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On Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow, and the Packers

As Peyton Manning to the Broncos becomes official today, I want to re-visit how we got here; I’ve been both very perceptive and very wrong throughout this process. Prior to Week 14, when the Broncos had gone 6-1 after a 1-4 start and Tebowmania was running rampant, I wrote about John Elway’s visible disdain for Tebow’s success:

2. The funniest subplot in the NFL right now is when Tim Tebow does something good and the cameras point to John Elway.

It is visually obvious that Elway hates Tebow’s success more than anybody. Every time Tebow runs for a first down, miraculously completes a pass, or leads a game winning drive, we see Elway initially look disgusted before realizing that the cameras are on him and forcing a smile that looks much more like a grimace.

While Elway is aware that the cameras are on him, it’s unclear if he realizes what his body language implies. Elway clearly believes that Tebow’s success is not sustainable, wants to build the franchise around a conventional quarterback, but is paralyzed by what he perceives as fluky success. Only the Broncos keep winning which serves the dual purpose of making Tebow harder to unseat and giving the Broncos a worse draft slot, making it more difficult to pick an elite quarterback.

Elway refuses to give Tebow a vote of confidence as long-term starter. Unfortunately for him, it really doesn’t appear as if he’s going to have a choice.

But, when I was trying to figure out where Manning would end up, I didn’t think that Elway would have the stones to unseat Tebow, ranking the Broncos at a tie for Manning’s 23rd-most likely destination, writing, “It’d be really, really fun if Elway tried to make a move but I don’t see Manning signing with a team whose fans would crucify the decision.”

As it turned out, Peyton Manning was the only panacea for Tebowmania and Elway rifled his fastball through lunging defenders (Titans + 49ers + many more) for the completion. I was, however, right that it’s been really, really fun.

Yahoo’s Mike Silver confirmed my suspicion that Elway wanted nothing to do with developing Tebow, who he inherited from the failed Josh McDaniels regime:

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.

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.

In jettisoning Tebow and adding Manning, the Broncos undoubtedly raise their ceiling. If Manning can perform at the level he we became accustomed to for the decade before his neck surgeries caused him to miss the entire 2011 season, the Broncos are on the short list of viable Super Bowl contenders. But if injuries and Father Time cause Manning to be unavailable or ineffective, the Broncos are all-in and won’t be able to recover for the better part of a half-decade.

Still, though, the Broncos had to make this move. The goal in sports is to win a championship. When there’s an opportunity, you’ve gotta go all in. The Broncos probably wouldn’t ever have won one with Tebow; upon signing Manning, their odds shifted from 60-1 to 10-1 to win it all. This is clearly a market overreaction designed for Vegas to capitalize on irrational exuberance but it still demonstrates that this move was a risk worth taking.

Shifting gears to where Tebow goes next, ESPN’s Adam Schefter wrote that the three destinations to keep an eye on are Green Bay, Jacksonville, and San Francisco. While Tebow told friends he hopes to play in Florida, he should be hoping to play for the 49ers or Packers, even if it means a year or two as a back-up.

As my dad has been saying for years, coaching is tremendously underrated in the development and success of quarterbacks. Brett Favre earned three consecutive MVPs, won a Super Bowl, and reached another under Mike Holmgren. While he had excellent stats in 2007 and 2009, falling a hubristic overtime interception short of the Super Bowl in both seasons, he never regained the form of his legendary 1995-1997 performances.

Kevin Kolb and Donovan McNabb thrived enough under Andy Reid to get big contracts with other teams but were big disappointments when they weren’t in the Eagles’ high powered offensive system. Tom Brady was a sixth round pick for the Patriots and developed into one of the best quarterbacks of all-time. In the same system, Matt Cassel went 11-5 when Brady was injured. After being traded to the Chiefs, he’s been below league average.

Mike McCarthy and his staff developed Aaron Rodgers into perhaps the best quarterback in the league and turned 7th-round pick Matt Flynn into a viable  free agent starter while Jim Harbaugh helped Andrew Luck become the presumptive #1 pick in this year’s draft and made Alex Smith into a 61% passer whose team came within a couple special teams fumbles of the Super Bowl. Alex Smith had previously been replaced as a starter for the 49ers, at one time or another, by Trent Dilfer, Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, J.T. O’Sullivan, Shaun Hill, and Troy Smith.

It’s understandable that Tebow would want to start right away, continue to leverage the chip on his shoulder, and prove the haters wrong. But, if he played for the 49ers or Packers this season, backing up Alex Smith (who I’m presuming will re-sign with the 49ers after the Dolphins signed David Garrard) or Aaron Rodgers and come in for a few running sets and perhaps some passes, he’d give himself the best opportunity for his mechanics and footwork to be fixed by those who are the best in the world at doing so. And he’d be one hit away from having the chance to lead a much better offense and much better team than the Jaguars or Dolphins.

As much as I find Tebow’s faith to be overbearing, I never question his sincerity. He has a ferocious desire to get the most out of himself–I shudder to think what I could accomplish with half his drive–and has used the doubt in his ability to win at every level. With a season or two of Mike McCarthy and his staff’s coaching, Tebow could be an excellent fit in Green Bay–not just as a runner but as a passer. In the meantime, the thought of a few plays a game running the Wildcat with James Starks and Randall Cobb is electrifying and would make the Packers offense even more nightmarish to gameplan against.

I fully recognize that Tim Tebow is not a Super Bowl caliber starter right now and is probably objectively in the bottom third. But just because that’s true right now doesn’t mean it always will be. He’s spent two years in the league; at the same point in his career, Aaron Rodgers still had one more full season sitting behind Brett Favre.

In the same way it’s too early to conclude where Tebow will end up as a starting quarterback, we don’t know how strong John Elway is at talent evaluation. He might be Jerry West but he also might be Michael Jordan or Matt Millen. While Tebow can’t control how Manning works out for the Broncos, he can do his part for the next decade or more to make Elway’s post-career legacy defined by giving up on him too soon. It’s a marathon–not a sprint–and Tebow’s career would be best served in the long run by pacing himself with optimal coaching.


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