Sunday, March 25, 2012

Quarterback Carousel

  Last July, the Indianapolis Colts signed Peyton Manning to a 5 year $90 million dollar contract which included a $20 million dollar signing bonus. This was 2 months after Manning underwent neck surgery to repair a bulging disk and 16 months after he had neck surgery to relieve pressure cause by a pinched nerve. 5 weeks after signing his contract, Manning underwent neck surgery once again and missed the entire season. Without him the Colts, who had made the playoffs the past 9 years, crashed to a league-worst 2-14 record and the first pick in the draft. The reversal of fortunes prompted owner Colts Jim Irsay to fire his coach and general manager and release Manning from his contract rather than give him a 28 million dollar roster bonus.

  Released from the Colts and medically cleared to resume his football career, Manning became the most sought after football free agent since Reggie White in 1993. He visited with the Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans, Denver Broncos, and San Francisco 49ers before settling on the Denver Broncos. The Broncos are a seemingly good fit Manning. They play in a weak division, have a stout defense, and a good running game. The Broncos managed to make the playoffs last year with an 8-8 record after a 1-4 start (3 of their losses by 5 points or less) when they benched journeyman Kyle Orton in favor of former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. Under Tebow, the Broncos started winning the close games they were losing under Orton. They won 7 of 8 games, 6 of them by 7 points or less; many with last minute comebacks. Tebow and the Broncos lost their last 3 games in poor fashion, but managed to sneak into the playoffs when none of their division rivals could get 9 wins and even beat the 2 time AFC conference champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs when Tebow completed an 80 yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime.

  Tebow is not a typical NFL quarterback. He is a great runner and throws a good deep ball, but he has troubles throwing short and medium range passes. Because of this, the Bronco offense was based almost exclusively on a running game mixed with long passes. Tebow finished the season at the bottom 10 of the quarterback rankings in a number of categories like completion percentage and yards per attempt, but showed a knack for making plays at the end of the game to help his team win.

  Because of his unapologetic Christian faith, Tebow has been a sort of cult figure whose jersey became one of the NFL’s top sellers before he even played an NFL game. The improbable nature of Tebow becoming the starting quarterback and the even more improbable nature of the many last minute comeback victories in spite of Tebow’s perceived inadequacies as a quarterback magnified his fame, giving rise to the phenomenon of ‘TebowMania’, culminating in the ‘3:16’ playoff game against the Stellers.

  The Broncos general manager is John Elway, who won 2 Super Bowls with the Broncos in the 1990’s. He inherited Tebow from the previous management group and while trying very hard not to annoy the ‘Tebowites’, never endorsed him as the quarterback either. Elway was in a tough spot. He wanted a more traditional quarterback, but didn’t want to alienate the Bronco fans who thought Tebow was ‘chosen’ to be the Broncos quarterback and were buying all the Jerseys. Getting Manning has solved all Elway’s immediate problems. He has gotten rid of his popular but flawed quarterback and since Tebow’s replacement is one of the most celebrated quarterbacks of all time, the fans can’t get too upset and there will be plenty of Bronco jerseys to be sold with Manning’s name on it.

  Elway’s decision to replace Tebow with Manning is risky, but for a team that has a win now at all costs mentality it makes a lot of sense and in my opinion it has a lot of merit even a team is in building mode. The Manning contract is guaranteed for this next coming year only so if Manning needs another neck surgery, his contract can disappear at the end of the year. The problem I see with Tebow is that with the amount of running he does, he’s sure to get concussed or injured and when he does his skills are so unique it will be very hard to have an adequate replacement to run the offense without a significant drop off. Of course, given the way the Colts performed without Manning, I expect he will be equally as hard to replace. Ultimately, Elway’s decision will be judged on whether the Broncos get to the Super Bowl with Manning as the quarterback, but I see it as a risk worth taking.

  One day after signing Manning, the Broncos traded Tebow to the New York Jets for some low level draft picks. Tebow has gone from being the most talked about player in the NFL from the relative obscurity of Denver to the cover boy of New York. The Jets quarterback, Mark Sanchez helped his team get to within a game of the Super Bowl in his first two years, but struggled along with the rest of the team to an 8-8 mark (the same as the Broncos) last year as they missed the playoffs. The Jets made inquiries into getting Manning, but quickly signed Sanchez to a long term contract once Manning rebuffed them. When the Jets were winning, Sanchez was on the cover of GQ and dubbed by the New York press as the ‘Sanchize’, but after this season, his leadership skills and long term viability as a quarterback were questioned by his former admirers.

  I think Tebow to the Jets is a bad marriage. As soon as the Jets sign their young quarterback for big money, they bring in another young quarterback to compete with him. Tebow’s popularity is so out of proportion to his ability that there will be calls from all sides to have him start if Sanchez struggles even a little. And I’m thinking the Jets only got Tebow for publicity and to sell tickets and merchandise. They announced the trade so quickly they didn’t realize that Tebow’s contract had a clause in it saying the Broncos were owed 5 million dollars by any team that traded for him. Jet’s owner Woody Johnson likes big names and publicity and may have felt he needed to do something to compete with the rival Giants Super Bowl victory. The Jet’s decision, like the Broncos, will be judged on the results, but I think they had more pressing needs than a backup quarterback, no matter how popular.

  Tebow’s career arc to date reminds me of another Heisman Trophy winner from almost 30 years ago, Doug Flutie. Flutie was given the starting job out of college with the 1985 USFL New Jersey Generals until he was injured and the league folded. He was picked up by the defending champion Chicago Bears and was given the starting job by head coach Mike Ditka when starter Jim McMahon was injured. The knock on Flutie at the time was that he was too short to be a starting quarterback, but Ditka thought he was a winner. Flutie played creditably in the last 2 games of the season, but was a disaster in the playoffs against the Redskins and was traded the next year to the New England Patriots as a hometown favorite (Flutie played college ball for Boston College). By 1989, Flutie was out of the NFL and resurfaced in the Canadian Football League. He became a Hall of Fame Canadian player and came back to the NFL in 1998 with the Buffalo Bills. In 1998, Flutie made the All-Pro team, led the Bills to the playoffs, and stayed in the NFL for 5 more years. I see a lot of the same qualities of perseverance in Tebow that Flutie had and I think he can also become a championship caliber NFL quarterback, but only if he can get out of New York and on a team (or league) where he can be a player without being a sideshow or publicity gimmick.