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Peyton Manning must reward Broncos by winning

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

John Elway, the Denver Broncos' Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-executive, and John Fox, their charismatic coach, turned into master recruiters of Peyton Manning.

They offered lengthy visits to the facility. They had friendly meals. On demand they scrambled the team jet for a private workout, physical and further opportunity to preach the virtues of a Rocky Mountain autumn.

Denver did everything it could to sell Peyton Manning on what it could do for him.

Now Manning needs to prove that the Broncos' work and faith were worth it and do something in return for them.

Win. And win big.

Manning ended his brief but high-profile free agency Monday by choosing the Broncos over other finalists San Francisco and Tennessee. Manning and the Broncos are reportedly working on a five-year deal worth around $90 million to $95 million.

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He'll be the Broncos' starter in 2012 as long as his positive recovery continues from four neck surgeries that cost him the 2011 season and his four-MVP run with the Indianapolis Colts. The fact that he worked out for three teams – and passed three separate physicals – speaks well to his future.

At least physically.

Manning's other critical attribute is his ability to raise the game of everyone around him. His dedication to preparation and practice, his mood-setting work ethic, his offseason drills with even fifth and sixth receivers all created an attitude in Indianapolis that resulted in nine consecutive trips to the playoffs and one Super Bowl.

The Colts, however, were Manning's franchise. Can a soon-to-be 36-year-old arrive clear out of the blue and put the same imprint on the Broncos? And can he do that while accepting a different level and style of coaching, one from a group of game-planners so smart they invented a Tim Tebow-friendly offense on the fly last year?

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Manning took on too much of an offensive coordinator role his last few years in Indianapolis. It was understandable; at least to a point. His ability to read defenses and call plays on the fly made the Colts a difficult matchup for defensive coordinators. Yet everyone needs coaching. Everyone needs an outside voice on a game plan.

This experiment will thrive if he brings his concentration and dedication to a game plan built for him, but not solely about him.

And it needs to thrive for both parties. Manning didn't go through this entire Tour of America unless he was focused on finding the place to win another Super Bowl. And the Broncos didn't risk blowing up the confidence of their young quarterback (Tebow) unless they thought Peyton could put them over the top.

Manning is the starter now. Manning is the star. What will happen to Tebow is anyone's guess. His emotional play in the second half of last season became the story of the NFL and helped lead the Broncos to the divisional round of the playoffs.

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It was exciting. It was inspiring. It also never fooled most people inside the NFL, who saw Tebow as benefiting mostly from a stingy defense that allowed Denver to hang around until the end of games, numerous opponent miscues and a lot of just dumb luck.

Tebow was big with the fans. He's sure to take his demotion with the same big smile and positive words he always does – an opportunity to learn.

Through all Tebowmania, however, what's clear is that at no time were the Broncos convinced he was truly the quarterback of the future. In this cutthroat business, the reality is everyone is always looking for a better option.

Tebow could be dealt or cut or just told to bide his time. He isn't an ideal backup because his style of play requires a significant overhaul of the offense. Maybe he can find a team to build around him, although there are not a lot of obvious takers. Fame and feel-good stories don't count for much in football.

Manning provides Elway and Fox the political cover to push Tebow aside. The Denver fans who once erected a billboard for Tebow aren't going to rebel when they just signed a guy who, if healthy, is one of the top three quarterbacks in the NFL.

The "if" remains an "if," of course. The Colts believed early on that Manning's future was limited and cut him earlier this month. Indy decided it would rather pick Stanford's Andrew Luck No. 1 overall in next month's NFL draft than keep Manning and trade the pick for four or more draft picks.

Denver, Tennessee and San Francisco – all of whom watched Manning throw live last week and had a team of doctors look him over – appear to believe he has a lot more game in his neck and a still strengthening arm.

Manning in Denver makes the Broncos the X-factor of the NFL. It's ripe with potential and possibilities. There's a good receiving corps featuring Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. There's the resurgence of running back Willis McGahee.

And there is that defense that should get even better behind outside linebacker Von Miller.

Tebowmania counted for something, but competent, down-the-field, deep-out, smart-play-calling-at-the-line-of-scrimmage quarterbacking always counts for more in the NFL. Manning is capable of delivering that like few others.

Manning took his time in making this decision. He kept his circle small, as always. It was mostly his decision, the same way it was when he decided to choose the University of Tennessee or decided to return for his senior year of college.

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There is no question he saw the Broncos' potential. He saw a team that won a division and a playoff game with a limited-skilled quarterback at the helm. There is no doubt Manning believes he will produce better than Tim Tebow. And if he does, Denver is a contender.

Denver sold Manning on that vision; a Super Bowl in his final comeback act. He agreed this was the place to make it happen. Now he just has to prove he is right.

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