The Football Informant: Manning or Bust

Everything is about to change. In an abrupt series of sweeping moves, John Elway and Peyton Manning have conspired to give a complete facelift to the Denver Broncos organization. The old script, featuring a young team on the rise with an unlikely messiah and a dazzling future ahead, has been thrown out entirely. Tim Tebow is old news, as the most bafflingly successful player in the NFL has been replaced by the very image of stoic consistency. On the face of it, it seems to be a no-brainer – a four-time MVP and surefire Hall of Fame inductee instead of a young gun with little more than luck and tenacity on his side. And maybe it will all work out for the best in the end. I am certainly not audacious enough to second-guess John Elway’s opinions about quarterbacking potential. However, I am uneasy about the far-reaching implications of this change. This is now a completely different Broncos team, and it remains to be seen what the identity of these New Broncos will be. The consensus opinion seems to be that the Manning acquisition was heartless and borderline cruel to Tebow, but that it was an excellent move in terms of winning football games. After some consideration, I am not certain even that the team will benefit as much as advertised.

Elway signed Manning with one particular thing in mind, a large silver trophy in the form of a football on a pedestal. Realistically, the Broncos are gunning for a short-term, perhaps four-year window of opportunity in which Manning could lead them to a championship. I hesitate to assume that the Manning experiment will be a failure if it brings home no hardware, but that is essentially where the stakes are set. The old Broncos were built to win over the long term; the new Broncos, with only one roster change, have a mandate to win big, and right now. Is this team equipped for it? Obviously, Elway will go after a few marquee free agents, preferably to bolster the receiving corps. Manning has proven that he can make an average team excel, but the case can be made that the pre-Tebow Broncos were well short of average. With Manning, this team can own the AFC West, but can it win Super Bowls? I am not convinced.

I have previously written extensively about Tebow, and to a lesser extent, Manning. Tebow made the Broncos better mainly through intangibles. He was the undisputed team leader, a morale-booster with the ability to draw the best from his comrades. Perhaps this was unsustainable, and it certainly drew from the near-miraculous string of comeback victories; however, Tebow revived the Broncos’ criminally-underachieving defense and inspired it to overachieve instead. It was this defensive renaissance that led to a playoff run, and it only happened because of Tebow. Manning improves the play of those around him by an even greater extent, but it is not necessarily because of his motivational skills. Instead, Manning operates a machine-like offense whose output is far greater than the sum of its parts. With this type of offense and a get-by defense, the Colts made the playoffs for ten consecutive years and set an NFL record for most wins over a decade. However, the machine showed its flaws in the pressure cooker of the postseason, where teams played with an extra intensity on both sides of the ball that the Colts simply could not match. Their lone Super Bowl title came after a multi-year run of postseason humiliation at the hands of the Patriots, when the Colts were able to muster the outright rage required to finally beat New England, and then gained a fortunate Super Bowl draw against the Rex Grossman-led Bears, champs of a weak NFC. Manning plays the quarterback position with almost robotic efficiency, and that has made him one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He makes few mistakes, never loses confidence, and is capable of putting up awe-inspiring numbers with a minimum of support against the best defenses in the game. However, in situations that require emotion, anger, and leadership, he has fallen short time and again. Success in the playoffs requires grit, innovation, controlled fury, and a bit of luck, a formula that the Eli Manning Giants have perfected; in some ways, the two Manning Teams are polar opposites of each other. Peyton is the safer bet, but given an ultimatum to win a Super Bowl as soon as possible, I think that almost anyone who follows the NFL today would select Eli as the better choice.

As for Tebow, this was the year where he would finally be able to take a major leap forward. Entrenched as the starter, Tebow would make the most out of training camp, and John Fox would be able to devise an offensive system to use his talents to their fullest. Instead he was shipped off cross-country to the team that is one of the single worst cultural fits for him. The New York Jets are a group of drama queens seemingly incapable of uniting for the common good, and they are led by Rex Ryan, a man who is far better at creating publicity stunts than championships. With any other team, I would have applauded this type of move for Tebow – the chance to play in a dual-quarterback system where he only needs to do what he does best. In the circus known as Gang Green, however, Tebow is just one more attention-grabber, a bizarre sideshow designed to get attention. Can he thrive in such a situation? I will not rule out the possibility, as Tebow is inarguably resilient, but my gut reaction is that this is a major step backward in his quest to become a legitimate NFL starting quarterback.

Perhaps I will be proven wrong, perhaps John Elway shockingly knows more about running a football team than I do. Maybe Tebow will thrive in the Meadowlands just as he did at Mile High. I certainly hope so. As it is, this looks suspiciously like a panic buy. John Elway, you had better know what you are doing with this.

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