It took them 13 seasons, but the Denver Broncos have finally found another franchise quarterback. Peyton Manning, who is either the best quarterback in NFL history or on any such short list, has selected Denver as his next home.
You will hear a lot about how this improves the Broncos for 2012 and beyond, and about how this reshapes the woeful AFC West, and any number of things. Yet nobody knows what this means, not really. Manning hasn’t played a down since the 2010 season concluded, and has since undergone multiple neck surgeries. The Broncos are getting someone who was an incredibly elite passer without knowing with certainty if he is still an elite passer. Obviously they worked him out, they know his medical history and they have determined that he still has it (or enough of it, anyway).
The five-year contract he signed with Denver guarantees him $18 million in the first year, but the Broncos were able to secure smart concessions that didn’t put them on the hook for too much or too long. After the 2012 season, he will have another physical to check on his neck; if he passes, he gets another guaranteed $20 million per year for the following two seasons. Ideally, the Broncos will have a very good idea about what they have with Manning by this time next year, so they should know if he’s worth another two seasons and $40 million. The 2015 and 2016 years on the contract are not guaranteed, giving Denver another out should Manning (who will be 40 and 41 in those seasons) be on the decline.
We must only assume that Denver — along with Tennessee and San Francisco and Arizona — knows what they are doing and sees that Manning is till Manning. Assuming he is either as productive as he was in Indianapolis or close to it, and assuming he avoids a serious injury (which we assume when discussing the potential for any athlete, although it takes on an added significance when said player has had such a recent medical problem), what does this mean for the Broncos? It means they are instantly elevated to the top of the AFC West and are a serious playoff contender heading into 2012. Even though Tim Tebow helped the team back into the postseason, and even though he made the throw that got them into the second round, there’s no denying that the Broncos didn’t have a good passing game in 2011. It’s a hell of an upgrade (again, assuming Manning can still play).
Denver made the smart and ballsy choice regarding Tebow. It was the smart choice because Tebow, for all of his positive attributes and physical strength and personal charm and high moral standing, was not a very good quarterback. His style of play worked for a while, but it’s doubtful he could spend another 10 seasons withstanding that kind of physical punishment, while opposing defenses (which had trouble dealing with his dual-threat nature during his brief starting stint) would ultimately figure out a way to stop him and at least force him to rely more on his arm. (Even Michael Vick, the closest thing we have to a Tebow parallel, ran fewer times in his later seasons and threw the ball more often and more accurately.)
Choosing Manning was the ballsy choice because the fans and the media adored him, and he guaranteed undying support from the Broncos faithful. Everybody knows that Elway would have preferred a more traditional (i.e. capable) passer, and he faced a quandary: How to get rid of Tebow with his sky-high popularity and winning steak? He found his answer, and unlike suffering through a losing season or three, he figured out a way to do it while letting the team win and giving him time to find a proper quarterback of the future.