Two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history just hooked up on a "Go" route for the ages, and there's no question which one feels like walking around with his arms raised to the heavens in celebration.
No matter what Peyton Manning does as a Denver Bronco, John Elway just threw the executive's equivalent of a game-winning touchdown pass.
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Elway, since taking over as the Broncos' top football executive 14 months ago, has been looking for a quarterback befitting of his Hall of Fame legacy, or at least someone doing a decent impersonation. Instead, thanks to an against-the-grain decision by the prior regime and a stunning series of dramatic developments during the surreal 2011 season, he got Tebowmania – and it wasn't going away.
And thanks to Manning's equally extraordinary divorce from the Indianapolis Colts, Elway saw an opening – a bold, emphatic way to rid himself of Tim Tebow without causing an insurrection in the Rockies.
On Monday, Elway learned that he'd found his target, with Manning choosing the Broncos over the Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers. To say the reaction at the Broncos' Dove Valley training facility was one of jubilation would be an understatement. Sure, the notion of landing one of the greatest players in league history was a pick-me-upper. However, there was also a decided ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead strain to the exultation, as unfair and irrational as that may seem.
While Elway liked Tebow personally and appreciated the poise and leadership skills that the young quarterback displayed in taking the Broncos from the brink of irrelevance to the second round of the 2011 playoffs, the executive vice president of football operations was not enthused about the prospect of handing him the keys to the franchise.
And make no mistake – from Elway's perspective, this was a car that was spinning out of control.
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The gist of the problem: Tebow, who completed just 46.5 percent of his passes and struggled with reading defenses, lacked so many of the fundamentals Elway regarded as necessary to play the position at a high level. There was hope that Tebow could develop, but there was no guarantee it would happen, at least to a level that would approach Elway's comfort zone.
Because former coach Josh McDaniels had traded up to select Tebow in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft – thereby assigning a higher value to the former Florida star than virtually any of his peers – the organizational investment alone compelled Elway to throw the kid out there once Denver struggled to a 1-4 start last fall. And then, after a rocky beginning, Tebow made magic, and the Rockies fell in love.
Even as Tebow put together a series of unfathomable victories, Elway still wasn't down with the program. Yet eventually, Tebowmania grew to such proportions that Elway and the Broncos' other decision-makers resigned themselves to at least another season of trying to make it work.
That changed after Tebow's horrendous play at the end of the regular season, though the Broncos still managed to back into an AFC West title. In the days leading up to Denver's wild-card playoff game against the Steelers – with the Broncos at one point considering a game plan in which backup Brady Quinn would enter the game on third downs – Tebow truly was playing for his future in Denver.
The kid came through with an indelible postseason performance and an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime. Even as he celebrated wildly on the sidelines, Elway had that sick, sinking feeling in his stomach – Tebowmania had become such a formidable force that even Colorado's most legendary athletic hero would have been vilified for pulling the plug.
The plan was to spend an entire offseason trying to turn Tebow into a more traditional quarterback while crafting a hybrid offense that allowed him to play to his strengths (mobility, improvisation, surveying the defense out of the shotgun, throwing "Go" routes to single-covered receivers as his first and only read) while ideally expanding his skill set on the fly. Needless to say, Elway, coach John Fox and others in the organization weren't overly thrilled with the blueprint.
Manning's impending release changed everything. Surely, the possibility of landing a future Hall of Famer was exhilarating in and of itself. But Manning's acquisition, to Elway, carried even more promise. It was a way – possibly the only way – to move on from Tebow without having to explain himself to anyone.
There's faith, and there's cold, hard fact: Even Tebow's biggest admirers have to concede that a remotely healthy Manning is a major upgrade over a captivating but flawed quarterback with 16 career NFL starts (including postseason). Manning is the type of presence who can transform a franchise, who can figuratively grab 52 other players by the throat and show them exactly what it takes to perform at the highest level.
He's a quarterback who inspires tangible, logical belief, the way Elway did during a career in which he guided the Broncos to five Super Bowls and their only two championships.
As I pointed out last week, none of this is especially fair to Tebow, a relentlessly optimistic person with a great deal of theoretical upside. I feel badly for him, but in a way, I think this could be a good thing for his future.
Playing for a boss who ultimately doesn't believe in you is not an optimal situation. It's mentally taxing and emotionally piercing, even for someone as self-assured and positive as Tebow. Being a franchise quarterback carries so much responsibility that if the player in question doesn't feel as though everyone in the organization has his back, it's tough to survive and thrive. Put another way, it's difficult to lead when the most important person in the organization questions the direction of the journey.
So what happens now?
The Broncos, according to sources within the organization, will now try to trade Tebow, and my sense is they won't be trying to drive a hard bargain. Their organizational gain is Manning's arrival and Tebow's departure, and if the Jacksonville Jaguars or Miami Dolphins don't step up with a decent offer, look for the Broncos to try to solicit a semi-decent one. If it comes down to it, even though Tebow's salary is relatively low, Elway may simply release him, reasoning that Tebowmania must move on at any cost.
There's no guarantee that the acquisition of Manning will work out the way Elway wants it to. We're talking about a quarterback who turns 36 next week and is coming off four neck surgeries. Though Elway obviously saw enough during Manning's throwing session at Duke University last week to convince him to offer a reported $90-million-plus over five years, it's possible he won't be getting the same passer who had that 13-season run of brilliance in Indy.
If the Manning era starts out choppily, however, both legendary quarterbacks will be able to withstand it. Whereas others might wilt under the backdrop of Tebowmania Scorned, Manning is a huge personality who wouldn't even dignify such sentiment.
Elway, meanwhile, just inoculated himself from reproach. His de facto defense to anyone who Monday-morning-quarterbacks this decision: It's PEYTON (EXPLETIVE) MANNING. What was I supposed to do – not go after him? Child, please …
Given the collapsing pocket that the Mile High City had become, Elway believed this was his best and only option. This was a risk the old gunslinger had to take, and as has been his custom, Elway's aim was true.
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- John Elway