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.
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Tim Tebow went 8-5 as Denver's starting QB last season, including a playoff win against Pittsburgh.
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. [ Related: Reasons why Jaguars should deal for Tim Tebow ]
The courtship of Peyton Manning has Denver buzzing.
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. [ Free-agency primer: Offensive stars ]
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.
Peyton Manning's departure from the Indianapolis Colts sets up a rare opportunity.
For the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Broncos are wooing Manning, which could mean Tebow hits the market. Denver team president John Elway will likely want an early-round pick for Tebow.
That's a steal for the Jags. But isn't this just a short-sighted gimmick to get fans into the seats?
It's much more than that. Jacksonville already has a strong fan base -- stronger than most non-Floridians realize. But the franchise doesn't have much of an identity. Most think of it as a team drowning in blackouts and move-to-Los-Angeles rumors -- or worse, the team that let Tom Coughlin go. Trading for Tebow changes the plot for at least a year and maybe much longer. The Jags immediately become watchable -- not just at home but nationwide.
And this isn't a dismissal of Blaine Gabbert as a quarterback of the future. New head coach Mike Mularkey can still develop Gabbert just like many other young quarterbacks have developed in the NFL -- including Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers.
No, this is a play for the here and now, a low-risk, high-reward move that will probably not make a 5-11 team any worse and might make the Jags considerably better.
But how's that going to happen? Tebow can't throw and can't master a complex offense. He just got lucky.
Well, he's been "lucky" for a while now. He was a lot luckier in college than Peyton Manning was. And he was a lot luckier in his first full season as an NFL starter than Manning. At what point does Tebow's luck become a trend? And when that happens, do the Jags want to be the hometown franchise that passed up not one but two chances at Tebow? As new owner Shad Khan said in a radio interview not too long ago:
"I think, when is the next time Jacksonville is going to have an athlete like Tim Tebow? Coming from being raised in Illinois, I couldn't see Red Grange playing for anybody other than the Bears or Dick Butkus playing for anybody other than the Bears. I don't want to get into 20/20 hindsight, and God help us, the draft record has not been the best with the Jaguars."
Nobody within the Jags organization has said anything about going after Tebow, but Khan is an opportunistic businessman. He's not a carnival barker, but he's unlikely to be affected by the herd mentality on Tebow -- which has been largely wrong.
The Jags are in a good position to build around Tebow. Their only superstar on offense is Maurice Jones-Drew, who could surely co-exist with a running quarterback. Jones-Drew made the Pro Bowl without the help of any Pro Bowl linemen, so it's not like the pass blocking is stellar. And raise your hand if you can name a superstar wideout on Jacksonville. Exactly -- you can't.
But how will the Jags contend for a Super Bowl without a Pro Bowl caliber passer?
Same way the Baltimore Ravens did with Trent Dilfer: Build a stellar defense and put the ball into the hands of a quarterback who doesn't turn over the ball. Look at how close the Jets got to the Super Bowl with Mark Sanchez. Look at how the sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers did in the 2006 Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger turning in an abomination of a performance under center. And although there were plenty of high-octane offenses in the NFC this year, they all fell apart when faced with the front four of the Giants and the 49ers. How are the Niners a Super Bowl threat with Alex Smith and there's no way on Earth the Jags can contend with Tim Tebow?
But the spread option doesn't work in the NFL!
Correction: It doesn't work with the quarterbacks who have tried it before. That doesn't mean it can't work. Of course Antwaan Randle-El, Eric Crouch and Charlie Ward aren't going to be durable quarterbacks. Those guys are all undersized. Tebow is not. Tebow's a monster. He took an SEC-style beating for four years and hardly missed any time. He got through most of an NFL season without injury. And he's not going to just run away from contact and lessen his options down the field. He's going to take a hit to make a play -- just like all the great quarterbacks do. And he can throw the ball accurately; it just doesn't look pretty.
But if they build around Tebow, and he's a bust, then it'll take forever to rebuild around Gabbert.
Not so. Build around defense. If Tebow fails, you already have a strong defense and then you add a couple of good wideouts. With Tebow or with Gabbert, you still need a great running game and you still need at least one good tight end. If Tebow is a colossal failure, we're all going to find out this season. It's not like Gabbert is going to lose all his talent in that time. And not to be callous, but if the Jags go 0-16, are they that much worse off than they are right now?
But what's the upside here? Win a few more games and sell some more jerseys?
