During his playing career, John Elway was one of the best at escaping trouble. He could roll out, use his quickness and agility to elude defenders, his terrific downfield vision to locate passers and a rocket of a right arm to put the ball wherever he needed it to go. Time and time again, from “The Drive” in 1987 to his helicopter dive in the Super Bowl 11 years later, No. 7 put the Broncos in position to succeed.
He’s no longer a quarterback, but Elway still has the gift. Now Denver’s executive vice president of football operations, Elway was able to pull off his greatest David Blaine act this week. He somehow was able to deal Tim Tebow — the man who led the Broncos to the AFC West title and the divisional-playoff round, all while galvanizing the football-watching community — to the Jets and replace him with the greatest quarterback on the planet. He did this despite the 24-year-old Tebow being the most popular player in the league and the replacement, Peyton Manning, who turns 36 next week, not having played in an NFL game for more than a year. Heck, Elway even got a couple draft picks for Tebow when nobody thought he could.
Manning, of course, is a four-time NFL MVP, a Super Bowl champion and currently third all-time in completions, passing yards and touchdowns. He will join Elway in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible to do so. Released by the Colts on March 7, Manning has a chance to cement his legacy and tie his new boss (as well as his brother Eli) were he to win his second Lombardi Trophy during his time in Denver.
Yet, despite all of his accolades, there is no guarantee that Manning will lead the Broncos to a better record than what Tebow could do in the same situation. A veteran quarterback coming off four neck operations, it is a lot to ask of the former Colt in 2012 to return to his dominant level of three years ago, when he last was named MVP. Forget all the talk of Manning winning another Super Bowl or Denver being the favorites in the AFC; it’s quite possible the team under Manning might not do what the Tebow-led squad of 2011 did — make the playoffs.
Last season with Tebow under center, the Broncos were a run-oriented offense. The team ran the ball 34.1 times per game — tied for the most in the NFL — and gained a league-high 2,632 rushing yards (164.5 yards per game). Veteran RB Willis McGahee did most of the work, gaining 1,199 yards and scoring four touchdowns on the ground. However, Tebow was a main reason for the success as well, churning out 5.4 yards per carry and six touchdowns with his physical style and deceptive speed. No quarterback ran for more yards than Tebow’s 660, and his ability to gain tough yards with his legs were a key part of the Denver attack during their worst-to-first turnaround a year ago.
Eliminate Tebow from the Broncos' attack, and there are serious questions if the team can not only be an elite rushing team, but a solid one. McGahee will turn 31 in late October and hasn’t been an every-down back in consecutive seasons since 2006 and ’07. A running back must be acquired early in the draft to complement McGahee, unless the team is comfortable with Lance Ball being the only other accomplished runner besides McGahee on the roster. Obviously the run-pass balance will change when Manning replaces Tebow, but the loss of Tebow’s running will have a greater impact than many believe.
There’s also a question of whether giving up on the young quarterback is the right move for the Broncos over the long haul. Elway and head coach John Fox were not with the team when Tebow was drafted in 2010 and despite all their praise, sources say they were never sold on Tebow being the answer. Throughout the fall, Elway was constantly quoted on his radio show saying he couldn’t commit to Tebow being a quarterback of the future for the Broncos. While other execs might have lied or even exaggerated a bit for their support, Elway never did. He clearly wasn’t comfortable handing over the team to the inconsistent lefty, and added to that fact by spending every Saturday watching the top college quarterbacks that were headed to the draft.
But at only 24 — he turns 25 in August — there’s room to believe that Tebow would improve over the course of his career. He got better as the 2011 season went along, though it was often difficult to see. His performance in the playoff victory over Pittsburgh was shaky but at the same time beautiful, a quarterback making big plays when his team needed them most. Who’s to say that with a full offseason with Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy (which Tebow didn’t have last season) and two healthy WRs in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (which Tebow rarely had last season), that he couldn’t become a solid throwing QB to go along with his impressive running abilities in 2012?
Then there’s the injury risk of Manning. He says doctors have cleared him for action, and the Broncos flew out to North Carolina to see him throw. However, there’s a bit of a difference between throwing on a college campus in March and lining up across from Tamba Hali in September. Considering the only other QB on the roster is Adam Weber, an undrafted free agent from last season, one would think the Broncos would have a backup plan.
"We don't have a Plan B," Elway said on Tuesday when introducing Manning. "We're going with Plan A!"
It’s a risky strategy. Manning is one heckuva Plan A, but if he gets hurt and Tebow thrives with the Jets, the criticism Elway is certain to receive might be one thing he’s finally unable to escape from.
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