Well, that was fun while it lasted.
Tebowmania – the phenomenon that hijacked the 2011 season and provided one of the most indelible postseason moments of any year – is dead, at least in Denver.
Even if the Broncos' hot pursuit of Peyton Manning proves to be futile, the organization's actions in the past several days tell us all we need to know. Executive vice president of football operations John Elway and his fellow powerbrokers aren't stressed about the psyche of their current starting quarterback, and that's a cold, hard fact that even the relentlessly positive Tebow will have a hard time overcoming.
One way or the other, I don't see Tebow being The Man in Denver. And while I love Elway and certainly understand his desperate desire to see Manning in a Broncos uniform, I think the kid is getting the shaft.
This sentiment may surprise you, given the degree to which I've been associated with cynicism toward Tebow's quarterbacking ability over the past seven months. Last August, I told you that the Broncos' brass had serious questions about Tebow and that, in a totally fair training-camp competition, he'd be regarded as a fourth-stringer.
In late October, after Tebow's disastrous second start against the Detroit Lions at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, I reported that barring a dramatic and swift improvement over the next game or two, a switch to Brady Quinn was imminent.
And in the days leading up to the Broncos' wild-card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in January, I stated that Tebow could easily be yanked for Quinn – earlier that week, Broncos coach John Fox had contemplated inserting his backup into the game on third downs – and that the young quarterback's future with the franchise was likely on the line.
All of that, as the organization's current full-court press for Manning confirms, was accurate. Tebow's presence was the product of a prior regime, that of former head coach Josh McDaniels, who'd traded up to get him in the first round. Tebow's obvious deficiencies when it came to fundamentals and reading defenses made Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, highly uncomfortable, even as the Hall of Famer joined the rest of the Rockies in embracing the second-year player's other redeeming qualities.
I get why Elway, Fox, general manager Brian Xanders and director of player personnel Matt Russell would be hesitant to go all-in with Tebow and would search for viable alternatives. And obviously Manning, who joins Elway in the non-crowded Greatest Living Quarterbacks V.I.P. Room, is a potentially transformative acquisition that would entice anyone running an NFL franchise.
However, this situation could have been handled far more delicately by the Broncos.
First, a case can be made that Manning's presence in Denver, at least for the 2012 season, would be a good thing for Tebow. Given that Tebow needs time to improve his technique and recognition – and that Manning has mastered his craft like no other quarterback in football history – taking a step back to observe and absorb might have been a semi-appealing prospect.
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Elway and Fox could have gone to Tebow and said this: Look, we want to pursue Peyton Manning. It's a special circumstance, and we think having you learn from him could be the best thing for your long-term development. We'd love for you to embrace it and try it for a year, and then we can all reassess.
Tebow might not have liked it. He may have resisted it with all his might. But it seems as though we'll never know, because from what I can tell the Broncos never brought him into the loop.
Instead, he found out how his bosses really feel about him the way the rest of us did – by watching reports of the Broncos' courtship of Manning at their training facility. That's sort of like turning on ESPN and seeing Brad Pitt getting a tour of your bedroom from your scantily clad wife.
I know – the NFL is a business, and no one's job is an inalienable right. However, the psyche of the franchise quarterback is undeniably different from that of almost any other professional sports employee, and for good reason. So much is asked of a player in that position, on and off the field, 365 days a year, that believing as though the organization has your back is paramount for those who hold the role.
Tebow seems to possess an uncanny supply of optimism, along with an innate ability to block out negativity in the name of competitive considerations. Each time he suffered an apparent indignity during the 2011 season, he seemingly resisted the temptation to engage, instead channeling his energy into proving people wrong and leading from within.
However, though some Tebowphiles might suggest otherwise, he is a human being. Like most quarterbacks who rise to the NFL level, he has a healthy sense of self, and the Broncos' conspicuous push to sign Manning – and the apparent indifference toward Tebow that accompanies it – can't be easy to stomach.
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That brings us to the third reason I believe the Broncos could have handled this better: It could all blow up in their faces.
According to reports, the Broncos have yet to see Manning throw a football. He is coming off four neck surgeries and a lost 2011 season, and there are legitimate concerns as to whether he'll make a complete recovery. He's about to turn 36. At the very least, as with all quarterbacks, he's one brutal hit away from inactivity.
At that point, would Tebow be a viable backup plan? He's a very nice guy, but given recent events, it's tough for me to imagine that – at least behind the scenes – he wouldn't try to nudge his way out of Denver in the near future. A trade to a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars or Miami Dolphins, near the scene of his collegiate glories, makes some sense, at least on paper.
A few months ago, I'd have told you that Tebow probably doesn't have much trade value. However, while some people seem to be pretending as though Tebow's playoff victory over the Steelers didn't happen, I'm fairly confident that it made an impression on at least some NFL coaches and executives. It had to, right?
This is the fourth and final reason I quarrel with the Broncos' approach: They're risking the possibility that potential greatness will elude them, when the evidence was right there in front of their faces not too long ago.
The Steelers had the NFL's top-ranked defense during the regular season. Tebow didn't just throw a dramatic touchdown in overtime; he shredded Pittsburgh's secondary for 316 yards. I realize that the absence of safety Ryan Clark may have played a role, and that veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's game plan (which dared Tebow to beat the Steelers downfield) might have been a tad arrogant, but the film doesn't lie: Tebow rose up and tore up an elite team under the most pressure-packed of circumstances. The dude may not be for everyone, but it's tough for me to believe he doesn't have some serious upside.
If nothing else, it's kind of enticing, isn't it?
In the wake of that Pittsburgh game, I'd have bet a large amount of money that Tebow's immediate future would play out in Colorado. I figured he had at least the 2012 season to show progress and convince his bosses he's a legitimate franchise quarterback.
In theory, that could still happen. Manning could spurn the Broncos and sign elsewhere, and Elway and Fox could try to convince Tebow that he's still their guy and they loved him all along. Rather than holding this against them, Tebow may simply do the Tebow thing and shake it off, put his head down and try to redeem himself through hard work, faith and the force of his will.
More likely, Tebow will decide he's just not that into playing for the Broncos, and I suspect he'll find the feeling is mutual. On a rational level, I understand this. Yet like Tebow's brilliant 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime two months ago, it seems surreal – and some of us never saw it coming.
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- John Elway
- Peyton Manning