entire offense and commit fully to him for the extended future. That is, almost by definition, a team that both isn't very good and is very desperate to sell tickets.
The other is a place with a rock-solid starting quarterback, a strong-willed head coach and a creative mindset to find a use for him. Ideally, that's the New England Patriots.
He isn't a very attractive backup. He isn't an ideal guy for a quarterback derby. The fan pressure could be too great. If two legends such as John Elway and Peyton Manning don't want him on the depth chart, then how do less-established, less-legendary combinations take that route?
At this point Tebow is a prisoner to his own off-the-field popularity, a rather tough reality considering he didn't really try to create it in the first place. No, Tebow hasn't shied away from attention or outreach or providing a running testimony for his faith.
However, he also has turned down a million chances to feed the fire. This could be bigger. Way bigger. He could be basking in this popularity far more than he is. Instead he remains a mostly low-key, off-the-beaten path, just-give-me-a-chance-to-improve kind of guy.
It's the people around him, including some of his own fans, that create the circus that he must overcome.
The best place for Tebow is actually within a system of an established organization. In Green Bay or New Orleans or certainly New England, he could ride out this storm and maybe learn from a guy who is clearly better than him.
The Patriots would be ideal because Tom Brady is the unquestioned king of the franchise and Bill Belichick would never bend to the will of anyone. So it's no use trying.
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Belichick was intrigued enough in Tebow to bring him in during the 2010 predraft process. The Pats' current offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, was the coach in Denver when the Broncos drafted Tebow. They've spent years finding unique ways to use the uniquely talented – which means Tebow would be contributing, but not causing a quarterback controversy.
The best thing to happen to Aaron Rodgers was spending three seasons in Green Bay learning how to be a quarterback under Brett Favre. Brady sat behind Drew Bledsoe. A similar internship might be the ideal career path for Tebow.
For Tebow to get thrown into a franchise role with an organization that wants him as much for his box-office pull as football ability would be risky. Tebow will spin turn-styles in Jacksonville or Miami, but since when did that plan ever win games? And it's one thing for an owner to want you, but what of the actual football staff?
"If football is No. 1 [a franchise has] got a chance to be competitive in the NFL," Elway said, speaking of Denver's insistent on putting business interests second.
It should serve as an unintended bit of advice for Tim Tebow.
He's the first to say he needs to work on his game. He's never had consistent pro coaching and a full NFL offseason to improve. He's never had a real plan.
And if he ends up in the wrong place, he isn't going to get one.
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On Tuesday, Tebow had to watch one of football's most surreal moments, a press conference to essentially announce his firing, where he was praised relentlessly by two of the all-time greats.
They hailed him for his intangibles. They noted his ability. They swore by his potential. They couldn't have been nicer.
And they couldn't have been showing him the door any faster.
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- John Elway