That's the problem with Tebow hatred. We have no idea what his upside is. He turned around a lagging team and won a playoff game in his first year as a starter. How many have done that? Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn sure didn't. Yes, the Broncos had a great defense. But they had that defense before Tebow took over. People scoff at his "winner" label like it's something uttered by Charlie Sheen, but Tebow has the will of two and a half men (ha!) and clearly his teammates believe in him. Isn't half the battle won in the huddle? Isn't work ethic contagious? How many Jags want to be the slacker standing next to Tim Tebow? People just assume Tebow is already as good as he ever will be. But they assumed that a year ago, and two years ago, and after his Heisman Trophy winning season at Florida. He's gotten better. How do we know he won't keep getting better? Answer: we don't.
This isn't about marketing. It's about winning. And that's something Tim Tebow knows better than just about any third-year quarterback in the NFL. That's worth a second-round pick.
Without taking a snap for the Broncos, Peyton Manning has engineered one of the biggest upsets in the history of a storied NFL franchise. He killed Tebowmania.
After the anticipation of a Hall of Fame quarterback wearing orange and blue, how can Denver possibly go back to Tim Tebow?
With all due respect to Manning and his recent medical issues, however, the quarterback who has his neck on the line is Broncos executive John Elway.
Elway, whose fourth-quarter comebacks earned him a reputation as one of the greatest closers in league history, had better not botch this deal with Manning.
Elway can beat anybody in the football aspect of the deal. He's a bigger star in the game than Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He's a more appealing boss than Miami coach Joe Philbin. The fact Manning has scheduled a visit with Tennessee is not nearly as concerning as if Houston were a serious suitor. Major props to Elway for selling Denver as an attractive destination for Manning, who would rather watch NFL videotape than play golf.
Next on the schedule: the money game.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is worth $3.1 billion. He can give Manning a blank check during the contract negotiation phase.
Here's the chance for Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to step up against a financial heavyweight and prove winning still matters as much in Denver as when taxpayers built a stadium during the glory years.
Bravo to Bowlen for his willingness to play a high-stakes game, especially when the prize is a quarterback who is damaged goods, no matter how well he's throwing the football.
That's why Elway can't afford to be wrong.
From expensive whiffs on free agents to the lukewarm response of customers to playoff tickets, I would argue the long, beautiful relationship between coach Mike Shanahan and Bowlen broke up over the same issue that causes many divorces: money.
During the final months of the Josh McDaniels' regime, anybody with ears heard private grousing about the team's budgetary restraints.
And now Elway wants to gamble millions on a 35-year-old quarterback who missed the entire 2011 season after neck-fusion surgery?
Hey, it could work. As long as his brilliant football mind is functioning, Manning has a distinct advantage over any player in the stadium. Heck, Elway won the Super Bowl twice after surgery on his throwing arm left his biceps looking like an ice cream cone that dropped a scoop on the sidewalk.
With stellar cornerback Champ Bailey turning 34 years old in June and 68 candles on Bowlen's most recent birthday cake, it's easy to understand the urgency for Denver winning now by any of us who see gray hair in the mirror.
But unlike Houston or San Francisco, the Broncos need more than a healthy, all-star quarterback to be a serious Super Bowl contender.
Elway refused to go all-in with Tebow.
Now it's Manning or bust.
Don't get me wrong. Manning is a major upgrade over Tebow. Acquiring Manning as a free agent would allow Elway and general manager Brian Xanders to address needs at defensive tackle and safety in early rounds of the NFL draft. That part of the architectural plan makes sense.
But it would be crazy optimistic, if not downright foolish, to expect the Manning of 2012 to replicate the 49 touchdown passes and 4,557 yards he produced in 2004. Let's hope Manning can be as effective as Brett Favre was in his late 30s.
If Tebow was miffed when his starting job with the Broncos was grabbed away from him last year in training camp, he understands now that loyalty is the most meaningless word in the NFL. He made a wretched team relevant. He beat Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh in the playoffs. What's that worth? A kick in the teeth by a Colt, if Manning wants a locker at Dove Valley.
Tebow might forgive the Broncos' dalliance with Manning, but he would be a fool to forget it. The shine is off Tebowmania in Denver.
What's Plan B? A major letdown.
It would be hard to serve the idea of Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden after the city has drooled in anticipation of a quarterback with a Hall of Fame spot already reserved in Canton, Ohio.
At this point, the Broncos need Manning more than Manning needs the Broncos.
So here are three friendly words of advice for Mr. Elway:
Cut that meat.
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